FEATURE: Miscommunication can leave 'em laughing
GRAMMAR COACH: Fielding your questions
FINDER'S FEE: Recommend a friendand earn up to $500
The late comic Gilda Radner, in character as news commentator Emily Litella on the Saturday Night Live television program in the late 1970s, engaged in weekly misguided rants based on misunderstandings. One evening, for example, she began sharply reprimanding protesters who denounced youth in Asia, until one of her colleagues gently informed her that the demonstrators opposed "mercy killing"euthanasia. After pondering the distinction for a moment, Emily squinted into the camera, smiled sweetly, and quietly ended her tirade, saying "Never mind."
Miscommunication also formed the basis for many of the classic comedy routines of Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, a tradition adopted by some modern-day performers, including satirist Stephen Colbert.
While that's fine if you're aiming for laughs, it's not funny if your serious intentions are misinterpreted because of sloppy or hurried writing. Consequently, be sure to write or say precisely what you mean.
Consider the historical account of the evolution of transportation in the 20th century that observed, "by the 1930s, automobiles were on the rise." Emily Litella would have been startled to learn that levitation was possible that long ago. Of course, the rise was in the number or prevalence of automobiles.
Health insurance companies and HMOs have made the jargon on medical billing statements more puzzling than the formal names of medical conditions. The old-fashioned doctor's office visit is now a "patient-provider encounter." That sounds like interactions between patients are unintentional (like spotting your doctor at the grocery store) or perhaps even hostile. After all, the noun "encounter" refers to a violent clash or to a meeting between hostile factions, as well as to a serendipitous, unexpected meeting.
A letter from a bank that had been attacked by computer hackers told customers, "Your ATM account may have been compromised." No, in plain English, the hackers gained unauthorized access to account data and stole confidential information. As a result, the security of customers' ATM accounts was violated. That's what the letter from the bank should have said.
One city is apparently encouraging drivers to meet a quota for running red lights. That's the inadvertent implication of a newsletter article that declared, "Enough drivers [here] try to 'run' the red light that it has become the city's fourth most frequent cause of collisions." Deletion of a few unnecessary words produced a better version: "Running red lights has become the city's fourth most frequent cause of collisions."
A news account about the results of a sociological study declared, "The report said women spend longer listening to music than men." Emily Litella might have been inclined to observe, "That doesn't surprise me. Music is entertaining, but men can be really boring and self-centered." A little "do" would restore the intended meaning of the sentence: "women spend longer listening to music than men do"
A newspaper article about the Amgen Tour of California bicycle race warned readers that "parking will be tough Tuesday." Really? Well, unless your power steering unit malfunctions or you're exceptionally tired, parking really shouldn't be any more "tough" on Tuesday than any other day. A caption in the same article warned that "driving and parking will be a challenge Tuesday." Well, some people love a challenge. What are the stakes being offered for this challenge? Ante up.
The truth is that street closures reduced accessibility to the race course on city streets, and that parking space downtown was insufficient for the influx of onlookers. Parking wasn't any more "tough" than usual, however, for people who were fortunate enough to find an empty parking space.
A radio public-service message encouraged listeners to "call for information on how to create an asthma-friendly environment." To the contrary, the point of the message was to eliminaterather than encourageallergens and other irritants that can trigger asthma attacks.
An announcement about an upcoming political election said that "the ballot will feature seven candidates vying for three vacant seats on the city council." The ballot will list their names, but it will not "feature" them any more prominently than it will candidates for, say, the county board of supervisors.
At a conference for educators, a teacher who had been recognized for outstanding work told her colleagues, "I can't tell you how much this award means to me." That's a disappointing commentary. You would hope that the teacher could articulate why the award was important to her. She apparently meant, of course, that she was unable to summon the words to adequately express her appreciation.
An article about agricultural pilots declared, "There are concerns within the agricultural sector about the number of pilots dropping dramatically." Don't bother running for cover. The writer intended to say that a dramatic decline in the number of agricultural pilots has alarmed growers and agricultural experts.
A description of a condominium project read, "A light-rail station a half-block from the complex, numerous bus lines nearby and proximity to downtown jobs make the location very transit friendly." So now we have an inanimate object (a location) developing a friendship with a function (transit). Here's a more realistic approach: "The location is within a half-block of a light-rail station and close to numerous bus lines and to downtown employers."
Did you hear about the city municipal government that established a "development oversight commission" with responsibility "to provide a forum that enables the public and city staff to introduce and to discuss suggestions, comments, and concerns regarding the procedures and processes of the city's development services function"? Sounds like a pretty sweet deal for the commissioners. If a development proposal escapes their attention, that's OK; after all, it is an oversight commission.
Law enforcement agencies and news media outlets routinely report arrests for "driving while under the influence." The influence of what? Or whom? That phrase, of course, is commonly associated with impaired driving. A better choice would be "driving while intoxicated," a term that properly refers to either alcoholic beverages or drugs.
An article about building permits asked, "Do you need more space or have a use for rental income?" Just about anyone would welcome additional income, but how you would use the money is none of the building department's business. The article was directed only to readers who have the capability and interest to develop rental property. The question should be, "Do you need more space or seek additional income through rental revenue?"
Mechanical engineers at a large East Coast hospital reported, "We looked at noise following complaints by patients, doctors and visitors." That proves that noise is proliferating. At first disturbing only to the ears, it's now detectable visually as well. (They probably meant that they investigated complaints about excessive noise.)
Imagine the excitement created by a transit agency's public-service announcement that declared, "Soon, passengers will be able to book rides on the Internet." At first we could attach image, sound and video files to e-mail messages. But now you can book rides on the Internet? Emily would wonder how people can fit inside those little, tiny wires.
You mean use the Internet to make reservations for rides? Oh. Never mind.
1. Darlene L. wrote:
"When listing names that contains suffixes and degrees alphabetically by last name, what is the correct way for the name to be displayed?
Smith, Joseph P. III, D.P.M. or
Smith III, Joseph P., D.P.M?"
The grammar coach replies:
Darlene, the Chicago Manual of Style's chapter on principles of indexing discusses display of personal names in a reference list.
Its section 17.86 says that academic titles (such as "professor" and "doctor") and abbreviations for academic degrees (such as "Ph.D." or "D.P.M.") should be excluded from lists when indexing.
It additionally says that "Jr.," "Sr." and other similar suffixes should be retained and placed after the given name, separated by a comma, as shown in the following two examples:
Smith, Joseph P., III
Williams, Hank, Jr.
2. Al W. wrote:
"I look forward to receiving your newsletter each month. It's thoughtful and informative. I fear, however, that your "grammar coach" material is as much a relic of another age as I find myself to be. The high school I attended was in Georgia, and the year was 1950. Latin was a requirement, and I argued in a debate against wasting time with a "dead" language. How wrong I was!
I have a question concerning your use of the word "which" in the last sentence in your "finder's fee" paragraph. Your sentence reads, 'Naturally, the finder's fee is applicable only to clients for which we have not worked previously.' Shouldn't this read, '...clients for whom...'?"
The grammar coach replies:
Al, we applaud your concern for linguistic propriety. Only through vigilance such as yours can the integrity of the language be preserved.
You are correct that "who" ordinarily is the preferred pronoun for use in reference to individuals or named animals. The pronouns "that" and "which," in contrast, can be used in reference to events, things or personsand to combinations of any of those.
EditPros clients are organizationsbusinesses, government agencies, educational institutions or trade organizationsas well as the individuals who work for them. In the sentence in question, "which" functions as an all-purpose pronoun to refer collectively to people and to their organizations.
Are you perplexed by some aspect of grammar or word usage? Don't be shy! Ask the "grammar coach" at EditPros and we'll try to helpat no charge, just for the sport of it.
FINDER'S FEE: Recommend a friendand earn a finder's fee of up to $500
Do you know of a friend or colleague whose office can benefit from EditPros services? If you do, EditPros may reward you with a "finder's fee" of up to $500.
EditPros, established in 1993, performs writing, editing, proofreading and publication management services for newsletters, brochures, Web sites, annual reports, research studies, business proposals and other informational and marketing materials. Our office is in Davis, Calif., between Sacramento and San Francisco.
Our clients include educational institutions, private corporations, health-care organizations, trade associations, scientific research institutions, Web site developers and government agencies. We have worked with some of them for more than 10 years.
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This offer will remain in effect until further notice.
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