Sunday, July 31, 2005 A Dictionary of Dictionaries may be sufficient for most writers seeking a quick definition of a word or phrase. For the more specialized or particular searchers, however, may be more useful. It makes available to the searcher some 5 million words in more than 900 online dictionaries from diverse disciplines throughout the world.

As an example of how OneLook works, type in the word writing, and you'll receive not only quick and accurate definitions, but links to 49 dictionaries which carry that entry. Here is the link:

Friday, July 29, 2005


If you could not read the headline as “For Your Information: Acronym Finder, Just in Case,” then reading acronyms may give you the heebie-jeebies. For this reason, you might want to check out The Acronym Finder, a searchable database of more than 2,426,000 abbreviations and acronyms about computers, technology, telecommunications, and military acronyms and abbreviations. Here is the link:

Saturday, July 23, 2005

More on Keeping Emotions in Check

To remember the value of keeping emotions in check when crafting a business message, a writer should need nothing more than to live up to the Chinese proverb, "The palest ink is better than the best memory."

No matter how upset you are, anger does not belong in business writing. After you cool off, your angry document lives on. Let your high emotions motivate you to write the first draft--but then sit on your hands and don't press the send button. Weed out the pointless anger or disappointment in favor of purposefull, direct language. Move the business forward!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

On Placing Question and Exclamation Marks with Quotations

Logic may dictate that questioning about a question we need two question marks, or when exclaiming about an exclamation we need two exclamation marks. But forget about logic. Here are the rules:

1. Place question marks or exclamation marks outside the quotes when asking a question or exclaiming about a quote that is a statement. Examples:
  • Did you say, "We are leaving at noon"?
  • Stop saying, "We are leaving at noon"!
2. Place question marks or exclamation marks inside the quotes if the quotation itself is a question or an exclamation. Examples:
  • Did you ask, "Where are we going?"
  • Stop screaming, "Wow!"

You should now be clear about the matter. But if you are doubly confused, remember that no one ever promised English to be a perfectly expressed language!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Putting to Rest the Serial Comma Debate

In nearly all my writing classes, I hear the question, "Should you put a comma before and in a series?" The answer is this: It's a matter of preference. Let's see how the issue is handled by two highly respected writer's references, The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual and The Business Writer's Handbook.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (sixth trade edition), edited by Norm Goldstein, gives the serial comma a NO vote. Here is what it says:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the final conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The Business Writer's Handbook (seventh edition), by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, votes YES for the serial comma. Let's see what it says:

Although the comma before the last item in a series is sometimes omitted, it is generally clearer to include it. The ambiguity that may result from omitting the comma is illustrated in the following sentence.

AMBIGUOUS: Random House, Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were individual publishing companies. [Does "Doubleday and Dell" refer to one company or two?]

CLEAR: Random House, Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell were individual publishing companies.

What's my take on the serial comma? I use it, but most of my clients do not. The choice is yours—especially if you pay the invoice!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Art of Apology in ETC.

The twenty-fifth article of Philip Vassallo's WORDS ON THE LINE column appears in the current issue of ETC: A Review of General Semantics (62.3, July 2005). The article, "The Art of Apology," offers a rationale and strategy for writing a sincere and thorough apology.

WORDS ON THE LINE, Vassallo's widely referenced and praised column on effective writing at work, has been published in ETC. by the Institute of General Semantics ( since 1992. The Institute was founded in 1943 by world-renowned author, lecturer, and politician Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa. The column focuses on a broad range of writing themes, including purposefulness, completeness, organization, style, tone, and e-mail etiquette. It has covered special-purpose messages, such as admissions essays, customer correspondence, evaluation reviews, executive summaries, meeting minutes, proposals, and technical reports. Selected articles from WORDS ON THE LINE have been reprinted in course software, business periodicals, and books by major business and academic publishers. Besides writing the column, Vassallo has also published social commentary, book reviews, poetry, and drama in the periodical. A bibliography of WORDS ON THE LINE appears below.

WORDS ON THE LINE Articles by Philip Vassallo
1. Know the P.R.I.C.E. of Your Writing (49.4) Winter 1992-93
2. Writing from the Heart (50.1) Spring 1993
3. The You Understood (50.2) Summer 1993
4. Fog Lifting and Ice-Breaking in Your Writing (50.4) Winter 1993-94
5. How Clearly Do Your Words Communicate? (53.1) Spring 1996
6. U-Mail, I-Mail — More Effective E-Mail (55.2) Summer 1998
7. Using the 4S Plan to Know Your Writing Strengths and Needs (55.4) Winter 1998-99
8. From Me to Us: Crossing the Bridge from Academic to Business Writing, with Barrett J. Mandel (56.3) Fall 1999
9. Beware the Seven Deadly Sins of Tone (57.1) Spring 2000
10. Protect Your R.E.P.: Revise, Edit, Proofread (58.1) Spring 2001
11. Meeting of the Minutes: Writing Meeting Minutes (58.2) Fall 2001
12. Persuading Powerfully: Tips for Persuasive Writing (59.1) Spring 2002
13. Using the Rule of Six to Convey Complex Content (59.2) Summer 2002
14. Reporting for Results: Creating a Checklist (59.3) Fall 2002
15. Egad! Another E-mail: Using E-Mail Sensibly (59.4) Winter 2002
16. Where Less Really Is More: Executive Summaries (60.1) Spring 2003
17. Writing Correctly Is Not Necessarily Writing Well (60.2) Summer 2003
18. Admissions Essays with a Focus on Getting In (60.3) Fall 2003
19. Using the Customer Service Triad for Client Correspondence (60.4) Winter 2003-04
20. Turning Emotional Energy into Purposeful Writing (61.1) April 2004
21. Getting Started with Evaluation Reports: Answering the Questions (61.2) July 2004
22. Getting Started with Evaluation Reports: Creating the Structure (61.3) October 2004 23. The Two Levels of Writing to the Point (62.1) January 2005
24. The Power of And … Blah, Blah, Blah (62.2) April 2005
25. The Art of Apology (62.3) July 2005

Friday, July 01, 2005

National Study Cites Gap in Writing Skills

A report published this month by the College Board's National Commission on Writing offers key insights into the writing skills of state employees and the value that their employers places on those skills.

The study, Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government, surveyed 49 of the 50 state human resources divisions on behalf on the National Governors Association. It published the following findings:
  • Writing skills are critical for professional state employees. All 49 respondents reported that two-thirds or more of professional employees have some responsibility for writing.
  • Writing is a basic consideration for state hiring and promotion. More than 75 percent of respondents report that they take writing into consideration in hiring and promoting professional employees. Almost 50 percent make the same claim about clerical and support staff.
  • State agencies frequently require writing samples from job applicants. More than 90 percent of respondents in states that "almost always" take writing into account also require a writing sample from prospective professional employees.
  • Poorly written applications are likely to doom candidates’ chances of employment. About 80 percent of respondents agree that poorly written materials would count against professional job applicants either "frequently" or "almost always." Six of ten say the same thing about applicants for clerical and support positions.
  • Writing is a more significant promotion consideration in state government than in the private sector. In placing a high value on employees' writing skills, state government responded at a rate of 10 percent higher than did private sector human resources officials.
  • Memos, letters, and e-mail are universal requirements in state agencies. More than half also report that policy alerts, legislative analyses, and formal and technical reports are "frequently" or "almost always" required. The volume of e-mail causes many state personnel directors to express concerns about the ease with which informal e-mail messages create serious communications problems.
  • Some 30 percent of professionals are below standard in writing, and most states provide remedial writing training or instruction. The percentage is far hhigher for administrative support and clerical staff.
  • Providing writing training costs state government about a quarter of a billion dollars annually. This training is designed as preventive action to ensure that state agencies' correspondence is purposeful and clear.
Once again, the written word takes center stage in a national study. The link to the study is
More information about the improving employee writing skills is available by contacting Philip Vassallo at