John Hancock

Many editors and English teachers are willing to let danglers slide these days. But I'm old school, hardcore. If you've left something dangling, fix it. But first you have to find it. This was easy in Tutorial No. 1 because it was literally dangling off the end of the sentence. Here's one hidden in the middle. (It's highlighted in purple.)

An example of the distinction between these two types of relationships we are all familiar with is how your doctor relates to you.     (23 words)

The anti-dangling rule is to write prepositions and participles before their objects, never after. So the next step is to identify the object of the dangler. With what are we all familiar? -- 'example'. I highlight objects in green.

An example of the distinction between these two types of relationships we are all familiar with is how your doctor relates to you.     (23 words)

To fix a dangler move either the dangling object or the rest of its phrase, so the preposition or participle comes before the object. In this case it's cleaner to move not just the preposition, but the clause to which it's attached, like this:

 we are all familiar with … An example of the distinction between these two types of relationships … is how your doctor relates to you. (23 words)

Now just delete 'is' and put a colon or em-dash after 'relationships'. Then change 'your' and 'you' to 'our' and 'us', to agree with the 1st-person plural subject, 'We'. This requires changing 'doctor' and 'relate' to their plurals. Now we have this:

We are all familiar with an example of the distinction between these two types of relationships -- how our doctors relate to us.     (22 words)

But we can go one step further with this edit. We can ask ourselves, "What is the topic of this sentence?" I'd say 'example', because the sentences preceding this one were obviously talking about the 'two types of relationships'. So let's make the topic of the sentence the subject of the sentence, like this: (Subject in blue, verb in red)

A familiar example of the distinction between these two types of relationships is how our doctors relate to us.     (19 words)

The video repeats all of this, but in a cooler medium.

 

 
Tuesday, 12 June 2012 04:36

Dangling Participles - Tutorial No. 1

The "Dangling Participle" rule is simple: Write participles and prepositions before their objects, never after. 

Most editors, and even many English teachers, are happy to let them slide these days. But I think you should correct danglers, because they go "clank!" in your reader's inner ear. The trick is how to fix them without resorting to old-fashioned or pompous language.

Prepositions like 'with', 'at', 'by' and 'on' are often left swinging in the breeze. Here's an example from an 'FAQ' page on the web. I've highlighted the key words.

How many computers can I install my single-user licence on?

Danglers are a syntax error. The preposition appears after its object, instead of before it, which is standard in English. For the old-fashioned fix, just move the preposition ahead of its object:

On how many computers can I install my single-user licence?      (10 words)

While grammatically correct, this does sound a bit stuffy. But put the phrase after the clause, and we have the same thing in more modern syntax:

I can install my single-user licence on how many computers?     (10 words)

Only now we've lost what was best about the original sentence. The question is 'How many?', which is strongest at the head of the sentence. To keep this emphasis, while losing the dangler, make 'computers' the subject of the sentence, like this: (Subject in blue, verb in red.)

How many computers are covered by my single-user licence?     (9 words)

Oops -- this requires a passive verb. But with 'licence' as the subject, we can make it active, like this:

 How many computers does my single-user licence cover?     (8 words)

The video shows this in animated form, with a bit more detail.

Here's a logic bomb popular among bureaucrats, business writers and, sadly, journalists. I've highlighted the key words.

'The email was sent last April, and it is not known if the policy is still current.'

Logically, someone knows if the policy is still current, just not the writer. If you must report on something of which you have no knowledge, both honour and clarity insist that you confess your ignorance. Here's the logically-correct sentence:

The email was sent last April, but don't know if the policy is still current.

Then again, industry often banishes ignorance. A few phone calls, emails or web searches might allow the writer to publish this:

The email was sent last April, but the policy is still current.

Which, frankly, is the best reason to avoid the passive voice of 'to know'. When you force yourself to write 'I don't know… ', you encourage yourself to find out.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Another frequent abuse is to follow an introductory 'as' phrase with the wrong word. (Subjects in blue, verbs in red, other key words in purple.)

'As the P&C president of a large primary school, it is disappointing to see ructions at the federal level.'

Introductory phrases apply to the noun or pronoun immediately following, in this case the pronoun 'it', which is the subject of the sentence. But logically, 'it' cannot be the president of a Parents and Citizens Association ('P&C'). The fix is simple; make the subject the noun to which the introductory phrase applies, like this:

'As the P&C president of a large primary school, I am disappointed to see ructions at the federal level.'

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Both of these writers suffered from I-phobia. This is an irrational fear of the first-person pronoun. They were afraid to be the star of their own show.

In the first example the fear may be justified because admitting first-person ignorance could reveal first-person sloth. But in the second example, there is no editorial, social or economic reason for the writer to hide behind the third-person pronoun. Especially when doing so explodes a logic bomb in the reader's face.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 04:10

Editing HR Jargon

In business writing, clarity matters more than anything. Here's a great quote:

'Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed …  What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.' -- Richard Dawkins, "Postmodernism Disrobed", Nature, 9 July 1998

The target of Dawkins' ire was the opaque jargon and tortured syntax of literary and art scholars, but his point applies equally to many in the Human Resources trade. For some bizarre reason, these unfortunates think the best way to recruit talented workers is to assault them with gibberish. Here's an example from Sydney, but you can see the same sort of guff in L.A. or London, Washington or Wellington. Read it carefully. Then ask yourself, 'Would I really want to work for an outfit that publishes such dreck?'

PARAGRAPH #1 -- 'My client is a Sydney based company that assists large Public and Private Sector and Not-for-Profit organisations to achieve the results they want from their business initiatives. They successfully execute their strategies by engaging and inspiring their target audiences, whether employees, sales channel’s staff, customers, potential new employees, or any group of people with a common interest or need. They engage, motivate and inspire. This ensures great results are achieved by successfully executing change within their client’s organisation.'  (80 words)

This verbose screed will raise several questions in the mind of a literate reader:

1. Who are 'They' ? Are they the organisation advertising the job or the clients of the organisation advertising the job?

2. Aside from 'Public and Private Sector and Not-for-Profit' , what types of organisations could there be?

3. Would 'any group of people with a common interest or need' include the "Occupy Sydney" bunch camping outside Martin Place Station in the financial district?

4. Are the mysterious protagonists who 'successfully execute … strategies' in sentence #2 the same ones who are 'successfully executing change…' in sentence #4?

5. Since they successfully executed strategies in sentence #2 by 'engaging and inspiring', does sentence #3 really need to remind us that they 'engage … and inspire' ?

Aside from the klunky syntax and jarring redundancies, this para offends by leading with the writer and the advertiser ('My client') instead of the reader (You). Here's an edit that puts the reader first and does the job in exactly one-fifth the word count:

Join this Sydney company that helps large organisations achieve change by inspiring and motivating those involved.  (16 words)

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PARAGRAPH #2 -- Due to the development of their sales capability they are seeking an experienced Corporate Sales Manager to manage sales to large Corporations. This will be achieved by analysing and understanding their Corporate client’s needs and identify the appropriate way to use the company's solutions to achieve the desired outcome.  (49 words)

1. What else would a Corporate Sales Manager do but manage sales to corporations?

2. If they have only one corporate client, can they afford to hire someone?

3. How can a verb ('identify') be an object of a preposition ('by')?

4. If you know that the correct word is 'identifying', are you overqualified for the job?

I don't know for certain what this writer intended to communicate, but I do know for certain what he or she should have written, and it's this:

Due to strong growth, they need an experienced Corporate Sales Manager. If you can analyse and understand clients' needs, then match them to the company's offers, this is the job for you.  (32 words)

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Read this one aloud to feel the full poetic force of HR jargon in all its musical glory:

PARAGRAPH #3 -- 'Reporting to the General Manager, your main responsibilities will be to create new sales by selling to large CorporationsYou will have a high level of experience fronting programs that bring an organisation face-to-face with senior executives of Australia’s largest corporations, engaged with top tier senior executives to identify opportunities to increase the effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives and lead sales engagements to achieve outstanding results.'  (74 words)

1. If 'responsibilities' are plural, why is only one responsibility listed ('to create')?

2. If a singular 'level' brings 'organisation', wouldn't it take plural levels to 'bring' it?

3. How many junior executives are normally found in the 'top tier' ?

Sentence #2 has 55 words. Here is its grammatical skeleton:

                                                      Subject          Verb             Object

Main Clause                           you              will have               level

Subordinate Clause                 that*              bring             organisation

*'That' is a relative pronoun. It functions as both conjunction to the main clause and subject of the subordinate clause. As a pronoun, it stands in for a previously-stated noun, 'level'. As a singular pronoun, it takes a singular verb, 'brings' instead of the plural verb, 'bring'.

The other 48 words merely expand upon 'level' or 'organisation'. The last phrases expand upon 'Australia's largest corporations', whereas the writer intended them to expand upon the prospect's 'experience'. This, in turn, is buried in a phrase modifying the object of the verb, when it could have been the subject of the entire sentence, like this:

Your experience will include engaging with senior executives, identifying opportunities to increase the effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives and leading sales engagements to achieve outstanding results.

The new, improved grammatical skeleton looks like this:

Subject                     Verb                             Objects

experience                 will include                engaging … identifying … leading

We're down to a single clause of only 32 words -- with no grammatical errors -- but the sentence is still too long. And it's still full of HR jargon.

So this:

'… effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives…' (11 words)

Boils down to this:

'… effectiveness of their strategic change initiatives…'  (6 words)

We've lightened the jargon load a bit, but 27 words is still too long for one sentence.  So I'd separate the two topics -- 'engaging with top tier' and 'leading sales engagements'. Just put a full stop after 'initiatives' and start a new sentence. Now the paragraph looks like this:

Your experience will include engaging with senior executives and identifying opportunities to increase the effectiveness of their strategic change initiatives. You will also have led sales teams that achieved outstanding results.  (31 words)

In the original, the 'sales engagements' achieved results, not the salespeople. This sort of anthropomorphism is common in the parallel universe of HR World. It's oddly ironic, since Human Resources staff are charged with hiring and training people to actually do things. Yet over and over in recruitment ads it is 'the position' or ' the role' that is responsible for achievement, not the person occupying the position or the role.

I have even seen recruitment ads in which 'the position attracts a generous salary package'. This is good news for the position -- and its family, if it has one -- but how much will the worker be paid?

My career as a boss predates the HR era, so maybe I just don't understand. I admit to being confused by organisations with an entire department of highly-paid professionals to recruit and train staff, who then outsource their recruitment and training to other highly-paid professionals who do the same thing, but at higher cost.

All the while these same organisations are paying their putative executives ever-greater multiples of the average wage. I don't get it. Then again, I come from an earlier time, when you were not given an executive salary unless you were willing and able to be responsible for every aspect of the company's relationship with those who reported to you.

When I finally became a boss, I was personally responsible for recruiting, hiring, training, salary-negotiating, annual-leave-scheduling and firing the people in my department. My accepting that responsibility, and my being able to meet it, were what made me worth the money to the company's shareholders. So, yeah, I'd be suspicious of the whole Human Resources gig, even if their prose was a model of clarity.

But this brings us back to Dawkins. Because if the HR pedlars merely wrote this ...

HELP WANTED -- Corporate Sales Manager -- High-level experience required. $180,000 base + bonus + super. Located Sydney.

... they couldn't charge very much, could they?

(no video for this tutorial)

You could be excused for giving up on many 'FAQ' pages. Too often the answers are worded with the greasy evasiveness of a politician facing a hostile press conference.

When you're writing an FAQ page, FIRST answer the questions; THEN explain, if you must. To avoid wasting your readers' time, follow these three golden rules:

1. The questions must be genuine. Too many FAQs are made-up squibs designed to pave the way for a marketing message. What prospects and customers want to see on your FAQ page are real answers to real questions.

2. The answers must be straightforward. 'Yes/No' questions should be answered 'Yes' or 'No'. Questions of 'how many' or 'how much' should be answered with a number. All questions should be answered directly, in the first sentence, using as few words as possible.

3. No answers are better than evasive answers. If your lawyers won't let you give straightforward answers to genuine questions, you are better off without the FAQs. The organisation's time and money would be more profitably invested in fixing the problems than in trying to weasel your way out of admitting them.

Here's the first sentence of a typically fuzzy FAQ from a software outfit marketing to academics and university students. I've highlighted the phrases from the answer that do nothing but repeat the question:

Q:  How many computers can I install my single-user edition on?

A:  The individual End User License Agreement allows a single license  holder to install EndNote on up to three of his/her computers.

As you can see, the only phrase that was NOT redundant was 'up to three'.

Watch the video tutorial to see what else I did to cut the answer from 88 words to 25 ... and why it was the right thing to do.

I also fixed the dangling preposition at the end of the question. A product aimed at university students and their professors can afford to be formally correct in its grammar, even in these degenerate times.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012 02:37

Running the Numbers with Mark Twain

Sooner or later your business writing will include numbers. In general, they'll be units of production and amounts of money. Edit this stuff with a hard eye. Do everything you can to help the reader make sense of your numbers. I often find myself using a calculator or spreadsheet as I write and edit.

For an entertaining example, I will muster a lifetime supply of cheek and edit a paragraph by a literary colossus:

'A cotton planter's estimate of the average margin of profit on planting, in his section: One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving ten bales cotton, worth, say, $500; cost of producing, say $350; net profit, $150, or $15 per acre. There is also a profit now from the cottonseed, which formerly had little value -- none where much transportation was necessary. In sixteen hundred pounds crude cotton, four hundred are lint, worth, say ten cents a pound; and twelve hundred pounds of seed, worth $12 or $13 per ton.'    - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

This 129-year-old paragraph still looks pretty fresh. Only the low prices and the reference to '… one man and mule…'  give it away. Now to be fair to Mark Twain, he wrote this for what was essentially a light-hearted-memoir-cum-travel book. But he was making a serious economic point, so I feel justified in critiquing it as a piece of business prose. Anyway, it highlights something I often see in business writing, so it's worth examining.

At issue is how you decide which forms of measure and valuation to use, and how you present them consistently. Twain confuses his reader by shifting and changing.

In the first section the units are acres, bales and dollars. So far, so good. But the key unit of production seems to be 'ten acres'. Except for net profit, which is shown for both ten acres and a single acre. When you're proofreading and editing copy like this, open a second document, or make notes of the relative quantities and units of measure:

10 Acres = 10 Bales … so … 1 Acre = 1 Bale

10 Acres income = $500 … so … 1 Acre income  =  $50 = 1 Bale

10 Acres cost = $350 … so … 1 Acre cost  = $35 = 1 Bale

10 Acres profit = $150 … so … 1 Acre profit = $15 = 1 Bale

I would quibble with Twain over his use of the 10-acre unit. He could just as easily have written this:

'One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving one bale per acre, worth, say, $50cost of producing, say $35; net profit, $15 per acre.' 

This edit keeps the labour and livestock requirements, but it uses the single acre as the unit of production.

In the next section, Twain pulls 'sixteen hundred pounds' out of thin air. Where did this come from? A bale is 500 pounds. As a quantity in a paragraph about cotton prices, 'Sixteen hundred pounds' makes no sense at all. Then he compounds the error by shifting from dollars to cents:

'… lint, worth, say, ten cents a pound…' 

Worst of all, he then shifts back to dollars, but mixes pounds with 'tons', which are units of 2,000 pounds in the USA:

'… twelve hundred pounds of seed, worth $12 or $13 per ton.'

To edit stuff like this, crank up your desktop calculator or open a spreadsheet. You already know that a 500-pound bale is worth $50. Now calculate how much seed you'd have for each bale ginned. The answer is 1,500 pounds, or 3/4 of a ton. So that's worth 3/4 of $12 to $13, or $9.00 to $9.75.

Insert the new measures and values into Mark Twain's original para, and you get a much clearer picture of the per-acre economics of the 1880s cotton industry, like this:

'One man and mule will raise ten acres of cotton, giving one bale per acre, worth, say, $50cost of producing, say $35; net profit, $15 per acre. There is also a profit now from the cottonseed, which formerly had little value -- none where much transportation was necessary. In two thousand pounds crude cotton, five hundred are lint, worth, say, $50; and fifteen hundred pounds of seed, worth $9 or so.'

All units of production are now pounds, all units of money are dollars, and everything is keyed to the production of a single acre.

You also get a clearer and more dramatic picture of the new value of cotton seeds, which Twain had remarked upon earlier. Mills had recently been perfected, to press cottonseed oil. Twain gleefully relates how American scoundrels would ship this stuff to Italy, where they would add colouring and flavouring, then 'import' it back into the USA as 'olive oil'. This pirate trade grew to such an extent that '... Italy was obliged to put a prohibitory impost upon it to keep it from working serious injury to her oil industry.'

Twain makes no comment on the fact that American palates were unable to tell the difference between cotton and olives.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 12:37

Editing - Tutorial 3

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 12:30

Passive to Active - Tutorial 2

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 12:28

Passive to Active - Tutorial 1

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John Hancock

John Hancock, author