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My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

Our last post dealt with bulk, unsolicited – i.e., SPAM – messages pretending to be from banks. Since then, I have come across an additional form of SPAM that is relevant to my interest in plain language: that which claims to be from individuals we know, and which comes to us ‘from’ them via their mail or Twitter account.

These new examples show that just because something’s plain, doesn’t mean we trust it. Other elements always come into play in how we receive the message.

A fish of a different odour…

Both messages resulted from someone hacking into those real people’s actual accounts, then pretending to be that person. So they looked to actually be from an individual I know, not a faceless sender in a large company.

Both are from colleagues in other cities: people I have not yet met in-person, but whom I know from years as fellow plain-language practitioners. I’ve written to both of these folks several times over the years, and participated with them on discussion groups. So, I know how they sound when they ‘talk’ online.

So when I saw the notes ‘from’ them this past week, I knew something was up. They were both clear, so no problem understanding them. They both used short words and a conversational tone. Again, totally plain language.

But what made me smell fish was the tone of voice and choice of words each of them used.

Message #1: The ‘help me get back home’ scam

The first, much longer message was ‘from’ one of them who lives about five hours away. Except it said she was out of the country, and that she had been mugged. She was writing me because, left with no way to get back home, she was hoping I would wire her some money … okay, you already see the commonality between this and other SPAM notices.

But before I even got to the request for money, I already sensed it was a bogus message. First, the context was all wrong. I’d only expect to get a longish message from this person if it was about our mutual work in our professional association. The other thing that tipped me off was the first line, which said ‘How are you doing today? I know this might surprise you, I apologize for not informing you about my travel to England for a Conference…’

Knowing this person in the professional capacity – and knowing her to be an excellent writer – I wouldn’t have expected her to sound like this. Clear and direct or not – I knew I couldn’t trust the message to be authentic; the first few lines sounded ‘canned.’

Message #2: The ‘someone’s saying stuff about you’ lure

The other message was shorter, and sent to me via Twitter. It was from an Australian colleague this time, one with whom I’ve corresponded over the past month or so. It was a direct message to me that said ‘Someone has been spreading rumors about you’ and gave a TinyUrl link.

Again, it looks like a normal tweet, and its meaning is crystal clear. But it still smells like fish. Again, the tone is all wrong for the context. (I was also surprised to see an Aussie spelling ‘rumor’ without a ‘u’ – but that’s a fiddly editor’s matter most normal readers might not notice.) So I did not click the link.

In both cases, even though the message had come directly from these people, I emailed both right away and learned that their email and Twitter accounts had indeed been hacked into.

The point of regurgitating even more SPAM (and of mixing canned meat with smelly fish metaphors) …?

Plain language writers sometimes need to counter the common perception that ‘plain language’ means a ‘dumbed down’ form of language that most people would find patronizing, because it boils the subtleties and beauty of language into monotonous-sounding, Dick and Jane-style narratives.

These two examples struck me in how they were so clear and direct – in fact, overly so – and it was because they didn’t fit with either the senders’ typical tone of voice or the context of my relationship with them that I knew they were fakes.

And similarly, our readers won’t trust what we write if it still does not sound authentic. And, if it doesn’t sound authentic, then it was not truly written with the reader’s needs in mind.

True plain language writing only does its job of communicating effectively if it also captures the human element with the right tone, context and choice of words. Thus, it embodies much more than short words and sentences.


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...

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.

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.

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.”

Having been grappling with a working maternity leave and the time waste generated by some unhelpful, bureaucratic systems (and of course, it’s people that create these systems), I’ve not gotten as far as planned on my new series of posts about same.

So, while I play catch-up and hope for time to be more productive on this in future, here’s a quick example.

Today I called the office of my daughter’s stomach specialist, with whom my husband and I are working closely at present. I was greeted with an example of why people sometimes feel alienated by the health system.

This was my third time calling them since last week, as I needed to rebook my daughter’s appointment and knew that I’d need to call right away to reschedule something reasonably soon.

After informing me in the typical passively-voiced notice that “All referrals made to this clinic are required by a doctor,” the recording dutifully announced that their offices would be closed until August 3, and that callers were not to leave messages on this voicemail but rather should call back when their offices re-opened.

Except I was calling them on the fifth. And, I’d already left a message on the third, since no-one had answered then, either, and I had to somehow leave word that I would not be there on the fourth.

Let’s see how long it takes me to hear back from them now. And, let’s see if they also try to hit me with a cancellation charge for not having informed them on a timely basis. Groan…

“Bon Voyage – we hate to see you go…”

Thus were the words that greeted me when I opted out of a travel info site’s e-mail list. For many, this is likely a benign, even clever way to confirm someone’s cancellation.

But for me, it stood out, because it had the h-word in it: hate.

I never paid attention to that word until a couple years back, when it was pointed out to me by a colleague (also a communications guy). When I was lamenting my, er, intense dislike for certain aspects of my job, he said,  ‘Have you ever noticed how negative a word ‘hate’ is? To me, it’s one of the most offensive words you can say.’

When I was a kid, we used to think that ‘hate’ meant ‘wanting to kill.’ I haven’t found that definition in current dictionaries, but that’s probably because so many people now use the word regularly and it has evolved into regular parlance, one of the things that dictionaries endeavour to reflect.’

But up to the moment my colleague pointed it out to me, the idea of dropping that word from my language hadn’t even occurred to me. But after that, it became part of my self-editing — like the kind we do in polite company, and around our parents and kids — to try my hardest never to use the word, except in its truest sense, i.e., when I intensely dislike something to the point of needing to take action (a definition I found here).

Discouraging ‘h***’ hasn’t made it onto the Disney radar

And, my husband and I discourage our daughter from using it, too, a task a lot harder than it seems when you really start to pay attention.

Cartoon kids use the word to describe all order of things they dislike: a certain food, a chore, a subject in school…and many times, another person. In Tinkerbell — which I find otherwise quite progressive compared with older Disney flicks — Tink at one point thinks she’s useless, using the fact that ‘birds hate me’ as evidence. How could a bird experience such a strong emotion about a cute, green-clad little fairy? How did Tink come to articulate it like that so quickly (she was only born about a week before)?

It’s also hard to call other people around your kid on their use of the word, since most folks consider it as inoffensive as its opposite, love. But if it is used as a modifier in words like ‘hate-crime,’ then that says it all.

To me, dropping the H-bomb so often is like throwing out little poison arrows, or like dropping an invisible cloak around yourself that says to others, ‘I’m just a negative person, to the point that it’s infiltrated my everyday language.’

So, as much as I don’t relish using words like ‘unfriend’, I do choose these types of expressions as alternatives. Here are a few from my internal thesaurus, for anyone who feels likewise and wants to change the tone of what they put out there when they don’t like something or someone (from weakest to strongest in tone and meaning):

  • I don’t like
  • I dislike
  • I would rather not
  • I wish I didn’t have to
  • I find it unfortunate/frustrating/annoying when/that
  • I am averse to
  • _______ annoys me
  • (and from the official thesauri): I despise, I loathe, I detest, I abhor…

Does anyone else have a **** on for the H-bomb?

A quick Google of ‘hate is a bad word’ yields several others like me. If you’re one of them, drop a line with your take on the matter.

It’s common to give electronics and other toys as gifts over the holiday season. If you have or have ever had kids, you know that part of family’s celebrations after gift-opening will include your quickly having to decipher the How-To’s for their gifts.

Many of my fondest childhood holiday memories were peppered with the strains of my mom and dad hurriedly trying to get through the instruction manual – peppering the air with some even more peppery language – as I impatiently sat there waiting for the magic to begin.

It’s no less the case for my 5-year-old, whose dad is, thankfully, the kind of guy who seems to welcome the challenge of self-assembly. I, on the other hand, stay far, far away while this is happening, knowing that my attempt to ‘help’ if he hits a snag will be met with our own generation’s saucy vernacular.

But I do help by filing all of the instructions (often along with the still-unsent warranty cards), for those inevitable situations where I have to look up what type of light bulb will be required for that &^$#@ toy she got for her birthday 6 months ago which has now stopped *^%$ working.

And this is where I found what I think is the 2009 award-winning example of badly-designed toy instructions:

Picture this as an 8 x 11" page, turned sideways

While it doesn’t use any crazy or complex formatting, this gem delivers most of the first-level instructions, like the ones on the righthand side of this sample, in 8 point font. Then, as you continue, the type gets smaller and smaller…down to what looks like 4-point type (as in the lefthand page above).

So why is small type such a problem?

Reading research says that for a public document, the typeface should be at least 12 points. With sans-serif fonts like the one used in this  case, you can often get away with going down to 11 points, but still risk losing some of those older or farsighted  folks who will have to squint or straighten their arms to hold the paper at a comfortable reading distance.

In my view, unless you have no choice – such as on drug product packaging (where you could produce a larger-print insert in any event) – there’s no good reason to shrink the type below that size.

One might think there are economic reasons for their design choice, such as that they wanted to keep paper and printing costs low, or make the manual seem less cumbersome to readers. But if you look at the scan here, there’s clearly lots of unused whitespace that would better be employed raising the type size. This is especially true when you consider how many more people are having kids in their 40s and 50s; and then think of the vision challenges for their grandparents, aunts and uncles!

Technical writers often lament the fact that people using products ask, er, unnecessary questions. Their acronym for the common response to such questions is ‘RTFM!’, which is short for ‘Read The ****ing Manual!’ I challenge those writers to try that in this case. Unless they have 20/20 vision, they’re going to find themselves doing more with this bleeping manual than just reading it.

Surfing around to see who else has weighed in on how we define the people we serve as info creators, I found more to provoke our thought on this from none other than Don Norman (half of the Neilsen-Norman Group, and called “The guru of workable technology” by Newsweek): 

Words Matter. Talk About People: Not Customers, Not Consumers, Not Users

Power to the people, everybody 🙂

My last post looked at how the word ‘user’ might be falling out of favour, being replaced in some

'user,' 'learner' or 'customer'?

'user,' 'learner' or 'customer'?

instances by the words ‘learner’ and ‘customer.’

I framed this as a positive move, but have since had reason to question this assertion after seeing the reactions of a few international colleagues who also work in the plain language biz. While at first it seems that dropping the word ‘user’ aims to humanize and respect people, it could indeed be that more manipulative intent is at play.

As Nigel Grant of Nigel Grant Training Ltd. asserts, the word ‘customer’ can have nefarious interpretations:

“Interpreting a relationship through a commercial idiom relegates rather than elevates both sides of the arrangement. I’m not a customer of my local council, except in the sense that I pay my council tax. The tax is a compulsory civic contribution, not an optional commercial contract…If I have to be a hospital patient, I’m not a customer, except that I’ve paid my taxes…”

He adds:

“Much of our world esteems commercial success above intangible social involvement and relationships. Let’s aim to use language that restores human and civic relationships to the top of our priorities. Commerce is necessary, but its language surely shouldn’t be a yardstick.”

And where do plain old people fit in?

Another colleague puts it more bluntly, saying that ‘person’ and ‘people’ is the most dignified way to describe those we serve without limiting their dimensions.

He adds that, no matter what label you choose, speaking  about someone in the third person is just plain demeaning; the imperative voice — which talks directly to the person or people in question — is preferable, in his view.

So how do we know if we’ve done the right thing by our readers?

It’s true that, no matter what term we choose, we will often get blowback from someone who feels that they’ve had a label slapped onto them. Often the best way to respect those about whom we write is to let them choose how we will identify them — with the caution that within any social group, there will still be people who disagree on the best term to use.

On the other hand, we cannot get so trapped in ‘analysis paralysis’ or the need to be politically correct that we end up with blandified language that means nothing to anybody — like the folks at the UK Professional Association of Teachers who are trying to ban the word ‘fail’ from school report cards. C’mon already!

In my view, the best path is to do our best to be respectful and positive, and be prepared to take responsibility if our choice of words offends anyone in our audience. We will never please everyone, but at least let’s be conscious that the words we use have power to influence people’s perception.

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