Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Strategic impotence"

Sometimes, spell-check won't save you

"[Y]ou will be played a central role in drafting and editing various documents and materials of strategic impotence to the company."

I'd consider adding "assist with proofreading advertisements" to this job description.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Clipettes pinch ass"

I'll admit it - that was a click-bait headline - but it comes directly from this sign on a store display blog reader Renee noticed when she went looking for hair clips for her toddler.

Key word: assorted
Sometimes, companies use software to automatically generate text - and in this case, to automatically abbreviate it, as necessary. Auto-abbreviations can be confusing, but customers are usually able to figure them out. Here, we can figure it out, but it's unintentionally funny.

Not always so funny

Last year, Coca-Cola Ltd. had to apologize after an auto-text mix-up led to an offensive expression being printed on the cap of a vitaminwater bottle. The company was printing one English word and one French word on every bottle cap, and had proofread all the English words and all the French words... but hadn't considered how the two might be read in either language when put together. The auto-text did the rest.

Automation makes things easier, but it's not foolproof

This supermarket and Coca-Cola are far from the only organizations that have been embarrassed because their automatic communication tools have done what they're meant to do: complete tasks without a human having to be involved. Whether it's examples like these, or automatically-generated Tweets, there are many ways automatic communications can backfire.

Whenever you plan to use these, you're well-advised to build in some checks and balances where human beings have to either troubleshoot potential problems before they happen (for example, in the vitaminwater example, having someone read the words in each language from the perspective of someone who speaks the other language, to spot any issues), or to approve automatic messages before they are sent.

Thanks for the submission, Renee!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'm no mathematician, but...

In this passage from the November 14th issue of a very well-known American news magazine, 82 is, apparently, greater than 86.

I'm not certain whether this is an error of the writer (possibly distracted while writing?) or of the typesetter/designer, but either way, a good copy edit should have surfaced the error before it was published.

When you're editing, you need to check your text in a few different ways:

1) Is the content factual?
2) Are all the words spelled correctly, numbers presented accurately, etc.?
3) Is the grammar correct?

Errors can creep in at any stage of the process

I was shocked the first time I received a "final proof" of an annual report from a designer only to discover new errors had surfaced in the text. They were minor changes - in fact, they were instances in which the designer had decided to "help" my client by "improving" the sentences (note the use of sarcastic quotation marks - see last week's post on this blog).

We caught them all and changed them back before it went to print - but only because I was proofreading the whole text one more time (as opposed to simply confirming our last round of changes had been made accurately).

Once the document is published, it's published. You can sometimes withdraw it to correct an error - but often, you can't. My advice: always give a text one full, final proofread before signing off.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


A contributor sent in this photo, suspicious of what was on the menu in this restaurant. Is it, in fact, serving ribs? If not, what is it serving to customers who order ribs?

Though you'll often see them used this way (The Blog of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks is devoted to this error), quotation marks are not intended to provide emphasis -- and using them for emphasis can lead to embarrassing miscommunication.

Why? Because quotation marks are also used to indicate sarcasm -- much like "air quotes" do in verbal communication.

In the photo above, the restaurateur intends to communicate that s/he serves the best ribs in town -- but his/her quotation marks suggest s/he's serving something other than ribs.

In the same way, we have to wonder:

Is this Director really acting?

And what really happens to you if you bring a re-usable mug for your coffee?

If you want your readers to take your message at face value, don't use quotation marks for emphasis.

Use typography.

Friday, October 3, 2014


A reader in Prince Edward Island sent in this great example to show why it's important to use a professional translator. You may think you can get the job done less expensively using an online translation tool, but if there are more than one meaning for a word, or if your English word doesn't have a direct translation in the target language, you could get into trouble.

Whoever wanted to translate "brownies" for this packaging was likely unaware either that there isn't a direct translation for the word in French (all the francophone-Canadians in my world call them "brownies," even when speaking French), and likely didn't consider that "brownie" has another meaning in English.

This is the kind of brownie you could accurately translate as a "jeannette."

Photo from Girl Guides of Canada 
There are other spelling errors visible in the French on this packaging, too -- which is too bad, because the company was making a specific effort to be inclusive with its packaging.

Translation is sometimes a secondary consideration, especially when the vast majority of the target market prefers the primary language. But if you're going to do it at all, it's worth having an expert make it right. Good translators don't just translate each word into its other-language counterpart -- they are gifted writers, too, who can ensure the subtext, tone, rhythm and emotion of your text carry through.

On a brownie package, of course, we're really just looking for the words... but a good translator can ensure you get those right, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"50% Less Calories"

This is a vocabulary error you likely see and hear frequently: the wrong choice of word to describe relative measurements. I've seen and heard it recently in local news coverage -- and late last week, noticed it in the supermarket, too.

Words like "less" and "fewer" might seem synonymous at first, but they aren't. Fortunately, there's an simple trick to help you choose the right word.

If you're talking about something you can't literally count, use these words:

  • less (e.g. less money, less energy, less sand)
  • amount (e.g. a smaller amount of money, a smaller amount of energy, a smaller amount of sand)
Thus, "50% less calories" is incorrect, because while you can't literally count energy without getting more specific about unit measurement, you can literally count calories. 

If you're talking about something you can literally count, use these words:
  • fewer (e.g. fewer dollars, fewer calories, fewer grains of sand)
  • number (e.g. a smaller number of dollars, a smaller number of calories, a smaller number of grains of sand)
Saying "50% fewer energy" would be just as incorrect, since "energy" isn't literally countable.

To summarize: if you can't literally count the item in question, use "less" or "amount;" if you can literally count it, use "fewer" or "number." 

This orange juice, the manufacturer would like us to understand, delivers 50% fewer calories than its full-sugar alternative.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Lude behavior"

We might be tempted to think television journalists don't have to worry about spelling and grammar the way print journalists do... but errors in the text broadcast news outlets use on-screen are embarrassing, too.

This screen should have been about charges of lewd behaviour, not lude behaviour.

I suspect whoever wrote this headline simply hadn't ever seen "lewd" in writing, and spelled it the way it sounds -- which is tough to address, because you don't know what you don't know until you find out you didn't know what you thought you knew.

You know?

Having a skilled copy editor (who has a wide vocabulary and strong spelling and grammar) review all text that will go to air can help avoid errors like this one.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bad grammar is bad branding

A new school year begins next week, and with it, a new blogging season for me.

In the meantime, here is a great article from AdWeek discussing the causes and implications of poor grammar in business.

But is the proliferation of errors in business communication today just about grammar? I don't think so -- I think it's bigger than that. Many errors we see, like the one above, are committed by people who likely write well enough, but aren't paying enough attention to what they've written. Proficiency in writing is one thing, but attention to detail is another.

Given the number of channels constantly feeding us messages, it's no wonder we're a bit distracted. But 21st-century communications technology aside, when it comes down to the proofreading stage, the best writers and editors are those who can tune it all out and actually read what's on the page.

That's not a language skill as much as it's a form of discipline -- one that's a significant competitive advantage in the professional communication industry, especially at the entry level.

I'm looking forward to another year of helping students build that discipline!

Friday, March 21, 2014


I was pleased to receive a special discount coupon from a retailer recently.

Pleased, that is, until the coupon's terms and conditions raised a pretty important question.


There are a few grammatical/proofreading problems with this list of terms, including inconsistent use of upper-case letters. (Why are the P on "Program" and the T on "Transferable" capital letters?) The incorrect spelling of "redeemable" suggests a too-quick proofread on its own; but even if that word had been spelled correctly, was the retailer really trying to tell me this coupon is not redeemable at all?

It's likely that bullet was supposed to provide extra information to clarify the circumstances under which the coupon can't be redeemed (e.g. on certain types of merchandise, on the purchase of other training programs) -- but due to the too-quick review of this coupon, the writer didn't notice it was missing.

When you need to leave something blank because you don't know the answer, use a placeholder

In professional writing, you sometimes need to write a document when you don't have all the final details.

For example, when writers in a publicly-traded company draft a news release about something the Board has yet to approve, they'll use a bullet or another symbol to show where the missing information goes (e.g. "Today, the Board declared a dividend of $ * per share").

This allows a writer to write around the missing information, but puts something in the text to flag that there's information missing. A search for the symbol in Word helps you fill in the information quickly once you have it.

If my coupon-writer had used this approach, his/her text might have looked something like this:

"Non-redeemable toward **************"

That would have been much tougher for the proofreader to miss.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Dear Salutation"

A retailer sent me this postcard last month (I've taken out the company name). What caught my attention was the opening line.

"Dear Salutation"

This proofreading error reflects a deficiency in the production process, as opposed to grammar or spelling. Here's how it easily could have happened:

1) A copywriter was employed to write the text for the postcard. The copywriter used the placeholder "Salutation," as is common practice, to show where the customer's name should go (e.g. "Ms. Lee Lockhart" in my case). The copywriter would have expected the production department to insert the customer name in the space where "Salutation" appears, so my card would have said "Dear Ms. Lee Lockhart," whereas someone else's could have said "Dear Ms. Jones."

2) The copywriter's text was sent to a graphic designer, who designed the postcard using the writer's copy as provided. The graphic designer may have been a rookie (unfamiliar with the use of placeholders like "Salutation" in copy) or may have been asleep at the wheel... or maybe it was someone else's job to coordinate the merge of customer names with the layout, and that someone forgot to. Either way...

3) The graphic designer's text went to print, as designed, with the placeholder copy intact.

Check your text and your process

My PR Major students know about a map that almost made its way into an annual report I was printing; the city names were all spelled properly (I had proofread them dozens of times), but I only realized after the final signoff (and mere hours before it was too late to catch the error) that some of the city names weren't in the right spots on the map.

That near miss haunts me to this day.

Proofreading has to go beyond checking spelling and grammar - check every part of the production process for errors.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Louie Riel Day"

Today is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba, a statutory holiday, so stores are open fewer hours than they would normally be. This sign was posted on the door of a major retailer in Winnipeg last week (and by major retailer, I mean possibly the world's largest retailer).

In Public Relations classes in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, we teach students to go to the source to find the correct spelling of a name. If you're writing about a film, go to the production company's website, not IMDb. If you're writing about a politician, go to his/her campaign materials, not the local newspaper. Don't trust someone else not to have made an error; go to the source.

But if the source has been dead more than a century, where do you go? You have to figure out who's most reliable. Wikipedia makes it easy to find information about millions of topics quickly, but is every detail you'll find there reliable? You don't know for sure.

Louis Riel Day is officially recognized by the Government of Manitoba -- so in this case, that'd be your official source.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Apostrophes apostrophes apostrophes!

This email arrived in my inbox this week, advertising a seminar at which I could learn "best practices" in internal communications. Given that the email contains two apostrophe errors in the first couple of lines, I'm not going to put too much stock in the sender's expertise in best communication practices.

Error #1: "employee's attention"

The apostrophe before the "s" indicates we're talking about the attention of one employee. In this case, though, we're most likely talking about multiple employees' attention -- so the apostrophe should follow the "s."

Error #2: "employees attention"

This is the same case as above -- just a different error, because the writer left the apostrophe off altogether.

Both sentences should say "...fighting to get your employees' attention."

This one is a little trickier:


The writer knows to use an apostrophe after the "s" when showing possession of a plural word -- but there's an exception if the plural word doesn't end in "s."

If this was the babies' corner, or the girls' corner, or the owners' corner, this apostrophe would be fine. These are plural words that end in "s." But the plural noun "men" doesn't end in an "s," so we show possession the same way we would with a singular noun (by adding apostrophe "s"): men's corner.

This writer's problem is spelling:

Apostrophe "s" isn't used to pluralize nouns, though you see it all the time. For example:

While it might seem simple to just add the "s" to "tee" to pluralize it ("Custom Tees" is correct), the journalist above forgot the rule about pluralizing nouns that end in "y."

To pluralize "company," you'd remove the "y" and replace it with "ies" ("companies").

Here are last week's apostrophe resource links again:

For an easy-to-read-and-understand primer on how to use the apostrophe, Grammar Girl offers a great series of posts -- and when you need a quick reference with a laugh on the side, check out The Oatmeal.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Tenants lounge"

This is the first of what I suspect will be a series of posts on misused apostrophes.

My completely unscientific research suggests the apostrophe is the most commonly-misused punctuation mark (in Canada and the U.S., at least) -- and it's important to use your apostrophes correctly, because they play such an important role in communicating meaning.

Is this hotel lounge named for a family named "Tenants?" If so, the sign is fine.

If not, we likely need an apostrophe in the name.

If the lounge is intended for one tenant, it would more accurately be named "Tenant's Lounge" (apostrophe before the possessive "s"). It's the lounge meant for that one tenant.

If, as is more likely, the lounge is for any of the hotel's tenants to use, it should be called the "Tenants' Lounge" (apostrophe after the pluralizing "s"), since it's the lounge meant to be used by all the tenants (plural).

For an easy-to-read-and-understand primer on how to use the apostrophe, Grammar Girl offers a great series of posts -- and when you need a quick reference with a laugh on the side, check out The Oatmeal on the topic.

Thanks to Chris Lee for spotting this sign!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"I could care less"

I often hear people saying they "could care less" about something, meaning they don't care at all.

"I could care less whether it's raining tomorrow; I'm wearing my shiny new rain boots even if the sun is shining."

The problem with this is that, if you could care less, you must care at least somewhat... in which case the expression contradicts what you mean. If you could care less, you could care anywhere from slightly to as much as one could possibly care about something.

If you want to communicate that you don't care about something, and you want to use this expression, say "I couldn't care less."

That makes it clear: you care as little as it is possible to care.