Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Silent vs. the Heard H

For the third time, my friend Marco DeSena, now a policy analyst with the Free Enterprise Fund in Washington, DC, makes an appearance on this blog. (See Get a Job! Tips for the Job Seeker on November 21, 2005, and “Try And” vs. “Try To” on January 17, 2006 for earlier mentions.) Mr. DeSena’s latest linguistic lather:

I see the term historic preceded by both a and an. The Wall Street Journal, if I’m not mistaken, uses an. Crain’s Business uses a. Your thoughts?

My response:

Regarding the silent vs. heard h, I go by sound, which is not the traditional view. (See the King James Bible, which uses an to precede h regardless of the sound.) Therefore, I will see you in an hour to discuss a hopeless situation. The "sound" approach applies to abbreviations as well. You have a master’s degree, but an MA (because the M sounds like em, which has an initial vowel sound).

I know that I did not address a/an when preceding historic. I would use a because my Bronx ears hear that h! (I take a history test, not an history test.) But Mr. DeSena is from Queens, so he may hear it differently. I hope that whether he writes about a historic or an historic precedent, his editor overlooks this minor point. After all, his readers would understand his message either way.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

World Wide Words: Another Fine Website Spotting

World Wide Words, billed by its author Michael Quinion as a website “about international English from a British viewpoint” offers virtually countless tips on word usage, often with humor and always with intelligence.

The website could be pedantic at times (etaoin shrdlu = A nonsense phrase; an absurd or unintelligible utterance), or downright silly (YAPPIE = Young Affluent Parent, OINK = One Income, No Kids, DINKIE = Dual Income, No Kids, HOPEFUL = Hard-up Older Person Expecting Full Useful Life, DUMP = Destitute Unemployed Mature Professional, SITCOM = Single Income, Two Kids, Outrageous Mortgage, SINBAD = Single Income, No Boyfriend, Absolutely Desperate). However, Quinion’s take on business terms like 360-degree feedback or on pronoun usage and acronyms, for instance, are immediately useful to the serious on-the-job writer.

What’s best about this site is that Quinion's discussion of commonly and uncommonly used words and phrases refrains from registering a righteous this-is-right-and-this-is wrong mindset. He knows that language is driven by context, and all his entries thoroughly deliberate on the topic. Here is the link:

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Quibbling over And/Or

What does the phrase and/or mean? Once we use or, don’t we nullify and? Jason Paukowits, an analyst for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, remembers hearing me say in a writing class that or will stand in just fine for and/or, so he e-mailed me: “Can you explain to me the rationale behind using or rather than and/or? I believe that you are right, but I am having trouble convincing others of this.”

OK. Let’s look at this sentence:

Please pay $100 by check and/or money order.

Clearly, we mean, “check or money order.” After all, we wouldn't want some of the payment by check and the balance by money order.

Here’s a trickier example:

The boss said that Jack and/or Jill must attend the meeting.

To the boss, it doesn’t matter if only one attends, so she should have written or. To Jack and Jill, however, both may elect to attend. If they do, they may be wasting company resources because one of them could have stayed back in the office and written reports instead of attending the meeting. Therefore, for clarity the boss should have written, “Jack or Jill must attend the meeting,” because as their boss it really should matter to her that only one attends.

Another example:

If you hold a United States and/or European Union passport, you must pay the value-added tax.

If you hold one passport or the other, then you must comply with the tax law. If you hold one passport, you must pay the tax; if you hold both, you must pay the tax as well. So what’s the difference? A US, an EU, or a US and EU passport holder must pay tax. Therefore, the or is sufficiently clear.

The phrase and/or indicates that any of the possible stated conditions may be true, but so does the word or. Therefore and/or is redundant. Legalistic thinkers, however, argue that and/or removes the possible ambiguity of the following sentences:

  • You may write the chief executive officer, chief operating officer, and/or chief financial officer.
  • Feel free to phone, fax, and/or e-mail me.

The phrase and/or, lawyers may contend, asserts that your three contact choices are available and combinable. If such were the case, however, then the word and should suffice. The point is that by eliminating and/or, you may find a more clear way of expressing what you need to.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Process Driven vs. Profit Driven

Does it matter to an employee when writing whether the business is profit-driven or process-driven? At a writing class I recently presented for the New York State Metropolitan Transportation Authority, I was reinforcing the importance of establishing a results-focused purpose statement early in a document. At that point, one of the participants, Gregory Gengo, Procurement Manager for the Division of Materiel, Bus Maintenance and Support, New York City Transit, politely slipped me a hand-written note on a napkin which simply said, “process not profit driven.”

I immediately understood his point. Being profit-driven requires an attention to benefits related to cost decreases or revenue increases; being process-driven demands a mindset on policies and procedures that improve public safety and promote ethical conduct. In the case of the MTA, a virtual public transportation monopoly, such a mindset also considers issues like reasonable fares. Of course, this is not to say that the MTA is unconcerned with maximizing revenue or that the corporate world should not concentrate on safe, effective products and conscientious conduct; however, it is to say that different ends assume different means and expectations. For instance, we want our military (process-driven) to protect us at any cost, while we want our toothpaste company (profit-driven) to provide us with the best product at a competitive price.

How does this reality reflect in our writing? By how we set our objectives as we approach the writing situation, how we assert our purpose in the opening and closing of our messages, and how we decide which supporting details to include in the body of our messages. As a writing consultant to both worlds, I appreciated Mr. Gengo's gentle reminder.

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