Cleaning house with four dogs

four cleaning dogsThey’re at it again … the modifier-misplacers. Descriptive phrases create a special kind of confusion when they show up in the wrong place. Some might argue that no reasonable person would misunderstand today’s examples.

That’s not the point. Even if you can figure them out, they conjure oddly distracting visual images. Why give your reader a reason to snicker?

Recently, I read an online article about air fresheners. The writer said:
I just got a fantastic device that totally cleaned and freshened my house with four dogs.

I know dogs are loyal, intelligent, and lovable pets. Border collies are so smart they can round up herds of sheep and respond to dozens of special whistle commands. But, without opposable thumbs, how do they operate the vacuum cleaner? The sentence would have been clearer like this:

I just got a fantastic device that cleaned and freshened the air in my house. And I have four dogs!

A local newspaper article describes a chase following a burglary:
Police officers pursued the fleeing suspect on a bicycle.

I was thinking their squad car might have been faster, but the rest of the article implied it was the suspect who was on the bicycle. The report did say police officers (plural), and a bicycle (singular). The first image that popped into my head was two Keystone Cops on a tandem bike singing Bicycle Built for Two. Here’s what the writer might have said instead:

Police officers pursued the suspect, who fled on a bicycle.

Another newspaper article, about a parade, stated:
The band marched in the hot sun, carrying their instruments dressed in wool uniforms.

Again, the visual images. Is it ever so cold that you need a clarinet cozy? A saxophone sweater? A piccolo parka? (OK, that one’s just silly.) The point is that the musicians were wearing hot uniforms, not the instruments. One simple word—and—would have cleared it all up:

The band marched in the hot sun, carrying their instruments and dressed in wool uniforms.

Now that we have that all straightened out, I’m left with one question:

After the four dogs have tidied your house, who cleans up after them?

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Absolutely … not.

onoff2A handful of English adjectives are considered absolutes. They cannot be compared. No degrees exist within them, and their application is a binary proposition. On or off. Yes or no, nothing in between.

These words behave like a simple light switch. No rheostat, no dimmer – just light or no light.

And yet people want to impose degrees on them that are not possible. The words sound impressive, but (since their correct usage would make the statement untrue) writers qualify them and think they’re getting away with something. These qualified absolutes often show up in advertising. Shocking, I know.

Here are some absolutes, common misuses, and what the writers could have said instead:

only (One. No more. There is no other.)
Not: one of the only
Say: one of the few

unique (One of a kind. Nothing else compares.)
Not: pretty unique
Say: distinctive, original

always (In every case. No exceptions.)
Not: nearly always
Say: usually, often

never (In no case. Not ever.)
Not: almost never
Say: seldom, rarely

dead (All life functions have ceased.)
Not: the victim was nearly dead
Say: gravely injured, near death

opposite (Antithetical. Mutually incompatible.)
Not: Her political ideas are almost completely opposite from mine.
Say: We disagree on most political issues.

In trying to explain sovereignty as an absolute concept, my college Government professor used the old sovereignty-pregnancy example, pointing out that you can’t be “a little bit” of either. The point was to respect the absolute nature of some words that cannot be qualified or compared. Students who failed to grasp this notion grew up to toss around perfect as if it just meant nice.

But be forewarned: If you claim to be practically perfect in every way, you’d better be Mary Poppins.

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Indecent prepositions

vintage teacherSomewhere in the dark recesses of your mind there’s probably an English teacher warning you not to end a sentence with a preposition. Although this and other outdated rules have fallen out of favor with modern communicators, they leave a vague feeling that we’re doing something to be ashamed of. (See what I did there?)

The contortions we go through in order to avoid ending sentences with prepositions are usually worse than just letting it happen. It’s reported that Winston Churchill once answered someone who scolded him for it, “Madam, that is one sort of criticism up with which I will not put.”

If you still cringe at breaking that ancient non-rule, here are some real examples and graceful ways to avoid the problem:

From company email about a conference:
At what time do you want to meet up at?

This writer started out with the awkward at what time construction, only to blow it by ending the sentence with at anyway.

Solution: Remove prepositions. All of them. What time do you want to meet?

From a published novel:
With whom did you go skydiving with?

Another case of forgetting (in the space of seven words) that the purpose of using with at the beginning was to avoid using it at the end.

Solution: You went skydiving? Holy cow! Who went with you? (The Holy cow! part is optional.)

From instructions on how to build web pages:
All child pages link to the page to which they’ve been made subpages of.

This writer could not decide whether the proper preposition was to or of, so he just used both for good measure.

Solution: Each child page links to its parent page.

My favorite story about sentence-ending prepositions goes like this:

A toddler went upstairs while his father selected a bedtime story to read to him. But the father chose a book with monsters in it, and the child didn’t like it. When daddy came into his room to tuck him in, the little boy said, “Oh no—what did you bring the book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”

Five in a row. Top that!

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Taking out the fluff

kittenFluff has its place. Kittens, down comforters, meringue desserts. But it’s a readability-killer when it creeps into your writing. I don’t know whether Writing Fluff is taught in business schools or whether it’s something Marketing majors learn on the street. Either way, there’s too much of it out there.

So what—you ask—is fluff in writing? Anything that adds unnecessary volume without adding meaning. Adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, prepositional phrases, run-on sentences. In a misguided attempt to say everything, fluff writers succeed only in obscuring the message they’re trying to convey.

Much marketing copy reads as if four people sat around a table and collaborated on a pitch. The goal was to say everything they could think of about the product in one sentence. One by one, each person contributed a word or a thought until the sentence reached the optimum level of fluffiness. Here is an actual example from ABC company (not its real name), where I once worked:

Only ABC provides an approach that uniquely brings information, processes and people together in a dynamic case-based application that leverages ABC’s unique strength in analytics to help optimize case outcomes, while leveraging the broadest ecosystem of available business-ready solutions and richest portfolio of enterprise software capabilities.

I can just hear them asking, “Did we say unique enough?” and “How about optimize, leverage, and ecosystem?” “Wait! We forgot dynamic and solutions!” Meanwhile, if you made it to the end of this convoluted sentence, chances are you lost track of what they’re selling. (Hint: It’s case management software.)

It can be fun to create a fluff-filled sentence as an exercise, as long as you don’t try to use it on the public. Here’s a fictitious horrible example. Can you guess what business it is?

Only XYZ provides a dazzling array of wonderfully diverse herbaceous comestibles including salubrious tubers, rhizomes, and legumes, but not to the exclusion of salutary tree-bearing seed-associated structures in a variety of species utilizing all the processes of modern agribusiness to the exclusion of irresponsible application of biocides, nematicides, and other pathogens which may or may not affect the overall level of functional or metabolic efficiency of living organisms.

Answer: Organic fruit and vegetable stand.

Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

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Lost in translation

translation croppedMany Americans speak only English. As business becomes increasingly diverse and global, that embarrassing fact grows more obvious. While making fun of immigrants’ accents (incidentally, how good is your Mandarin – or Arabic – or Hindi?), some people arrogantly assume that translation is easy. We don’t do it, of course, because we have online tools and they do it for us.

Or do they?

Just type a phrase into the box, select the language, and … Voila! You can instantly communicate with anyone in his native tongue. But how do you know he’s not politely suppressing a guffaw at what you said? You don’t.

The epitome of dictionary-aided literal translation was captured, like a bug in amber, more than a hundred years ago by Peter Carolino in English As She Is Spoke. This little gem was supposed to be a Portuguese-English phrase book, but Carolino did not speak English. No problema! Using a French-English dictionary, he carefully “translated” the phrases he stole from a Portuguese-French phrase book. This exercise yielded such useful English expressions as:

  • At what clock dine him?
  • I am catched cold.
  • I have put my stockings outward.

About four years ago, an online advertisement heralded the opening of a new shop in an upscale California mall. The Italian designer (rhymes with nada) announced:

“The store will sell the conform residence’s ready-to-wear as well as the disdainful little products for both group as well as women. The entrances have been framed by the radiant, polycarbonate curtain. The delicate, immature board lines the walls. The women’s area contains seat lonesome by ivory tanned hide as well as hazed mirrors. The furnishings for the men’s area underline rosewood as well as discriminating steel.”

I visited the store, but did not find any disdainful little products (unless you count the sales people). The seat did not seem especially lonesome, and I didn’t observe any acts of discrimination by the steel—but to be fair—I was distracted by the hazed mirrors.

English-speakers find humor in the badly translated efforts of others. But how often do we consider how our “translated” text is perceived in other languages? If, by definition, English-only speakers don’t understand the target language, we can’t know how bad the translation is.

Some companies try to cut costs by machine-translating their product information. But then they don’t spring for the extra bucks it takes to have it edited by a native speaker. Rather than selling their products, they only provide international customers with a good laugh.

The lesson? If you speak nothing but English, good translation requires at least one other person. Someone fluent in the other language involved. A dictionary or a software product might be helpful, but it takes a human to protect you from making a fool of yourself.

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Old words, new tech

old phoneToday’s children probably wonder about some of the technical terms we use. Names for obsolete technology somehow manage to stick around long after their antecedents lie, refusing to decompose, in a landfill.

When applied to the new technology that took its place, the old name requires some explanation. At least people finally stopped referring to removable storage media as floppy disks. I last saw a 5-1/4″ flexible disk in about 1989, but the term persisted long after disks had long ceased to be floppy.

If you‘ve been around small children lately, you’re probably amazed at how tech-savvy they are. The little rug-rats are clever all right, but they don’t know everything. They need us to explain many things. Why we use certain terms. Where those words came from. Why we wore orange polyester in the 70s … but I digress.

Current examples include:

  • Pick up the phone – Hang up the phone – Dial 1-800-999-9999

How many kids have ever used a phone you can pick up, hang up, or dial?

  • Answering machine picks up on the fourth ring

There is no physical machine, and the phone plays a digitally recorded tone (or even a popular song). No bell, no ringing. Although the ringtone might be a digital recording of an old-fashioned phone ringing. No wonder they’re confused.

  • Cc: line in email

Carbon copy. Yes, years ago, we made physical copies on a typewriter with this nasty coated paper that rubbed off on your fingers, clothes, and other pages. No, really. We did. So what does that have to do with email?

  • Stay home and watch the tube.

How long has it been since televisions had tubes of any kind?

  • Tape your favorite TV show

Older children might remember the VCR, but most have experienced only digital recording. So when they hear this phrase, they might wonder where the tape is. It’s like magic, and it’s invisible, somewhere inside the TV. Or some other device. Anyway, there’s nothing to snarl, tangle, rewind, label, or store in boxes.


Just for fun, find a smart eight-year-old and try to explain why we still say:

  • The accident was filmed by a witness with a cell phone.
  • Roll down your car window.
  • That singer has her own label.
  • Her husband owns a record company.
  • On the home screen, click one of the radio buttons.
  • My motorcycle has a 300-HP engine.

“Seriously, Daddy … HORSE … power?”

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