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Did you read the subject line?

By Joe Diorio

I hate writing email subject lines. I know they are important, but I find writing them to be a soul-draining exercise. Just once I’d like to write, “Read this, dang it” and see what happens.

I know, I know. The subject line is the most important part of your email. It draws the reader in, right? Make them want to click “open,” right?

Yeah, yeah. I still hate doing it.

That said it is with a bit of hesitation that I cite some subject lines from political fundraising emails that caught the attention of a journalist colleague. Not because they’re good, but because their writers probably have my mindset about writing subject lines.

  • “A hard e-mail to write.”
  • “Don’t freak out”
  • “I quit”
  • “coming to you directly”
  • “We need to do something drastic and ambitious”
  • “unacceptable”
  • “This email is just four sentences” (Translation: Please read this.)
  • “genuine risk of losing”
  • “please”

Because we all write so many emails, I’m going to go out on a limb and say we are all guilty of writing a bad subject line now and then. That said, what makes for a good subject line?

“You need to appeal directly to your reader’s interests,” explains Holly Wexler, senior associate director, Wharton External Affairs, at the University of Pennsylvania. “Your subject line should reflect the content and be relevant; an update or an important message from a recognizable person.”

Recognizability indeed works. The University of Georgia’s Development and Alumni Relations team finds that solicitation messages from Kirby Smart, head football coach at Georgia, have very robust responses. Ashley Crain, a communications coordinator in Development and Alumni Relations for UGA, said the emails from Coach Smart generate some of the best responses.

Wexler shared a handy “to do” list of what to keep in mind when writing subject lines, such as utilize personalization, use recipient-specific words (be meaningful to the reader), use caps sparingly so your email doesn’t get marked as spam, and limit your use of exclamation points. (Note: Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English, advises that one should use no more than 12 exclamation points in a lifetime. Not a bad goal to keep in mind if you ask me.) Before leaving this subject, here is a shout out to Jadrian Wooten, a professor of economics at Virginia Tech, who wrote an email to his students in the style of a political fundraising email:

SUBJECT: Kiss your THURSDAY goodbye

I posted about it in the syllabus.

I reminded you in class all week long.

I posted an announcement in Canvas about it.

And now I’m emailing you – AGAIN – because with twelve hours left before the deadline for your assignment, things have gotten more serious.

I’ve just learned that half of the class STILL hasn’t start (sic) the assignment due tonight and this could potentially DESTROY your ability to enjoy your Thursday night. This is absolutely unbelievable.

We’ve tried setting all the due dates in advance. We’ve tried keeping the due dates consistent during the semester. But now we need you to act. Please, this is a make-or-break moment. Will you start your homework now before we get too close to the deadline?

Literal interpretations

Loved this exchange captured on the Twitter feed for @kctorawrites:

Me: (cooking with 9yo) Okay, pour in the evaporated milk.

9yo: If it was evaporated, it wouldn’t be here.

Me: …

Writing to be understood can be harder than you think. An elementary school teacher in Southwest Florida recently asked her students to write out instructions on how to make a sandwich with Nutella. One student diligently wrote, take a slice of bread and put the Nutella on it. So, the teacher placed a slice of bread on a plate, then placed the jar of Nutella on the bread. She followed directions, right?

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His TRIPLE award-winning first book, A Few Words About Words, is available now.

On the horizon – a new lexicon of language

By Joe Diorio

On July 21, The New York Times reported Dr. Henry Louis Gates was spearheading the creation of the Oxford Dictionary of African American English. I’m a sucker for reference books, and Dr. Gates’ project sounds like it has the academic chops to be worthy of joining a reference library.

For perspective, I asked Daniel Upchurch, Ph.D., chair of the psychology department at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, to share his thoughts. Dr. Upchurch’s perspective follows:

“When I read that Dr. Henry Louis Gates was overseeing the Oxford Dictionary of African American English, I was excited to see something of that nature being produced, but I was slightly perplexed by the implementation of the text. There are several questions that need answers before supporting something of this magnitude. First, will this dictionary cover multiple generations of words, or will it document terms that are already used through the United States? In addition, would this be an acceptable text in the classroom, whether in elementary or in college. Remember, students may logically say, ‘well, it’s in the dictionary so it must be a word.’ Would this change the entire grammatical structure?

“Nevertheless, this dictionary could address the issue with marginalized and underrepresented groups and standardized testing. When looking at testing, minorities will usually perform higher on fluid intelligence items versus crystallized intelligence items (fluid intelligence is the ability to think and reason abstractly and solve problems; crystallized intelligence involves knowledge that comes from prior learning and past experiences like vocabulary and reading comprehension). A great example I use when teaching on crystallized intelligence is the sofa and couch story. A child is asked, ‘what furniture is soft, cozy and you can lay down on it?’ If the choices were sofa, stool, and chair, some may select sofa, while others may have a hard time selecting the correct answer, possibly because ‘couch’ may be a more familiar word instead of a sofa. The moral to the story is that some cultures see things in different ways, and it is important to remember that culture is not simply tied to race, religion, beliefs, and values, but also History and generation.

“Words that are passed down from generation are altered and spoken in different ways. For some, it’s their way of communicating. For others, it is a form of community that allows individuals to relate to one another. The ultimate barrier is when an individual must travel outside of their community and try assimilating into another. The questions that may considered is, ‘Do I code switch, and will this transition be acceptable in my community?’ In addition, “Will my original language be acceptable in other settings?”

“The answer to those questions may vary, but one thing is for sure, establishing a dictionary on African American English would provide scholars in the respected field more information on the Black culture which may limit their levels of encapsulation. It could also be a way to better assess crystallized intelligence of African Americans and allow researchers the opportunity to obtain additional and respected literature on the Black community. However, I would suggest that experts in this field monitor the implementation carefully and use a collaborative model that involves the community, experts, school systems, and focus groups.” 

More on Dr. Upchurch.

Copy editing matters

One evening in 1960, a novice copy editor at The Wall Street Journal was hard at work when a rumpled old man shuffled up to him. “What are you doing?” asked the rumpled old man. “I’m trying to change some things here to make it more understandable,” said the novice editor.

“Good,” said the rumpled old man. “The easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading.”

As the rumpled old man shuffled off the novice copy editor asked a co-worker, “Who was that guy?”

“That’s Barney Kilgore, he runs the place.”

Kilgore was the managing editor of The Journal from 1941 to 1965. He also was the head of the Dow Jones Company. He thoroughly understood the need for good editors, as this article demonstrates. Let’s hope the understanding of good copy editing never goes away.

Hurricane Ian Relief

Hurricane Ian blew through Southwest Florida on September 29, causing damage that is beyond anyone’s comprehension. Our home was not damaged; we were just without electricity (or cell phone service – digital withdrawal is real) for three days. Most other people were not so fortunate. Southwest Florida looks like it went a few rounds with Mike Tyson. People are hurting. Please help. Here is a link to the Southwest Florida Community Relief Fund. One hundred percent of every donation goes directly to people in the community.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His triple award-winning book, A Few Words About Words, is available wherever fine books are sold.


Joe Diorio’s first book (and he’s 66 #NeverTooLate) wins Music City Gold Pen award for writing

A Few Words About Words: A common-sense look at writing and grammar by Joe Diorio, has won a Music City Gold Pen award for best writing from the Nashville chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).

The award recognizes the book, published in August 2021 through Beaufort Books, as the best in the category of writing.

“Writing is a pure communication skill, so it is an honor to receive this recognition,” said Diorio, who wrote the book while living in Nashville. “The basis of any social media post, TikTok video, or any other communication is good writing.”

This is the third award the book has received. It has already been recognized as a notable title in the Shelf Unbound 2021 Indie Best Awards competition, and it is a bronze winner for humor in the from the 2021 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year competition.

It is Diorio’s debut book and takes a serious but humorous look at writing. Readers describe the book as “William Safire meets David Sedaris.” It is based on a monthly blog of the same name and talks about writing and grammar through the eyes of someone who had to teach himself the rules of grammar.

Excerpt: “I’m a master at writing around a grammatical problem. Do I need to say someone looked at the ceiling? Rather than tying myself up in knots over the ‘I before e’ rule to spell ceiling correctly, I’d just write, ‘He looked above.’ Is something effective or affective? ‘It really works,’ I’d write. Form the plural possessive of a noun? Don’t.”

The book has its share of practical advice, too like how not to start a social media post in which the writer wants to brag about an accomplishment:

“A quick scan of my news feeds on Twitter and LinkedIn shows the text in each post possesses the same banal monotony – ‘We are so proud,’ or ‘Today I had the chance to,’ or ‘This is super interesting,’ or ‘Humbled by (insert accomplishment).’ People, people, please stop! We can do better.”

A new resident of Fort Myers, Florida (he and his wife moved here from Nashville in May), Diorio has been a writer all his life. He wrote comic books as a kid (illustrated them, too), was a stringer for a local weekly newspaper in high school, worked for the college weekly newspaper, was a reporter for local daily papers in Connecticut, and he wrote speeches for executives with IBM and DuPont.

To help promote the book Diorio hosts a periodic Zoom-based “game show” where contestants answer a single question about grammar.

Available wherever fine books are sold, publisher Beaufort Books describes A Few Words About Words as the “go-to-grammar guide you pick up and can’t put down.”


Quietly mailing it in

By Joe Diorio

September 12, 2022 – Joe H. was a fellow IBM employee at the Bethesda, Maryland office where I worked in 1982. He used the same response whenever someone would say hello to him, “Hey, I got nine years left, buddy.” In other words, it was nine years until he retired, so he was not putting up with any malarkey.

Nowadays we would say Joe H. had quietly quit his job. Back then we were saying he was mailing it in.

The concept of quiet quitting – also known as working to rule, lying flat, or basically declining to go above and beyond what one is paid to do – has seen its share of ink or digital presence recently, so I won’t spend too much time on it here, other than to say the equal and opposite reaction to quiet quitting has been severe. Forbes magazine carried an article explaining how to spot someone who has quietly quit their job. On September 1 The Washington Post ran a story about employers’ subtlety undertaking efforts to quietly fire those who decide to mail it in.

I left IBM in 1988 so I don’t know if Joe H. ever made his personal finish line. Perhaps he quietly mailed in his retirement paperwork.

Vendor or vender?

A story in the July 18 issue of The New Yorker discussed, in a level of detail only The New Yorker can do, the burgeoning popularity of pickleball, that table tennis on a tennis court game that continues to gain popularity among the north of age 60 population. No, I have not played the game – yet.

I was less smitten by the story about pickleball than I was about writer Sarah Larson’s use of the word “venders” rather than the more current spelling, “vendors.” Her excellent prose was referencing merchants selling goods at a pickleball tournament. I confess to being unfamiliar with that spelling. Merriam-Webster says it is a correct, albeit out-of-date spelling.

I reached out to Larson via Twitter and email to ask about her selection of the older usage. Sadly, an off-the-wall random inquiry about a single word in an article containing upwards of 10,000 words (I didn’t count, I Googled it) did not generate a response.

In his book, “Dreyer’s English,” author Benjamin Dreyer pokes fun at The New Yorker, explaining that the magazine most likely has a style and usage guide so cumbersome that it can probably be seen from outer space. The spelling of venders may be a part of that tome. 

New words

Speaking of a tome, Merriam-Webster just added 370 words to the dictionary. Some, like janky (poor quality) and sus (suspicious) have been around for a while. The process of adding words to a dictionary takes time. Kory Stamper, in her book about dictionaries, “Word by Word,” takes the reader through the mysterious, bureaucratic, and whimsical process of deciding if a word is, well, a word.

Back to school or back-to-school

Late August marks the start of a new school year in many communities. Stores run their share of back-to-school sales while print, online, and broadcast news outlets carry multiple stories about going back to school.

Wait, did I just use the term two ways, once with hyphens and once without? Yep, and I was right both times. Back to school should be hyphenated when it precedes a noun, allowing it to act as an adjective. But if you are not talking about a back-to-school sale, story, or event and just jawboning about how the kids are going back to school, then no hyphens are needed.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His award-winning book, A Few Words About Words. A common-sense look at writing and grammar is available wherever fine books are sold.

We are … trademarked!

By Joe Diorio

A colleague was a cheerleader in college. Each year she and her squad would go to a weeklong preseason camp attended by cheer squads from other colleges and universities. One of the teams in attendance was from Penn State University. Every morning at breakfast, the camp cafeteria would erupt with the Penn Staters shouting, “We are … Penn State!”

A good showing of school pride, I suppose. But by the last day of camp all the other cheer squads had their fill of the cheer and would respond to that chant with, “We aren’t. Shut up!”

The “We are … Penn State” is a familiar chant in college sports and has been etched in stone as a part of Penn State University, which successfully filed a trademark for the cheer. Heaven forbid some other school hijack that ditty.

Before anyone rolls their eyeballs, consider that the trademark of a collegiate chant is not limited to a full phrase. On June 23, Ohio State University, after several attempts, trademarked the word “The.”

Yes, just the word “The.” After three years of trying to get a trademark, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved the school’s application.

“The” is deeply ingrained with Ohio State University alumni. In addition to the “O-H-I-O” chant, Ohio State fans can be heard yelling “THE Ohio State” during football games.

Now, no one should run to their laptop and start putting the trademark symbol next to every usage of the word. The trademark only applies to sales of Ohio State University clothing, so it’s a rather narrow trademark.

Gender neutral pronouns

I confess to not thinking much about using gender neutral pronouns until I was working in higher education, and someone explained their value this way, “it’s a show of respect.” That is good enough for me.

That said, it was disappointing to read that Argentina has imposed one of the world’s first bans on gender-neutral language. The argument is that this degrades the language.

Welp, I am not a linguist, and I am no expert in Spanish, despite three years of high school classes and one semester in college (I’m a slow learner). But I do know that language is an evolving thing. We would sound a bit off if our language never evolved. Consider this exchange between Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) and a night watchman named Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) in the movie, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”

Amelia Earhart: “Crimey, we’re jimmy-jacked!”

Larry Daley: “Jimmy-jacked?”

Amelia Earhart: “It’s the way I speak.”

Larry Daley: “Yeah, but that sounds made-up, even for you …”

Amelia Earhart: “’Oh, no, our path has been blocked by bad people.’ What’s the fun in that?”

Larry Daley: “Yeah, you’re right. We are …”

Amelia Earhart: “Jimmy-jacked.”

Change is the one constant in language. I won’t cry for Argentina. But I won’t applaud this decision either.

New Poet Laureate

Kudos to Ada Limón, who on July 12 was named by the U.S. Library of Congress as the 24th U.S. poet laureate, officially called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. “Poetry is a way to remember our relationship with the natural world is reciprocal,” Limón says. “It’s having a place to breathe and having a place to pay attention.”

Language talk reminder Remember, I will deliver an online talk on Saturday, August 13 at 2 p.m. at the National Museum of Language. My talk will be about writing, grammar, and how a love of words led to a book. Please join me. It’s via Zoom and I’d hate to feel like I’m talking to myself.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Fort Myers, Florida. His double award-winning first book, A Few Words About Words, is available now.