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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.


Since I became a mom, I’ve become more keenly aware of the inadequacies of product labels. Once you find yourself a direct consumer of something, you pay more attention!

In a previous blog, I wrote about how children were branded – not unlike cattle sometimes – by the products their parents chose to buy them (myself included): high-end diapers carrying Disney characters, socks with the clothing store’s name in rubber along the foot, a zillion kinds of toys sporting the mugs of the latest movie hero/ines…it’s endless!

The other bugaboo I’ve met with is the contradictions in the labels that tell you whether something is safe for your child’s age group. Here’s an example:

I made it nice and big so you could see the ‘No 0-3′ symbol, nice and small but right next to the much larger ’18 months’ seal.

What do you make of this? I’m thinking that it’s intended for kids 18-months-old and older…but when I see the pictorial symbol to the left, I really think now that it’s only for kids over 3. So really, if I cannot read or choose to ignore the English words and just follow the pictures, I’ll very likely be safer with the toy.

Why be so contradictory with something so important? At first I thought it was because the rest of the toy ‘s box bore no actual brand name. So the product itself  was already suspect. But this is not the first time I’ve seen both of these labels on the same toy, even brand-name ones.

Reminds me of the other example: in cheap, plastic food and drink containers for babies and toddlers, which come five-to-a-pack and sell for way cheap. The idea is that you don’t plan to keep them for long, since they’re so cheap, so you can use them on-the-go and not worried about their getting lost. In large letters on every container’s lid are the words:

Take & Toss

Then, the subtitle in much tinier type:

reuse and recycle

Okay, so which is it? Do you want me to trash ’em after one use? Or, in keeping with the reuse and recycle spirit, should I toss ’em after five or ten uses? Exactly how long should I be reusing and recycling these? (And, in fact, are these containers and lids even recyclable?)

You can see why I – and other consumers who think less cynically than I about these things – might be a bit confused.

In his books Doublespeak and The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore, Professor William Lutz uncovers both the blatant and the subtle in deceptive product labelling. Since those books came out, we’ve all seen countless examples that could be added to his inventory. I’ll likely have more such examples in future posts.

My bottom line: if there’s something that doesn’t sit right with you after you’ve read the labelling on a package, you should question the credibility of the product and its maker.

‘Care to share any examples you’ve come across?

Often when I’m rewriting a document in plain language, the version I come back with prompts its original writers to reflect on what it was they were trying to say in the first place. When they see how I have interpreted what they wrote, it gives many people pause.

Fortunately – and probably evidenced by their hiring me to start with – many authors will willingly join me on the journey to a clearer way to explain things.

But there have been several times – usually when I was an in-house editor – where people have told me that they’re certain their readers will understand complex terms. It’s usually by virtue of their audience’s familiarity with the subject that they think people will understand industry terms.

I will admit to having let many of those terms get through my filter. Often I have suggested adding a box or other text that defines those words further – ‘just in case there are a few out there who can’t understand this important term.’ But where there was time in the project and other conditions (read: the political environment) permitted, we did field tests with sample readers.

Some bold folks at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation are taking this even further. Their Divisions of Public Affairs and Education and others actually surveyed their employees to gauge their knowledge of the jargon used in their publications.

Read more on what they have been learning so far at the excellent Writing Matters blog; and check back there for more reports as the survey concludes.

(Thanks to colleagues from the Editors’ Association of Canada who shared the above-linked article.)

This Hallowe’en weekend, some people complained after the Royal Canadian Legion in Campbellford awarded first prize to the person wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume.

The legion’s president issued its official apology for their questionable judgement (this labelling is not just according to my values; they had to know that this might affect their reputation).

She said:

“I humbly apologize to all those offended by the events that took place at our Halloween party on October the 30th, 2010. The events in no way reflect the views of the royal Canadian legion or its members. Those responsible have been spoken to.”

In my view, this apology is a classic example of how we still use passive, indirect language when forced to take account for our mistakes. It reminds me of another phrase I often put up at workshops:

“Mistakes have been made. Others will be blamed.”

After all, was the Legion prez only apologizing to the people who were offended? What about the others, who thought they deserved a prize? And who spoke to those responsible? What did they say?

No wonder people have a hard time finding meaning in  an apology like this, no matter their education level.

Why? Because it takes the doers out of the actions and – in this case – isn’t that clear on the actions, either.

What would I have said? Something more along these lines:

“I humbly apologize about the events that took place at our Halloween party on October 30, 2010. They in no way reflect our views or those of our members. We have alerted the people responsible of how inappropriate their behaviour was. We will only let them continue to come here in future on probationary terms.”

Just before many of us broke for holidays, Ontario announced changes to the frequency and content of elementary school report cards.

Some might wonder if parents will feel less-informed when they start receiving two instead of three written report cards per year. However, the Ministry of Education is making moves to ensure that what does make it into the teacher comments is more meaningful for parents.

In York Region, where I have a five-year-old, the spokesperson said that the Board will “encourage teachers to move away from jargon and emphasize personalized, plain language.” He added that the “‘canned comments’ currently in use are frustrating and a missed opportunity for communication between home and school.

Well hallelujah, say I.

Eduspeak, or the road to he** paved with good intentions…

When I studied Adult Education and worked in literacy, I often became annoyed by the highfalutin’ language I noticed many of us (me included) using to talk about our work. Here we had chosen these fields with the intention of helping other adults improve their lives through expanding their knowledge and access to information – yet we were still using words that were inaccessibly to many of the people we were there to help.

Jargon does have its place between people in the same profession, but we all have to remember our audience once we start using it with people from outside that orbit. And this is not lost on the recipients of information. The above-linked article  points out that there’s been a growing call for more than ‘indecipherable edu-speak’ in student reports.

Not sure what people mean by eduspeak?

Good old Google turned up a couple sites I’d recommend for anyone wanting to better understand this phenomenon. I will note up-front that all of these are biased against this kind of language:

  • Writer’s Block, Summer 2004: The Roots and Perils of Eduspeak – The Language of Pretense and Evasion. This longish piece by NIVA Corporation gives you an in-depth overview, with references.
  • Eduspeak, the Dictionary. This was developed by someone advocating for home schooling, in protest against the language that aims to leave “us mere ‘lay’ parents” out of the loop. Note that I do not advocate for home schooling – I just like this reference.
  • Eduspeak Jargon Generator. This tool pokes fun at the mangled sentences this type of language produces, by offering you a way to instantly create your very own eduspeak.

Recently in a post for the Editors and Writers group I’m part of via LinkedIn, a poster asked for what annoys us most when we’re editing other people’s writing.

I wrote that it was noun strings (also called ‘noun stacks’), those wonderful series of words that people tend to tie together into one long descriptor. To illustrate, witness these three examples:

  • We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
  • Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
  • Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.

You may notice that many of these nouns function as adjectives in the string, and that overall the writing has quite a passive tone.

And if you’ve seen these kinds of constructions in writing you encounter (or create yourself), you may also see them turned into lettered acronym, as in the first example. No surprise given that trying to say them out-loud requires you to take a few breaths so that you can finish!broken_tape_orange_sm

You may think this kind of writing is mostly a corporate or technical phenomenon. But, as in the third example, they can crop up just as often in health care and not-for-profit environments.

Some writers attribute this kind of writing as laziness, but I would venture that it takes some thought to put together such a long construction (though through long-term exposure to them, I actually made up the above examples in a couple minutes).

But I would add that it’s an effort better spent creating clearer alternatives, such as the following:

From: We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.

To: To get a better handle on how employees who telecommute are using their time, we have installed software that monitors their activity while at home.

From: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.

To: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.

From: Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.

To: If you use this ointment properly, the condition of your hands’ skin will improve.

Next time you find yourself about to create a noun string, try pulling those words apart into a clearer phrase. Your readers will thank you.

King of the Hill

King of the Hill

Khannie: “What did he say?”

Peggy: “A lot of words that sound wise, but mean nothing.”

If you’ve never cottoned to King of the Hill (sadly, just cancelled after 13 seasons), you might want to give it a second chance.

This animated show yields surprisingly incisive social commentary, including caricaturing doublespeak and the ensuing bad behaviour among overly-self-righteous righties and lefties.

The show offers lots of gems about manipulative language to pepper the mix! Will add more as I rediscover them…

I heard CFRB radio news refer to the increased Internet surveillance being introduced Thursday, saying that it was ‘high time to modernize Internet laws.’

Hmmm…”Modernizing Internet laws” = (choose one)

– another way of making the many pay for the sins of the few, via higher ISP costs?

– a necessary evil if it protects children from abuse?

– a serious threat to privacy and other civil liberties?

No matter which of these you agree with – if any – the chosen ‘official’ term sure is flattering language for something that many have already said they are very worried about.  > Read more on CBC

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