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Ducks in a Row: Cost Of A Comma

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

https://www.flickr.com/photos/allenthepostman/2223927152/

Yesterday I promised to share how the lack of a common comma lost a lawsuit upon appeal.

A Maine court ruling in a case about overtime pay and dairy delivery didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it hinged on one missing comma. (…) On March 13, a US court of appeals determined that certain clauses of Maine’s overtime laws are grammatically ambiguous. Because of that lack of clarity, the five drivers have won their lawsuit against Oakhurst, and are eligible for unpaid overtime.

And, as every company knows, overtime is costly.

The comma in question isn’t a true commoner, not with an Oxford University Press pedigree; it is a serial comma and one might even consider it a titled comma.

It was the relationship between the comma and lists that housed the seeds of lawsuit destruction. To clarify,

According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued.

(…) all the other exempted activities were listed as gerunds, words ending with “-ing”: Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing. The word “distribution,” they argued, was therefore not intended to be one of the items in the list.

Unlike me, my ESL clients often err on the side of overuse, whereas for years I deleted commas after ‘and’ and ‘or’, but no longer.

Now I consider the actual content and context and, like the court, determine the meaning before using the delete key.

Image credit: allen watkin

Golden Oldies: A Lesson in Capitals

Monday, April 10th, 2017

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies are a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

Have you noticed how boring/confusing/annoying/embarrassing/etc. so much content, emails and other written communications are these days?

Or are you happy communicating by text and feel everyone should just forget dumb, outmoded stuff like grammar, capitols, punctuation, and shoving it out the door fast?

If you’re in the latter category I feel sorry for you. I’ve written many times about the value of good writing along with the importance of reading as a basis for it.

I don’t mean polished and professional; I mean the ability to put words together in a way they won’t be misunderstood.

If you think that it really doesn’t matter read the following 2012 post and join me tomorrow to see how a lowly comma cost a company big time.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/scottiet812/3064819572/My client/friend, EMANIO [now Quarrio] CEO KG Charles-Harris, has been a guest poster here; he’s received several hat tips for sending links to information used in various posts and he just racked up another one.

I’ve written before about the importance of details when writing; details like commas, periods and capitals.

But the note KG forwarded drives home the importance of capitals—unforgettably.

Miki, I received this from a friend who is an English Professor and thought you would appreciate it; it’s short and to the point.

In the world of hi-tech gadgetry, I’ve noticed that more and more people who send text messages and emails have long forgotten the art of capital letters.

For those of you who fall into this category, please take note of the following statement: “Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.”

Thanks, KG; graphic word imagery does get the point across, even to teens.

Flickr image credit: ScottieT812

Ducks in a Row: The Education of Google Translate

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/demiace/190365145/

If you’re a regular reader you know I’m not a big Google fan. Google isn’t all bad or all good, but, as with any entity, a mix of both.

Their most recent big score on the good side is the effort to reduce, or at least not promote, fake news.

Google engineers and executives are disturbed by how its algorithm promotes offensive and fake content on the web — such as a Holocaust denial site reaching the top result for certain searches about the Holocaust — and they are doing something about it, search expert and editor of Search Engine Land Danny Sullivan reports.

In a different vein is the article KG sent that’s in the pattern of Tracy Kidder’s fascinating looks at the stories behind major technology developments.

It’s the story of the people and effort to radically change Google translate using AI.

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

It’s not a book, but it is a long article — long, fascinating and well worth your time to read.

Which is why this post is very short.

I sincerely hope you will take time to read both articles.

Flickr image credit: JC

If the Shoe Fits: the Perils of Auto-Correct

Friday, May 27th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mToday is kind of holiday — mentally, if not physically — it is the start of a 3-day weekend for those not in startups or retail.

And even many startups will ease off and do a bit more fun stuff and partying.

That said, I decided to add a little to your levity, while subtly providing a lesson learned.

How often do you double-check your content before sending a message from your phone? I’m not talking about spelling, per se, but the way iPhone and Android auto-correct can totally change the meaning of what you’ve written.

To drive the point home, along with adding the promised holiday levity, here is an example, which you may have seen, since it is making the rounds on the internet.

The message:
Hi Fred, this is Alan next door. I have a confession to make. I’ve been riddled with guilt these past few months and have been trying to pluck up the courage to tell you to your face, but I am at least now telling you in text as I can’t live with myself a moment longer without you knowing.

The truth is I have been sharing your wife, day and night when you’re not around. In fact, probably more than you. I haven’t been getting it at home recently, but that’s no excuse, I know. The temptation was just too much. I can no longer live with the guilt and I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies and forgive me.  It won’t happen again.  Please suggest a fee for usage, and I’ll pay you.

Regards, Alan.

Fred’s response:
Feeling insulted and betrayed, grabbed his gun, and shot his neighbor dead. He returned home where he poured himself a stiff drink and sat down on the sofa.

He took out his phone where he saw he has a second message from his neighbor:

Second message:
Hi Fred, This is Alan next door again. Sorry about the typo on my last text. I expect you figured it out anyway, and that you noticed that darned Auto-Correct changed ‘Wi-Fi’ To ‘Wife.’  Technology hey?

Regards, Alan.

Need I say more?

Image credit: HikingArtist

Golden Oldies: No Reading = Poor Writing

Monday, December 21st, 2015

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time. [This particular post is a follow-up to last Thursday. Sadly, I’ve already seen resumes and business emails that are almost as bad as the imaginary cover letter below.] Read other Golden Oldies here

booksI harp a lot on the importance of clarity in written communications and the lack of good writing skills, especially in Gen X and Y. I’m not the only one, B-schools and corporations are spending time and money trying to improve them.

I think part of the problem is that these generations grew up on TV and the Net instead of on books. Obviously, not all, but too many.

Reading helps good language usage sink in—people who read absorb how to put words together without even realizing it.

It doesn’t matter what you read; it doesn’t have to be classed as ‘worthwhile’ or ‘good’ literature as long as you enjoy it. Whether it’s adventure, biography, fiction, mysteries (my favorite), fantasy (another favorite) or science fiction you’ll get a ‘feel’ for how words work.

If writing skills keep deteriorating then in twenty years when Gen Y is the bad old establishment a cover letter may look like this—keyboarding

Subject: Resimay

To hoom it mae cunsern,
I waunt to apply for the job what I saw in the paper. I can Type real quik wit only one finggar and do sum a counting.
I think I am good on the phone and no I am a pepole person, Pepole really seam to respond to me well.
Im lookin for a Jobb as a reporter but it musent be to complicaited.
I no my spelling is not to good but find that I Offen can get a job thru my persinalety. My salerery is open so we can discus wat you want to pay me and wat you think that I am werth,
I can start imeditely. Thank you in advanse fore yore anser.
hopifuly Yore best aplicant so farr.
Sinseerly,
PAT

Ducks in a Row: Don’t Do As Sephora

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/34804353@N02/5743701159

As workloads have increased, companies are pushing people to move faster and faster—often to the company’s detriment.

At the same time employee engagement (AKA, giving a damn) has been plummeting like a rock.

This is especially true when it comes to written communications.

Whether errors are from lack of knowledge or carelessness doesn’t change their effect on readers.

Some errors just make a company’s workforce look ignorant and uneducated (here’s a list of 15 common errors), but some can make it a laughingstock and cost big-time.              

Consider the effect of a spelling error on Sephora.

In the lead up to its launch in Australia Sephora has made a doozy of a spelling mistake, leaving out the ‘o’ in its #countdowntobeauty hashtag on Facebook.

Social media is having a field day and it’s doubtful it will go away any time soon.

Obviously, the error wasn’t intentional; it’s more likely the result of not taking time to proof the copy, whether from being overloaded or just sloppy.

Either way, the damage is done.

Here are three simple things you can do to avoid finding your company in a similar situation.

  • Spell and grammar check should be the default on all company computers—executives and senior personnel aren’t immune to errors.
  • For critical content, writing and proofing should be done by different people; the second person is less likely to unconsciously correct an error.
  • Budget enough time to allow for proofing; reading a sentence backwards makes it easier to catch errors.

Flickr image credit: Jean-Daniel Echenard

Content is… Everything?

Monday, September 16th, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10ch/3347658610I read an article in ADWEEK explaining why any content a company creates should be considered marketing and the importance it all has to building the brand.

Content is marketing, we all know that. But marketing is also content. So are HR manuals, social media policies, annual reports, analyst reports, research studies, customer evaluations, product reviews, employee testimonials, customer testimonials, videos from conferences, CEO blogs, tweets, updates and check-ins.

The article reminded me of something I wrote last year that dovetails perfectly.

Why are so many blogs and biz books overwritten; saying the same thing over and over as if repeating the message for an extra hundred or more pages will make it more powerful?

Even fiction often follows the same pattern.

Why is so much content garbage?

Why do people insist that more is better?

Why do they assume that using a word with multiple syllables will make them sound more intelligent and impress the reader?

Websites are worse, both B2B and especially B2C.

Way overwritten and in long dense paragraphs with the vital information buried.
Has it gone completely unnoticed that almost nobody reads anymore?

The majority scan and in a hurry, spending 5-10 seconds to decide if they want to spend the average of 30 seconds on that page.

And those of us who do read are easily annoyed by bad design and the garbage that passes for content.

The problem, of course, is that a healthy ‘data-ink ratio’, which means saying a lot clearly in as few words as possible, is hard work.

I probably shouldn’t complain since I offer a service called Clarity REwriting that contributes significantly to my revenues, but still.

It’s easy to avoid dense, opaque, overwritten books and blogs, but when I need information from a website I am stuck.

So do yourself (and me) a favor.

Think about the data-ink ratio when you develop your content; doing so will improve your business.

I’ll add that consideration applies just as much to your internal docs.

Some of the worst examples come from HR, but it’s often not their fault, since so much HR content is developed by lawyers and very few of employees are fluent in legalese.

DISCLAIMER: What follows is an ad.

If you need assistance with the clarity of your content call or write me (the contact info is in the right hand column); you’ll find I’m fast and more affordable than you might imagine.

Flickr image credit: 10ch

Why I Value “Old Media”

Monday, August 20th, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanwalsh/3708901115/A note from a reader posed this question.

Although I find the articles you link to interesting and probably would never see them if you didn’t I do not understand why you don’t link to more bloggers and other online stuff instead of the NY Times, Fortune, Wired, Inc, etc.

He obviously does read me, since that’s a very accurate list of media to which I frequently link, so it’s a fair question.

I partly answered it in an old post referring to what I term the games required by social media, but there are much larger reasons—facts, depth and veracity.

Let me give you an example.

On August 6th the NYT published an article about HCA, a giant for profit hospital chain taken private by a group of private equity firms and since gone public again. HCA was involved in a Medicare fraud case and paid $1.7 billion in fines and repayments; now it’s back on the hot seat for performing unnecessary cardiac procedures to drive up profits.
(The bold is mine.)

Details about the procedures and the company’s knowledge of them are contained in thousands of pages of confidential memos, e-mail correspondence among executives, transcripts from hearings and reports from outside consultants examined by The Times, as well as interviews with doctors and others. A review of those communications reveals that rather than asking whether patients had been harmed or whether regulators needed to be contacted, hospital officials asked for information on how the physicians’ activities affected the hospitals’ bottom line.

A week later The Times followed up with another article showing how HCA has become a role model for hospital profitability; not better care, but more money.

I’m sure the blogging and commentary world that follows Medicare and healthcare in general has been weighing in, but what they don’t do is the research.

They don’t have the time, money, skill, patience and probably not the desire to wade through the paperwork.

So-called old media also seems to set the ethical bar higher and with greater consequences to those who choose to lie and cheat.

Finally, bloggers and commentators read these investigative stories and offer their opinions and spin on them just as I do.

Many of these have good value, it’s just that I would rather discuss and opine on the original than comment on the commentary.

Flickr image credit: IvanWalsh.com

Reasonable Grammar

Monday, July 30th, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/g_kat26/4000171211/Last week I provided a graphic example of the importance of using capitals when writing; one I believed would be easily remembered and act as a cautionary warning.

Some call me a fanatic because, whether written or spoken, bad grammar in native English speakers makes me nuts, but I believe it’s a reasonable level of fanaticism.

I do expect people who graduated high school or the equivalent, let alone college, to know the difference between to, too and two, it’s and its and lose and loose; nor do I shrug it off when they insert a comma every three words for no apparent reason.

This is especially true in business where I also assume (fantasize?) that they will at least spell check the email or document and do a quick re-read to catch typos like form instead of from.

But I am not a perfectionist as is Kyle Wiens, who won’t hire for any position in his company—from writer to programmer—if they can’t pass a grammar test; nor do I agree with most of those who voiced the opposite in comments.

Moreover, while I believe that my grammar-in-action rates in the high nineties, I doubt I could pass the grammar test Wiens uses when interviewing.

Just because I use grammar correctly doesn’t mean I know all the rules behind doing so—nor do I care.

If you consider all this as lacking much substance consider that Wiens’ post, published a week ago by the Harvard Business Review, has garnered in excess of 2000-and-counting comments.

Interesting argument, but to me, Wiens and his detractors are perfect examples of what’s really wrong in the workplace these days.

Too many managers and workers are evangelizing a black and white, zero-tolerance policy about [whatever] and then doing their best to enforce it within their world.

Extremism leaves little room for being reasonable, which is the approach taken by Madonnahamel when he says, There’s a difference between being anal and being professional.”

Flickr image credit: g_kat26

A Lesson in Capitals

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/scottiet812/3064819572/My client/friend, EMANIO CEO KG Charles-Harris, has been a guest poster here; he’s received several hat tips for sending links to information used in various posts and he just wracked up another one.

I’ve written before about the importance of details when writing; details like commas, periods and capitals.

But the note KG forwarded drives home the importance of capitals—unforgettably.

Miki, I received this from a friend who is an English Professor and thought you would appreciate it; it’s short and to the point.

In the world of hi-tech gadgetry, I’ve noticed that more and more people who send text messages and emails have long forgotten the art of capital letters.

For those of you who fall into this category, please take note of the following statement: “Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.”

Thanks, KG; graphic word imagery does get the point across, even to teens.

Flickr image credit: ScottieT812

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