My Blog

Brevity, the path to confusion

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By Joe Diorio

Brevity in writing is not always a virtue.

Example 1: Opponents of the Oxford comma ranted on Twitter recently over usage that appeared in a Vogue magazine headline, “Cardi B on Raising Her Daughter, Bernie Sanders, and Coordinating Outfits.”

“I cant believe cardi b named her daughter bernie sanders” (sic), one person wrote, thoroughly ignoring the rules of punctuation and capitalization. “Look what your precious Oxford comma did this time, nerds,” said another.

With respect, both individuals are wrong. If I write, “My daughter, Hannah, and Chelsea rented a house in Pensacola, Florida,” then one might mistakenly think my daughter’s name is Hannah. But if I add a sentence, “The three of them had a good time,” then you know my daughter is not named Hannah. The problem is not with the Oxford comma, but with a lack of enough detail.

Example 2: The subhead on The New York Times October 17, 2019 story about the death of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings read, “A son of sharecroppers, he fought tirelessly for his hometown, Baltimore, and became a key figure in the investigation of President Trump.” In this case, “Baltimore” is intended to be a parenthetical statement, but one could confuse the headline to be saying that he fought for two cities – his hometown AND Baltimore. This could easily be cleared up by saying “…he fought tirelessly for his hometown of Baltimore …”

Brevity is always good, but there can be exceptions. It is especially bothersome in social media. There, brevity often breeds snarkiness rather than insight.

That’s not just opinion. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication suggests longer tweets – 280 rather than 140 characters – breeds civility.

Professor Yphtach Lelkes and his team analyzed tweets from before and after Twitter implemented the increased character limit to 280 in 2017. They concluded that the average quality of conversation improved.

They defined quality as an ideal form of political debate, evaluating tweets for clarity, polite language, justification of opinions, and the use of facts or links to more information. They also evaluated whether users exchanged ideas rather than simply shouting insults at each other. It seems that the increased tweet length let people explain themselves; they could be more deliberative, polite, and civil.

Professor Lelkes says his findings might not apply across all social media. Facebook isn’t Twitter, he notes, and there are too many differences amongst various social media outlets. He’s using a grant from Facebook to study how different aspects of technology lend themselves to different conversations and actions.

By the way, Cardi B’s daughter is named “Kulture Kiari Cephus.” That’s six characters longer than “Bernie Sanders.”

Falling flat on pronouns

CNN’s Chris Cuomo tried a joke that fell flatter than a pancake recently. At a CNN LGBTQ town hall U.S. Senator Kamala Harris said her pronouns were “she, her, and hers.” This is a nod to the fact that non-binary individuals will use the plural pronouns “they, theirs, and them” in singular usage when referring to themselves.

Cuomo tried making light of Harris’ statement and said “she, her, and hers? Mine, too.”

First, please know that there is nothing new about using the plural pronoun “they” for singular usage. Emily Dickinson was doing it over 100 years ago. Second, identifying one’s personal pronouns is not some trendy idea. I participated in seminars on this topic whilst working at Vanderbilt University, where I learned this is a way to show respect toward others.

To his credit, Cuomo apologized for his gaffe. And, yes, “his” is indeed one of Cuomo’s preferred pronouns.

Channeling my inner Ask Abby, it is perfectly acceptable when meeting someone to not only say what your preferred pronouns are, but to ask the individual what theirs are as well.

A moment to brag

Last month a faculty member at Saint Joseph’s University asked if he could use my newsletter in his intensive writing class. Besides being flattered to the hilt, I think I left skid marks saying “yes!” Nothing beats having your work recognized by academia.

I sincerely appreciate all the feedback I receive. Please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think of A Few Words About Words.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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People, it’s the dog

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By Joe Diorio

I chuckled when I read the above internet meme about this song. Then I became dismayed when I asked a few people about it and found little consensus.

“‘Who had a dog’ is a parenthetical statement, no? So maybe the farmer IS named Bingo,” said more than one colleague.

To clear this up I did what everyone does: I asked Google.

That was a bad idea. Online forums like seebs.net and reddit.com offered discussion, and a few pop-up advertisements for managing a barking dog, but no real answer. Therefore my next step was to take a deep breath, dig deep in my memory banks, and diagram the sentence.

Stop laughing. It worked.

Diagraming a sentence represents basic grammar tactics. Identify the elements of the sentence: nouns (farmer, dog, name, Bingo), verbs (had, was), pronouns (his, who), adverb (there), conjunction (and), articles (a). Then lay things out on a horizontal line – subject, verb, direct object, with adjectives, prepositional phrases, and conjunctions on angled lines below – to show how they flow in the sentence. The first thing you discover doing that is the subject of the sentence is the farmer, the dog is a direct object, and Bingo works as an adjective to modify the direct object.

The result is that the dog’s name is Bingo. Email me if you want to see my diagram.

Besides, everybody knows the farmer’s name is “Old MacDonald,” E-I-E-I-O.

Punctuation Pugilistics

Earlier this summer the Associated Press decreed that compound modifiers no longer require a hyphen if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous, as in “first quarter touchdown” rather than “first-quarter touchdown.” If Twitter is any indication, the change was not well-received (well received?).

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Welp, the people have spoken, and the @APStylebook listened. In a September 25 tweet it said “… upon further reflection and thanks to your feedback, we’re reversing that decision.” That’s a fourth-quarter comeback, for sure.

The rules of punctuation are bound to start arguments. For my part, I firmly believe that every time someone does not use the Oxford Comma, a puppy dies. But there I go digressing again.

Mark Twain was often criticized for his use of punctuation. In The Autobiography of Mark Twain he said his punctuation is “the one thing I am inflexibly particular about … it’s got more real variety about it than any other accomplishment I possess.” Rumor has it he also once wrote something, leaving all of the punctuation marks in the footnotes for the reader to sort out. Scholar Cecelia Watson, author of Semicolon: the Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, wrote that she attempted to find the story that is missing punctuation, but couldn’t. Still, reports of Twain’s antics are not highly exaggerated.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Irregardless, these words make us nuts

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By Joe Diorio

My mother disliked the word “ain’t.” She’d say, “ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.”

Sorry, Mom, but ain’t is indeed in the dictionary; it has been around since 1749, according to Merriam-Webster. It is one of those words that grammatical purists dislike.

There are several words we may dislike. But they are words, nevertheless.

Case in point one: “I am so tired of seeing the word ‘irregardless’ everywhere I look,” carps one reader. “Can’t we get rid of it once and for all?”

Sadly, for the haters of “irregardless,” that word ain’t going anywhere. Yes, it is a word, first used, according to Merriam Webster, in 1785. Most trace its first appearance in the southeastern U.S. colonies. This is my long-winded way of saying that reader who is tired of seeing the word must be exhausted by now.

Lexicographers cringe over words like “irregardless.” Kory Stamper in her wonderful book Word by Word: the secret life of dictionaries spends an entire chapter explaining (apologizing?) that “irregardless” is a word. I also should note that Merriam Webster spends a good deal of time in its definition modifying its approval of the word and even urges the reader to use “regardless” instead.

Case in point two: “The sound of the phrase ‘take a listen’ is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard,” another reader says in an email.

I feel your pain. Local TV reported that police have an audio tape containing the confession delivered by a convicted murderer. “Take a listen” the TV news reporter wrote in her August 7 Twitter feed, directing people to a hyperlink of the audio recording. As unnerving as the confession may be, hearing “take a listen” can work the nerves, too.

Irregardless of how the reader feels, “take a listen” is not incorrect. The word “listen” is often used as a noun, meaning it is correct to use the modifier “take” before it. Personally, I would simply say “listen.”

By the way, I have recently noticed that Instagram fans are using the phrase “give a follow” when mentioning another Instagram account worth their attention. Again, whilst “follow” is primarily a transitive verb, it also functions as a noun, so adding the verb “give” is correct. Annoying? Yes, perhaps. But also correct.

Lastly, there is a Facebook meme that says “Supposably. It still is not a word.” Welp, Facebook has been around since 2003 but “supposably,” an adverb form of the adjective “supposable,” is a word and was first used in 1627. I’ll wait while you go revise your Facebook news feeds.

Our survey said

In the August blog I talked about the pros and cons of creating an internal editorial style guide. I also asked readers to share their opinions via a short survey.

Turns out that internal style guides are popular. A total of 63 percent of the respondents say their employers do use an internally created editorial style guide, and a whopping 84 percent say the task of creating one fell on their shoulders.

Despite my admonition that creating a style guide should be avoided (just use the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style), 78 percent of the respondents say they find internal style guides useful. One respondent said internal guides cover grammatical nuances germane to their business.

“For example, is it Homeowners Insurance (initial cap) or homeowners’ insurance (lowercase)? […] I know my boss prefers caps […] especially if it relates to one of our products,” one respondent wrote.

With respect, the boss is wrong. The term “homeowners’ insurance” is generic and therefore lowercase. (At least I think it’s still generic, even though Ohio State University is trying to trademark the word “The.”) If it is a specific product, like “Acme Homeowners Insurance and Storm Doors,” then it would be uppercase. And, by the by, all that is covered in the AP Stylebook. But there I go digressing again.

I prefer a story shared by a colleague; TV journalist David North, who was participating in a summer boot camp for aspiring high school journalists at Stony Brook University along with a couple of other veteran TV reporters. “During my session [we] were confronted with a style/usage question from a student. All three of us reached into our bags to consult our copies of Strunk and White. I think (hope) we made a positive impression.” You did with me, David. Thanks.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. You should tell your friends and colleagues about him. 

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I don’t see why you wouldn’t read on …

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By Joe Diorio

The character of Mr. Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” an android played by actor Brent Spiner, did not use contractions when he spoke. It was a linguistic trick used by the writers of that television series to emphasize that Data was a machine, albeit a very lifelike one.

Star Trek’s writers also had some fun with an alternative Data character, specifically his evil twin brother, Lore, (yes, there was an “evil Data”) who did use contractions when he spoke. That was another linguistic trick to help viewers tell the two characters – both played by Mr. Spiner with the help of special effects – apart.

OK, a quick mea culpa. The writers occasionally slipped up and put a contraction or two in Mr. Data’s dialogue, as this blog points out in a level of detail only die-hard fans of the Star Trek universe would appreciate.

That said, to address the elephant in the room, Mr. Data would have said “I do not see why it would not be Russia” while Lore would have said “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia.”

The use – or non-use – of contractions is understandable. They are a part of language that have been a part of the spoken word for well over 400 years. Today they make us sound more conversational, and they probably shave a millisecond or two off the time it takes to write some sentences or phrases.

The earliest contractions were used in the seventh century, in the language of Old English. That’s what everyone spoke when Beowulf was a best-seller … or best-listen, since scholars suspect that epic story was first told as a campfire story in the pre-flashlight-in-the-face time.

Some of the contractions used in Old English include:

Nis for Neis or is not
Naefde for ne haefde or did not have
Naes for ne weaes or was not
Nolde for ne wolde or would not (See what I just did there?)

One wonders if Beowulf would have said “Yfel wîtan forhwon yfel sîn Grendel’s sweostor.” (Translation: “I don’t see why I wouldn’t be Grendel’s father.”) But I digress.

Old English faded away, but contractions certainly did not. Shakespeare loved them:

Durst/dared
Doth/do or does
Dar’st/dare
Choice/scold
Ere/before
Fare you well/good bye
Ha’/have
Hast/have
Prithee/I pray thee or I ask thee
Sham’st/are ashamed
Whit/a bit or piece
Whe’er/whenever

Since the character of Mr. Data was highly cerebral, it comes as no surprise that academic writing shuns the use of contractions. A blog for the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, one of the cornerstone reference guides for scholarly scribes, gives a Miss Thistlebottom “tisk tisk” to the use of contractions, cautioning “Contractions are a part of informal writing. Thus, avoid contractions in scholarly writing.”

As with any part of our language, there are exceptions – reproduction of dialect and quotations, an academic paper specifically about contractions, and use of idioms (“don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), to name a few.

Let’s write carefully – really carefully – out there, people.

Editorial Style Guides – A project we never get to

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By Joe Diorio

I am frequently asked about creating an internal editorial style guide. It’s a request that frequently makes me cringe.

My employer once implemented an internal editorial style guide. It had detailed rules and standards for the written word, right down to how a facsimile cover sheet should be formatted. This should tell you two things: (1) Yes, I am talking about a fax machine; this was a long time ago, and (2) How one formats a fax cover sheet really isn’t an editorial judgment; alas, the bureaucracy must be cultivated before it is served.

A co-worker who took pride in his rebellious streak announced that, no matter what, he would NOT use the specified format for fax cover sheets. “It’s small-minded rule-making,” he proclaimed. (Well, page 15 of The Elements of Style, which says “choose a suitable design and hold to it,” differs with his proclamation. But I digress.)

I don’t know if Mr. Rebel followed through on his promise to be a formatting outlier. It really wasn’t important enough to check. And therein lies one of the problems with in-house editorial style guides. They are created and go into someone’s desk drawer or computer folder. Another more important problem, though, is since a reference tool like Strunk and White succinctly addresses one of the topics covered in an internal style guide, is the creation of said style guide necessary?

If you are ever tasked with creating an in-house editorial and/or writing style guide for your business, and your numbers are legion, please heed my advice:

1. Don’t.
2. If you must, then read on.

I suspect every company out there has an in-house rebel who, no matter what, isn’t going to follow the rules. And the grammar police (“To Serve and Correct”) don’t have universal enforcement jurisdiction.

Moreover, The Chicago Manual of Style is over 1,000 pages chock full of writing style advice for virtually everybody. Pair that with Strunk and White (Look through your desk. I’m betting there’s a copy in there somewhere.) and you have the crux of an internal editorial style guide. And I will further bet that your in-house rebel (come on, we all have one) will be happy to follow those style guides.

Yes, there are some things standard guides like Chicago, Strunk and White, and the Associated Press Stylebook don’t cover, like how your company name is spelled (using “and” rather than “&,” for example), how the company logo should look, where it should and shouldn’t appear, what colors comprise the company logo, and what typeface is used on the company website and in printed materials. Those are design questions that are important in helping differentiate a company. The editorial questions, however, are covered in Chicago, Strunk & White, and AP.

What about state abbreviations, you ask? in Chicago section 15.29 (spell out and use the two-letter abbreviation only when it is followed by the ZIP code). Nearby section 15.31 explains where punctuation goes in a city and state construction.

When using a computer keyboard, are you using the “shift” key or the “Shift” key? Chicago section 7.77 says it is the initial cap (second) one.

Got something you say is off topic, like bias free language? Sections 5.203 (“[…] language that is either sexist or suggestive of other conscious or subconscious prejudices […] distracts and may even offend readers […]”) through 5.206 (“A careful editor points out to authors any biased terms […]”) have you covered.

I could go on with a war of attrition over “does it or doesn’t it” cover your unique needs but let me instead offer a compromise.

The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, and throw in The Associated Press Stylebook are available through Amazon for about $70. Divide the amount of time you may spend creating an internal style guide into what you earn. I’m willing to bet it’s more than $70. Before you start building your style guide, then, suggest to the boss that you at least try buying the books for a small number of staff members and see if that suffices. IBM did that many years ago, giving employees in corporate communications their own copy of the AP Stylebook. It certainly was more effective than re-creating the wheel.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.