Are we getting dumber?

synonym rollsStatistics show that American children are falling behind their counterparts in other countries. Math scores, language skills, knowledge of science and history … our future would seem to be in the hands of the ill-prepared and under-educated. “They” say our youngsters’ minds have been so numbed by video games and junk food that we’re all doomed.


As adults, we’d like to think our generations were smarter. If that’s true, why do we seek help from eight-year-olds to program our iPhones and DVRs? Perhaps children are becoming smart in different ways.

People have always poked fun at village idiots. But Facebook, Twitter, and online comment boxes provide access to millions of them with a single click, swipe, or tap. It’s possible that Autocorrect was responsible for some of these, but Twitter has given us:

  • I can never pay attention when I do my homework I must have 80HD….
  • Every year we learn about the hollow cost in school….
  • Rosetta Stone did not sit on that bus for you to be….
  • Ima give em a minute then I tell em good writtens….

OK, so these comments demonstrate a shocking lack of spelling, grammar, history, and common sense. Maybe it was always out there, but we just couldn’t see it. The Internet is a super-magnifying reflective surface. You think you look pretty good, ready to walk out the door. Then you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror with every enlarged wrinkle, spot, and imperfection, and want to go back to bed.

Maybe our memories are a little airbrushed because we saw what we wanted to see. Schools emphasized math, spelling, and other basic skills. No calculators, spelling checkers, or instant encyclopedias for us! We learned to work square roots by hand and compose paragraphs of more than 140 characters. Then again, we didn’t need instant mental recall of invisible decision trees involving the nested processes and hierarchical operations for hundreds of apps, steps, and key sequences.

Still, it would be nice if every child learned to spell and construct a decent sentence. It might not make them smarter, but it would help with their selfie steam.

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English-to-English translation

translate2Let’s pretend for a minute that everyone in your company speaks the same kind of flawless English.

No one is from a different part of the country, no one is from England or Canada or Australia. You take great care to write clearly, in a way that everyone understands.

News flash: Someone is going to misunderstand.

American business is infected, not only with strange idioms, but also with the idiomatic use of common words. As a result, even native English speakers interpret them differently. Now add the complexity (and reality) of regional idioms and cultural references, second- and third-language English speakers, and it’s no wonder we don’t understand each other.

In this example, the italicized words (many of which you probably use all the time) are potentially ambiguous:

While our budgets are set, we may not count this spend until next quarter, as all factors have not been considered. Since policy review has begun, leverage existing guidelines until further notice. Should you have any questions, contact your manager.

Here’s why they are problematic, and what you can say instead:

  • While can imply a time relationship – during or simultaneously. In this sentence, it means although.
  • May can imply permission. In this sentence, it means a condition or possibility. Use might.
  • Spend is a verb. This trendy biz-speak use of it as a noun is tiresome. Say cost or expenditure.
  • As can imply a comparison or time relationship – like, or at the same time. In this sentence it means because.
  • Since can imply in the intervening time. In this sentence it means because.
  • Leverage means to use borrowed capital for an investment, expecting profits made to be greater than the interest. Another trendy idiom that simply means use.
  • Should implies obligation or correctness. In this case, it means if.

Most of these are not grammatical mistakes. Some of them are listed in dictionaries as acceptable, though not preferred. The problem is the connotations they carry and how people interpret them.

So, even if your company is not multi-national and all of your customers or employees have lived their entire lives within a fifty-mile radius, remember how easy it is to confuse each other.

Maybe translation software needs a category called Business English to Real English.

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Hear it spoken

hearitspokenTelevision reporters probably don’t get the luxury of rehearsing what they read on the teleprompter, and I suppose it’s inevitable that an unfamiliar word will pop up. Still, one has to wonder where some reporters went to school and how they’ve avoided learning to pronounce relatively common words.

Here are three on-air missteps I’ve seen in just the past month:

Police found a “cash-AY” of weapons in the apartment…

The word on the screen was most likely cache, (pronounced CASH, with no accent mark), which means a hidden supply or reserve. If the reporter read cache and thought cachet, meaning stature or prestige, she should have known the word did not fit the story.

It’s hard to imagine that a communications professional would not know this one, but I also heard a young reporter read:

The effects are “SUB-tull” but researchers are hopeful that…

Subtle? I know there is a Slippery Rock University, but this one must have graduated from Under a Rock University. How can you grow to adulthood and think the “b” in subtle is pronounced? And, no, the reporter was not from another culture or language background.

But the worst, and—I must admit—funniest blunder was committed by the reporter who stared at the prompter and announced:

This might go down in the “AY-nulls” of history as the worst prank ever…

That’s right, anals. Not annals, records of events, but anals. It was the best laugh I’d had all day. Even if the error was in the teleprompter text, how can your brain lag so far behind your mouth that you don’t see that coming in time to self-correct?

Most of us are not expected to do cold reads on camera, under studio lights, intense pressure, and public scrutiny. But we might be asked to read copy that someone else wrote in a business or organizational setting. My advice? Scan through it quickly for land mines. If there’s a misspelled word that changes the meaning, be prepared to say the right word. If there’s word you’ve never heard spoken—and aren’t sure about—don’t guess in front of your audience. Ask the writer or look it up on your phone.

And go down in the annals of history.

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Backup slides

backup slides2I first noticed it a few years ago, while working for a huge multinational company. Now I see it in small-potatoes presentations for modest enterprises. Are they trying to imitate the big boys in all their corporate silliness? Or are they just now catching on to what seems like a lazy way to assemble a presentation?

“It,” of course, is the phenomenon called backup slides. You’re forced to sit through a meeting presentation, or maybe you’re responsible for watching it online. There’s a beginning, middle, end, summary, maybe even a quiz … and then (DUN-tun-tun!) the dreaded backup slides. Usually unreadable graphs or charts or screens full of tiny print, with no context, that might or might not have anything to do with the presentation you’ve just seen.

You might use backup slides to add length to a short presentation, to show some awesome graphics or snazzy material you found that doesn’t fit, or to impress the viewers with your research skills. But none of it supports the purpose of the presentation. Imagine the equivalent of backup slides in other forms:

Fashion Week in Paris: At the end of the show, someone throws a bag of laundry on the runway and says, “Here are some designs that didn’t make the show. Feel free to rummage through them.”

Opera at the Met: After the final curtain, random understudies wander onstage, performing their favorite vocal warmup exercises. All at once.

Super Bowl: After the final second ticks off the clock, third-string players who didn’t get into the game take the field for strength and agility drills.

Seriously, if the material is important, include it in the body of the presentation with some explanation and relevance. If it’s not important, leave it out. Simple as that.

Using backup slides is as silly as ending a movie with outtakes showing bloopers (mistakes the actors made during filming) … wait … that’s a thing. But it’s called the gag reel, and it’s intended to make you laugh.

If you have a serious job with a real company, or unless you’re Jackie Chan, just don’t.

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Cotton-candy writing

cotton candyHappy childhood memories … the county fair, the school carnival, the baseball game! The junk food—hot dogs, caramel corn, and my favorite, cotton candy.

Kids love the spun-sugar treat because it’s light, pretty (don’t think about what’s in that food coloring), easy to eat, and completely devoid of nutritional value.

Online articles often make me think of cotton candy. Puffed up, spun around, brightly tinted, full of empty calories. They catch your eye with enticing headlines, but fail to deliver the content you expect. If you would like a career as a cotton-candy-article writer, or if you’re a college student who needs an essay – fast – be sure to use these techniques:

Adjectives and adverbs
great, many, quite, perfect, awesome, any, interesting, particular, incredible, amazing, very, really, usually, dramatically, just, especially, kind of, hopefully, probably

At the end of the day
In the final analysis
When all is said and done
It is what it is
The bottom line

Meaningless phrases
It has often been said that
As I have mentioned previously
Certain unnamed sources have alleged that
In some circles it is accepted practice to assume that
To be perfectly honest

In the course of growing up to be a successful scientist, my brother was an excellent college student. But, like many of us, he awoke one morning to realize he had a writing assignment due in a couple of hours and he had nothing prepared. Armed with only a dictionary and a typewriter (before personal computers, no Internet, Google or Wikipedia), he had to spin something out of nothing … and fast. Using many of the techniques I’ve listed here, I’m sure, he cobbled together the required number of pages with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever. When the paper was returned, the professor had written in the margin:

Congratulations. I read your paper. I now know less about the subject than I did before.

It takes some work, but if you master cotton-candy writing, you can always go into politics.

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So what!

interviewAny speech teacher will tell you that vocalized pauses weaken your presentation. You could be a corporate bigwig, a PTA committee head, or an international political figure. If your speech is full of fillers (uuh, aah, err, mmm, like, you know) your message will be less effective.

Speakers who address their audiences without vocalized pauses sound more prepared, confident, and credible. Everyone knows that, and the standard fillers have become passé.

A new vocalized pause is all the rage in both business and politics. Often used in interviews, it’s a common response to a touchy question. It’s as if the utterance gives the interviewee time to think … or to pivot off into an evasive non-answer. The word is:


As the first word in a sentence, So usually implies therefore, or as a result.

The event was sold out. So we went to a movie instead.

But it’s now the go-to response for any debate or interview question that might be awkward to answer. In fact, it often signals intent to avoid answering the question altogether. For example:

Q: How do you intend to balance the budget this year?
A: So, as you know, I’ve always been a champion of fiscal responsibility. Throughout my career as a public servant, I’ve sought the opinions of my constituents on this and related matters … [blah blah blah]

Q: Is this product going to be released on time?
A: So, quality is important to us – as I’m sure it is to all of you – and we’ve brought in several experts to guide our development process. Based on feedback from our customers, we’ve added several features we’re sure they will like …

Maybe the So response is just a bad habit and it doesn’t always indicate deception. But listen for it the next time you hear an interview or a business presentation.

Then judge for yourself whether the speaker’s verbal crime is being trendy (a misdemeanor) or lying (a felony).

So there.

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When less is less

Get a DUII believe in minimalism, at least as it applies to writing. “Get rid of extra words and slim down your prose,” I say. Like working out in the gym and organizing your closets, it makes you feel fit and virtuous at the same time.

People who give lectures on minimalism (including me) preach that less is more.

Well, not always.

In your zeal to reduce word count, you might find – and go beyond – a point of diminishing returns. That’s where the message in your sentence flips on its head and becomes the opposite of what you intended to say. When you eliminate all of those pesky articles and connecting words, and substitute idiomatic shorthand, you get something I call Tonto-speak. It sounds like the ridiculous lines Jay Silverheels was given to recite in the Lone Ranger movies:

Hmm, kemo sabe. Smell smoke. Not good.

Every written communication from the Department of Motor Vehicles in my state arrives in the mail with an enclosure that’s intended to discourage drunk driving. It’s a chart showing the amount of alcohol it takes to render you unfit to drive. The handy table shows, for your weight, what your blood alcohol level would be for various amounts of alcohol after various amounts of time.

So far, it’s a great idea. But stop and think for a moment. This publication goes to everyone who drives a car. That includes the barely literate, those struggling with English, and thousands of abysmally poor readers. And the headline, in bold type, simply says:

Get a DUI – Lose Your License!

Of course it means If you get a DUI, you could lose your license! But it doesn’t say that. The important words are left out, and the message depends on some understanding of subtlety. It has the same structure and rhythm as these slogans:

Buy Tickets – Win the Lottery!
Give a Hoot – Don’t Pollute!
Do Your Part – Save Water!

An important message needs to be concise and clear, but not subject to interpretation. Besides, this over-abbreviated headline, Get a DUI – Lose Your License! begs for a second line. Something like:

See if we care!
You’re just like your Uncle Fred!
We always knew you’d never amount to anything!

Sometimes a little more … really is more.

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To whom it may concern

recommendationOne of life’s awkward situations: You’re asked to write a letter of recommendation, but you have little to say that’s good. It might be a former employee, a student, or even a family member.

If you agree to write a recommendation letter, you’ve already implicitly agreed to say something nice. If the person has done something illegal and you’re aware of it, you can’t just ignore it. Better to decline the request.

The first question to ask yourself is, “How important is the outcome?” The amount of positive blarney your conscience will allow is inversely proportional to the risk that your letter will affect the result. Let’s say your nephew is applying to an Ivy League college and you know he has no chance. You can exaggerate his virtues a little, no harm will come to humanity, and your family will still speak to you. If a college applicant is unworthy, it’s doubtful your recommendation alone is going to influence the admissions committee.

But if you manage a hospital emergency room staff and a bad apple (who was fired) applies at another hospital, you might understandably hesitate to foist him on another facility where lives are at stake. Some companies prohibit managers from giving recommendations, positive or negative, for former employees. Here’s why:

Scenario 1: Your letter is negative. The applicant doesn’t get the job. You (and your company) can be accused of defamation and blamed for the person’s inability to become re-employed.

Scenario 2: Your recommendation is positive. The person turns out to do a terrible job or steals from the new employer. You (and your company) can be accused of knowingly helping the new employer to hire a bad employee.

Assuming the consequences are neutral, recommendations can still be awkward. Imagine a former employee or co-worker is not particularly innovative, creative, or hard-working. Not awful, just not great. How do you handle it?

    • Keep it brief and say no more than is necessary. When people write to fill space, that’s when they get into trouble.
  • Focus on how much the person improved over time. (In three years, he grew increasingly responsible …)
  • Create a draft listing good points and bad points. Then eliminate the bad points or turn them into good qualities. (Instead of plodding and slow, say he was deliberate and careful …)
  • Above all, don’t resort to those double-meaning phrases we’ve all heard about:

    You’d be fortunate to get this person to work for you.
    She’s an unbelievable worker.
    No one would be better for this job.
    I would waste no time in hiring this person.

     People are wising up to those.

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    Spellchecker won’t help you

    spell check3

    Some of the funniest mistakes we read online appear to be the result of too much dependence on Spellcheckers. Writers scan their work quickly and, not seeing any red underlines, assume all is well. But the writer, a human, has to be smarter than the Spellchecker, a machine.

    The word you type might be spelled correctly, and it might also be the wrong word. Isn’t that when the Grammar checker steps in? Don’t count on it.

    In just the past week I’ve read these gems online:

    • He always had such a good since of humor … (sense of humor)
    • She’s dreaming of a ball gown, covered with glittering sequence … (sequins)
    • We can’t use that material because it’s copy written … (copyrighted)
    • The house is located on a shady boulevard with flowers planted in the medium … (median)
    • No other brand offers the breath of options that we do … (breadth)

    It’s baffling that so many people who claim to be (or want to be) writers express themselves badly in social media and other web-based outlets. Perhaps it’s because there’s no oversight and anything goes.  <Insert human editor here.>

    Articles about celebrities are the most appalling … not because of their content alone, but because of the misuse of common words. And in opinion pieces, the number of third-grade errors is often directly proportional to the vehemence of their prose. Does it really matter? I mean, if people get the gist of what you’re trying to say?

    Suggestion: If you want to persuade the world to accept your point of view, make sure your writing doesn’t repel them with silly mistakes. Even if Spellchecker doesn’t flag them.

    It’s doubtful that any literate person will be swayed by this Spellchecker-approved argument:

    If you’re opinion is that they’re candidate is better then mine, were going to have too disagree. Their isn’t enough space two explain why your so wrong. It’s to bad but there so dumb were just on different sides.

    The sentiment might have merit (and nothing was flagged as misspelled), but I would stop reading after the third word.

    The lesson? Read, think, remember your third-grade teacher … and if in doubt, look it up.

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    Serial, comma, killers

    Serial-CommaIf you’re a professional writer, editor, or just a grammar and usage enthusiast, you’re bound to have a strong opinion about the Oxford (or serial) comma. If you’re a normal, happy person, you probably don’t care.

    For those who don’t care, the serial comma appears just before the and in a series of more than two items.

    Example: The sandwich selections include tuna salad, roast beef, ham, and cheese.

    Serial comma fans argue that omitting it changes the meaning. Without the comma, the ham and cheese end up in the same sandwich:

    The sandwich selections include tuna salad, roast beef, ham and cheese.

    You might be forced to care about the serial comma if you’re governed by a style guide (usually a massive document that spells out the rules for every imaginable writing situation). Large companies often require all employees to adhere to these guidelines, and most employees rigorously ignore them.

    Some company style guides state, “We do not use the serial comma!” leaving no doubt that few are lukewarm on this question. If there is an online dating service for punctuation nerds (and there probably is), I’m sure the Oxford comma preference is a deal-breaker.

    The argument for leaving it out has always baffled me. Are we saving ink? Column space? No, the objection seems to be that it can imply an appositive relationship between the item it follows and the item before that. Here’s a well known example:

    I met with Lincoln, a rhinoceros, and Washington.

    No reasonable person would suspect the writer of calling Lincoln a rhinoceros. If the audience is assumed to be unreasonable, perhaps it’s better to rewrite the sentence.

    I met with two dead presidents and a zoo animal.

    For all the vitriol aroused by this innocent little punctuation mark (and I’ve seen pedants nearly come to blows over it), I’ve often wondered why someone doesn’t broker a peace treaty with the rewrite-the-sentence compromise. If the sentence is so fragile that only a comma stands between sense and nonsense, maybe it’s a bad sentence. The appositive argument addresses something that happens only rarely, but eliminating the comma in all cases results in more harm than good.

    Heated disagreements happen when someone insists that we must choose one of these two options instead of using our common sense. If you’re determined not to compromise, be aware that, of the two, always leaving out the serial comma offers the greater potential for misunderstanding. These three examples have been widely used to demonstrate What Happens when you indiscriminately omit all serial commas:

    “I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.”
    “This award is dedicated to my good friends, Young Jeezy and God.”
    “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

    Take that, serial killers!

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