Thank YOU


Queen Elizabeth I addressing the troops at Tilbury

The correct response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome’

SpC 103—Introduction to Speech Communication—was a required course for my English-lit major. I thought it would be about giving speeches, like Toastmasters. I was young. What did I know?

What the course was “about” was never entirely clear—mostly, as I recall, the sins of Richard Nixon, who was at that time the President of the United States. The instructor did, however, teach a public-speaking unit from the textbook, and we spent a few weeks researching, composing, and presenting speeches. For my oratorical debut, I chose to defend Richard Nixon—I couldn’t stand the guy, but I liked my instructor even less. His name was Edgar, and he told us—as if he were doing us a big, juicy favor—that we could call him Edgar.

Apart from thoroughly discomfiting Edgar, I actually learned something useful about public speaking—several things, actually, but one bit of guidance stands out; it has served me well when talking to groups or interviewers. If Edgar and the textbook had been the only sources of this instruction, I probably would have disregarded it because it goes against common practice. But further research, experience, and my mom convinced me that it’s sound advice for speakers. Here it is:

Don’t say “Thank you.” In particular, don’t open or close with “Thank you.”

My mother raised me to say “Thank you” to my friends’ parents when leaving after having been their guest. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but by fourth grade I could be counted on to mumble “Thank you for the nice time, Mrs. Goldberg” after a sleepover at Judy’s. By fifth grade I could carry it off with a semblance of sincerity if not with gusto, à la Eddie Haskell.

eddiehaskellMom also trained me to say “Thank you” when receiving a gift, a compliment, or some form of help. But there is no reason, she explained, to say “Thank you” when giving gifts, compliments, et cetera. “When somebody says ‘Thank you’ to you,” Mom told me, “don’t say ‘Oh, thank you,’ as some people do, because it’s like you’re throwing the thanks back in their face… like you’re arguing with them or showing them up.” Mom called the behavior “ungracious” and compared it to the pseudo-polite comment “Oh, you shouldn’t have” when you receive a present. If I’d understood the vocabulary of bridge, she might have said “It’s like trumping their good manners.”

According to Edgar, the textbook, and other authorities, as a speaker or an interviewee you’re conferring your knowledge or wisdom upon your audience. It’s for the hosts to thank you and is as inappropriate for you to return their thanks as it would be to hand back their fees, if money is involved. Further, as an opener or closer, “Thank you” is just plain weak.

“Referred to as a haymaker, your closing statement should be a knockout punch that drives home the entire presentation,” writes communication expert Stephanie Scotti for  “The final blow reminds listeners of the core message that you want them to remember long after the presentation has ended.”

It’s true that closing with “Thank you” seems natural and certainly preferable to saying “The end” or “Okay, I’m done” or some other clunky word or phrase to signify that your speech has ended. If you don’t have a haymaker at hand, you can pause for a few seconds and then tell the audience you have a few minutes to answer questions.

When you’re being interviewed, the interviewer will take care of the opening and closing, probably by thanking you. Resist the temptation to thank him or her back. The correct response to “Thank you” is “You’re welcome.” If that seems abrupt, say “It’s a pleasure,” even if it’s not. At least that way it doesn’t turn into a courtesy contest, as if you’re trying to out-thank your thanker.

Next time you listen to a radio interview, notice how the interviewee responds to the host’s introductory expression of thanks. The often-heard reply “Thank you for having me” always makes me think of fourth grade and Judy Goldberg. A simple “You’re welcome” is, by contrast, elegant and well bred… and sufficient.

Okay, I’m done. The end.



Test Your Pronunciation


I often err (which rhymes with her).
I’ve said re-PRIZE and re-OCCUR
and of-TEN and ho-MOG-en-us.
I’ve even been a CHAUVINIST.
So ANYWAYS, I’m over it.

detritus (n)—waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event (Cambridge Dictionary)

A few months ago I discovered that I’d been pronouncing detritus incorrectly all my life. That’s a small exaggeration; I probably didn’t use the word at all before high school. I doubt that I ever complained to Mom that my brother had ransacked my dresser drawers and left detritus in the wake of his illegal search. If he had done so, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bedroom was a monument to detritus. My mom dealt cleverly with the pile of rubbish that was my room; she closed the door. Mom was detritus-prone herself.

I listen to numerous podcasts, and I had heard a podcaster pronounce detritus as DET-rit-us, rhyming more or less with “rest of us.” I’ve always said duh-TRY-tuss, as if it were an inflammatory disease: appendicitis, colitis, detritus. I’ve even written poems in which I rhymed detritus with something, as in

“The light is bright on my de-TRY-tritus.”

Was I going to have to change it to “…upset about my DET-rit-us”?

Today I googled detritus, and it turns out I was right all along. Duh-TRY-tuss it is. I’ll sleep better tonight.


English-speakers are forever mispronouncing things, especially if they (the English-speakers) read a lot. It’s bad enough that British and American pronunciations often differ for no good reason. But the notoriously complex English-language pronunciation issue is rooted in the history of English and its many borrowings from other languages. I treasure English for its eclectic origins, but they leave us with spellings that bear little relationship to pronunciation, as in through. Consider height and weight, chattel (pronounced CHAT-tle) and Mattel. If you encounter a printed word but never hear it spoken, you’re likely to pronounce it phonetically, or as nearly so as you can manage.

When my daughter, Marian, was nine or ten years old, we were discussing her newest Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), and the characters therein—Nancy herself, of course, as well as Nancy’s father (eminent attorney Carson Drew), her chums (Bess Marvin and George Fayne), her sweetie pie (Ned Nickerson), the Drew family housekeeper (Hannah Gruen), and, in this book, someone called Gladys—which, as Marian pronounced it, rhymed with ladies. Of course it did. We’d all pronounce it that way if we’d never met a Gladys or watched an episode of the television show Bewitched featuring Samantha’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz. Coming across the name in a book, you’re not likely to “hear” GLAD-iss in your mind, but rather GLADE-eez or, at best, GLAD-eez.

NANCYDREW-BROKENLOCKET-1934I don’t speak of “correct” pronunciation, since the English language is fluid and “correctness” changes from day to day. Moreover, most dictionaries no longer judge the speaking habits of their users, preferring to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.* Twenty or thirty years ago, dictionaries gave the “correct” pronunciation first, followed by less-respectable alternatives. Now they offer pronunciation possibilities nonjudgmentally, although the standard (read “correct”) pronunciation usually appears first.

If you want prescriptive advice on pronunciation, the best source I know of is Charles Harrington Elster’s delightful book There Is No Zoo in Zoology (which has been incorporated into The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations—The Complete Opinionated Guide). From the title alone, you learn that (a) zoo-OLL-uh-jee is just plain wrong and (b) Elster’s book will tell you how and why to say it (and hundreds of other words) right. (It’s zoe-OLL-uh-jee, with a long O in the first syllable.) As useful as the book is, you’ll be dismayed to find that you’ve been mispronouncing two-thirds of your vocabulary for your entire adult life. Still, I heartily recommend Mr. Elster’s books and website.

If you want a dictionary that guides rather than merely informs you about pronunciation, you’ll appreciate online audio guides. Google the word and hear the disembodied official internet voice, which offers only one pronunciation. Not all the online guides agree, however, as in the case of err.

Abused, misused, misunderstood

ERR—It rhymes with fur, not hair, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, the Macmillan Dictionary, Charles Harrington Elster, and most (but not all) of the other sources I consulted.

SHORT-LIVED (LONG-LIVED)The I is long; lived rhymes with hived.

The pronunciation (-laɪvd) is etymologically correct since the compound is derived from the noun life, rather than from the verb live. But the pronunciation (-lɪvd) is by now so common that it cannot be considered an error. In the most recent survey 43 percent of the Usage Panel preferred (-lɪvd), 39 percent preferred (-laɪvd), and 18 percent found both pronunciations equally acceptable.  English Language & Usage Stack Exchange

KUDOS—This much-abused word has strayed a great distance from its original pronunciation and usage. Usually pronounced KOO-doze and treated as plural in the U.S.—though there’s no such thing as one KOO-doe—It means “the praise and respect that you get from other people because of something that you achieved” (Cambridge Dictionary).  Some Americans, most Brits, and Charles Harrington Elster say KYOO-doss.

The noun kudos was originally a mass noun, but it is now sometimes treated as a plural noun,… contrary to the original Greek κῦδος ‎(kûdos), which is a singular noun. The American pronunciation implies this plural usage, which many authorities nevertheless consider erroneous. Wiktionary

CLOTHES—The items that hang in my closet are cobwebs. The stuff behind them is what I refer to as my close—shirts, pants, dresses, and so forth. Clothes, with the th combination pronounced, is difficult to say. I suspect that one day soon, CLOZE will be the standard pronunciation. That day, sadly, has not yet arrived.

ARCTIC—Even experienced network news announcers say ARTIC and ANTARTIC, and they’re wrong, wrong, wrong. It seems to me there’s even a beverage called something like ARTIC BLAST. Let’s agree to get this one right and unite behind ARCTIC.

HISTORY, HISTORICAL, preceded by A or AN—It’s a mystery to me that so many people drop the H when saying historical and precede it with the article AN, as in “an historical account.” There’s no accounting for what the British do, but in the U.S., the H in history (and historic, historical, and so forth) is sounded, not silent as in honor and heir, and the construction “an historical” is incorrect.

ENVELOP, ENVELOPED—Letters placed in envelopes are not thereby enveloped. The verb envelop (enn-VELL-up) means to wrap, enclose, or shroud: “The landscape was enveloped in fog.” In the past few weeks, I’ve heard two Hay House authors on talk about being enveloped in a sense of peace, which might have been worth hearing about had they not said ENN-vuh-loped.


SO YOU THINK HE’S A CHAUVINIST? Here, so and chauvinist are usage issues, not pronunciation ones, but they bug me so I’m slipping them into this discussion. Why, over the last six or eight months, have I begun hearing so many people introduce a sentence with the superfluous word so? It’s common in radio interviews:

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, why did you resign from your position at the university?

MATHERS: So… my department head was a chauvinist S.O.B. who treated women like the lower orders of rodents… worse, even… like fleas on rodents.

INTERVIEWER: Dr. Mathers, are you saying that your department head was aggressively and blindly patriotic, especially devoted to military glory, as the word chauvinist suggests? Or do you mean that he was a male chauvinist, aggressively and blindly sexist in his dealings with woman faculty members?

MATHERS: So… yeah, that. What you said.



anyway not anyways

cardsharp not card shark

cavalry not Calvary

champ (not chomp) at the bit

cohabit not cohabitate

diphtheria not diptheria

espresso not expresso

February not Febuary

for all intents and (not intensive) purposes

forte not fort

herbal not erbal

homogeneous (5 syllables) not homogenous

lambaste not lambast

mauve (rhymes with rove)

mischievous (3 syllables) not mischevious (4 syllables)

often (rhymes with soften; the T is silent)

orient not orientate

potable (rhymes with notable)

recur not reoccur

reprise (second syllable rhymes with ease), not reprize

spayed not spaded

spit and (not spitting) image

suite not suit

supposedly not supposably

utmost not upmost

verbiage (3 syllables) not verbage (2 syllables)


*The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall’s contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers – Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s – will tell you that they are primarily descriptive.


Standing Firm on ‘Podium’


A podium is something you stand on

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.

Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.

There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.

…or this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.

The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of

“How ya’ doin’?”

Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…

I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?

…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:

Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?

Speaking is work…

…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… []

and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.

This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.


Illustrations from “What Is a Lectern or a Podium?” Message Masters Toastmasters

Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern. 

  • A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
  • A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
  • You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.

As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.

I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.

Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:

The Life & Times of Podium

  1. Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
  2. Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
  3. Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
  4. Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.

What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).

Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.


Where do you stand?

Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”

Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.

Is lectern lost forever?

I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West WingShe was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”

During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…

Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at  or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email ( for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.



A plethora of lecterns

Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:

A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters

Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.

A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.


More voices for the good and the true

The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”, “Podium vs. Lectern”, “Podium vs. Lectern”

…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:


Does it really matter?

No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.

From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…

Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”

I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.


Mary Campbell
July 23, 2016




Writing for Humans

There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber



From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell,

 The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.


  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand


  1. Love of writing
  2. Clarity
  3. Respect for the reader


…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)



Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. [1]

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees.[2] Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.[3] “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber 


For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.


In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.

I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:


Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…


If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Decide how you want to serve your audience.
  2. Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
  3. Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go.[4] Just write what you want to say.
  4. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.

Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78


Martin Buber 1878-1965

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I  relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[1]      “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998;, accessed July 28, 2012

[2]      Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”


[4]      It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.


Click HERE for the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzword Generator

P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?

Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.

Why Using Jargon Is Bad for Your Brand
Why Jargon Can Be Bad for Business
Bad Business Jargon: It Is What It Is
Keep It Jargon-Free

Where’s the Guy?



All moves are treacherous and require Divine Assistance

March 2010

I moved recently. I don’t know anyone who likes to move, especially during the winter. It’s just a thing you do that isn’t fun, like a root canal. You throw all your stuff in boxes with varying degrees of care, depending on how fragile it is and how much time you have.*  Then you schlep all the boxes and furniture and family members to the new place. You put the stuff away, maybe you find a half-eaten peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich in a box marked LINEN CLOSET, and for a couple of months you can’t find the salad forks. That’s about it… at least, that’s how it used to be.

* TIP: For the best bargains on the planet, stalk someone who has to move in a hurry. During one rushed long-distance move, I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix with two suitcases, both significantly over the weight limit. I had three minutes to dispose of twenty-five pounds of clothing. Crouched by the luggage scale, I handed out shoes, sweaters, and outerwear like party favors, including two pairs of Levi’s faded to perfection and an alpaca coat from Neiman Marcus. Two middle-aged women emptied out their own suitcases, stuffed half of the contents into a nearby trash can, and snatched up my jeans, shirts, and boots before they hit the floor.

My recent move felt different from the get-go. The minute I started packing, this vague uneasiness came over me, like when you’re at work and you’re going to have company for dinner, you’ve already bought the food and made the salad, everything’s under control, but it feels as if you’ve forgotten something and you can’t imagine what—and then you get home and discover that your cats ate the five pounds of salmon fillets you set out on the clothes hamper. That kind of uneasiness.

Moving is always stressful. I expected some stress, but I figured I’d relax a little when I could see progress—you know, an empty room except for a nice, neat pile of boxes. Instead, the more I packed the more anxious I got. And when I reached a certain point in the packing—the point where furniture had to be dismantled and cast-iron cookware had to be boxed up—I looked around and didn’t see anyone, and I said, “Where’s the guy?” I said it out loud: “Where’s the guy?”

That’s a big, ugly lie. I didn’t say it out loud. I didn’t even think it. If I had understood the problem—There’s no guy—early on, I would have rented one for three months. But I didn’t, because there were two factors I had overlooked:

Factor 1: I’m not a guy. I’m independent and healthy and reasonably fit, but if that were the same as being a guy, we wouldn’t need hinges on toilet seats.

Factor 2: I’m older than I was the last time I moved. Most of my friends, male and female, no longer have all their own components. They’re part human, part Erector Set. They probably injured the components that had to be replaced the last time they moved.

Factor 2 became obvious when I started scouting around for help. No one was ever home. They were all at their postsurgery doctor visits or physical-therapy appointments, except for the snowbirds—early retirees still luxuriating in their winter homes in Scottsdale.

Regarding Factor 1, I’ve known for quite some time that I wasn’t a guy, I just didn’t see it as a problem. “Well, it’s just moving,” I told myself. “I’ve moved dozens of times. I can do this myself.”

There’s always been a guy around when I moved: my dad, husband, domestic partner, “special friend,” or, strapping full-grown son.  This time, there was no such person available. My full-grown son, who lived next door, was not, at the moment, strapping. He was of no use at all, in fact, having suffered a compound fracture about two weeks earlier. I’m not sure how he managed it, but the timing, from his point of view, was perfect.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve always taken the male contribution to the moving process for granted. Frankly, I thought of guys as a necessary evil when (and only when) it came to moving, and I wasn’t all that sure about the “necessary” part.

I don’t like to clump people into categories and then generalize about them. Men are as different from each other as they are from crabgrass or great blue herons. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors; they run the gamut of intelligence, sensitivity, athleticism, hirsuteness, fashion sense, dental hygiene, and likability. There are men whose company I invariably enjoy, others I can tolerate for a couple of hours, and a few I’d cheerfully poison after five minutes in the same zip code.

But if you disguised a man as a woman and sent him into a household-moving situation, he’d give himself away in about twelve seconds. That’s because, in my experience, all men—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or nationality; no matter how kind, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered they are in everyday life—undergo an instantaneous and terrifying transformation when they are moving, helping you move, or just dropping by for a beer and watching other people help you move. They

  • curse loudly, nastily, and often
  • curse loudly, nastily, and often, at you
  • insist, no matter what you’re doing, that you should be doing something else
  • insist, no matter how you’re doing something, that you’re doing it wrong
  • send you to Home Depot to buy the three-quarter-inch grommets you should have known they’d need and should have bought three weeks ago
  • send you back to Home Depot because they shouldn’t have had to tell you that only navy-blue grommets will work for your grommet-requiring object, whatever that might be
  • always, inevitably, without fail, put the largest, heaviest piece of furniture directly in front of the only electrical outlet in the room

Honesty compels me to add that farting—publicly, deafeningly, and often—becomes de rigueur when a man puts on his moving hat. Oh, yes; baseball caps are also de rigueur.

I used to advise every woman not to even consider marrying or cohabiting with a man until she has a chance to observe his decorum during a move. She might actually have to vacate her house or apartment, buy or lease another one, and put him in charge of the move, just as a test—a lot of trouble, you say, but very likely worth it. Moving magnifies little flaws that otherwise might go undetected practically forever, like the Pithovirus sibericum pathogen that lay dormant in the Siberian permafrost for thirty thousand years before some French scientists started poking around in the tundra. Once they warmed it up and examined it under a microscope, they discovered that it was as lethal as ever if not more so, and they couldn’t just shove it back under the permafrost and forget they ever found it.

My current thinking, however, is that you should treasure your spouse for all his good qualities and then, when it’s time to move, have someone stand in for you. Your proxy doesn’t need to look like you. Just make sure that all the men involved in your move see you wearing a red jacket in the morning, then give your stand-in the red jacket and go treat yourself to a day at the spa. Your boyfriend or spouse and his cronies—-half-blinded by sweat, testosterone, and beer—won’t miss you as long as they can find a red jacket to curse at and boss around.

It doesn’t matter if you’re five-foot-two and you’re three-fourths Comanche, your stand-in could be John Madden in short shorts and you’d still get away with it, as long as he wore the red jacket. Just be sure to get back home, relieve your stand-in, and retrieve your jacket before your guy’s buddies take off. Without witnesses, he might decide to apologize—unless he’s still annoyed about the grommets or he doesn’t remember the abuse he dished out. (John Madden won’t forget it, though.)

So men aren’t at their best on moving day. So what? I have never been more sure of anything—not even that I have two eyes and two feet and a supernumerary nipple on my left breast (but we’ll let that be our little secret, okay?)—than that I needed a man to help me move. Why was that, exactly?

Well, most men are taller, stronger, and more coordinated than I am. For that matter, the same could be said of most women. But in a moving situation, a tall, strong, physically fit woman can’t take the place of a guy. There are three reasons for this:

First, women are too busy. When it’s time to move, a guy won’t show up late and out of breath, glance at his smart phone, and say, “I can only stay till 1:17. I have a meeting downtown at 1:25, and I can’t be even a minute late because I’m giving birth at 2:30 and Aaron has a swim meet tonight in Guadalajara.”

Second, and equally important, a guy who isn’t Tim Gunn or your daughter won’t critique your wardrobe before packing it. He won’t pick up your favorite linen jumpsuit, holding it as if it might be infested with flesh-eating microbes, wrinkle his nose, and say, “You’re taking this? It’s so dated. It makes you look old.” And there’s this pleading look in her eyes that says, “Mom, please don’t ever wear this, not even in the Himalayas; you might run into someone I know.”

Third, guys’ brains are wired to understand the logistics of moving. They can come in, look around for a few minutes, and tell you how many cubic feet of truck space you’ll need. When your eyes glaze over, a guy will—after heaving a sequence of sighs that go on as long as it takes to let you know how put-upon he’s feeling—condescend to translate the cubic footage into the truck sizes advertised online (15-foot, 21-foot, 90-liter, etc.).

Presented with the truck’s dimensions in linear feet, I’m perfectly capable of figuring out, without a calculator, how many cubic feet it will hold, but if I made a small mathematical error, like putting the decimal point in the wrong place, and I came up with a figure such as

342.286 million cubic feet

…I’d do a little victory dance and call to reserve the truck; whereas guys just know, using the same arcane mathematical skill that enables them to keep track of batting averages and RBI’s and lifetime All Star Game appearances for baseball legends such as Stan Musial and Willie Mays, that 342 million cubic feet would hold Wembley Arena and the Staples Center.

You’ll definitely need a guy if you’re driving a moving truck halfway across the country. Guys not only understand that the truck has to be balanced, they can tell when it’s not balanced, and they know what you should put in that space above the cab and over the wheel wells, and they know how to tie everything down so that, once you’re under way, your ski poles won’t slip loose and go shooting out the back of the truck and impale the driver of the car behind you. I don’t own any ski poles and I only moved six blocks. Just saying.

When it comes to packing and unpacking—except for your wardrobe, as previously alluded to—I’m not sure there’s a gender advantage either way. My ex-fiancé, whom I’ll call “Riley” because that’s what I called him for the eight years we were together and it’s become a habit, was the consummate packer. Whether we were going away for a weekend or moving out of the Palace of a Thousand and One Nights, he packed everything with the same deft care and innate competence you see in a mother when she’s swaddling her day-old infant. He folds clothes in tidy stacks that look like they just came from one of your swankier department stores. My clothes look like they were folded by a person wearing a baseball glove on each hand.

Alas. For this move, I had no Riley, no Dad, no son, no “special friend.” I had no on-call guy, just several kindhearted friends and in-laws in various stages of spinal disk degeneration. With one day left and nothing packed except underwear and spoons, it became necessary to do the unthinkable—pay strangers to help me move. Guys you know will move your stuff for beer, even if you own three grand pianos and an eight-foot anaconda. Strangers want cash.


I found four college students (two of each gender) who would accept five hundred dollars to take my furniture and packed boxes and throw what wasn’t packed into piles in their pickup truck, drive to the new place and unload everything without regard for logical placement—pressure cooker in bathroom, bottle of bleach on velvet love seat next to bag of onions—and return for the next jumble of piles and lampshades and boxes filled with stuff you’d never move if you’d taken the time to sort, like four-foot stacks of margarine tubs and dried-up shoe polish. They must have made forty-five trips inasmuch as unpacked stuff takes up a lot more room than tidy boxes. I can’t say that even today, more than four months after I was supposed to have all my stuff cleaned out of the basement apartment (and the adjacent boiler room), I actually have all my stuff cleaned out of the basement apartment (and the adjacent boiler room). At some randomly selected point I just decided to be done moving. Nor do I have the possessions that are here, in my new apartment, neatly arranged in their proper places. There are not enough proper places for all my possessions. For all I know, the college students shattered my mother’s priceless Limoges tea set and helped themselves to selected items from my hopelessly unstylish wardrobe.

But it’s summer now, and I’m on the second floor (instead of in the basement apartment adjacent to the boiler room), and I have large mullioned windows in abundance (instead of four small windows mostly obscured by a sloppy trim-painting job), and I even have transoms and lots of old oak. I will never move again, not even if the landlord doubles my rent and forces me to house a pair of pit bulls and a leaky container of plutonium… unless, of course, someone fitting my Guy profile happens along and he wants to marry me and move me into his exquisitely restored Victorian farmhouse. Okay, I’ll say. But I’ll still get the stand-in and make myself scarce until the last half-jar of pickle relish is safely tucked away in the refrigerator.

A final bit of advice if you’re considering a move: Don’t do it, I don’t care if you’ve had two sets of triplets since you moved in to your current place. But if you absolutely have to move, even if it’s just a lamp and it’s going only as far as the next room—start praying immediately. All moves are treacherous and require Divine Assistance in addition to at least one guy and the red decoy jacket. Before you buy one, if you’re in the vicinity, you might scan the baggage check-in area at Sky Harbor Airport.





If you use the free phone service Google Voice and your callers leave voice mail, Google transcribes the messages. Evidently Google believes that the transcripts are less than perfect (see next paragraph), but I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, after you read the three examples below.

Google would like your help in making voicemail transcriptions better. With your permission, our automated systems will remove your account information from your voicemail messages and analyze them to improve our language models.

Have a happy anyway

TRANSCRIPT 1. Hi darling little girl we did. I just noticed, your maths it and Ralph. We need to visit. That’s All I can tell you And now, whenever marry Mike, phone When you are, only death. 4. And sometimes I can’t here 2. What it so Boy. We may have to make an appointment. Just, is that anyway. I’m glad you’re safe. This is and home you redo the worried me, this time anyway. I love you much and You know your always in my prayer file There, anyway  Happy weekend and You know, Jeff, try me again And I’ll try you have that. Love you much. Hi Mary.vintage-phone-teenager

TRANSCRIPT 2. Issue resolved. Thank you for the birthday wishes. I’ve got to see why this issue. I remember you might work for there you have a yesterday and the potential client of ours so curious to see if you are, but I don’t heard it right. I mean, but I can’t find it. Because of that you if you call me back so So if you have any chance. Later.

TRANSCRIPT 3. Hi Sweetheart, Happy Easter, gosh i get you in passage and you’re supposed to inflate Enya. I left gosh. I’ll get you another book don’t journal. You know we had a separate but. I just or slightly ec all and in in the park. I would anyway. We’re gonna go tonight and you You know, have 5 I think I’ll wonderful. Sermon, and all. All the things that we need to do about the Resurrection, anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. But. I hope. It’s. If you have a happy anyway….

Put a Stamp on Me, I’m Done



Penny Black, the first postage stamp

Many of us studied English grammar and usage in the black-and-white school of language-learning favored by the textbooks and teachers of my childhood. To say ain’t, for example, as in “I ain’t got time,” was just plain wrong, only slightly more benign than shoplifting. “He don’t have no lunch” and “me and her already ate” were equally undesirable.

Experience has taught me that a wise and compassionate response to “he don’t have no lunch” might be to give the guy something to eat rather than to correct the speaker’s way of speaking. Assuming that the fellow is indeed lacking a midday meal, “He don’t have no lunch” describes the situation clearly and succinctly.

Further (about which see below), If you set yourself up as an authority on any aspect of the English language, fastidious and vigilant defenders of the opposing point of view will rise up to prove you wrong, throwing nasty clots of evidence like yellow snowballs in your face.

GREENlightFord’s “Go Further” slogan irritates purists who insist that further and farther aren’t synonymous. Further, they argue, means “in addition” as an adjective and “advance” as a verb (“He used the stolen money to further his aims”). Farther is defined as “at or to a greater distance.” In any case, that ship has sailed. The horse is out of the barn. Further and farther are in practice interchangeable and likely to stay that way.

YELLOWlightThe same is true for nauseous as a synonym for nauseated. This, to my way of thinking, is a bit unfortunate, in that nauseous, with the meaning “causing nausea or disgust,” was a yeomanly alternative to nauseating. In that sense, to say “I feel nauseous” would be to declare oneself repulsive. Again… horse, barn.

However nauseous is defined, the preferred pronunciation (according to some authorities) is NAW-see-us rather than NAW-shus. I suspect that this preference is sailing away on the same ship as long-LIVED (rhyming with the second syllable of arrived), now usually heard with a short I, like the in gift.

REDlightTwice in the past year I have heard authors during radio interviews mispronounce enveloped, saying EN-vuh-loped — as in “the travelers were EN-vuh-loped in a dense fog” — rather than en-VEL-upt. In each case, until the solecism occurred, I found the writer interesting and credible. Afterward — post-solecism, if you will — I switched stations. Even the most forgiving commentators on language draw the line somewhere.



There Are Typos and There Are TYPOS

Words can be misspelled and commas misplaced without doing violence to the meaning of the text. Occasionally one notices an astonishingly inappropriate typo that not only distorts but actually reverses the intended message, as in the following paragraph:

The International Symposium on Focal Therapy and Imaging in Prostate and Kidney Cancer is a joint initiative of the departments of urology at Duke [University], Durham, North Carolina, and AMC, Amsterdam…. The initiative has a purely educational focus [on]… minimally invasive treatment… that destroys the known area(s) of cancer while preventing a man’s continence and potency.… (

Either preserving (rather than preventing) was meant, or the writer omitted some important prefixes (incontinence, impotence).

The Thing Is, Is…

Note how Wikipedia defends “legitimate usages of two successive copulae”:

The double copula, also known as the reduplicative copuladouble is or Isis, is the usage of two successive copulae when only one is necessary, largely in spoken English. For example:

My point is, is that…

This should not be confused with legitimate usages of two successive copulae, such as:

What my point is is that…

In the latter sentence, “What my point is” is a dependent clause, and functions as a subject. In the former sentence, “My point” is a complete subject, and requires only one copula.

The double copula is nonstandard in written form. Its increasing occurrence in natural speech, however, is significant, and has affected its rate of commonness in any informal writings contexts.

What happens is, is that someone begins a sentence having no idea how it is going to end. Rather than fumbling around with superfluous clauses (“What my point is is that what on earth was he thinking, wearing a gorilla suit to a wake?”), the speaker could have (with a split second’s forethought) communicated with greater clarity and elegance (“My point is that a gorilla suit doesn’t belong at a wake”).


Out, Damned Spouch

BOOK-WeirdWonderfulWordsTO: Feathers clan high wingwaxer DF “Doug” Pillsbury, Kansas City
FROM: Feathers clan token female, coffee ritual governor Mary Campbell, Tucson
RE: Official certified Feathers gratitude (This is no ordinary gratitude)

Dearest DF— Not so long ago — only days, in fact — having received your selcouth birthday gift and having noted that it was most wonderfully scriniary, as you no doubt intended — had I tried then to assemble a collection of words to say thanks I might have begun with an eblandish clause such as, “I hardly know what to say.” I blush at the thought….

No more blushing! Henceforth, lively and appropriate vocabulary will rarely be delitescent when I am called upon to write my gratitude — indeed, to write anything, not excluding (a) an essay on illywhackers of my acquaintance or (b) thoughts on my most recent physitheistic research.

No more ziraleet!

Origin of the sound of winx

Origin of the sound of winx

Try to imagine my eadness, DF, when the postperson delivered a package with a return address de vous. Unwrapping it,  I discovered a luculent marvel of a book titled Totally Weird and Wonderful Words (2006, Oxford U. Press), charmingly and pactitiously edited by Erin McKean. Not just any Sardoodledom, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words will now and in the future facilitate my timely transmittal of thanks, permitting me to acknowledge your generosity more blively than in the past, free of ziraleet and that annoying awed whistness.

You see, I’ve been looking like a windlestraw and sounding like winx, probably on account of woofits, though that speculation is purely peirastic and not to be relied upon. What we DO know is that a bogglish wavenger followed me home in a state of constant oggannition. Not a lopeholt could I find, nor were my oligosyllables of any use.


Bogglish wavenger? Ordinary or garden-variety wavenger? Breakfast for Brutus?

Desperate, I tied the B.W. to a handy nearby ombrifuge and went for help. When I returned with the deputy sheriff, there wasn’t a bogglish W. in sight. The ombrifuge was now unencumbered. In the area were only a loon-slat, a lolling-lobby, and, incredibly, a kenspeckle gongoozler. I say “incredibly” because I didn’t recall ever seeing a canal in that vicinity. Now that I think about it, however, there used to be a small irrigation ditch, as evidenced by sizable sleck.

Autoschediastically, I sat down on the gongoozling bench and struck up a conversation with the gongoozler, whose name is Lindabell. I offered her a diazingiber and asked if she minded if I joined her in being huderon. She welcomed me most graciously, inviting me to gongoozle with her for as long as I cared to. She was, in fact, so concinnous that we instantly became friends and made crapulous plans for the next day. As always, DF, your gift to me arrived with an unexpected bonus!

Sending you warm and grateful thanks, DF — and, I am asked to append, thanks as well from my new friend.

Love, MF

P.S. Am adding postscript after my outing with Lindabell. It seems our ideas re crapulous vary widely. My crapulous plans can be easily accomplished with $1.50 and a coupon; a crapulous afternoon with Lindabell requires EMTs and a twelve-step program.  Even so, L. is not scelestious and in any case I’ve found a couthie cremett who said he would help her.

NPG 6903; The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner

P.P.S. The entry for spouch, p. 206, may be accurate in defining the word as “unwanted messages sent through a haptic system.” The so-called alternative definition will find an important niche, however, among English majors, not to mention overcrapulous winebibbers and small children:

spouch (n.). An incriminating and indelible stain on a sofa.
Out, damned spouch!

There’s still time…

to give Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Positive Affirmations to anyone you love, anywhere on earth!



Communicators Have Reason to Be Cranky



No matter how trivial the medium and homely the message, writing presents continual and abundant opportunities to convey joy and excitement or comfort and compassion. Apply the math to those opportunities, let a smile be your punctuation, and in a single day feel the world hum with a more hopeful, peaceful, whimsical vibration….


I’m revising my 2007 writers’ guide and changing the world… beginning with my principal readership: entrepreneurs, managers, executives, educators, and other people who aren’t professional writers but whose work requires writing, public speaking, or both. They do (at a guess) three-fourths of the writing that shows up on the Internet, in letters and reports, in certain periodicals, in government documents, and in other settings — though many of them would rather be doing almost anything else. They don’t like to write, they tell me, adding that they don’t write well and writing takes them away from the work they were trained for, which might be medicine, architecture, R & D, client consultation, or sales calls.

For the last forty years I’ve been working with nonwriters who have to write. In my experience, about a third believe that they write well… or at least well enough. They do a fair job of arranging words on pages, I’ll grant, though I’ve yet to find an individual among these architects and educators and executives who consistently communicates well in writing.

This is bad news. It means that there are millions of writers who believe that their work is being read and understood, and millions of readers who think that they’re getting the information they need, and they’re all mistaken, and it’s making them cranky.


For sale on eBay… free shipping… ends Sunday night, Dec. 2

An act of love…

If you write much at all, you might have found that writing to communicate with anyone — from your mom to your legislative constituents — originates as an act of love and courage: love for the values and goals that move you to write…  love for your readers, perhaps… and courage to reveal feelings and ideals to a reading audience of a single relative or ten million strangers.


For sale on eBay… free shipping… ends Sunday night, Dec. 3

Writers have been heard to say that they feel naked in print much as performers do onstage; but writers can and often do use sarcasm, untruthfulness, hyperbole, or obscure vocabulary as a barrier or a disguise. Clever writers develop their signature strategies for commanding and abusing a sort of transient power long enough to impress, perhaps ultimately to control, a well-targeted audience.  Multiply one writer’s power by the huge number of documents — electronic and otherwise — produced daily on the planet, and you might glimpse how cynicism creeps so slyly into our unconscious attitudes.


For sale on eBay… free shipping… ends Sunday night, Dec. 3

View writing as essentially a long-cherished and -protected form of human interaction, however, and sarcasm comes across not as clever but as ugly… a huge verbal sneer, or worse. So let’s turn it around.

No matter how trivial the medium and homely the message, writing presents continual and abundant opportunities to convey joy and excitement or comfort and compassion. Apply the math to those opportunities, let a smile be your punctuation, and in a single day feel the world hum with a more hopeful, peaceful, whimsical vibration….

This is no joke!

Research for the new edition of my writers’ guide turned up a fascinating bit of data: Bad writing is more harmful than anybody understood. We thought that a particular business plan, editorial, annual report, or media release was merely annoying… too long, overladen with jargon and buzzwords, or harmlessly incomprehensible. Maybe the condescending tone distanced us. Maybe we “saw” the arched eyebrow that meant the writer was having us on.

But did we understand that the writer, at the precise moment the forehead muscle contracted and the brow shot up, wasn’t feeling friendly toward us readers… that being in something of a snit caused her to rely more on power than on information and charm to win us over… and that it wasn’t working for any of us?

When a given sample of writing goes horribly wrong, it might not be purely out of the writer’s ignorance or inexperience. This morning’s five-minute whirlwind tour of websites turned up a dozen examples of writing styles that in my view are grossly misleading and disrespectful to readers. The meanings are skewed, clarity is absent, and communication opportunities are wasted. I chose to illustrate this point with examples of corporate-speak and memes because they appeared more than once, and because they’re easy to recognize.

Example 1: Corporate-speak — buzz words and jargon

[Ho-ho-ho Healthcare] helps leading healthcare systems sustainably improve operational and clinical performance through a combination of advisory services, technology and analytics….

  • We have a passion for improving healthcare and a relentless focus on providing measurable results for our customers

  • We bring together advisory, technology and analytics in partnership with our customers

  • We integrate world-class strategy, proprietary methodologies, and advanced analytics to drive sustainable results.

This common and tedious business-writing style actually holds readers at arm’s length and fails, in my opinion, to forward the writer’s objectives. Bey0nd that,  there’s a sly animus that I perceive in much of the writing for public audiences and that might fuel the alleged polarities and feelings of isolation many find troubling… by way of the sample’s

  • patronizing tone and attitude (I’m smart and you’re not, so I can feed you this word salad though it lacks both flavor and substance)
  • unfamiliar or esoteric vocabulary
  • overwriting, clumsy verbiage, “stringing”

Example 2: Memes infiltrate minds

I’m especially interested these days in the effect of “memes” – common perceptions or assumptions similar to “sweeping generalizations.”

Examples I heard on the radio recently —

  • We were raised in a toxic culture.
  • The parents of your generation didn’t understand the importance of children’s self-esteem.
  • Most people don’t notice or care about the homeless.

Bogus statistics and unsubstantiated trends become “public knowledge” when introduced with phrases such as most people or the pronoun we (antecedent unclear). Similar results can be achieved with headlines that readers barely glance at. The 2007 headline “Teen pregnancy numbers are skyrocketing!” appeared in the middle of the twelfth consecutive year of declining  teen-pregnancy rates.


Good writing is writing that communicates as intended. It’s as much a matter of how it’s received as how it’s delivered. Whether your writing is “correct” in terms of grammar and mechanics, whether it’s clever, whether it’s lyrical… these are secondary considerations, less important than clarity, respect, and honesty.


The story below has elements of truth and falsehood that are hard to separate. Data that apply to the larger group of 6-to-9-year-olds are manipulated such that they seem relevant to the 6-year-olds taken separately. The qualifier sixty-eight percent of [group] is paraphrased and positioned as most of [group].

What does “most of…” actually mean? Ninety percent, in my judgment. What do you think?

Why 6-Year-Old Girls Want to Be Sexy (Study)

Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest….

Psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., used paper dolls to assess self-sexualization in 6- to 9-year-old girls. Sixty girls were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and revealing “sexy” clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit.

Using a different set of dolls for each question, the researchers then asked each girl to choose the doll that: looked like herself, looked how she wanted to look, was the popular girl in school, she wanted to play with.

Across-the-board, girls chose the “sexy” doll most often. The results were significant in two categories: 68 percent of the girls said the doll looked how she wanted to look, and 72 percent said she was more popular than the non-sexy doll.

Simply put, the data don’t support the sensational claim. Sixty-eight percent of the 6- to 9-year-olds studied hardly equates to most 6-year-old girls. Preferring the “sexy” doll hardly amounts to “thinking of… [oneself] as a sex object.” But I suspect that many readers take news stories such as this one at face value, as I do. We don’t give them more time or scrutiny than the usual cues prompt us to. Why should we? Generally speaking, we can read the Huffington Post without a microscope.

Remember to aim

The careless writers we’re discussing, including the hypothetical brow-lifting writer cited above, probably didn’t mean to shoot themselves in the foot.  They might have started out organized and sensible but became impatient and a little scared, so they rushed the process.


Don’t make the same mistake. In a matter of minutes you can put your writing project in perspective, giving it the proper weight and emphasis, and improving the odds that your message will be

  • read
  • understood
  • believable
  • persuasive

Maintain that perspective as your work progresses, checking now and then to ensure that your prose is

  • clear and concise
  • free of jargon, convoluted phrases, verbal showing-off
  • consistent with your brand

Wait! Stop! Back up!

As you were preparing to write, was your message well focused? Did you clearly understand…

  • what you wanted or needed to say [= your meaning]?
  • how your message was relevant to your principal audience [=audience meaning]?
  • whether there were important secondary audiences (colleagues, critics, or competitors, for example) who might construe additional or conflicting meanings?

Ideally, once you’ve decided (a) that you have something worthwhile to say and (b) how and to whom you want to say it, you’ll take whatever time is necessary to determine (c) what it means. Say you’re an elementary-school principal and your message deals with

(a) next Wednesday’s early school closing — ten minutes before the usual bell…

(b) conveyed in writing to students, parents, teachers, and bus drivers.

What does it mean?

(c-1) To you, it’s of minor administrative importance, but it could turn into a major administrative headache if not everyone is informed. The meaning from your perspective is initially a matter of thorough distribution.

(c-2) You’ve identified four audiences and you understand that each audience will perceive at least one exclusive meaning. Within each audience there might be dozens of interpretations buzzing around. No audience will interpret your message uniformly, but there might be one or two prevalent understandings.

  • Students will be thrilled at the prospect of a shorter school day, you think, before it occurs to you that there are a number of kids for whom school is safer and more hospitable than home.
  • Some of the parents will be pleased about having more time with their kids; other parents will have to scramble for child-care arrangements; still others will shrug it off since their children are latchkey kids no matter when they get out of school.
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Just a brief mental scan of students’ and parents’ attitudes toward school-closing time has reminded you that your announcement is far from trivial. Feelings of sympathy tug at you as you’re drafting the letter, and your tone becomes softer, less abrupt than before.

Once you are aware that an apparently simple message can be understood in an infinite number of ways (not all of which you can be expected to address),  taking a reasonable number of alternative meanings into account will automatically become part of the writing process.

  • Good writing is writing that communicates as intended. It’s as much a matter of how it’s received as how it’s delivered. Whether your writing is “correct” in terms of grammar and mechanics, whether it’s clever, whether it’s lyrical… these are secondary considerations, less important than clarity, respect, and honesty.
  • If you mean to be understood, your writing will address the various levels of interest and understanding among your audiences.
  • There will be times when some or all of your message will be of scant interest to your audience. Be prepared to improve your communication or, starting from scratch, to rethink the relevance of your message. To do neither is a declaration of war.
  • If you have communicated clearly and respectfully, and your audience has understood and rejected your message, your writing isn’t at fault. Knowing about a particular audience’s distaste for your message doesn’t obligate you to satisfy that audience’s appetite.

You don’t have to do all the work. Your readers can be expected to meet you partway. It’s your job to figure out how far they’ll advance and on which path.

The understanding between a non-technical writer and his reader is that he shall talk more or less like a human being and not like an Act of Parliament. I take it that the [writer’s aim]… must be to convey exact thought in inexact language… [in which] he can never succeed without the co-operation of the reader. — Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, Messenger Lectures (1934), New Pathways in Science (1935), 279

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Be aware of nonverbal factors in written and public forums. There are dozens of potential sources of interference that can weaken your message. A few examples:

  • your fragrance
  • the paper you print on
  • the room temperature and availability of parking at your chosen venue
  • a preexisting relationship with your target audience
  • a hostile audience (a situation that might require your defusing of the situation ahead of time)