I’ve been teaching a lot lately about the active and passive voices, encouraging writers to favour the active voice in every instance they can.

The ‘active voice’ is where you always begin the phrase with a subject (a noun) that is performing the action (a verb), as in: I typed this post.

If you were using the ‘passive voice’ there, you would have written: This post was typed (you may or may not have added ‘by me’)

I’ve also been encouraging people to prefer verbs over nouns, since verbs bring more action into a text, which better engages readers. And like the active voice, writing that favours verbs over nouns makes it a lot clearer who is doing what.

So hearing the Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters read out-loud this week, I wondered at the tone of voice that came through in how they’d written the letter (read a clean PDF copy from the Globe and Mail site).

I was so curious about what made that tone come through, that I copied and pasted the text, then highlighted it. Here was my logic:

  • Parts highlighted in yellow use a noun-based language and a passive voice.
  • Parts highlighted in green use verbs and an active, direct voice.

Check it out:

City of Toronto Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters: my highlighted version

My conclusion?

The voice goes back and forth so often that it’s clearly a sad case of Death by Committee.

What’s your take on the language the writers used here?

Leave your comment, so we can learn from each other...


If you’ve been cruising my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I’m a fan of efforts to increase financial literacy.

Fortunately, I have also had the chance to help financial services clients make their information clearer – which is my way of supporting this effort.

And – by hook or by crook (“I’m a words person, not a numbers person!”) – I’m becoming a more informed financial consumer myself.

With the world’s current economic situation in tatters and all of the protests taking place around the way worldwide wealth is distributed, the time is ripe for us to better understand questions such as what factors affect who earns the most and how do the world’s economies depend on each other?

Closer to home, the news media continue to report rising numbers of Canadians who feel unprepared for their retirement; heck, many of us worry that we won’t have enough to pay our next stream of bills if something unexpected happens to our health or job (here’s an example from the Globe and Mail).

So what’s my point?

Along with meeting, analyzing and protesting, lots of people and organizations are choosing to educate. Hence, join me in welcoming Financial Literacy Month!

And to get you into the spirit, here are a few good resources for those of you wanting to know more:

Sometimes, I admit, I work through my lunch hour even when working at home. But the Have you had your plus sign today?way I lighten things up is by flipping on yesterday’s Y&R episode. You really don’t have to turn toward the screen to know what’s happening with soaps, after all.

This is especially true of commercials which — as many know — are often louder than the show you’re watching and, during daytime TV, are often about healthcare, household or cleaning products (hence the term Soap Opera, right?)

But the other day, I heard three in a row that were refreshingly clear and positive. Which is probably why I actually easily could remember and write down their key slogans when they were long over:

  • The Ontario Government (really!), promoting the Flu Shot: “Making our immune system stronger.”
  • Rogers (yes, again, really!) advertising its new electronic home security package: “Stay connected. Stay close.”
  • The Canadian Sport for Life movement’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity and promote lifelong physical activity’s “Active for Life” campaign.

I’ve written here before about drug commercials: their droning background voices, scrolling tiny-type disclaimers and negative side-effect warnings. But the above three were nothing like that. With each slogan, you know immediately what you stand to gain. It’s the “WIIFM” factor we always hear about.

They’re also aspirational: A statement of the organization’s goal in providing the service, rather than a focus on what it’s trying to prevent (massive flu epidemics, risks to someone’s home and family and obesity respectively). And, as is often the case with strong messages, they’re all in the simplest of language.

You still may not feel that you want or need any of these options; and, if you’re like me, you’ll be skeptical about what’s behind the messages in these three ads. But at least you can easily grasp their expressed benefits.

Quite a contrast to other ads that focus on risk and make readers/viewers retain long streams of information about all of the possible negative consequences the buyer might face.

2011 marks the first year that advocates for clear writing can celebrate today – October 13 is now International Plain Language Day (IPLDay)!International Plain Language Day October 13

The inspiration and wizardry of longtime plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Kate Harrison Whiteside have sparked this first-ever IPLDay, and they’ve rallied plain language enthusiasts from across the world to hold events today.

With the rate at which people are demanding clear information – and at which businesses are responding to that demand, we’ve got a lot to celebrate. And, we expect the scale of this event to increase with each year with more cities officially proclaiming the day.

For more on IPLD and events in your area:

Here are some other ways to spend your day October 13 :

  • Sleep late.
  • Read a newspaper with your cup of coffee. Use a red pen to circle tired, trite phrases, mixed metaphors, bafflegab, and other writing offences. Submit those to the collection on LinkedIn.com/PlainLanguageAdvocates.
  • Phone the paper’s editorial offices and advise them to use plain language.
  • Send a message to a friend; review it and rewrite those parts that could be misunderstood.
  • Send another message, to many friends, and ask them to join the largest, international network of Plain Language Advocates, a LinkedIn group.
  • Select an important piece from your morning mail: a consumer contract, a bank statement, a credit card statement, something from an insurance agency or car rental company, or local gym, and actually read every word of it. Call the company and ask them to explain the meaning of each sentence that is not clear and the circumstances under which each sentence would be used.
  • Take time for lunch!
  • Call your local continuing program and ask if they have a course in plain language.
  • If anybody asks, tell them: Plain language is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary… It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the language. (Robert Eagleson)
  • Post your experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #iplday
  • Order a plain language writing guide online.
  • Check the procedures online and get the scoop on how to have your mayor proclaim next October 13 as International Plain Language Day. Make a note on your calendar to do it.
  • Have a nap. It has been a long day.

(Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for the above list, which also appears on her website.)

Remember when I wrote about the junk e-mail I received the other week, where they used a lot of general terms to flatter me into responding?

It popped up in my Inbox again today. But this time, the salutation read: “Dear Black.”

If my credentials were that impressive, I’m thinking they’d have at least have gotten my name right by now, no?

Happy Friday – and if you’re in Canada like me, have a happy Thanksgiving!

p.s.   In or near North Toronto next Thursday?

Take a break from your workday to come Celebrate and learn about plain language, during the first-ever International Plain Language Day, Thursday October 13! Join me and other clear-minded folks for an informal beverage and discussion, at the INGDirect Cafe at 111 Gordon Baker Road (Finch and 404 area).

More info will follow on our Twitter feed and Facebook page.

E-mail was a newer toy back in the early '00s.

Back in 2003, I wrote a grad school paper that analyzed the flaws of e-mail communication: how our content and tone can lead to people getting a different meaning than what we intend – and how the results can be disastrous!

Now, that was back when we didn’t yet use handhelds to converse with friends and colleagues. We were still mainly using online Webmail or some kind of ‘e-mail client’ such as Outlook.

So we still hadn’t established so many of the conventions we now use to send words across the ether: No emoticons, shortcuts for txtng or little graphical additions to clarify our intent. We had to rely much more on the tone of our messages to ensure we got across the way we wanted.

What’s this got to do with the Save button?


Through much embarrassing trial-and-error of my own, I’ve learned something about e-mail: One should never fire off a hastily-typed message about something important right away.

Okay, maybe you’ve got one of those jobs where you barely have time to pee, let alone think through every important message before hitting Send. But really, even (and maybe, especially) you will benefit from making the Save button your friend.

Anyone who’s lost a long document because they didn’t save their changes can tell you that the Save button is aptly-named: it even saves your *ss if you’re working under a tight deadline!

Save is your friend, before you click Send…

The same goes for e-mail. Taking a few more seconds to review your message before clicking Send will help you catch more than just typos – you may also often find that you’ve forgotten to enter something critical that would really have helped them understand better. And if you’re like me, you may also realize that you’ve included far more info than they need or can use at that time.

So see if it works for you. Here’s how:

  1. Blast out your message, fingers a-flying.
  2. Click on Save (and minimize if you need privacy)
  3. Go get a tea or your chosen consumable.
  4. Come back and re-read, with a refreshed focus.
  5. Edit as needed. Then – and only then – click on Send.

After repeating these steps a few times, you may also find yourself reconsidering whether to send the message at all (really!). It could be that you actually don’t need to respond until you have more time or information. And after all, with all the info we don’t need that we all already receive, this could mean you’re doing someone a favour by not sending it.

My father-in-law, who works in real estate, is fond of quoting something he’s often heard from people he’s worked with during his 40+ years in the business (Imagine a thick Italian accent):

“Don’t worry. Just order the concrete.”

I’m led to think of this statement when I think of an e-mail I’ve received a few times recently. I only realized that it was junk mail after reading through the whole thing because – unlike most such messages – it used simple and correct spelling and grammar, spoke to me, flowed well, and had no strange or distracting formatting. In other words, a decently-written, positive-sounding note.

I didn’t recognize the sender, but that isn’t always a barrier, since I do after all hope to hear from interested new clients from time to time.

But it became clear once I had that this was a “boilerplate” broadcast message. Why? It was its abstract, unspecific nature of the message that tipped me off that this was a form letter destined for a huge group of people…and which intended to flatter us into responding.

Read for yourself and see what you think:

“Hello%%FirstName%%, (Yes, they even forgot to insert my name!)

I’d love the opportunity to talk to you about your resume! Your credentials are very impressive, your background and track record closely resemble some other highly successful individuals. We have worked with many such professionals and helped them realize their dreams to become successful entrepreneurs. Based on your resume, I can see that you are quite accomplished in your field and may welcome the chance to apply your expertise in a more entrepreneurial setting.

Recession has touched us all, but some industries have turned it into a business growth opportunity. Franchising is one industry where success, profitability and economic stability have actually made incremental strides. My role is to carefully select and personally invite qualified individuals to explore franchising in all its potential and you fit the profile.

With your background in management and leadership positions adding weight to your credentials, I am confident that you are likely a great fit.”

Do you see why I call it ‘abstract’ and ‘unspecific’?

There’s nothing here that says what I’ve specifically done, or what my “field” is. And there are no concrete examples, numbers or other details to back up their claim about the success of the franchising industry or their stake in it:  just a stack of conceptual puffery in the holy trinity of “success, profitability and economic stability.”

In other words, the message could really benefit from an order of concrete.

The writer might indeed be from a legitimate business and be writing for the the reasons they say…or they could be aiming to scam me or phish my information, using flattery to lure me in.  Either way, I won’t be taking the time to find out.

By now those of us with kids (or who work in a school) have survived our first week back.

Along with getting used to making lunches again, I’m back to making space in my brain for deeper thoughts about what and how my seven-year-old is learning. And I anticipate right along with her what her new teacher is going to be like.

When school ended last term, one of my friends posted on her facebook status that her son’s teacher recorded a few of his grades wrong.  Again.  Some discussion and commiserating then ensued among her friends, who’d experienced similar discontents with their kids’ teachers. One of these noted that she was foregoing giving teacher gifts that summer, citing ‘inappropriate use of apostrophes on class newsletters’ as one of the reasons.

When I point out errors in others’ writing my aim is to laugh with the writer – not at them; lord knows I’ve made my own errors (as noted many times here). But I, too, can be a Grammar Snob when it comes to what I assume are the basic techniques of decent writing; especially with the people who are out there teaching my kids.

It’s one thing when what we get was written by a volunteer – it’s a diverse community I live in. But much of what I get from the teachers and administration is rife with basic grammar and punctuation mistakes I would only expect from someone much younger or less-schooled.

So I worry, if they don’t know better at this point, what other errors are they letting slide in our kids’ writing?

And more ‘lecture and hector’-style messages

The other problem I often notice in the notes my daughter brings home are what Brown and Davis call a ‘lecturing and hectoring’ tone. They even use such a note as an example in their book – and anyone with kids in school has likely been mentally transported back to their childhood where their least-favourite teacher wagged his or her finger at them while hammering home the merits of the Golden Rule.

Nowhere else do I see such regular use of ALL CAPS, bold and underliningSOMETIMES ALL AT THE SAME TIME, lest you miss any part of the all-important message. And as often happens with messaging that’s meant to sound authoritative, the passive voice is also heavily relied upon (as it just was here).

Reader research has shown for decades that using those techniques to get someone’s attention will often have the opposite of the effect the writer is going for; and they do nothing to help second-language English readers grasp information.

The bottom line is this: because educators are in the business of teaching, it’s easy to assume that they will have a solid grasp of basic spelling, grammar and communication principles. But that is often not at all the case; or, they’ve just become ‘rusty’ over time – and, to be fair, this happens to most of us.

And like doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers and other people in a profession, educators can often benefit from plain language. Otherwise, it’s all-too-easy for them to fall into the habit of expressing themselves in a way that only makes sense to others in their profession.

My husband often reminds me that anytime you see a written warning that seems ridiculous, “it usually means at least one person has filed a lawsuit against the company after they did that ridiculous thing and someone got hurt.”

Thanks to mobile technology, I can share one such sign with you. Here’s what appears on plastic kid-customized shopping carts at the local mall.

Yikes (and happy Friday)!

Today in an article I wrote, I got the classic example of a ‘reverse Before & After.’

Often plain language writers will use these types of examples: the original sentence or paragraph alongside the simpler, clearer alternative.

Well today, I got back an edit from someone I’d interviewed for an article about a technical medical subject. His edit – or After version – looked more like what I would use as a Before. Read for yourself:

My version:

The study launched in September intends to better understand these syndromes to help paediatricians identify them – and set patients on the path to proper treatment sooner.

His version:

The study launched in September intends to gather new data about the presentation of these disorders while raising awareness in the medical community.  It is hoped that earlier identification of patients will also facilitate initiation of effective treatment.

This is one of those situations where a writer needs to tactfully defend their original choice, while ensuring the reviewer understands the reason for the simpler language. Wish me luck!

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