Vapor-speak and Vaporware

vaporDoes anyone remember Vaporware?

The nineteen-eighties were like the Wild West in software development. Small companies sprouted like crabgrass, each promising an amazing new product. Many of these startups didn’t last long. Maybe it was because they sold Vaporware.

Vaporware was an idea or a half-developed program that didn’t exist yet. Some entrepreneur scraped together a little capital, formed a software company, and hired a few sales reps. They created ads with pictures of (empty)  5-1/4-inch floppy disks bearing the company logo, next to a computer.

The programmer, often the business owner’s kid, was still trying to figure out how to make the program work. It was not a scam … they just overestimated their own skill and underestimated the development time. But the company boldly sold the product with a promise of “thirty to sixty days” to delivery. Usually, after about ninety days of the same story, the customers wised up, the sales evaporated, and so did the company.

Why would anyone fall for that? It was an unsophisticated time. Interactive processing was new, no one had personal computers yet, and there was no such thing as the Internet. No Microsoft, not even graphical user interfaces. This new thing called software promised small businesses a way to be more modern and efficient. They couldn’t see it, they didn’t understand it, but they wanted it. Sellers learned to talk about their phantom products without committing to specific features or delivery dates.

People today are more savvy and they don’t buy Vaporware anymore, but the techniques we used to sell it are still around. They have just morphed into Sales and Marketing Vapor-speak. It sounds trendy, but if you use Vapor-speak, it can suggest that you’re being dishonest or trying to hide something. Here are some of the major offenders:

It’s all about

With X product, it’s all about delivering customer service and improving your return on investment.

What, exactly, is it? Are we referring to promised benefits here? Are you saying the product delivers them? All about doesn’t promise anything. If I were a potential customer, I’d be all about shopping elsewhere.

Around

Product X addresses issues around security, audit trails, and data storage.

Issues around these items? Does that mean problems inherent in them? Directly concerning them? Peripherally related to them? If you can’t be clearer than that, I wonder if you understand your product.

Ecosystem

Our goal for the coming year is to improve the business process ecosystem.

Unless you’re talking about all the water, air, soil, plants, and living organisms in a defined physical space, you’re hijacking a word and using it where it doesn’t belong. Is it a department, a market, an industry? In a business sense, ecosystem is so vague it means nothing at all.

Retail businesses could not get away with Vapor-speak. Just imagine you were buying tires for your car. You ask the dealer, “Are they safe and do they come with a guarantee?” How would you feel about this response:

In our business, we’re all about the tires. Our tires focus on questions around tread wear and traction, and we guarantee that we’re part of the automobile safety ecosystem.

You might ask if they accept Vapor-cash …

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗  Dear readers  ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

amazon coverThe spirit of this blog is now captured in a book: From the Errors of Others, available online at these links:

Amazon.com

Barnes and Noble

Archway Bookstore

Richard Nordquist, Grammar and Composition expert for About.com, says:

From the Errors of Others is a refreshing alternative to those heavy handbooks we never opened in school…. Imagine that: a smart book about writing and speaking effectively that people will actually enjoy reading.”

Insulting with pronouns

bridesmaidsPronouns (he, she, it, they, his, her, its, that, them, this, for example) are useful shortcuts. They allow us to avoid saying:

Sir William Willingham Shropshire has assumed leadership of The International Institute for Global Peace, and the annual meeting of the International Institute for Global Peace was held at the estate of Sir William Willingham Shropshire.

Instead, we can say:

Sir William Willingham Shropshire has assumed leadership of The International Institute for Global Peace and hosted its annual meeting at his estate.

The handy pronouns its and his enabled us to avoid repeating two long and clumsy phrases. But writers, tossing around pronouns with no concern for where they land, often confuse us with unclear pronoun references. Sometimes the ambiguity even results in an unintended insult. Watch for these errors the next time you read a newspaper, magazine, or online article.

Examples

  • Because the representative is less committed to saving money than drafting legislation, she sometimes overlooks it.

What does it mean? Does she overlook drafting legislation or saving money? Here’s how the sentence might have been clearer:

The representative sometimes overlooks saving money because she is committed to drafting legislation.

  • Stewart has a great vocabulary. That is how he is able to convince people he is smart.

Pronouns have to refer to something. That suggests an action, but it has no referent in the first sentence. Simply having a good vocabulary does nothing to convince anyone of anything. Here’s a clearer version:

Stewart uses his great vocabulary to convince people he is smart.

  • The bride told the maid of honor she hated her dress because it made her look fat.

Is the bride referring to her own dress or to the bridesmaid’s dress? This is either an insecure bride or a snarky bridezilla who doesn’t deserve an honor attendant. Let’s hope it was this one:

The bride told the maid of honor, “I hate my dress. It makes me look fat.” […followed by reassurances that she is beautiful and this is her special day …]

My friend’s dad told me his pet peeve was a guy who confuses pronouns, just like he does. But, as he always says, he’s an idiot and his opinion has never mattered much to him.

Insulting with pronouns. See how easy that is?

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗  Dear readers  ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

amazon coverThe last weekly post to this blog will be July 3, 2016. After that, see TextCPR on Facebook for occasional new posts. Thanks for nearly four years of readership and engaging comments.

The spirit of this blog is now captured in a book: From the Errors of Others, available online at these links:

Amazon.com

Barnes and Noble

Archway Bookstore

Richard Nordquist, Grammar and Composition expert for About.com, says:

From the Errors of Others is a refreshing alternative to those heavy handbooks we never opened in school…. Imagine that: a smart book about writing and speaking effectively that people will actually enjoy reading.”

That hidden fat

pinch fatIn this age of body-shaming, no one wants to use words like bony, scrawny, chubby, pudgy, or fat. We say slim, willowy, curvy, big-boned … euphemisms to avoid making people feel awkward about their physiques. But when it comes to writing, almost everyone needs a wakeup call, even if it hurts.

Your writing is probably fat. Sorry, but there’s no other word for it. We all use meaningless clichés without even realizing it. They’re part of our conversational vocabularies, and they creep into our writing like midnight refrigerator raids. You ask, “Why should I care? I’m not a swimsuit model – I mean – professional writer!” Perhaps not. But you might write emails, business reports, letters to the editor, announcements, notices, or bulletins for the Cub Scouts.

The trouble with fat writing is that the extra words dilute your message and subtract from its meaning. Readers get bored and stop paying attention.

To guard against releasing fat writing into the world, self-edit before you publish or send. These examples of voluminous verbiage show what to look out for, and what you could say instead:

  • so on and so forth (so on)
  • first and foremost (first)
  • last but not least (last)
  • over and over and over again (repeatedly)
  • far and away (clearly)
  • in some form or fashion (somehow)

And you can usually leave these out altogether:

  • as a matter of fact
  • as I said before
  • at the end of the day
  • it goes without saying that
  • for all intents and purposes
  • to tell you the truth

I know you’re not shallow and it’s not for vanity’s sake. I’m concerned about your health and want you to have a long and successful (writing) life.

So cut out the F-word, fat, and flex those nouns and verbs. Your writing might even make it to the Sports Illustrated cover.

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗  Dear readers  ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

amazon coverThe spirit of this blog is now captured in a book: From the Errors of Others, available online at these links:

Amazon.com

Barnes and Noble

Archway Bookstore

Richard Nordquist, Grammar and Composition expert for About.com, says:

From the Errors of Others is a refreshing alternative to those heavy handbooks we never opened in school…. Imagine that: a smart book about writing and speaking effectively that people will actually enjoy reading.”

Because or despite?

long scary nails2Ah, the power of ego. It can make people do (and think) outrageous things in business.

Consider the blowhard who brags about his success, attributing it to some off-the-wall notion that runs contrary to conventional wisdom … precisely because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom. It’s not an expression of creativity, but rather a misguided assignment of cause and effect. The idea that the presence of two factors assumes one to be the result of the other.

For example:

“I’m CEO of a bussiness. I’m richer than you cuz I don’t waist time on writing and that kind of nonsence.”

The CEO’s success might be well earned, a result of good business instincts, wise decisions, great support staff, favorable economic conditions, a niche product, or inherited wealth—despite the poor communication skills. If success were the result of ignorant writing and speech, we would be a country of zillionaires. Just in case, I recommend being aware of (and always trying to improve) your communication skills. It might not be a guarantee of success, but it won’t hurt.

Remember an NBA player, back in the eighties and nineties, named Spud Webb? At five feet seven (that’s right – five, not six), he had a staggering 42-inch vertical leap. In 1986 he won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Webb’s accomplishments were impressive despite his height, not because of it. Coaches did not immediately start to recruit the shortest players they could find, because no one else was Spud Webb.

My favorite real-life example of because vs. despite confusion comes from a small company where I once worked. We needed a new receptionist/typist. Our know-it-all business owner had previously worked with a secretary who had long fingernails. They extended perhaps a quarter-inch beyond her fingertips. She was also professional, personable, intelligent, and she somehow typed accurately despite the long-ish nails. But she was so good at her job that Mr. Big inexplicably equated her success with having long fingernails. Apparently the longer, the better—like Samson’s hair. And how clever of him to discover it!

When the interviews for our receptionist/typist position began, one candidate stood out from the rest. Not because of her skills, but because of her nails. They were at least two inches beyond her fingertips. They curved downward and were painted in neon colors. One nail sported multicolored stripes, two glued-on googly eyes, and a tuft of fur. It was, she explained, “Toucan Sam from the cereal commercial.” The office was abuzz with whispered questions: How does she button a coat? Eat French fries? Brush her teeth? How does she … oh dear.

But The Boss was so enchanted that he hired her – on the spot – without a typing test, a spelling test, or any other objective measure of her suitability for the job. Because he alone knew the secret to finding a good receptionist/typist.

Guess how that worked out.

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Pet peeves and sticky wickets

pet peeveMany of us have grammar or English usage pet peeves. One of mine is just between you and I. Having a pet peeve is fine. If you plan to go around ranting about it though, you might want to make sure it’s wrong.

I once knew a man who was skilled at flying airplanes, but his pet peeve was the construction, “I gave her a present.” He proudly insisted it was incorrect grammar and should always be, “I gave a present to her.” Apparently they don’t teach you about indirect objects in Airline Captain School.

Paul, a former co-worker of mine, disliked the superfluous of, as in “He’s so good of an editor that we should hire him.” He cleverly worked one into every email as a joke.

The superfluous of goof occurs in a noun phrase when you compare something using as, too, how, or so. The word of follows the adjective in the phrase. But of is a preposition, and it has no function in a noun phrase. Although it sounds awkward, most of us aren’t sure why it’s wrong—or worse yet—what to do about it. That’s the sticky wicket part. In most cases, you just leave out the word of. But that creates a sentence that, while correct, sounds uppity or pretentious to some people:

He’s so good an editor that we should hire him.
How do you express the same thought correctly without sounding pompous? Here are some problematic sentences and a few ways to improve them:

She’s as good of a dancer as any of the others.
She’s as good as any of the other dancers.
She dances as well as any of the others.

How great of a quarterback is he?
How great is he as a quarterback?
As quarterbacks go, how great is he?

You have too negative of an attitude.
Your attitude is too negative.
Try to be more positive.

We had so good of a time at the concert!
We had such a good time at the concert!
What a good time we had at the concert!

The superfluous of is one of the easiest sticky wickets to write around. Don’t get stuck in an imaginary corner when the way out is so simple.

This one’s for you, Paul. So funny of a guy!

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The decimate debate

wolf2Grammar and usage purists like to argue about what is correct and what isn’t. But unlike simple computational math, English embraces shades of gray between black and white. Accepted usage constantly changes, as do the sources cited as final authority.

That’s why we can program a calculator to find a multiply-by-zero error buried in a complicated proof, but we can’t agree on the rules for an infallible grammar checker.

The original meanings of many Latin-based words, for example, have evolved over time. Hundreds of years ago, the word decimate referred to the killing of one-tenth (from the Latin, deca-) of a Roman legion as punishment for disloyalty or cowardice. Now the word is used to mean, in a general sense, kill, destroy, or eliminate a large portion.

A reporter announces that a tornado has decimated a small town, and critics come out of the woodwork to snipe, “Oh really? Exactly one-tenth of the houses were destroyed?” They often suggest devastated as a better word choice. Although both words can be used to describe property damage, devastate can also connote overwhelming shock or grief: “The residents of the small town were devastated by their loss.”

Unless your audience includes Grammar Police types, you’re probably safe with either decimate or devastate in reference to significant destruction. You could even say, “A nasty flu epidemic decimated (or devastated) our team just before the championship game.” But beware of a third word that sounds similar to, but is not interchangeable with, the first two: desecrate (to violate or disrespect a sacred place or thing).

I once read an article that described a storm as desecrating a town. Unless the storm sprayed racist graffiti on a holy shrine, I’m guessing the writer meant decimate.

Just remember the story of The Three Little Pigs. The big, bad wolf did not decimate, devastate, or desecrate any of the pigs’ houses. So if your dwelling falls victim to a violent wind, you might just want to say:

It huffed and it puffed and it blew my house down.

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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

Clichés
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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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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    Ripped from the headlines

    foodtruckLocal newspapers often include brief sections on police and fire reports, I’m guessing, for two reasons. One is to explain why you heard sirens a couple of nights ago, and the other is to reassure you that your tax dollars are being spent wisely.

    It’s not likely that any of these items will appear as plot lines on a TV crime drama any time soon. Famous novelists are not battling for the rights to these stories. But maybe that’s because they can’t figure out what really happened.

    The police reports are allotted too little space for detail. Still, many leave you with unanswered questions. These reports are real, but the questions are hypothetical:

    • A 51-year-old woman complained of pain after a collision with an SUV, which turned into a restaurant.

    Question: Like a transformer, the SUV pulled over, collapsed its tires, lifted a side window, and started selling tacos? I didn’t see that on the 11 o’clock news.

    Better: .… collision with an SUV, which pulled into a parking lot.

    • One person was taken to the hospital in a two-car pile-up.

    Question: They transported the victim to the hospital in the wreckage? Why didn’t someone call an ambulance?

    Better: …. after a two-car pile-up.

    Unclear antecedents are common, and the question is “Who did what here?”

    • A resident reported an unwanted hug from a staff member, which was reported to police by his father.

    Question: Was the father reporting the hug or was he reporting the report? And whose father is he—the resident’s or the staff member’s?

    Better: A resident received an unwanted hug from a staff member. The resident’s father reported the incident.

    The final item on this police blotter:

    • Described by a witness entering a car “blistering drunk,” police arrested a 53-year-old
      man for suspicion of DUI.

    So many questions: Why was the witness entering the car? If the witness was drunk, why do we care how he described the police? Where does “blistering” fall on the scale of blood alcohol levels? And why was the man arrested for being suspicious? It doesn’t say he was arrested on suspicion … just for it.

    This one actually has possibilities. A creative writer could construct an entire Dateline episode around it. I’m guessing that blistering is a blood alcohol level of about 0.16, just between blitzed and hammered. Worse than schnockered but not as bad as wasted.

    Medical terms are always confusing.

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    Not quite parallel

    artist mowerYou know that vague, disquieting feeling you get when something is just a little off … but you don’t quite know why? You read or hear a sentence that makes a kind of sense, but it’s just wrong somehow .

    A picture hangs atilt on the wall. Someone whistles off-key. You live in a house with no 90-degree corners and the walls are all accidental trapezoids.

    1: If those things don’t bother you, stop reading right now. You’re probably happier than the rest of us.

    2: If you have a passion for sense-making, you’ll appreciate parallelism.

    English usage employs many devices that insist on it. A singular subject takes a singular verb. For instance, you would not say:

    I walks my dog twice a day.

    If you would say that, see Step 1. Otherwise, read on.  Here’s a radio ad that misses the mark. Only slightly, but a miss is a miss:

    We can give you a loan in as quick as ten days.

    “As quick as ten days?” Ten days is a measure of time, not speed. A quick cheetah might run 35 miles per hour, but a quick loan would be funded in as few as ten days. Or as little as ten days’ time.

    An event announcement states:

    A reception will be held between 1 to 5 PM.

    A case of mixed pair-word conjunctions. The parallel pairs are between-and and from-to. It’s either:

    between 1 and 5
    – or –
    from 1 to 5

    In another pair-word conjunction not only—but also, the verb placement makes all the difference:

    She not only paints portraits but also landscapes.

    When paints comes after the not only, it implies that the artist plants and maintains yards as a sideline. To describe her skills in two painting styles, say:

    She paints not only portraits but also landscapes.

    Or you could repeat the subject and verb:

    She not only paints portraits but she also paints landscapes.

    Still, you must admit, parallel or not, that someone who can render a fine likeness in oils or acrylics … then whip your lawn into shape… deserves our admiration.

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