If you think the quality of American political debate has taken a sudden turn for the worse since you-know-who took office, now might be the time to rethink that view. Check out this 2012 article. If it doesn't depress you, nothing will.
Reader Marguerite Durling recently saw an ad for a movie called The Kids are All Right, leading her to wonder if it was a "political movie or another instance of 'alternative' spelling?" The latter, Marguerite - and you can drop the quotation marks, young lady. While alright is a legitimate spelling - and the one used by The Who in their song - all right has long been regarded as the preferred option for formal writing. Here's what Merriam-Webster has to say about it.
No one reads anymore? Go on,
Rumour has it that people no longer have time to read. I'm not convinced. I think that, if anything, fewer writers are taking the time to actually write.
Everywhere I look, weak writing abounds. Those who produce it are often the loudest at proclaiming that people don’t read. That’s like serving up slop in a kitchen then saying people don’t eat.
A recent Pew study found that people were reading just as many books in 2016 as they did in 2012. What’s more, the number of books people read is closely associated with their level of education. In other words, smart people read.*
That’s like serving up slop in a kitchen then saying
people don’t eat.
Having bought the lie that no one reads, many businesses devote little thought to the quality of what they say. Hence the flood of beautiful but vacuous websites, annual reports, brochures, newsletters and other material.
Failing to clearly and simply say what you mean has a massive impact: people stop listening.
Vast sums are spent on design. Yet content – dwell on that word for a moment if you will – is often left to non-specialists.
Forgive me, but are you insane?
Would you forgive a restaurant that served up immaculately presented but tasteless food?
My company (and I) stand for clear, powerful, engaging writing. By that, I mean writing that is not only understandable, but also demands to be read. Businesses who take the trouble to deliver such writing get listened to in a way that those who don’t never will.
They also make the world a better place. But that’s another story.
Like great design, clear, simple writing can look easy. And just like great design, it’s anything but.
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Words have a habit of slowly and subtly shifting in meaning over time, so that after a few centuries they can come to mean something quite different from what they used to. Case in point, today's word.
When you and I think of waiting, our mental image is probably of someone hanging about passively and possibly a little bored. In the 1200s, that wasn't what waiting was about at all - a wait was a watch, guard or sentry, and failure to remain alert could have dire consequences (see Game of Thrones, any episode will do). An alternative sense at the time was to lurk with hostile intent, a sense we retain to this day in the phrase lie in wait.
It wasn't until the 1400s that the meaning to remain in one place began to assert itself. The first waiting room was recorded in the 1680s (presumably that's when the first 10-year-old Cleo magazines and Reader's Digests became available), and the sense of to wait something out (think Australians and their desire to win the Bledisloe Cup) arose in the mid-1800s.
As for that hard-working, underappreciated soul who caters to your every whim at your favourite restaurant before you walk away leaving a pathetic tip, you miserable sod, waiters - or "attendants at the table" - are a creation of the 1560s. Lucky for you they're not waits in the ancient sense of the word. Otherwise you might end up, Game of Thrones style, with a spear in your rear.
If you flinch whenever you hear someone address a group as "youse", consider that it's you, not the speaker, who's the uneducated, ignorant one.
Are you still there? Great! Now let me tell you why this is so.
In standard English, you is both singular and plural. While that may seem unremarkable to you (that’s you sitting in your seat, and all of you collectively), it separates English from many other languages that do distinguish the singular and plural forms.
It also distinguishes standard English from its many non-standard forms. “Hey youse!” is a perfectly sensible way for the speaker to make it clear that he’s addressing the whole group, not just one person. Likewise with “y’all”, “youse guys” (New York mainly) and “yinz” (Pennsylvania).
It also makes the speaker more consistent than everyone else. Standard English already distinguishes between I and we, and between him/her and them. You is the only personal pronoun with just the one form for both singular and plural. But having a separate form for each would be useful, no?
In fact, we once did. Early English had thou, singular, and ye, plural (hence "hear ye, hear ye"). After the Norman invasion, thou gradually became a familiar form of address, and you a formal, deferential option. So if you were chatting with the king, he’d say “Would thou like a bowl of maggot-infested gruel?” and you would grovellingly reply “If it pleases you, Your Majesty”.
Then, around the 18th century, thou began to fall out of favour. The reasons are not entirely clear, but some commentators invoke an emerging spirit of egalitarianism.
Either way, that left you to do the heavy lifting for both singular and plural references. And the so-called uneducated masses to do something about it by newly inventing plural versions. Good for them, I say, the clever Dicks.
Youse may not be standard English, but it's certainly neat, clean and logical. You don’t have to like it, but heaping scorn on it is both illogical and unjust.
Popular theory has it that this little gem of a word was coined by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo. That may be a stretch, however. While Dr Seuss almost certainly played a key role - if not the key role - in popularising nerd, the word had been around for a few years already as a variation on nert, which itself was a humorous pronunciation of nut.
In If I Ran the Zoo, nerds are what the Oxford Words blog describes as "small, unkempt, humanoid creature[s] with a large head and a comically disapproving expression". Some would argue that the word's meaning hasn't altered since, but try telling that to Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg during the job interview.
Related insulty type words include geek and the rather aggressive nimrod. Geek originally meant a sideshow freak (hence Bob Dylan's lyric "you hand in your ticket / to go see the geek"), which possibly derived from the German geck, to mock or cheat. The modern sense of a social misfit with advanced computer skills dates from the early 1980s. Like nerd, geek has been reclaimed by those who've been labelled with the term, which makes it a kissing cousin of words like gay, dyke, queer and even some racially abusive terms which we won't repeat here.
Nimrod, on the other hand, was the son of Cush, referred to in Genesis as "a mighty hunter before the Lord". How the name became an insult is a mystery, although various theories have been suggested - none of them convincing. Whatever the case, one thing you can be sure of is that if anyone calls you a nimrod today, they're not expressing their admiration for your impressive pedigree.
POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this article originally in 2013. Today I received an email newsletter from World Wide Words that addressed Nimrod's fall from grace and may render my claim in the paragraph above redundant. You can find the WWW piece here.
One of the skills many people find most challenging is apologising.
It’s also one of the most important skills in business - if not in life. A good apology leaves everyone satisfied and clears a space to move forward. A weak apology, on the other hand, can leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the recipient - a lingering resentment and belief that you were simply trying to look good, rather than take responsibility for whatever required the apology in the first place.
A powerful apology does four things:
A powerful apology does NOT:
Some years ago I was in a media conference with a leading advertising agency. A reporter asked the GM why the agency had recently lost a big account. The GM began talking about “chemistry” and other meaningless concepts. The MD stepped in and said “we lost the account because we stopped listening.” Boom.
That’s how a powerful apology works. No excuses. No blame. Full responsibility.
Then everyone’s free to move on.
Sometimes word origins can be kind of mysterious. Take dilapidated, which derives from the Latin delapidare, which, as you rock hounds will have guessed, is based on the noun lapis, or stone. Hence lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone, and lapidary for someone skilled at working with precious stones. Lapidation is the term for punishment or death by stoning - and it says something about the modern world that the word doesn't yet have "[archaic]" beside it in the dictionary.
But what does being in a state of disrepair have to do with small rocks?
Nothing, unless you picture someone scattering stones every which way - which is what the verb delapidare means. It's a short hop from that image to the idea of a stone structure (a popular building choice among Latin-speaking builders and shopping mall developers) being gradually dismantled and its parts scattered by the elements until it is, literally, dilapidated.
For this reason, some diehards long maintained that dilapidated could only refer to stone structures (as opposed, say, to ageing bloggers). Let's be straight here and call such people what they are: crazy. They were demonstrating the etymological fallacy, which maintains that the "true" meaning of a word is its original meaning and nothing else. A more persistent example is the view that decimate can only mean reduce by a tenth, as it comes from the same root as decimal (base 10) and did, indeed, once mean reduce by a tenth. That was in the days when one form of discipline among army ranks or conquered hordes was to kill every tenth person to encourage the remaining nine to fall into line. (I know I would.)
But just as disciplinary practices evolve, so does language. Today decimate means kill, destroy or remove a large percentage of - the opposite, and way more brutal end of the spectrum from the original meaning. Genghis Khan would surely approve.
Your About Us page is one of the most important pages on your website. It's also one of the most abused (maybe not on your website, but certainly on many others).
Far too many company websites use the About Us page to either blow their own trumpet or tell a dull story about how the company got founded and grew to where it is now.
That's a lost opportunity. A great About Us page delivers information the reader wants or needs to know. Do that, and visitors will keep reading - and convert to customers more often.
So how do you write a great About Us page? By downloading our free ebook and using it for guidance and inspiration!