Weasel words and skunked words

June 13, 2011

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.

Critical learnings: a competition

May 25, 2011

There’s a competition that might interest you on Macmillan Dictionary Blog today. I’ve written a parody of corporate communication laced with buzzwords, management jargon, ridiculous metaphors and assorted gobbledygook. Here’s an excerpt:

Parties affected downstream are encouraged to utilise their forward thinking hats and realign their tool belts to the non-ongoing contract situation within a short timeframe totality. We anticipate dynamic new overarching metrics of holistic staff wellbeingness at the end of the day. Surfing where the waves are should galvanise a global blue-sky modality that will roll out and trickle down the Monday mood mountain into the value valley.

The challenge (and the fun) for readers is to translate the post into a more comprehensible form of business English. You can do it in a few sentences, or – if your productivity drivers are optimised – in more satisfying detail. Push the editors’ imagination buttons, and you could win a Macmillan dictionary of your choice.

On freelance editing

January 3, 2011

I was contacted recently by Nancy Strauss, a consultant who specialises in online communication. Nancy blogs for The WM Freelance Writers Connection, and in this capacity she asked if I would be interested in doing an interview about freelance editing. I was, and I did, and the interview was published in two parts over the holiday period.

In part 1, I describe some of the types of editing work I do, recommend some books for freelance editors, and offer advice to people considering a career in freelance editing. It’s very general advice, as you’ll see below, partly because I became an editor by an unorthodox route. Here’s an excerpt:

Read everything. Read dictionaries and detective novels, instruction manuals and old poetry. Read great writers especially. Be sensitive to narrative structure. Stories are everywhere, awaiting readers and listeners. We make worlds from tiny tales, and even the driest prose hinges on a ‘someone’ doing something (e.g., driest prose hinging). Whether you’re editing fiction or non-fiction, find the characters performing the actions and build paragraphs and plots around them. Readers will thank you for it.

In part 2 of the interview, I talk about training, marketing, blogging, and communicating with clients; I also discuss when and why a writer might want to hire an editor, and when they might not. In the former case, here are some thoughts on the ‘wood-for-trees’ problem:

If you write, you’ll recognise the difficulty of assessing your work accurately beyond a certain point. We end up too close to our text, emotionally and intellectually. Mistakes and weaknesses become invisible through overfamiliarity. If we abandon it for a while, we gain a measure of critical distance from it, but never quite enough; and taking breaks is time-consuming. An experienced pair of eyes, fresh to the text, will spot things the writer won’t.

I hope the interview is helpful and interesting to writers and general readers, and maybe even other editors. I must say I found it personally instructive and enjoyable. Nancy’s questions encouraged me to reflect in more detail on certain aspects of my work that I had previously thought about only infrequently.

You can read the full interview here: part 1; part 2.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man-word

November 4, 2010

‘Man-words’ have become very popular in recent years. These are terms like man flu, mancession, mancation and mancessories. Jumping on the man-wagon, I’ve written a short piece about them for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, called ‘Watch your manguage’. Here’s an excerpt:

the Urban Dictionary lists hundreds of man-words and man-phrases, such as man hug, man-girlfriend, man-tourage, and manbroidery. An initial m can be enough to manify a word – as in mandals, a contraction of man-sandals; mirdles, which are girdles for men; and Movember, a November-moustache charity event (though its m comes from moustache rather than man). There’s a related boom in bro-words, like bromance and bro-ordinate.

In the article, I look at the subcategory of man-brands, link to some expert coverage of the man-word phenomenon, and ponder what it all might mean. I also coined a couple of new man-words along the way – it’s hard to resist, once you’re immersed in them – and I was delighted to see more appear in the comments. If you can’t mendure the manticipation any longer, you can read the rest here.

New editing website

October 13, 2010

In the right-hand sidebar you’ll see a new link to my editing and proofreading website, which I recently updated. I’ve rewritten the text and added more testimonials. It’s in a provisional state but I’m happy enough, for now, with its content and appearance. Both are plain!

If you have observations, suggestions, or criticisms to make about the website, feel free to share them in a comment below, or by email. Requests for editing or proofreading are also welcome, and can be made by email.

I’m very grateful to James for his generous technical help and advice. He speaks computer languages that are forever beyond my comprehension; English must remain my specialty.

Words on a wire

August 30, 2010

We think of balance as a good thing, associating it with poise, equilibrium, evenness and harmony, as stability in unpredictable circumstances or as a healthy mix of disparate elements. It’s a versatile metaphor. We try to balance our lives by living a balanced lifestyle, holding balanced views and following, on balance, a balanced diet. We balance work and play, overtime and downtime, business and pleasure. Mostly business: we balance our books, accounts, loans, budgets and balance sheets.

If you lose your balance, you can always find it again (or claim to). This is rebalancing. It might seem like something you couldn’t do too much of, but apparently you can. The word itself has become very popular recently, at least according to the crude graph below and the subjective evidence of my eyes and ears.


Balancing and rebalancing are common in economic policy at corporate and national levels. There is constant rebalancing of growth, power, trade, budgets, assets, and priorities. Most of all, there’s rebalancing of economies and investment portfolios. Wikipedia says the latter means “bringing a portfolio of investments that has deviated away from one’s target asset allocation back into line”. There’s a more straightforward definition here. As far as I can tell, it reflects a desire to make as much money as possible.

On a large scale, such activity can require a rebalancing of the workforce. This might be an ordeal for affected workers and their families, but rebalancing makes it sound like something no well-balanced person would resist or condemn. No surprise then that the word is also popular in the context of rights and the law. A quick newspaper search showed recent hits for rebalancing rights, rebalancing the statute book, rebalancing the Human Rights Act, and rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state.

The happy connotations of balance and rebalance make them attractive as euphemisms. In Now That’s What I Call Jargon, RTE broadcaster John Murray writes that rebalancing “tends to be trotted out when a company is selling a loss-making business in order to halt the drain on its finances”. He notes that it “can also be used by companies that are laying off hundreds of employees but cannot bring themselves to say it in so many words”. Tim Llewellyn, a writer and broadcaster formerly with the BBC, described balance as “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble”.

Web of synonyms from VisualThesaurus.com


Balance as a metaphor is grounded in our experience: human functioning depends on balance in physical and physiological ways. The first meaning of balance I learned as a child was the ability to not fall over as I stood up (or tried something more elaborate); this ability is vital to many sports. As kids we spin in circles for the fun of losing our balance. Inside us, balance is just as critical — without it we might become unbalanced. Our biochemical and psychological equilibriums are dynamic, complex and finely tuned; they depend on appropriate ratios between different hormones, habits, signals, systems, organs and unconscious strategies that can support or hinder one another.

We know that our bodies perform great balancing acts, but sometimes we need to be reminded, or encouraged to help. Many health and lifestyle companies, especially alternative health providers, promise to balance or rebalance certain connections they consider primary, such as those between mind, body and spirit, between the brain’s hemispheres, the body’s energies, yin and yang, and so on. One massage training centre describes rebalancing as “a unique psychosomatic body mind treatment system incorporating technical precision with an artistic meditative approach”. Which is all very well, but whether it translates into a good massage is anyone’s guess.

HSE — Who proofreads the proofreaders?

August 24, 2010

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is Ireland’s largest employer, and a few months ago it published Plain language style guide for documents, an illustrated style guide stressing the importance of plain English. What follows are some general comments and specific criticisms.

The style guide is a moderately attractive booklet, with moments of mild fun amidst the painstaking political correctness. At 34 pages with a lot of blank space, it’s a quick read, but it could have been reduced to half or two-thirds the size without cluttering its appearance. Some of its advice is arbitrary or oversimplified, but I wouldn’t expect nuanced commentary in so brief a guide. Much more unfortunate are the poor levels of grammar, punctuation, formatting, and spelling.

On page 8, “[If] you plan to use particular term” is missing the indefinite article a. So is this line on p. 21: “If you do not have copy of the first information pack”. The advice on passive vs. active voice (p. 9) is passable, if predictably crude and simplistic. The guidance on concision (p. 10) makes no allowance for context — sometimes longer phrases are better than loosely synonymous single words. Abdomen wall (p. 12) seems an unusual way to say abdominal wall, though I’ve not investigated their relative popularity in any depth.

Now, what do you think of this passage?

I’m cheered by the HSE’s sensible approval of them and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns, but imagine how much clearer the text would be if it used italics or inverted commas to refer to certain words as words. This failing occurs throughout the document and makes it much more troublesome and irritating to read than it ought to be.

Here’s a line in dire need of a comma: “end the introduction to the list with a full stop if it is also a full sentence or with no punctuation if it is a heading” (p. 16). Further down the same page there’s a typo no spell checker would catch, but which would not be missed by a competent proofreader:

We’re advised to “treat named organisations or groups as singular” (p. 19), and we’re given this example: “The HSE is divided into four areas.” Ten pages later we read: “The Health Service Executive under the National Intercultural Healthcare Strategy are developing a set of national guidelines…” This is not a significant sticking point, but if an organisation is proclaiming on style, it ought to at least be consistent in its style guide.

In the “Designers and printers” section, this phrase stood out: “make sure your final product is an easy-to-read document…” (p. 24). Maybe I’m allergic to the word product used as a catch-all term for just about anything (including people), but what’s wrong with: “make sure your final document is easy to read…”? Or change document to text if you want to allow for more possibilities.

We’re cautioned not to “underline words, write them in all capital letters or italicise them” (p. 26). I see the argument against underlining or using all capitals, but why shouldn’t we use italics? I’ve already shown where they would have been handy, and here’s another example: “The Citizens Information Board document Access to Information for All gives guidance…” (p. 29). This would read far more smoothly with appropriate italics (or inverted commas).

An aeroplane is flown in* to emphasise this strange prohibition:

I like the playful presentation, but I don’t think italicising aeroplane distorts the word’s resemblance to its referent.

Worse, the document contains elementary spelling errors — and I don’t just mean typos like the for they. Page 29 offers us compliment instead of complement:

On the next page, English is spelled with a small e. Perhaps worst of all, grammar is spelled grammer and unnecessary is spelled unnecesary:

These are shocking errors to find in a style guide. Just below them there’s a conspicuously absent apostrophe in “according to the readers needs”. Soon after that, the heading “Non Government Organisations” should be hyphenated. Non is a prefix, sometimes forming a solid compound but usually a hyphenated one. It doesn’t stand alone, like this:

I could go on, but that should suffice. In spite of these criticisms, the HSE’s Plain language style guide for documents is not all bad. It contains some sound and useful advice which, if heeded, should foster clearer communication and greater understanding of what can often be challenging material.

Sadly, the HSE style guide is also riddled with errors. I’ve been picky, but a style guide demands and deserves to be picked at. What a pity it wasn’t proofread better, not least because it urges writers to “Seek quotes for translation and two proof reads” (p. 30). Was this style guide proofread twice? More, even? Maybe I should offer them my proofreading services.


*Note non-horrific use of the passive voice.


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