Thursday, October 01, 2009
If every person could look inside a professional editor’s office, they’d be surprised and relieved to know how often two books are in the perennial open position: a style manual and a dictionary. No one, absolutely no one, knows everything about language, and the best editors and writers are those who embrace this and make a point of looking things up whenever there’s a sliver of doubt. This practice is in fact a main reason they are so good at their jobs.
So today I’m going to cover two mistakes I see lots in my day-to-day work that some of you will find very basic and “duh.” If you fall into this camp, rest assured that you likely stumble over things that other people find amazingly easy. I certainly do. As we become more and more digital and involved in micro-format writing (e.g., Twitter and Facebook), our punctuation and usage skills can get rusty.
#1: It’s and its
There is only one reason to use it’s: to contract it is. Therefore:
- “It’s cold today.”
- “He told me that it’s the best restaurant he’s ever been to.”
Otherwise you want its.
- “Its teeth were jagged and it growled menacingly.”
- “There is no way its contents could have been leaked.”
This can be confusing because we’re so used to seeing ‘s indicate possession. If it’s any help, think of the apostrophe as standing in for the i of is. Otherwise, just keep coming back here!
#2: I.e., and E.g.,
These abbreviations truncate Latin words. I’m not going to go there because no one remembers the Latin. What you need to know is that i.e., and e.g., (and yes, they require the periods and commas) are not interchangeable; they stand for very different things.
- i.e., means that is.
- e.g., means for example.
- “If you’ve never visited the area, consult a travel guide (e.g., Lonely Planet or Fodor’s).”
- “His heroes, i.e., Spiderman and Indiana Jones, occupied prime positions on his window sill.”
Grammar Girl provides some handy help on i.e., and e.g., so go there if you’re a tips and tricks kind of person.
Till next week (or the week after),
Posted by Kiley Turner on 10/01 at 11:37 AM
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
No, not words that cause emotional damage; words that make the stomach churn. Words that cause rumbling and recoil.
The worst offender has to be “utilize.” If you use it, you’re not alone. It seems to be one of the most prolific words in business communications. But to me (and I’m not alone—see what Random House’s Media Maven has to say) it smacks of pretentiousness and insecurity. “Utilize” does have a valid meaning: “to turn to profitable use; to make a practical use for.” But in 99% of the cases I’ve seen, it replaces “use.” For that matter, a lot of people will write “employ” instead of “use.” Whatsa matta with “use”? It’s a lovely little word—just three letters that mean so much.
Other words I see too much or which otherwise and even irrationally make me cringe:
- Synergy (or synergistic)
- Actionable (used sometimes in marketing copy to mean “prompting a desired action” (e.g., “we produce actionable results”) ... “actionable” really means “giving sufficient reason to take legal action”!
- Important, efficient, and effective (they’re fine used sparingly, but it’s tempting to abuse them)
- Grow (as in “grow the business”—it’s inelegant to my ear, though I’m sure I’ve pulled it out from time to time)
- Impact (overused: try “effect” for a noun or “affect” or “influence” for verbs)
- Impactful (I liked what someone had to say on the Visual Thesaurus: “Apparently, ‘impactful’ is a word (and by this I mean it’s recognized by a handful of reasonably reputable sources). I think it sounds horrible, like an impacted wisdom tooth or, heaven forefend, an impacted bowel.”
For more ranting on horrible words, see this entry by a British guy. I like the quote he uses to starts his piece:
“Words that are horrible to one writer may not be horrible to another,” says John Grimond in The Economist Style Guide (Profile Books, 2005). “But if you are a writer for whom no words are horrible, you would do well to take up some other activity.”
Got any you want to share? It might feel good ...
Posted by Kiley Turner on 09/09 at 03:32 PM
Actually we’ve been here for a while, but as anyone who’s moved home + business + baby + neurotic, raccoon-ravaged cat across country can attest to, it takes a while to land in a new town. We’ve now come up for air: our office is mostly unpacked and we both have primo window vistas and official contact info.
391 Kenwood Avenue
Ottawa, ON K2A 0K3
Craig: 613-983-2644, email@example.com
Kiley: 613-875-7231, firstname.lastname@example.org
As much as we miss Vancouver, we get a good feeling from the new ‘hood. Just down the street from us is a major scenic attraction: Dinosaur Lawn, where roughly 100 dinos of all shapes and inclinations congregate for the pleasure of passers-by. Every time we visit the creatures are up to something new—dangling from this or preying on that—thanks to the whims of the dozens of children who play with them every day. And the people responsible for The Lawn? A middle-aged couple with no kids. Just for fun. Love it. Love it a lot.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 09/09 at 08:48 AM
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Library and Archives Canada has just published a study we did for them late last year on audiobook and eBook publishing in Canada. The study is online now in HTML and MP3 editions and soon to be available via accessible PDF.
As far as we know, this is the first comprehensive study of digital publishing in Canada. It explores the context for audiobook and eBook publishing, the current Canadian market, production of digital editions, and circulation of digital books in libraries.
The study’s main findings include:
Mainstream audiences are primed for digital: “Digital natives” (i.e., those who have grown up using computers and the Internet) are very at ease reading off a screen as opposed to the printed page and are ready consumers of digital content. At the other end of the demographic spectrum, Canada’s aging population means that an increasing number of consumers will prefer or require non-print formats that help them counter sight or other print-reading challenges.
Digital devices are on the rise: The mass market’s adoption of a new generation of Internet-enabled portable devices—e.g., cell phones, smart phones, and PDAs—has accelerated consumption of digital content, both online and via download. Similarly, the rapid adoption of purpose-built reading devices, especially the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, has given eBooks real traction in consumer markets for the first time.
Digitization of book content is increasing rapidly: Thanks to increasingly digital production workflows, virtually all publishers can easily generate some level of eBook file from their native production files. As publishers accumulate a growing archive of digital production files, and as older backlist titles are scanned or otherwise converted into usable digital source files, the commercial output of digital books has naturally increased. To date, this has mainly been in the form of eBooks of various formats—especially PDF—and large multinational publishers have accounted for the majority of commercial releases.
There is relatively little Canadian content in sales channels for digital editions: The Canadian-owned publishing firms that account for the majority of Canadian-authored titles published each year have been relatively slow to publish digital editions of their books. Canadian-owned firms are small compared to their multinational competitors and generally have more limited staff and/or budget resources to invest in digitization programs.
Management of rights and copyright is a major market shaper: Many book publishers will have audio rights for their titles, but relatively few have historically acquired electronic rights. Therefore, a decision to publish electronic editions of one’s books is often accompanied by the need to revise contract language for new titles and to clear or acquire electronic rights for previously published work. The application of Digital Rights Management protections (DRM) is the other key rights issue in digital publishing. The goal of DRM is to limit piracy of copyrighted work, but these measures often also have the effect of locking content into a given sales channel. Consumer resistance to DRM restrictions on digital content, combined with publishers’ interest in breaking down platform monopolies has led to a weakening (or even abandoning) of DRM protections on an expanding range of digital titles.
You can find the complete study report on the LAC site, and please drop us a line anytime with questions or feedback.
A special thanks to the many industry experts in Canada and the US who contributed their ideas and data to the study, and also to the Initiative for Equitable Library Access team at Library and Archives Canada for their support of the project.
Posted by Craig Riggs on 06/10 at 09:08 AM
Sunday, June 07, 2009
A geeky Toronto friend—whose geekitude surprises and delights me—asked for a post about en dashes. I’m going to throw in a couple of points about hyphens and em dashes because they help clarify the distinct use of en dashes.
- When you think en dash, think numbers in almost all cases.* Em dashes, by contrast, apply exclusively to words.
- Think number ranges when it comes to the en dash—in other words, inclusive numbers (e.g., “See pages 40–42”). Non-inclusive numbers like phone numbers (e.g., 604-734-1896) demand hyphens. En dashes with numbers mean up to and including. With the example, then, I meant “See pages 40, 41, and 42.”
- Finally, a direct and important quote from The Chicago Manual of Style: “For the sake of parallel construction the word to, never the en dash, should be used if the word from precedes the first element; similarly, and, never the en dash, should be used if between precedes the first element.” Therefore: “He was a member from 1998 to 2001,” and “Between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. there will be no power.”
*The main use of en dashes between words is when there is a to implied (e.g., “The Vancouver–Toronto train,” “The Canucks won 4–2 over the Leafs”). There is also a use for compound terms, but it occurs infrequently enough that I’m not getting into it here.
To read me waxing poetic about em dashes, please see “Writing That Sounds Like Speaking” on blogthecat.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 06/07 at 09:39 AM
Thursday, May 28, 2009
We were commissioned by the Department of Canadian Heritage last year to do a national study on book distribution. The study report, “Book Distribution in Canada’s English-Language Market,” has just been published and is available online in PDF and HTML editions.
Distribution is a part of the book business that is not easily visible to many of those involved in the book trade and certainly not to the average book reader in Canada. However, effective management of the supply chain—the process of getting books to where they need to be, when they need to be there, and as efficiently as possible—is a critical function in publishing. It is a process that increasingly touches virtually all other aspects of the Canadian book trade from editorial acquisitions to marketing to consumer behavior.
A special thanks to the many publishers, distributors, booksellers, and industry groups who contributed their time, expertise, and data to the study. And congratulations to our colleague Marcel Oullette whose complementary study on Canada’s French-language market was also published today.
Posted by Craig Riggs on 05/28 at 11:21 AM
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Craig sent me a gem of a post by Lynda Partner on the OneDegree website: Cut the Blah Blah Blah—When Less is the New More. The post advocates stripping writing until only the most necessary, powerful words remain, allowing meaning and core messages to shine through to readers. Here’s an excerpt:
In 1868, writer Mark Twain said
“Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”
In an age where attention spans are shrinking, and 140 character sound bites are all you are allowed on marketing vehicles like Twitter, it is once again time for writing less to become a valued marketing skill.
I couldn’t agree more. In The Power of Slow and Spare, I wrote:
When you’re excited about something your business is doing—a new initiative or product, for example—it’s tempting to want to include in your press release every one of the 34 reasons it’s so great. And explain each reason in depth. And quote all the people who were involved in the idea. And give background. And context. And related information.
But guess what?
Most people will abandon your press release unless you relinquish your dream of including everything you’d ideally like to say. Our society is time-starved as well as compelled to cram as many sources of information in as possible—we are news grazers, not gourmands.
What I love about Partner’s post is that she includes ten tips to apply to the way you describe your own business that will help you distill your message to its absolute core. Here’s Tip #7:
Count how many times you used your product or company name or the word “we.” If it’s more than once in every 500 words, ask yourself if you are writing about you or for your reader. For every statement you write, answer the question “what does this mean for my reader?”
I’m going to sit with those ten tips tomorrow and chew them over. I want to see where the exercise gets me. If nothing else it will be exercise, and exercise is the only way to become a better writer.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/27 at 08:41 PM
Monday, May 25, 2009
Today’s Weekly Geek addresses a mistake in usage I see all the time: the erroneous use of comprise. It’s such a tough one that Frances Peck often advises her clients to simply forget comprise entirely as a word ... to just abandon it. That’s one option, and a good one since comprise can be a fussy word that often sounds too formal or even pretentious. If you do want to use comprise, check out this excerpt from a section of a client style guide I did a couple of years ago:
Use comprise, composed of, or consists of as per the examples below. As Fowler’s notes, “The special function of comprise is to introduce a list of the parts making up the whole that is its subject; that is, it means to consist of or to be composed of. All the parts compose the whole; the whole comprises all of the parts.” Therefore:
- The book comprises eight chapters.
- Milk, honey, and nutmeg compose the sauce.
- The sauce comprises milk, honey, and nutmeg.
- The committee was composed of nine representatives.
- The lesson consists of four sections.
Another trick I just thought of is to think of comprise along the same lines as contain. It’s not perfect, but it might end any confusion between comprise and compose.
Next week: the en dash.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/25 at 12:29 PM
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.
John Benbow in Manuscript and Proof
Everyone hates hyphens. They don’t make any sense—it seems there are a million exceptions to their rules. Yet an ill-placed hyphen or lack of hyphen when there should be one can make a sentence stick out like a sore thumb and the writer look amateur. This post is devoted to an area of hyphenation that drives people especially batty: the treatment of compound terms like “middle class” or “much despised.”
There are two main points to remember when dealing with this sort of thing:
- Never hyphenate an adverb ending in -ly (e.g., you would never write “the unjustly-accused innocent”). There is no happy union between -ly and a hyphen.
- Everything depends on where compound terms occur in a sentence—that is, their position. If you’ve got two words modifying a noun and they occur before that noun, smack that hyphen right on in there. So: “the upper-class neighbourhood,” “the open-ended arrangement.” If they occur after the noun, pump the brakes—take your finger away from the keyboard and stifle your sense of injustice at the weirdness of the rule. So: “the neighborhood was upper class,” and “the arrangement is open ended.”
Just remembering these two points can help you immensely when it comes to hyphenation.
As for words that don’t serve to modify a noun, like “email,” “toothache,” or “healthcare,” the best idea is to consult a recent edition of a good dictionary. Whether to hyphenate these, close them up, or leave them open changes over time and over dictionaries, so the only way to proceed is to check the word and then remain consistent throughout your document.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/13 at 01:14 PM
Thursday, April 30, 2009
This week I cheat—I direct your attention to a nice little article about the emotional impact of punctuation. The author, Stuart Jeffries, doesn’t bill it as such, but that’s what he’s really getting at. He’s talking about the recent ubiquity of the exclamation mark, which he notes has been prompted vaguely but I think definitely by email communications. Jeffries weighs in on the debate as to whether it’s a sign of excitability or friendliness and explores his own feelings about the mark.
My thoughts on the exclamation mark are that:
- it shouldn’t be banned the way purists have commanded it be in the past
- it shouldn’t be overused in business communications
- it’s nice to see in emails sometimes—it can impart a friendly tone
- when it’s not used well (e.g., to camouflage insincerity or even petty negativity) it’s REALLY annoying (just like ALL CAPS are)—smiley faces are like this, too
- if it’s sprinkled all through your writing, you can come off as silly or insubstantial
But overall, I like the comeback of the exclamation mark (in small doses), and I agree with Jeffries that it really was “the funless and fastidious” who were keeping it trodden underfoot. That said, one will do: it’s a powerful mark, and there’s no need to triple the action unless you’re purposefully being goofy with good friends.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/30 at 08:19 PM
Sunday, April 26, 2009
As of June 1, 2009, Turner-Riggs headquarters will be based in Ottawa, Ontario. We’re moving to be closer to family—our one-year-old has been demanding to see his grandparents more than a couple of times a year—and for the short, balmy winters we know await us.
We’ll post full mailing/phone details soon, but please know that we’re always available via our current web/email contact information, and that our clients and networks will continue to be all over Canada and the world. That’s how we like it.
Vancouver and BC in general, we will miss you dearly, but we’ll be back and forth lots so stay beautiful.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/26 at 09:49 AM
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
If Us Magazine is doing it, you can bet a lot of other people are, too. Us has decided to end the possessive case of words like Paris (as in Hilton) with an s’ rather than an s’s. For example:
Paris’ $250 million pool party for her newest dog ...
They’re using the style convention where when a word ends in a sibilant (a consonant that sounds like a hiss, like Paris), it’s fair game to end with the more visually attractive s’.
Paris’ does look better than Paris’s. But I’m in the camp where you always add the final s after the apostrophe. I like how Paris’ looks, but I don’t like how it sounds in my head.
Both styles are correct. What’s incorrect is to be inconsistent. Choose one style and stick to it.
p.s. When the word in question is plural—e.g., the players’ wives—just add an apostrophe. But you knew that.
p.s. When you get all hot and bothered about the issue as I so often do (just think of our company name, Turner-Riggs) try to reframe the sentence. Instead of “Turner-Riggs’ company mascot was fired soon after the unfortunate event,” I’d write “Turner-Riggs fired their company mascot soon after the unfortunate event.” And avoid the passive voice in the process!
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/21 at 01:46 PM
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Finally, a regular column for blogspace, an outlet for our geek. Okay, my geek ... I haven’t asked Craig about it, so maybe it’ll be just me writing. In that case, expect to hear a lot about words and grammar. I love learning about words and grammar, and I need to share what I learn with anyone who will listen. Or just anyone. Whether or not they listen.
So let’s get started!
Topic #1: Commas (Between Adjectives)
Oh, don’t pretend you’re bored by commas ... that you don’t want to know more. Commas are tricky little devils that beg for understanding—otherwise they can run rampant through your writing. They can turn you into a comma bomber, like someone I know in this office. And it isn’t me.
There is much to know about commas, but for now I’m going to limit myself to an invaluable little lesson I learned from the brilliant Frances Peck about how to figure out whether you need a comma between adjectives. If you are anything like me, you’d look at a sentence like this one (purposefully unpunctuated) and get a little anxious:
They are selling their blue pine table their damaged oak dresser their beloved shag carpet and their thick luxurious throw.
Would you put a comma between “blue” and “pine”? Between “damaged” and “oak”? Between “beloved” and “shag”? Between “thick” and “luxurious”?
I might have, pre-Frances. And I would have been 75% wrong.
The correct punctuation** for the sentence is:
They are selling their blue pine table, their damaged oak dresser, their beloved shag carpet, and their thick, luxurious throw.
Here are the tricks that helped me figure it out:
- Can you insert an “and” between the adjectives? If you can’t (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the blue and pine table”), you shouldn’t use a comma. In other words, the comma substitutes for “and,” as in “the thick, luxurious throw.”
- Can you rearrange the adjectives? If you can’t, you shouldn’t use a comma (e.g., you wouldn’t say “the pine blue table”).
To end in full geek glory, let me just add that beneath these tricks, there is a proper point of grammar: the decision about whether to use a comma between adjectives has to do with what kind of adjective you’re dealing with: coordinate or cumulative. In the sentence we used above, “thick” and “luxurious” function as coordinate adjectives (they all separately modify the same noun) while the others work in a cumulative way (they build and lean on each other).
That’s it for today. Don’t worry, Weekly Geek will be back. Soon. Like in a week.
**Assuming you’re using a serial comma, which is another topic (and a contentious one at that!). If you choose to use serial commas, as I do, you put a comma before the last item in a list.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/15 at 09:28 AM
Thursday, April 09, 2009
It’s been a long time coming. When we first published the Turner-Riggs website, we gave Thomas Edison’s quote, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it” a place of honour on our homepage since we thought it complemented our main text. Shortly after, Craig’s uncle and business colleague Wayne MacPhail let us in on Edison’s yen for electrocuting animals, and we knew the quote had to go.
That was over a year ago.
Since then, we’ve been a little busy with business and baby. But we’re pleased to announce that we’ve replaced Edison’s quote with one from Balzac: “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move ... coffee is your ally.” We find it both true and funny, but we don’t know much about Balzac except that he’s credited with several other pithy remarks that make us slightly nervous. Among them:
A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.
A husband who submits to his wife’s yoke is justly held an object of ridicule. A woman’s influence ought to be entirely concealed.
A mother who is really a mother is never free.
Conscience is our unerring judge until we finally stifle it.
Hmmm. But these can possibly be explained by the times he wrote in. If anyone knows of any compelling reason why Balzac should be banned from the Turner-Riggs homepage, speak now or forever hold your peace. Wayne?
Update: Farewell, Balzac. Your quote took up too much space on our page, and it sorta diffused our main message about what it is we do. But we do agree that life with coffee is infinitely better than life without.
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/09 at 11:54 AM
When you’re considering a new or refreshed website, it can be tempting to think about design first. It’s natural: we want to appear attractive to our audiences, and generally we have very definite ideas of what this looks like. So often website design takes up a lot of energy, time, and resources at the beginning, and sometimes it leaves little left over for other elements of the website. Like copy.
Don’t get us wrong ... we love great design and see it as a major source of competitive advantage. But copy is king on the web. Copy is content, and content is what everyone is looking for. We are looking for relevant information we need now presented in a logical way that respects that we have no time.
What are the implications of this?
- Don’t get fixated on design at the expense of content.
- Don’t leave content to the last minute.
- Don’t think flashy design will make up for sloppy or lackluster content.
- Don’t think copy you write on paper translates seamlessly to a website: different mediums need different approaches.
- Do see design and content as inextricably, happily linked.
- Do see design as having a priority: to support content effectively.
- Do work on content preferably before or at least at the same time as design. At the recent Mesh 2009 conference, 37signals’ Ryan Singer put it this way: “Interface design is 90% copywriting ... good writing is good design.”
- Do place your copy strategically according to the way users navigate text on sites.
To this last point, eyetracking studies provide important clues as to how to match copy and design to users’ behaviours. The study Eyetrack III (conducted by The Poynter Institute, the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, and Eyetools Inc.) “observed 46 people for one hour as their eyes followed mock news websites and real multimedia content.”
Some of the most significant findings from Eyetrack III for web designers and anyone with a website are:
- Users’ eyes are attracted to text, not graphics “both in order viewed and in overall time spent looking at it.”
- Users look first at the upper portion of a webpage—left first, then right—and give less attention to the lower portions of a page. So make sure you reference your most important messages up top, probably through headlines and subheads.
- Large type promotes scanning, while smaller type promotes more focused reading. Both are important behaviours, so it’s up to you to decide which text you’d like readers to scan (e.g., to decide what they’d like to read further) and which you’d like them to zero in on.
- Users tend to look only at the first few words of headlines. Make sure those first few words are good and catchy.
- Navigation bars placed at the top of a page performed better than navigation placed elsewhere.
- Ads placed on the top-left, bigger ads, and ads placed close to editorial have the greatest chance of making an impression.
- Big images, especially those with people’s faces in them, attract the most attention.
Findings like these underline the importance of marrying copywriting and design for websites. In fact, separating the two given this sort of information seems counterproductive. This is well illustrated by a passage from 37signals’ book Getting Real (p. 110):
Do you label a button Submit or Save or Update or New or Create? That’s copywriting. Do you write three sentences or five? Do you explain with general examples or with details? Do you label content New or Updated or Recently Updated or Modified? Is it There are new messages: 5 or There are 5 new messages or is it 5 or five or messages or posts? All of this matters.
For more on writing good website copy, see our post “Writing Web Copy that Gets Read.”
Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/09 at 10:56 AM
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