How Important are Teachers?

1062_4347856Think back a bit. Can you remember your favorite high school teacher? Especially the one who taught you how to value, enjoy, and use the English language? The one who may, or may not have been your English teacher?

I certainly remember mine. She was a dragon of a woman – all of 4’10”, and maybe 70 pounds on a good day – who struck terror into the hearts of those gargantuan football players, pierced each student to the very core with her sharp blue eyes – and by sheer dint of her will, taught us English! Well beyond retirement age, she had stayed on at my high school, almost as though the administration had forgotten there was anyone at all occupying her classroom. We definitely knew she was there.

And what a great teacher she was. How fortunate we were to have studied with her. She was fair. She gave simple, honest feedback so that you knew exactly what she was saying. She taught so that you had to understand her if you were paying any attention at all. And heaven help you if you were not!

Who was your favorite teacher? The one you really learned from, although he or she might not have been the funniest, the easiest grader, or the one who was not very strict about discipline in the classroom?

I had a great email from a reader last week, responding to the Use Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation to Demonstrate Professionalism and Build Credibility with Your Business Writing post. He said, “I could not agree more. My colleague is quick to spot grammatical errors – and lets me know if I’ve made one….”

Harry remembers Mr. Benjamin, his high school English teacher, who “…taught us that any verb with ‘re’ (e.g., report, refer, recycle) does not require ‘back’ (e.g., ‘Bill will report back to the major)….” He concludes with, “…just a peeve of mine based on the profound influence of a terrific sophomore English teacher.” A memorable teacher with lasting influence indeed.

Referring to a very bright, very accomplished radio host, Harry commented, “Intelligence notwithstanding, he stumbles over personal pronouns….Every time I hear him…I pause and wonder just a bit, ‘so how smart is he?’”  (Click here for an easy to check whether this is an error you may be making.)

Concluding his very thought-provoking email, Harry added, “…accurate grammar…reflects a deep respect for one’s reader. Getting the grammar…right removes one barrier to…clarity – and it avoids confusing or annoying some of our most attentive readers.”

There you have it, my friends – not just from me (see previous post) but from a highly successful veteran consultant as well.

So who was your favorite teacher – the one you really learned from? What did he or she say or do to “anchor” those lessons about writing in your mind? How can you help your co-workers, friends, and family to succeed on the job, or at school?

Let us hear from you! I look forward to sharing your comments.

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Use Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation to Demonstrate Professionalism and Build Credibility With Your Business Writing

“Join Mary and I for a week in the Tropics,” the announcer said. And I wondered to myself how many listeners had heard the grammatical error. For that matter, how many would care? I would guess that few listeners would give it a second thought if they had heard it, and fewer still would care very much.

Bad Grammar gets a bad reactionBut in the business situation you will find many readers who do notice grammatical errors. To these readers you may look less than professional, and perhaps even less than credible, possibly to the point of making the difference between your getting the interview – or not. Or between your company or organization getting the opportunity to work with this customer or client – or not.

Using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation not only clarifies your meaning, but also provides the more professional appearance that builds confidence in you, or in the organization you represent. So what are some of the most common errors business writers make?

1. To begin with, as you probably have already figured out, to be grammatically correct, the announcer should have said, “Join Mary and me for a week in the Tropics.” The easiest way I know to identify an error like this one is to cover up the first of the two words, e.g., “and I” so that the sentence then begins with “Join Mary…” which sounds fine. But when you block out “Mary and” the first part of that sentence becomes, “Join…I for a week in the Tropics,” you can easily hear the error

The same goes for a sentence with a prepositional phrase, e.g., “For you and I to make that decision, we’ll need more information.” Try blocking out “you and.” Then block out “and I.” Do you hear the difference?

2. Another common error is to use the plural “their” to refer to a singular subject, e.g., “Each of the staff was asked for their opinion.” In this case, “their” should be replaced with “his or her,” if there were either both men and women on the staff, or if you don’t know the gender makeup of the staff. If the staff was composed of all women, you could say “her.” If the staff was made up of all men, you could say “his.” (Note: In the above example, what we are talking about is the singular “each.” The prepositional phrase “of the staff” is used to describe, or clarify “Each.”)

3. Using an overly formal style, such as you might use for a term paper, thesis, or dissertation, can create confusion, and misunderstanding. Further, for your writing to be most effective, you will want to use an appropriate tone – the relationship the writer sets up or reinforces with the reader. How do you want the reader to think of you?

For the most part, if you want your business writing to be read, the best course for today’s reader is to write so that your business writing will be quick, comfortable reading.

4. Finally for today, there is a plethora of words that are confused, or misused. We talk about many of them in our “Quick Tips” videos each week. Words like “fewer” (when you can count them), and “less” (things that are intangible, or hard to describe, e.g., “Harry spent less time using the new process,” or things you can measure, e.g., “There is less water in that cup than in this one.”

And words like “Its” vs. “It’s”; “affect” vs. “effect”; “their,” “there,” and “they’re” – the list goes on, and on, and on….

Send along your favorites, and let’s talk about them!

 

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Do You Run, or Leap? Crawl, or Creep?

MOuntain BikerLet’s talk about that old workhorse, that four-letter word, that indispensible element in every sentence: the verb.

So what is a verb, and how do you use it? Perhaps you remember your English teacher telling you, “A verb is a word that expresses action (throw, run, examine, read, write), or state of being (is, are, was, seem).”

In a typical sentence (not always the most useful, but certainly the most common), the verb comes between the subject and the object, e.g., Mary (subject) throws (verb) the ball (object). You can also think of it as who (subject) does what (verb) to what (object). This of course, is for an active sentence. More about that later.

While we could talk about the differences between types of verbs (there are about a dozen types), Let’s concentrate today on how to use verbs for effect.

1. To add spice, and enhance your writing with greater clarity, use specific verbs, verbs that go a long way to creating the picture you want your reader to “see.” Paint a picture for your reader.

You could, for example, say,

“Jerry went down the hill.”

To be a bit more specific, you could say,

“Jerry ran down the hill.”

A bit better, but let’s be even more specific,

“Jerry raced down the hill.”

2. You can paint an even clearer picture with a step-by-step description, adding additional “picture verbs,”

“Jerry raced down the hill, tripped, stumbled, caught himself, and kept running as if the devil himself were about to devour him.”

In this case, we’ve used a couple of words with verbs to help paint the picture – “himself” with caught, and “kept” with running, and then the “as if” phrase to complete our picture.

You’ll note that in the above example, we’ve added words as we paint the whole picture for the reader.

3. Frequently, just exchanging one verb for another (“ran” for “went,” and then “raced” for “ran” in the above example) works well, and is all that is needed to paint a sufficient picture for more concise business writing. For example, you could say:

George sat at his desk.

Or

George slumped at his desk.

For tighter writing, you may want to avoid verbs like is, was, are, were…. E.g.,

MaryAnne is a person who plans for unexpected events.

Or

MaryAnne plans for unexpected events.

4. You could use a verb that “shows”:

Barbara is taller than her co-workers.

Or

Barbara towers over her co-workers.

5. Finally, that familiar grammar checker item: passive verbs. An active sentence is one where someone/something is, will, or has done something – an actor and an action, e.g., “Alex grasps the situation.” A passive sentence is one where someone/something is being done to, e.g., “The situation was grasped by Alex.”

Note that the active sentence in the above example contains four words, while the passive sentence must contain six words to provide the same information.

Passive sentences tend to be longer, slower moving, and impersonal. For better comprehension, easier reading, and fewer words, use active verbs to create active sentences.

We invite you to subscribe to our blog, and to our newsletter.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Love a Mystery? Here are Some Clues

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I’ve always thought of those magic bits – prefixes – the beginnings of many words, as clues to the mystery of what in the world that word could mean.

For one example: You go to the doctor. Your doctor says you are suffering from hypothyroidism. Does that mean you will get a prescription and be taking thyroid pills for it?

For another: If someone tells you, “That was an atypical result.” What should you expect the next time?

Let’s look at a few common prefixes:

• Hypo – as in hypodermic, or hypothyroidism. The prefix “hypo” means “under.” So it’s easy to figure out that, for example, hypodermic means under the skin (“hypo”=under, and “derm”=skin).

In similar fashion, hypothyroidism must mean that you have under (or less than) the required amount of thyroid. Your doctor could decide to write you a prescription.

• Under is also a prefix that means beneath. For example, underground, or underlayment.

• Hyper – as in hyperactive. The prefix “hyper” means “over or above.”

• A (as well as “an”) means not, or without. So, if you got an atypical result, you would not necessarily assume you would get the same result next time. In fact, it would be “atypical” if you did!

(Note that il, ir, in, and im also mean “not.” For examples, illegal, irregular, incorrect, and immoral.)

• Ante means “before,” as in antedate, or anteroom. But note that:

• Anti means “against” as in anticommunist. “Ant” also means “against,” as in antacid.

• Multi and Poly both mean “many,” as in multiply, or multiform; or polygon (a figure with many sides.)

• Extra and Extro mean “beyond, or “outside.” Examples are extraordinary, extrovert, and extracurricular.

Numbers also come into play. For example:

• Deca means “ten,” e.g., decade.

• Di means “two, or twice,” e.g., divide, dioxide, ditto.

• Hex means “six,” e.g., hexagon, a six-sided figure.

Words can be fun to investigate – to put the clues together to solve the mystery. First, of course, comes the prefix. “Pre” meaning “before.” The prefix, depending on its meaning, has the power to change the intent, or the sense of the root, or base word.

Next comes the root – the base on which to build other words. We’ve mentioned a few of the root words in the examples above. Finding the root of the word is a major clue to solving the word meaning mystery. We’ll save that for another discussion.

The final clues come with the suffix. This final bit at the end of the word (e.g., “ly,” “ology,” “al”), can be very helpful in telling what kind of a word it is – a noun, adverb, adjective, and so forth – as well as adding to the reader’s understanding of the meaning of the word.

There you have the clues to solve the mystery. Happy sleuthing!

We invite you to subscribe to our blog, and to our newsletter.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, Toll-free at 888-634-4875 or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Hello 2014 – Fare Well, 2013!

Over last weekend, I’ll bet many of you, like me, were busy packing away ornaments, deciding which candles can be used again, and trying to find a youth organization to give our retired trees to for recycling. Or at least, again, like me – thinking about it!

And now it’s serious back-to-work time. Time to try something new. I’m not quite ready for 2014 yet – what happened to 2010, anyway? So, with a final salute, let’s wrap up 2013 with the Best of the Blog – a short collection of my top nineteen posts of that year, as judged by the number of “likes” each garnered. An “e-book” for want of a better name, and the first e-book I’ve ever done.

I’d like to give this compilation to you as a thought-starter. A new way of thinking about your writing. Or maybe as a way to address a New Year’s resolution to strengthen your on-the-job writing, making it faster, easier, and more effective. Totally free. Please email me (gail@gailtycer.com), and I’ll send you the free link.

We’ll talk about:

1. If You’ve Ever Said, “I Wasn’t Good at English in School…” Read This!

2. How to Say It When You Can’t Think of What to Say

3. Shorter, Fewer Emails

4. Strategic Email

5. Meeting Minutes

6. Writing a Successful Instruction

7. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Getting Started

8. Writing a Powerful Presentation – Finishing Strong

9. How to Write a Business Thank You Note

10. Nine Places to Find Ideas for Your Blog Post

11. “Spin”

12. Hide, Hedge, Mask, and Cloud?

13. How to Offend, Anger, or Frustrate Without Realizing It

14. How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

15. Stronger, More Powerful Sentences

16. What Was That Again?

17. Words That Create Mix-Ups

18. Words, Words, Words…

19. Fatigue-Reducing, Confidence-Building Phrases

We’ll also include a few of our weekly Quick Tips, answering some of those pesky grammar questions.

So here’s to 2013, wrapped up with a bow – and on to a great new year: 2014. Let me know how I can help you to achieve your business writing goals this year. I’m totally committed to helping you write less, say more – and get results in 2014.

If you like what you’re reading, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations, executive coaching, consulting, and writing services. To discuss how we can help, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com

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How Many Common Writing Errors Do You Make?

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Let’s talk a bit about grammar and usage errors today. Can you find the errors in the following three sentences?

1. Woodland Caribou: Less than 65 roam America’s mountains and mesas.

2.  As soon as they get the test scores back, her or her assistant will call you.

3.  They thought living in Canada would be a lot different than living in Portland, Oregon.

Here are the answers:

1. The error here is “Less.” When you can count them, it’s “Fewer,” so this sentence should read: Woodland Caribou: Fewer than 65 roam America’s mountains and mesas.  Use “Less” when it’s something you can measure (volume): There is less coffee in the blue cup than in the red one.

If you thought the problem was the capitalized word following the colon, then when do you capitalize the word following a colon? Capitalize the next word after a colon when it is a proper noun, or when it is the first word of a complete sentence. If it is part of a series, and not a complete sentence, it should be lower case.

How about “65”? Numbers nine and lower are spelled out. Numbers 10 and higher are shown in Arabic numerals.

2. This one is easy, but I included it to give you a shortcut. The error, of course, is the first “her,” which should be “she.” The shortcut: When you have a situation like this one, just cover up the first of the two words or phrases in question. Cover up the first “her,” and this part of the sentence reads, “…her assistant will call you.” Sounds fine. But cover up “or her assistant,” and this part of the sentence will read, “…her will call you.” Clearly not fine. You can hear that it should be “…she will call you.” The sentence should read:

As soon as they get the test scores back, she or her assistant will call you.

3. The error here is that things are “different from,” and not “different than.”

And yes, the comma needs to be between Portland, and Oregon

Hope you’ve enjoyed this short quiz. If you’d like to test yourself further, visit our archives by clicking here.

 

If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe to our blog.

We’ll be happy to bring a Gail Tycer workshop to your organization. To discuss a workshop for your people at your location or ours, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming meeting, call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com

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Business Writing and Free Samples?

It was one of those glorious early spring days. A day to take your kids, or maybe your grandkids, someplace they love to go. To do something you all love to do. We looked at each other, and with one voice shouted, “Lunch at Costco!”Free Samples

Of course it could have been any other wholesale grocery warehouse, or for that matter, any other grocery store, but Costco is the closest to us, and they offer a gracious plenty of just what we were looking for. So what makes this grocery store so special on Saturdays? The menu.

That’s right: the menu! But…

The menu is terrific! Your choice of exquisite appetizers; magnificent main courses; beneficent beverages; and delightful desserts! There are cheeses from distant places, and handmade domestic cheese from closer by. Breads from artisan bakeries. Foods we’ve never tasted, from exotic places whose very names may be new to us. And the best part of it all? We can have all of them. We can taste each of them. Free!

They are all there in bountiful plenty: Free Samples! And if you like them, they are available. Just buy them and take them home. They are yours.

So what is so special about free samples, and what do free samples have to do with business writing?

Everything you write is a free sample.

“Free Samples” of your business writing, whether you intend it or not, for better or for worse, carry with them the potential for being your most cost-effective marketing tool. Your best, easiest-to implement customer satisfaction solution. Your strongest team-building technique. And your best way to demonstrate your professionalism, credibility, and hire-me-now employability.

Or not.

What you write on the job not only reflects on you, and your professionalism and credibility, but on your prospective employer. No wonder how you present yourself – in writing – on that job application is so important to that prospective employer.

Of course writing will be critical to who is chosen for an interview, and ultimately who gets the job.

Where else are free samples used in business writing at this very minute?

Coupling the newest technology with one of the most traditional enticements, today’s marketers have carried free samples, demonstrating their products or their capabilities, into the 21st century – apparently, for the most part, with reasonable success. We all want to see what we’re getting before we buy. Free webinars, teleseminars, and white papers abound online and are downloadable, in case you miss the scheduled time. Newsletters, Blog sites, and videos are readily available, and you can choose to subscribe to receive these “free samples” on a regular basis.

A local plumber has thought outside the box. Speculating on the greatest inconvenience a plumber can cause the customer – making him or her either take a day off work, or hire someone to wait for the plumber to arrive – he sets a specific appointment time, and advertises a $50 discount if his plumber is 15 minutes late. A free sample of this company’s responsiveness to the customer, rather than the other way around.

These are obvious free samples. Yet the way you write every email, every hand-written note, every instruction, every in-house memo – the way you respond to every question or explanation on a day-to-day basis, both internally and externally, can inspire confidence, build trust, and make your reader want to work with you.

Or not.

For this week, let me ask you to think about these “free samples.” Think about what your business writing is saying about you, and about the organization you represent.

  1. Is your intention clear in the first paragraph?  Have you made your point quickly, clearly, concisely? If the reader read no further, would he or she “get it”?
  2. Have you considered what this piece of business writing must accomplish? What results you need to have? Should this piece reasonably be expected to do it?
  3. Have you considered the all-important tone you will use for this piece? Did you succeed in creating, or reinforcing an existing relationship? Is this the appropriate relationship for this issue?
  4. Have you organized your information in a logical sequence, with one thought or point building to the next?

 We appreciate your recommending a Gail Tycer business writing workshop for your workplace, or a shorter presentation for an upcoming professional meeting.

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Words that Create Mix-Ups – Part II

Let’s take a quick look at some more of those commonly misspelled, misused, or misunderstood words or phrases that can be such a problem:

How do you use “i.e.,” and “e.g.”?  There is a difference!

One way to remember which is which is to look at their Latin roots. My dictionary tells me that each phrase is an abbreviation for a Latin phrase: i.e. (id est) means “that is”; while e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Each, according to the AP style guide, is always followed by a comma.

To confuse the issue a bit, “I.E.” or “IE” both stand for the title “Industrial Engineer.”

You may have wondered about “pro-,” “anti-,” and “non-”

While each is most often used as part of an ordinary word, e.g., produce, anticipate, or nonsense, each may also be used to coin a new word, in which case, “pro” generally means for;  “anti” means against; and “non” means not.

Thus you have pro-peace; anti-war; and non-inflammatory. There are several rules and exceptions, so it’s always best to look up your specific word, and how to use it, in your dictionary and perhaps style guide as well.

And speaking of the need to standardize on a specific dictionary or style guide,

How about “bi-” and “semi-”?

“Bi-” means “every other,” while “semi-” means “twice.” So, when you say your newsletter is published “bimonthly,” that means it comes out every other month. But if you are really ambitious, and your newsletter is published “semimonthly,” your newsletter comes out twice a month (AP Style Guide) Whether these words are hyphenated or not depends on your dictionary or style guide.

There are some tricky exceptions. For example, “biannual” and “semiannual” are both words, mean the same, and are correctly spelled without the hyphen.  You could issue a policy update biannually (twice a year) – no hyphen, or semiannually (also twice a year).

To further confuse this issue, “biennial” means every two years. No wonder English is so difficult to learn!

Now for an easy one: “reject,” or “refute”:

Often used interchangeably, these two words have very different meanings. “Reject” means to refuse to accept. So you could say, “I totally reject the entire concept, and that is the end of it!”

On the other hand, if you just like a good argument, you could “refute” what someone has said, or offer proof that it was wrong, inaccurate, mistaken, or just a plain old lie! So you could say, “I am about to refute the accuracy of what he said: to prove that he has, indeed, lied about this matter.”

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Thank Your Favorite English Teacher!

I hope everyone reading today’s entry will take a moment to drop a note or call to thank your favorite English teacher. Without him or her none of us would be where we are today. So bless that English teacher for giving us the sound, solid basic writing skills that have helped us so very much so far. The skills that allow us to build from them to move forward and take the next step. The skills that allow us to prove our professionalism and demonstrate our credibility.

In my business writing workshops, I often hear stories about a participant’s favorite English teacher. For example:

We were discussing prepositions one day, and how the last word of a prepositional phrase may cause confusion, resulting in a plural verb with a singular subject. This can happen because the last word of the prepositional phrase, often located next to the subject it describes, was plural, while the subject of the sentence was actually singular. One of the class members said, “My English teacher told us that ‘a preposition is a word that describes any way a bird can fly.’”

While this is not strictly true, it is fairly accurate, and is somewhat easier than memorizing the entire list of prepositions in the English language, which is not a bad idea either. (If you would like to take a look at the list of prepositions, visit my BusinessWritingZone.com website.)

It’s amazing how much can be learned from class members! I hope you will share your favorite teacher story, too. Just comment, or e-mail me. Thanks, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

© 2013 Gail Tycer • www.GailTycer.com

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Blogger Tip #1: Make it readable

This week, we’re welcoming blogger Marilyn Tycer. Marilyn is a graphic designer and blogger, and we’ve asked her to share some of her tips for bloggers.

Tip #1: Make it readable.

Now that you have a subject for your blog, and some ideas for posts, what comes next? Start typing! But it’s important to take care to craft your blog posts into something readable. So before you hit the “Publish” button, take a moment to revise your writing. While the subject of your blog might be popular, your blog probably won’t get a lot of followers if your writing is hard to read or bland. Continue reading

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