Gender-neutral language in the workplace

December 12, 2017

I wrote an article on the importance of gender-neutral language in the workplace for UK job-board company Totaljobs. The article considers work-language in a cultural context and the harmful effects of gender-biased usage. Here’s an excerpt:

Studies have shown that when words like man are used generically to refer to people, readers tend to picture men only, not a balance of men and women – let alone women only. Phrases like man’s origin and modern man overlook women’s contributions to civilisation; man-made and man as a verb downplay women’s labour. This kind of language is not harmless: it helps subordinate women in social and political relations. . . .

Language is not neutral or used in a vacuum: it incorporates personal assumptions, social norms, and cultural ideologies. This is why it’s important to consider language critically as a social and political tool and to watch for biases in usage. Language reflects the world it’s used in, but it’s also active in maintaining or redesigning that world. It can be a tool of discrimination or one of empowerment.

You can go here for the rest. Totaljobs commissioned the article as part of research they did on gendered language in job ads. They analysed over 75,000 of their own ads and summarised the results here.

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In-house editing tips

November 19, 2017

Editing texts at work – reports, circulars, strategic plans and the like – is a vital step in preparing them to communicate their content as well as possible. Hiring a professional editor is generally a good idea, but if the text is for in-house use only, that may be overkill.

In this situation, editing is assigned to a company employee who is not a professional editor but has a good command of English prose. The question is, how do you do it? Where do you start? What do you prioritise?

My friends at Emphasis Training asked me to break down the job of editing texts at work. My article is now up on the Emphasis website: The smart way to edit your colleagues’ documents. It offers 23 bite-sized tips. Here are two:

Edit like for like

Review similar items together, for example all the tables and captions, or all the headings and subheadings. Clumping these tasks means you’re looking out for the same things at once, which reduces the cognitive load and also the chances of overlooking something.

Read for logic

Office reports are often written by more than one person or over a period of time. This can lead to disjointed prose: lines may be added or changed without due regard for context, causing breaks in flow. If your work environment permits it, read the text aloud. This will help you notice any awkward phrasing or non sequiturs.

You can read the rest here.


Tips from professional proofreaders

December 15, 2014

Proofreading is a recurring theme on Sentence first, with regular posts looking at particular items of usage and examples of where proofing fell short. But although it’s part of my day job, I haven’t written often about the act itself.

I was recently approached by Maggie Biroscak at Jimdo for some thoughts on the subject. Maggie’s article has now been published, and offers great tips on proofreading your own text, while acknowledging the limitations of this approach. It features quotes from Dawn McIlvain Stahl, online editor of Copyediting.com, and me.

One of Maggie’s tips is to check names repeatedly:

A word won’t be offended if you misspell it. Not always true with a person. So be courteous and focus your attention on names. Unfamiliar names are easy to mess up, because your brain doesn’t notice if they’re spelled incorrectly (approximately 14-16% of corrections in major newspapers are misspelled names). Common names with uncommon spellings (Dwyane Wade, anyone?) can also cause major headaches for proofreaders.

I can testify to this. Much of what I edit and proofread is academic writing – scholarly reports, essays and theses – and if you’d expect academics to be more rigorous about people’s names, you would be wrong. Most unedited theses get the name of a referenced author incorrect, and they commonly misspell several.

Maggie quotes me advising that if you’re uncertain about any aspect of punctuation, you should read up on it. Many writers routinely use semicolons for colons, or hyphens for dashes, and their commas and apostrophes can be haphazard. If you want to be a writer, you can’t punctuate based on guesswork or assumption – you have to learn it.

Inconsistency, whether in style, vocabulary, or formatting, is another significant issue and one that proofreaders and editors fix constantly. As Dawn McIlvain Stahl says, inconsistencies in a text can suggest “that you’re not very careful or professional”. Here are a few additional tips, which may apply especially to beginner proofreaders:

  • Ask someone to proofread something after you. This may reveal recurring problems that you can then look out for. Obviously it should be someone who knows what they’re doing.
  • Reading aloud helps uncover things you mightn’t notice from silent reading, be it a missing word, awkward rhythm, or subject-verb disagreement. Don’t be shy with yourself – vocalise!
  • Minimise distractions. This seems obvious, but it’s as true as ever and bears repeating. You need to be disciplined about your relationships with the internet and your phone.

I would stress that proofreading your own text, while fine as far as it goes, is no substitute for having it done professionally by an experienced third party. They’ll spot things you didn’t, and they’ll know things you don’t. Questions 3 and 5 on my editing website’s FAQ address this, and explain briefly why it matters.

Maggie Biroscak puts it well: “Sloppy writing makes people wonder what else you’re messing up on.”

Science and Invention Magazine - The Isolator by Gernsback 1920-304

Proofreader hard at work, using ‘The Isolator’ to minimise distraction. From: http://50watts.com/Fantastic-Plangent

 


Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.


The slangy business of bird-dogging

August 22, 2013

Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, is a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a notorious film that effectively brought down the United Artists (UA) studio.

Steven Bach - Final Cut - dreams and disaster in the making of heaven's gate - book coverRecalling an argument he had with fellow producer David Field about work politics, Bach uses the term bird-dog in a way that appears to be slang and primarily American.

I’d come across bird-dog before, probably in a novel, in the sense steal (or try to steal) another person’s date, but here I learned of its analogous use in business – steal (or try to steal) another person’s project:

“How about the time I called Freddy Raphael—“

“In France,” he interrupted quietly.

“He lives in France. Where else was I supposed to call him?”

“You called him about my project.”

“I called him about UA’s project, to say I was glad we had made the deal, welcome aboard, be brilliant. I’ve known Freddy for years, and I was glad he was working for us, and I wanted to say so.”

“You were bird-dogging my project,” he said quietly. “I brought that project into the company, and I didn’t think you should have called him without my permission. The minute you got off the phone with Freddy, he called me in California because he thought you were bird-dogging, too.”

“And Alan Pakula is sitting upstairs with a pack of lousy preview cards thinking that we’re bird-dogging Mike Medavoy’s project. Is everybody nuts around here or what?” I downed the rest of my brandy and signalled for a refill. David bit his tongue and glared behind me at the wall.

Dictionaries that include bird-dog, such as the OED, Merriam-Webster, and American Heritage, indicate other senses dating from the 1930s or 40s that come from the actions of the eponymous hunting animal: the verb has both transitive and intransitive senses having to do with following or closely watching a subject of interest, or scouting (e.g., for talent).

Another sense is that of dogged pursuit, as in bird-dogging someone for information or answers. There’s also the aforementioned sense: of stealing (or trying to steal) someone else’s date. This, I would guess, led to the business-related meaning we see in Bach’s book. Despite my unfamiliarity with the usage, I was able to infer its meaning from the context.

Just as well: aside from its standard meanings, bird dog has an array of (contradictory) slang ones. Jonathon Green includes seven noun and eight verb senses in Chambers Slang Dictionary, including (n.) receiver of stolen goods; one who lures victims into positions of vulnerability; an assistant, esp. in police or journalism; and (v.) to eavesdrop; to pimp for, to solicit for another person; to watch over, to protect.


Twitter tips for business writing

February 13, 2013

I’ve a new article up at Emphasis Training, a writing consultancy based in Brighton, UK. It’s about Twitter – specifically, it offers tips on how to reduce character count in tweets without sacrificing intelligibility or professionalism. (Twitter allows just 140 characters per message.)

The article looks at editing, abbreviation, punctuation, symbol use, and other areas. It’s aimed primarily at business-writing professionals but may also be of some general interest, and there’s a challenge at the end (with a small prize) for people who use the service.

Though I mention Twitter regularly here, I haven’t written about it much. So if you’ve any general thoughts on it – or tips along the same lines as my article – I’d love to hear them.

Some people have separate accounts for shop talk and personal use, but that wouldn’t suit me: too much blending has occurred! I tweet mostly about language, books, writing and editing, but I make room too for chat and miscellany. No breakfast photos, though.

Update:

Thanks to all who read the article, left comments, or took part in the challenge. Emphasis now have a follow-up article assessing the submissions and announcing a winner.

 


A short note on long words

June 7, 2012

A few weeks ago I was approached by Emphasis, a UK-based business-writing training company, to write something for their website. The article was published today, so I thought I’d mention it here for anyone who cares to read it.

It’s called “Does word length matter?” (not my title, but I like it) and the article is about the use of long words, short words, plain words and fancy words, right words and wrong words, half-known words and inkhorn words.

In short: it’s about words, and how to pick the best ones when writing for business – though it may be of broader use and appeal than that. There’s no commenting facility after the article, but any thoughts you might have are welcome here, as always.