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Do Four Negatives make a Positive?

October 25, 2011

Some words have a built-in negative meaning, so you can write in a negative way without using words like ‘not’ and ‘no’. You probably knew that, but it was worth saying because the rest of this blog would be very confusing if you didn’t. I mean words like ‘deny’ which means ‘not agree’, and ‘refuse’ which means ‘not accept’. The following sentence in this morning’s Independent contained so many that I had to read it with and without my glasses several times before I understood it.

“More than 80 of his MPs defied a three-line whip to vote against the Government over its refusal to allow a referendum on EU withdrawal.”

So run that past me one more time. Who wants what again?

There was a three-line whip to vote against the Government.  No that can’t be right. Let’s take this one step at a time.

More than 80 of Cameron’s MPs did NOT follow the whip. (Which suggests that  they voted the way the Government did NOT want them to.) The Government does NOT want a referendum. The referendum (which we aren’t going to have even though 80 MPs didn’t say they didn’t want it) was to ask people if they want NOT to be in Europe.

Good. I am glad we have got that sorted out. And we haven’t even mentioned the politics.

I am a great fan of the Independent, but the Guardian definitely wins on clarity this time:

“…nearly half of Cameron’s backbenchers defied a three-line whip and voted in favour of a motion calling for a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU on current terms, whether to leave or whether to renegotiate Britain’s membership.”

A fraction of the meaning

October 6, 2011

Have you noticed how often the expression ‘a fraction of’ is used, to mean ‘a very small fraction of’? Here are some headlines:

Oxi: Twice as powerful as crack cocaine at just a fraction of the price

Royal living at a fraction of the cost

Holiday homes with a fraction of the hassle

I know headlines need to be short, so maybe they are forgiven, but I notice it all over the place. A fraction could be ninety-nine one-hundredths, or even closer to one than that. I guess nine-eighths is a fraction too – that’s more than one!

What interests me is that when I read the headline about the holiday homes, I register immediately that these holiday homes are far far less hassle than some other holiday homes, which is what the writer wanted me to do. But what does the headline actually say? Nothing really.

Clever or misleading?

The reader (and me)

October 5, 2011

A previous comment on one of the Freshword blogs (on punctuation and bullets) suggested that some things are not critical since ‘…it all washes over the reader’. I was struck by this comment because of how important this is.

Readers as experts

We might not be great writers, but we are great readers. That is, we notice everything – every last missing full stop, every misplaced comma, every repeated word, every failure to completely make sense; we notice everything. And we are not tolerant and easy-going as readers. We are demanding, impatient and highly reactive. We might indulge the first typo, flinch at the second, be indignant at the third and frustrated by the fourth; our mistakes steadily devalue the credibility and authority of the writer.  This means that as writers, our presentation, word choices, and punctuation have to be spot on in order for our readers ‘not to notice’ our writing. That is why we agonise over correct usage and convention.

Control them – or they’ll control you

To communicate effectively (that is, the reader understands what we want to say, first time) we cannot put a step wrong. If we do that we give up the one thing that makes us effective as writers – control. The reader can find lots of excuses for not reading; it is not the writer’s job to provide them. By wielding words well we control and manipulate the reader, making the reading experience as easy and trouble-free as possible. If your writing starts to wash over readers, then you have lost them and failed as a writer. It’s as simple as that.


September 26, 2011

‘And now for something completely different.’

Thank you, Monty Python, for the gift of this sentence, perfectly illustrating how we can start a sentence with a conjunction. For many this is an affront as it breaks a treasured rule of grammar: never start sentences with an ‘and’.

However, the only thing we cannot start a sentence with is a numeral. Yet we do this far more often.  ‘2011 saw the beginning of a new phase in our organisation’s development.’  Years cannot ‘see’ (not having eyes). It is better to avoid this by using such expressions as ‘January of 2011 marked the start of…’  This is also more precise since a year is twelve months.  We can write ‘Ten years later…’, but not ’10 years later…’

I recently checked the Times Educational Supplement for the prevalence of sentences and paragraphs starting with a conjunction, and found that nearly ten per cent began in this way. And these are established and respected journals. It is so common that it is unremarkable. We do not notice these conjunctions because they work in context and, as ever, good writing is transparent. And so we dispense with another myth.

The shadow of uncertainty

September 23, 2011

Listening to David Cameron address the UN reminds me that political and business language gets perilously close to poetry at times. An odd idea? Consider what he says when talking of the present dangers to the economy, urging us to avoid ‘…lengthening the shadows of uncertainty’. Is ‘uncertainty’, an abstract-noun, capable of having a shadow?  We use the words to create an image, a kind of metaphor, and evoke a reaction, or a sense of something threatening.

And how long would that shadow be? It has to have a length in order to be lengthened. Is such a shadow a bad thing? In what way? Lots of unanswered questions.

The poetry of business-speak

In business, we are very fond of this kind of statement. Similar examples include ‘a climate of uncertainty’. Or do we mean a ‘period’ of uncertainty? Can a climate possess human qualities or emotions? This anthropomorphism is also a poetic device.

Functional language

In business, we do not intentionally write poetry: we value prose that is functional and easily understood. Metaphor is fine, but the more complex, less logical language of poetry is designed to operate in a different timescale, developing atmosphere for a purpose other than just to inform.  Mangling figures of speech can ‘cast a shadow’. Use with great care, if at all.

Degrees of extravagant exaggeration

September 6, 2011

‘Absolutely. That’s why I did it.’ Possibly heard on the radio or in everyday conversation. Sounds fine. But what about the word ‘absolutely’? Is this just an emphatic ‘yes’. Strangely, simply saying ‘yes’ is probably more effective; the word ‘absolutely’, which means something very different, is a distraction, often sounding insincere (the opposite of its intention).

Hyperbole and comparatives
In our writing we are encouraged to keep statements as simple and as accurate as possible. This is because directness is more effective. But in many instances we feel this is not enough; we mix in hyperbole and comparatives. We see this in marketing material: ‘This incredibly effective solution can deliver real solutions.’ Lots to comment on here, but why jump to the extreme? ‘This effective solution’ is probably enough; or ‘this very effective solution’; or even ‘this most effective solution’ (starting to sound pompous); then we have ‘extremely effective’, and then, perhaps, ‘incredibly effective’. It is so effective we cannot believe it? This is typical of a type of emphasis word that marks our text as over-written and over-stated, making it weaker. As for ‘real solution’ (as against ‘unreal solution’) that is for another time.

Overstate and undermine
By overstating we undermine.  Many of these words and phrases are fine in conversation but we must be (very) sure of their relevance before using them in written text. Literally.

The apostrophe – we really can’t do without it

August 25, 2011

Recently I read about a campaign dedicated to doing away with the apostrophe. I paused at the thought and whilst understanding the sentiment (though not sharing it) I concluded that the confusion over its use is exaggerated.

Most of us feel comfortable using the possessive in our writing: we use it as a substitute for ‘of’. Simple enough. But there are uses that sometimes throw us. As usual, it is not so much a matter of what is correct as what choice we make. And I am not thinking of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ here.


For example, I worked on a booklet originally entitled ‘home buyer guide’. Is this statement enough to make the intention of the article clear? Consider the choices listed for a guide targeted at those buying a home:

  • home buyer guide
  • home-buyer guide
  • home buyer’s guide
  • home-buyer’s guide
  • home-buyers’ guide.

As it stands, the original title is at best ambiguous, and at worst, completely misleading. ‘Home buyer guide’ could mean a guide for the home buyer (to something not stated), or a guide to buying a home (specifically). Which is it? When we add the hyphen (home-buyer) it settles the matter. Or does it? Could it now mean a guide to understanding home buyers? So we need to take this further to ensure this is a guide for someone buying a home.

Clarifying meaning

Does the apostrophe or a hyphen clarify what I mean? Do I need both? Since there is a missing article (‘the’) is this really an implied plural: a guide for many or all home buyers?

The ‘for’ apostrophe

Enter the apostrophe to help us: ‘home-buyer’s guide’. That’s better. But, unravelled, the possessive does not replace ‘of’, but ‘for’: a guide for a home buyer, as in ‘Parents’ guide to local schools’, or ‘A guide for parents to local schools’.


Is it for one home buyer, or many? The position of the apostrophe will tell us. I suspect the booklet is aimed at all potential home buyers, and so I would write ‘home-buyers’ guide’.

A necessity

Is that enough? Probably. I might add ‘the’, to round out the sense of it being definitive (‘a’ places it as one of many guides). The result, ‘The home-buyers’ guide’, might be the best choice. Whatever I choose, the apostrophe helps clarify my meaning. Without it we would all be kept guessing. I suspect we really cannot do without it.

Headlines – learn from the BBC

August 23, 2011

I find headlines difficult to write, and it follows that I also find it difficult to train other people to write them. I have been working on it today, thinking aloud into this blog. On the principle that good examples are a strong starting point, I have taken a selection from BBC News to illustrate what seem to be the main rules of the game.


Not one of my randomly selected BBC headlines was over six words long. I don’t imagine that is a coincidence. The longer the headline, the smaller the font size and the less impact it will have. A large number counts as a word for this purpose, as in:

100,000 back Hillsborough appeal


Headline writers eliminate every word that readers can fill in for themselves. This requires very special skill and no doubt plenty of practice. Notice that you don’t need the word ‘people’ in the Hillsborough example above. It’s not going to be penguins, is it?

Traps are everywhere though. They lie in the many different ways that the same word can be used in English, and in the possibility of associating the wrong pairs of words. This headline is only just decipherable in my opinion:

Abuse image teacher spared jail

Is ‘abuse’ a verb here (rhymes with the blues) and was someone swearing at a painting? Is this image-teacher a photography coach or an instructor at water-colour classes? No, we are dealing with a teacher who has committed image-abuse (noun – rhymes with juice).

Here’s another example of words with multiple meanings causing headline headaches:

Eurozone manufacturing contracts

This could be about new contracts (emphasis on the ‘con’) for manufacturers in this part of the world – good news. Alas, it is not. The article explains that manufacturing activity in the eurozone shrank in August for the first time in two years. So ‘contracts’ is a verb (emphasis on the ‘tracts’). The writer could have chosen ‘Eurozone manufacturing shrinks’ (I prefer it) but perhaps the Beeb didn’t want to imply that psychoanalysts were appearing on the production lines of the Ruhr.


This sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes quite tricky. It means relevant to the reader – and if you are the BBC, you have an awful lot of readers. In this headline:

Comedy producer Davies dies at 72

just ‘Davies’ would not do. It’s quite a common name and John Howard Davies who produced Fawlty Towers is not as famous as John Cleese, so the readers of this headline needed to be told that this particular Davies was a comedy producer.

In this headline:

Four months for Facebook riot post

the writer didn’t name the person who got four months because the readers have no idea who he is. They know Facebook though, and they know about the riots (pretty devastating and only just over a week ago).

Present tense

A lot of headlines avoid tense, and some even do without verbs. (This one is not about a bouncer having an argument):

Heavy clashes at Gaddafi compound

But when there is a verb, it is usually in the present tense. This makes the message seem more immediate. It also often happens, in English, to be the shortest form of the verb. This dude has lost his battle, but the headline stays in the present:

Druid loses battle over remains

All headline examples are taken from on 23 August 2011

Academic and business writing – debts and burdens

August 16, 2011

What is striking about the patterns of writing in business is how much they owe to the academic world.  And the cursed ‘gift’ of writing in the passive voice is just one of them. Since the incidence of graduates in business roles that require report writing is high, it is not surprising they adopt an approach that owes so much to producing essays. Are there differences between the academic and business writer? Look at the typical characteristics of academic writing: complexity, formality, objectivity, explicitness, hedging, and responsibility. These are common in business writing, except the overt ‘hedging’.  But the academic approach is consensual, seeking acceptance, whereas business documents record or provide information for decision-making; so business writing is generally more functional. Except when it has to be persuasive; marketing exploits an emotional response to the subject matter – something very far from the academic ideal.

The gap

Despite academic influences, a complaint of managers is how poorly equipped many graduates are for business writing. This is largely anecdotal but we in Freshword have encountered this performance gap on a regular basis. There is statistical information on this (see our own Freshword survey) but we suspect it is not so much an understanding of the function of business writing that is the main challenge, but competence in the basics of good writing, such as grammar, spelling and effective sentence construction. I sense graduates leave the academic world celebrating the fact that they never have to do an essay again, only to be confronted by the greater risks and tighter deadlines of business reports.

The pursuit of truth

It is said that academic inquiry (and writing) is the pursuit of truth, where facts are distinguished from opinions and relative truths are distinguished from absolute truths. These are subtleties that the business world doesn’t really recognise. Adjusting to them can be a confusing process.

Dictionaries – when one is not enough

August 12, 2011

When looking up the use of a word recently it was suggested I use a dictionary by Funk & Wagnalls, because, I was told, this dictionary is recognised on both sides of the Atlantic1. Is it? I had never heard of it, and as a non-fiction, business and specialist writer I use dictionaries a lot. This ignorance on my part could simply be a personal failing, but it made me think about dictionaries in general.

Hard or soft?

I always ask delegates on a business-writing course whether or not they have a dictionary on their desk. A nice big, fat dictionary. Of course, the majority do not, and a number have pocket dictionaries. Most rely on Internet dictionaries (such as Oxford Dictionaries Online), or, most commonly, MS Word’s inbuilt spell-checking dictionary. Dictionaries are essential tools for writers, and I include anyone who writes at work; in the information economy, that is nearly all of us.

How many of us can use a dictionary? The easy answer is we all can. We simply look up the word in alphabetical order and check the meaning, or spelling. And then we discover there is more than one meaning, or an unexpected spelling. If, by chance, we have a second dictionary, we might look it up again to sometimes discover the spelling differs, or the usage is slightly different (and we went to the dictionary expecting an ‘exact’ answer).

How many?

So, now what? Generally, I turn to a third dictionary and when two out of three agree, I go with the majority view. However, if all three of my dictionaries are US, then I might get a different result from mixing a US, a UK and another English-speaking dictionary, such as an Australian dictionary. And so on.

So do I rely on Funk & Wagnalls? Should I buy that dictionary and add it to my collection? As a writer I need all the tools I can get.  Perhaps a visit to Amazon is in order.

[1] Wikipedia tells us that Funk & Wagnalls first published The Standard Dictionary of the English Language in 1894, and an encyclopaedia in 1912. This is based upon Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes it is a ‘family of English-language dictionaries noted for their emphasis on ease of use and current usage.’