Sentence of the Week: Week 6

Five minutes later the bow-chaser, neatly slung by its train-loops, side-loops, pommelion and muzzle, floated gently over the Sophie’s fo’c’sle within half an inch of its ideal resting-place.

Oh, I do so love a good sea yarn, and the Patrick O’Brian series of Jack Aubrey novels is among the best. You may know it better from the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Cover Photo from Master and Commander
A fabulous, jargonful book.

This sentence is pulled at random from the novel and completely indicative of two countervailing issues. First, this guy O’Brian knows his nautical stuff. Second, the reader digging into this world can be at a loss about what the exact heck is going on here.

Let me ask a few questions.

  • Do you know what a bow-chaser is?
  • Do you know what train-loops are? (I’m not even certain I should put that sentence in the plural.)
  • Or a pommelion?

On other nearby pages, I ran into these words:

  • Puddening. Definition: A bunch of soft material to prevent chafing between spars (you know what those are, right?) or the like.
  • Breeched. Definition: Something you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that I’m still uncertain about, but it does not involve pants or slacks.
  • Frapped. Definition: Another thing you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that is hard to explain but clearly very specific and definitive. I know this word from earning my Pioneering merit badge in Boy Scouts. Is it the same thing?
  • Sweeps. Definition: Oh. Oh. I got this. Oars.
  • “Trice up. Lay out.” Definition: A command given to the crew that involves raising the sheets — sails to us land lubbers — and something else that I can’t figure out.

Okay, that was fun, but my point is to talk about jargon in communication, and there is no other environment more jargonly than sailing. Who else would call rope a “line?” By the way, “larboard” is what we now call “port.” Forgive me. This game could go on forever. And ever. Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to a Wikipedia  entry for nautical terms that has nearly 900 entries.

So, what’s a poor writer in 21st Century America supposed to do?

Rule #1: Avoid jargon.

Rule #2: Avoid jargon.

Rule #3: Avoid talking about sailing. Except to sailors. And they just love this stuff. The longest dinner of your life will be the dinner you sit next to someone who loves sailing. The second worst dinner companion is a carpenter. Who really wants to hear about “S4S?”

Here’s my suggestion for those of us who have to communicate with the real world. Just after you complete your hunt for cliches, set sail on a jargon cruise. Hoist high the sheets, let the braces do something or another, and let out the blah, blah, blah.

An Email Conversation



She wrote, “I would like to get the chance to speak with you further.  Please let me know when might be a convenient time for you.”

He wrote, “My schedule today [Friday] is wide open, so whatever is convenient for you will be fine with me.”

She wrote, “How does Tuesday at 11am work for you?”

He wrote, “Tuesday at 11am works fine. Do you want me to come into the office or are we speaking by phone?”

He waited.

He waited.

He waited.

He called and left a message.

And he waited.

And he waited.

And he waited.

Monday afternoon at 3 o’clock the issue was resolved. By email.


That is a verbatim transcript (without the images) of an email conversation I had. Words matter. You may have heard that here, but sometimes spoken words matter more than written words.

A phone conversation would have resolved this appointment in 5 minutes, prevented any miscommunication, and provided a foundation for a better formal call.

Too often I see people in the workforce trying to do the job only by email. We once had a young woman attempt to set up an entire event for 150 people in a city two time zones away without ever making a phone call. Not to any vendors or the hotel or participants or sponsors. It took her five times as much effort, and we only resolved several major issues at the last minute.

Why did she do this? Because people hide behind email.

Pick up the phone. Reach out and touch someone.

Postscript: The Tuesday phone conversation lasted less than ten minutes. We could have done it Friday and would have been 2 working days ahead of schedule. That ain’t peanuts.

Sentence of the Week: Week 5

“…is thought to work by…”

If you have read, seen, or heard a drug company promote its products recently, you’ve heard this phrase. Watch this commercial from Pristiq, an anti-depressant from Pfizer. The phrase occurs at the 26-second mark.

Pristiq is not alone in this trend. Check out Avastin for colorectal cancer; Abilify for depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia; Lyrica for diabetic nerve pain; and Lunesta for insomnia. They all are “thought to work,” “believed to work,” or “may work” in specific ways. But the marketers never claim any of them “definitely work,” “actually work,” or are “proven to work” in any way whatsoever.

When I first heard “Pristiq is thought to work by affecting the levels of two chemicals in the brain: serotonin and norephinephrine,” I sat up and said, “Huh?”

You may have had a more erudite response, but I just couldn’t imagine that Pfizer’s lack of conviction about how their product worked could lead to any level of consumer confidence in its efficacy. Isn’t this the first rule of sales? You have to believe in the product to sell it? How can you believe in a product when you don’t even know how it works?

Imagine if you read the following statement in a press release: “The new Caterpillar D Series Mini Hydraulic Excavator, model 305D CR, is thought to have heavier counterweights that may enhance machine stability and might allow increased lift capacity.”

Are there any products that undergo a more rigorous testing procedure than drug products? But every other product makes a far more definitive claim than these do.

The whole thing makes me want to join Tom Cruise and the other nutcases over at the Scientology lab, who disbelieve in any drug therapy apparently because they flunked chemistry in high school. The only reason I don’t join up, of course, is these stupid drugs actually work and help people, in spite of what they tell you in their own commercials.

Oh yeah. Don’t even get me started on the passive voice in this sentence.

Sentence of the Week: Week 3

“On October 30, I’m holding the march to Keep Fear Alive, unless the sun explodes incinerating half the earth and casting the other half into eternal night, which many scientists could say might happen.”

Stephen Colbert famously created a new word for our times: “truthiness.” Even though it’s a nonsensical term, I feel its meaning in my gut. Colbert uttered our sentence of the week on his September 28 broadcast. The sentence and especially that last phrase capture the idea of truthiness completely.

Colbert Poster
Experts say the march could be a huge success

The sentence hangs on the audience’s understanding of an epidemic of bad journalism that is sweeping the country. Name newspapers and high-caliber TV news organizations have joined the sorry masses of schlock journalists in a scourge of poor research, misrepresentation, and talking-point reporting.

News watchers can identify the blight by the use of certain phrases. “It has been reported…” “Some say…” “Experts have noted…” Colbert’s audience knows that when those phrases appear an unsubstantiated “fact” will follow, and news will sidle over into opinion with barely a whisper.

“Which many scientists say might happen,” with the “could” removed, would be welcomed on the nightly news broadcasts and cable politics shows. In fact, it may be a direct quote. The information would have the backing of the authority of the news organization, which people trust. (Although that trust is declining rapidly.) In truth, the many scientists might number 15 while the scientists in disagreement could number thousands. That fact would not be reported because the information would not fit the perspective of either the reporter or the news organization. As Mark Twain said long ago, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And as people are fond of saying these days, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

By inserting “could” Colbert tweaks both the sentence and the news organizations that have fallen into such poor form. Those of us in the know feel just a little smarter and better about ourselves. Truthiness, indeed.

I almost forgot. It’s funny, too.

Sentence of the Week

“In polls leading up to Sunday’s vote, the referendum was split nearly 50-50, with signs lining the streets here and vans with microphones driving around and politicking for each side.”

Turkish FlagThis sentence appeared in the New York Times Monday. It refers to a referendum in Turkey on 26 proposed changes to the constitution. Interestingly, the sentence appeared in a sports story about the world championships in basketball.

Consider these issues:

  • A microphone won’t do anything unless it’s connected to a loudspeaker.  So, the writer should have chosen “loudspeaker.”
  • Signs and vans can’t politic. People can, but they’re curiously absent from this sentence.
  • Microphones can’t drive either, and at first glance, that’s how I read the sentence. In truth, the author grouped the words correctly, but the whole thing is so awkward that it just reads wrong.
  • The referendum was not split 50-50. The polls were split. The polls actually represent voters, or likely voters, or partisans or something. That detail is missing. Again, so are the people.
  • It’s passive voice. Stop it NY Times. You should know better.

So, how would you write this? Here’s my stab.

“Polls leading up to Sunday’s vote showed voters split nearly evenly. Supporters for both sides lined the streets with signs and drove vans with loudspeakers throughout the city, politicking for their cause.”

Great Big Dead Tree Poster

Do you read Sports Illustrated? It has been one of my favorite magazines since I was a teenager, and the thing I love best about it is the quality of the writing. While most magazines are written at an 8th-grade level, SI hits a higher mark, and it’s not unusual for me to have to go to the dictionary or encyclopedia (how quaint) to understand a word or reference.

Would you put this on your wall?

In the NFL Preview Issue a couple of weeks ago, SI included a poster sponsored by DirectTV. It’s huge, and as soon as I opened it, I doubted my presumptions about the educational levels of the readers – or, at least, SI’s understanding of its readers’ education. This poster is a classic example of meeting the needs of an advertiser and doing little to serve the needs of the audience.

Here are several reasons why.

  1. The entire poster hangs on the tagline, “Every Game. Every Sunday.” I was immediately confused because the NFL has been playing games on other days of the week since the late 1960s. So, the first thing I did was check to see whether the poster had every game, or only every game that is played on Sundays. Answer: Every Game. The tagline, while clever, is wrong.
  2. I like football and have spent too much of my life watching games. To be honest, though, I really don’t care about the match-up between Atlanta and Cleveland October 10. Or Jacksonville vs. Buffalo the same day. I will be all over the Bears game (don’t care who they’re playing) and Packers vs. Redskins that day. Point? Very few people are interested in every game. We only want the schedule for the teams we follow plus big matchups.
  3. You rightly can ask if I got the scheduling information for that last paragraph from the poster. That would prove some usefulness. I didn’t. The information for all the games appears in searchable databases on the internet, which are much more usable and dynamic than this poster.
  4. A poster? Really? Now I’m sure there are people who will hang this thing up somewhere, but I’m also pretty sure the age of the average SI reader is greater than 15, which is when I stopped decorating with posters.
  5. Finally, binding this poster into the magazine required a small engineering feat and yards of glue. To read the magazine I had to remove the poster, scrape the glue off my hands, and tear out the heavy inserts. The result was a torn up magazine that delivered a lower customer satisfaction level.

Detail of Poster

What did I gain from this effort, this wholesale slaughter of trees? It had no value for me, actually made my user experience less pleasant, and generated another heap of trash.

For DirectTV the value is different. The poster raised awareness of its brand and showed how complete its NFL broadcast schedule is. But, the advertiser can achieve the same goals with a far less invasive advertising package that doesn’t risk alienating readers. Sorry, SI, but you haven’t served your audience well on this, although I’m sure someone got a really swell commission.

In the new era of communications and content marketing, I thought we had grown past this kind of Jurassic-like advertising strategy.