Four Language Errors That Make You Sound Pretentious

There are some grammar errors people insist on perpetuating (not you, you’re awesome!). Some are just common errors that we all make. But others are errors people make in the hopes of sounding smarter or somehow official. (Think government talk or cop talk.)

I heard the first error — “an historic” — on NPR the other day, and thought of all media outlets, this one should know better. And it actually annoyed me so much, I not only shouted at the radio — “A historic, dammit! A historic!” — I wrote this post.

So here are four language errors people make that sound a little pretentious.A unicorn rearing back atop the Falcon Square Mercat Cross in Inverness, Scotland.

1) It’s Not An Historic

Just because you heard them say it on the BBC doesn’t make it true. The reason you say “an” anything is if the next word starts with a vowel sound. Not even a vowel — a vowel sound.

An apple. An MBA. An honorable profession.
A unicorn. A universal truth.

Say “historic” out loud. What sound does it start with? “H.” That’s not a vowel sound. Unless you’ve got a cockney accent, you didn’t just say ‘istoric. The only reason you’d say “an historic” is if you dropped the H sound in front of the word.

And since you’re not an 18th century bootblack, you’re going to keep the H and say “a historic.”

2) Bemused is not Amused

This is a tricky one, because “-mused” is the root word. People seem to think bemused is a form of amused, like it made you chuckle or smile slightly.

It isn’t.

Amused means you think something is funny. It means you found it slightly humorous. Bemused means confused or bewildered. It means you’re cocking your head like a puppy hearing a weird noise.

Bemused is not one step above amused. It’s not “more amused.” There certainly will never be “cemused.”

Just remember, bemused = bewildered.

3) You Don’t End Your Sentences With a Preposition EVER

Regular readers know that I hate and despise the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” rule, because it’s wrong. However, not everyone got the memo, and some people are just mentally locked in to this idea. So I don’t begrudge the people who write this way, because they were bullied into thinking this is correct.

But if you speak that way, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to be grammatically correct. But even most die-hard word nerds don’t speak like they write. They end their sentences with prepositions. They use slang. They have weird accents. But they don’t try to speak correctly all the time like an overenthusiastic school marm.

The most famous example is Winston Churchill telling an aide who misapplied the preposition rule to a speech, “this is utter nonsense up with which I shall not put.”

If you contort your brain and vocal cords to speak like this, you sound stilted and overly formal.

When you talk, end your sentences with a preposition, if that’s the way you would normally talk. If you’re not comfortable doing it, try to figure out a different way of saying what you wanted to say.

Like adding, “you know?” at the end.

4. Stop Saying “Myself” When You Mean “Me”

A lot of people say “myself,” when they mean “me.”

“Please email your questions to Bob or myself.”

I heard this a lot during my state government days. I think people did this to sound smarter or more official, but it’s wrong, so it negated any effect they were going for.

Using “myself” in most cases is almost certainly the incorrect usage. There are a few times you can use it — as a reflexive pronoun or an intensive pronoun — like “I see myself in the mirror” (reflexive) or “I built the workbench myself” (intensive) but that’s it. You would never use “myself” as the object or subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Give the cookies to myself.
Wrong: Myself baked some cookies.

The best way to see whether or not to use “myself” is to remove the other person — Bob — and see if the sentence makes sense: “Please email your questions to me.”

In this case, “email your questions to myself” just sounds wrong, so you know to use “me” instead.

We’re starting to learn that a lot of our hard-and-fast grammar rules are changing, either because common usage is rendering them unnecessary, or because they were never right to begin with (see #4 above). If you can avoid these, you can feel morally superior to people who make these mistakes in an attempt to sound smarter than everyone else.

I feel that way myself.

Photo credit: ranil (Flickr)

The Difficulties of Writing With Nonsexist Language

I was called a sexist because of a single tweet.

At a blogging session at Blog Indiana, I said, “If you’re opposed to ghost blogging, then let the woman who answers your phone introduce herself to every caller.”

I actually hesitated for a moment. What was a less sexist way of asking this? I knew there was a potential for trouble, and there was an easy way out of it, but I wasn’t a big fan of the solution, so I skipped it.

Then I followed it up with “If you’re against ghost blogging, let your copywriter sign her name to your brochure” to balance things out.

Sure enough, I got called out by Mary Long (@lawfirmPRwriter): “or how about “the PERSON who answers your phone shouldn’t introduce themselves?” Not all writers are men/women are secretaries.”

Yes, absolutely. Not all women are secretaries (actually, they’re administrative assistants now, as I’ve been reminded many times), but Mary’s solution is the one I was trying to avoid.

Now, I loathe the “he/she solution.” As in “If you’re against ghost blogging, let the man/woman who answers the phone introduce himself/herself.” That’s just ugly.

Or, I could be a little more generic and use “themselves,” but it’s actually wrong. And since I just got done giving a keynote about the importance of language and writing, I didn’t want to abuse the language, even though I had just advocated the overthrow of the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” rule.

The problem is if I talk about the one person who answers the phone, I can’t use the plural themselves.

Plus I’ve been admonished by our editor on No Bullshit Social Media not to do that, so I hesitate doing it now.

So I fell back on what I usually try to do, and balance it out. I’ll use the male pronoun sometimes, but because I know better, I balance it out by using the female pronoun and possessive at other times.

And if I do something like “the woman who answers your phones,” I’ll follow it up with “let the copywriter sign her name.”

I don’t always have the space, especially on Twitter, to be completely nonsexist or inclusive in my language. And I don’t want to be as politically correct as I had to be in the 1990s, filling every grad school paper with he/she and him/her.

I have to be satisfied with being nonsexist over my entire body of work, and making sure that I balance the hes and the shes. I make sure that I don’t always talk about nurses as being women or doctors as being men. It’s not a perfect solution, and it requires the reader to read more of my work than a single 140 character remark, but it’s the best solution I’ve found.

It can be a real struggle and I would know what solution other writers have found. How do you solve the sexist language question? Have you found a workable solution? Do you have any suggestions?

Stop Saying “Value Add”

English is a fluid, malleable language that is ever changing, which I always enjoy. Until someone comes up with a stupid term like “value add.”

(Before I go on, I know some of my friends use this term. Please be assured this is not a reflection on you. You’re awesome. I only harbor a grudge against the person who first came up with it.)

“Value add” — I can’t even bring myself to use the word without putting Quotes of Sarcasm around it — is one of those business words that went from being an adjective to a noun with a flick of the jargon pen. I still remember the first time I heard it. (Oh what a fun conversation that was!)

Friend: I think your ghost blogging service will make a great “value add” to a marketing agency’s offerings.
Me: What’s a “value add?”
Friend: It’s a thing that adds value. You know, from “value-added.”
Me: Why couldn’t you say “value-added service?”
Friend: This way is shorter.
Me: Except I hate “value-added.” You could say “be valuable.”
Friend: But . . . this is. . .
Me: Or “beneficial.” Or “useful.” Or “provide a great service.”
Friend: But I don’t—
Me: Or “helpful.” Or “marvelous.” Or “inestimable.”

“Value add” is one of those business terms that someone created because “value-added” was apparently too hard to say. That somehow the adjective “value-added,” as in “value-added feature,” was bulky and cumbersome, and tripped over the teeth before blubbering through the lips, like Quasimodo trying to recite the Gettysburg address.

“I know!” shrieked some business jargon harpy, whose song lures young marketers to them in their ships, causing the marketers to hurl themselves on the jagged rocks of corporate BS. “Instead of saying ‘value-added,’ which is four syllables, we’ll say ‘value add’ which is only three!” The other harpies cackled with glee, until a young harpy pointed out that “a value add” is still four syllables, whereupon the other harpies ate her.

Look, I was not a big fan of “value-added” when I first heard it. It sounded jargony, even if it took two commonly used words — “added” and “value” — and mashed them up into one awful word. English is malleable and fluid, and we are free to do things like that.

But I absolutely abhor and detest the new phrase, “value-add.” It serves no useful function, it sounds more corporate and jargony than even “value-added,” if such a thing were possible, and it doesn’t enhance the language so much as it makes me despair for the future of it.

The point of language is to find the best possible words to educate, inform, persuade, enrich, describe, and profess. Words like “valuable” do that. If something “has value,” we know it’s important. But jargon takes away from language. It dilutes language. Weakens it. Makes a mockery of it.

Jargon does not add value to our language. It is a “value-suck.”

is the owner of Professional Blog Service, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself. His new book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, which he wrote with Jason Falls, is in bookstores and on Amazon now.

Four Professional Secrets to Ignite Your Writing

Do you want to make your writing sing?

Do you want it to be passionate, emotional, and to move scores of people to action? Do you want to write your barbaric yawp! over the screens of the world? Here are four professional secrets I’ve used over the years to help ignite my own writing.Erik Deckers' Moleskine & Coffee Tumbler

Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

Writing can be memorable just with a little bit of alliteration. It can lighten the mood, and make a piece light-hearted without being silly or funny. Alliteration is where the first sound of a word are the same — crazy cars, beautiful beaches. Consonance is where internal consonants sound the same — Errant Erik — while assonance is where internal vowels sound the same — awful coffee, fair sherry.

One of my writers recently submitted a post about snow plows entitled “How Now Snow Plow,” which set a lighter mood for the entire piece, and we were able to do something a little lighter about something that’s usually very, well, not light.

Metaphors and Similes

Regular readers know I love metaphors. Metaphors are what give language its richness, its vividness. In the family of language, they’re the Wild Adventurer, that crazy uncle who lives exciting adventures searching for ancient treasure.

Similes, on the other hand, are the English teacher. The weak-chinnned, bespectacled, and slightly timid English teacher. They repeat, relate, and give you an idea of something, but they don’t actually do the thing they’re telling you about. (See, that there is a metaphor.)

“Life is like a box of chocolates,” said Forrest Gump. Meh. Sure, it’s nice, and it’s memorable, but it doesn’t bring anything to life.

But, “men’s words are bullets, that their enemies take up and make use of against them,” said George Savile in Maxims of State.

How sad, that life itself is reduced to a simple simile — a box of chocolates — while mere words can be bullets in the hands of our enemies. A well-turned metaphor can provide a thunderous impact to your writing.

Having said all that, similes can also be a powerful device. Think of any hard-boiled private detective story, when a sexy client entered the office — “She had legs like smooth alabaster towers that rose straight up to the heavens” — and you can see what similes can do for your writing.

While I recommend metaphors in your writing, similes will do in a pinch. But don’t rely on either device too much.

Hyperbole

Walt Whitman’s famous line from Leaves of Grass — his “barbaric yawp” — is surrounded by hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I love the hyperbole here: a hawk accuses and complains, Whitman shouts over the roofs of the world, and the last scud of day flings his likeness. He’s not saying the hawk’s cries sound like accusations or complaints (which would make it a weak-chinned simile). He’s not saying he wishes his cries would ring out over the roofs of the world, or that they can only be heard 100 yards away. And a scud in Whitman’s day was when a ship runs before a strong wind, but with little sail set. So can it really fling things, especially a person’s likeness?

Whitman’s hyperbole, and excellent use of metaphor, make Leaves of Grass one of the most memorable pieces of literature from the 19th century.

Action Verbs

While I normally hate business jargon that gets turned into verbs, I love using action verbs, or even taking similes and turning them into verbs.

Last year, I gave a presentation on “10 Techniques to Rocket Your Blog to Success.” The verb phrase “rocket your blog” was a whole lot more dramatic and powerful than “make your blog take off like a rocket.”

By using the word “rocket” as a verb, I was able to create an image of power and speed, and give the idea that this was something important and powerful.

Even the verb in this post’s headline — ignite — is a lot better than the others I could have chosen: improve, help, boost, embiggen. None of them gave the impression of, well, lighting a fire under your writing. (Five cool points to anyone who can tell me what literary device I just used in that last sentence.)

So, these are just four techniques that I use to help my own writing. What are some of the ones you use? How do you punch up your own writing, and make it memorable? Share your ideas in the comments.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

Five Uncommon Grammar Errors To Avoid

Grammar is a huge PITA.

It’s like your lawn. You know you need to keep it well-maintained, but there are little trouble spots that give you fits. Sometimes there are spots you don’t even know you missed, until it overgrows and the neighbors start complaining.

There are plenty of “grammar error” posts that will point out the obvious errors that most people make, like the there/their/they’re or its/it’s errors. But these are a few of the lesser-known errors that you may be making and not even realize it.

Photo of a mean teacher

I feel like a grouchy teacher when I write these posts.

1. Who/That

Other than a fun little cheer for the New Orleans Saints, this is a common one people make when referring to people or companies.

  • Wrong: Companies who practice green manufacturing can get government grants.
  • Wrong: People that like peanut butter and bologna are weird.
  • Right: Companies that practice green manufacturing can get government grants.
  • Right: People who like peanut butter and bologna just have different tastes, that’s all.

2. Singular vs. Plural Matching

This is always a tricky one for me. I always get tripped up when a phrase uses both a singular and plural item, like neither of these sandwiches. In other words, is it “Neither of these sandwichesis” or “Neither of these sandwiches are vegetarian?” My first inclination is to make “sandwiches” match the verb “are.”

But I would be wrong. According to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, since “neither” is singular, treat “neither of these sandwiches” as a singular noun and make the verb match — “neither of these sandwiches is vegetarian.”

3. Not all adverbs need to end in -ly.

On an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump wrongly corrected Cindy Lauper when she said “I feel bad.”

“Badly,” corrected Trump. But he was badly mistaken.

Action verbs will often add -ly to the end of a verb: “He sings badly.” “She writes sloppily.” “They argue loudly.” But adverbs that modify linking verbs — like “to be” (I am, you are) — don’t use ly. In other words, you wouldn’t say “He is tiredly” or “She lies downly.”

When Cindy Lauper said “I feel bad,” “feel” was a linking verb. The easiest way to tell if a verb is really a linking verb is to substitute “am” with the verb in question. If the sentence still works — “I feel bad” = “I am bad” — then the verb is a linking verb, and the adverb should not end in -ly.

In fact, the only time you would say “I feel badly” is if you have lost the ability to touch things with any kind of dexterity or success.

4. Good vs. Well

This is another tricky one, because people use”good” and “well” interchangeably.

    • Wrong: I sing good.
    • Wrong: Dinner tastes well.
    • Right: I sing well.
    • Right: Dinner tastes good.

The difference is whether well/good is an adverb or an adjective. Good is an adjective, but well is an adverb. Remember, an adverb modifies a verb — How do I sing? I sing well — but an adjective modifies a noun — What tastes good? Dinner tastes good. That’s because an adjective will also follow sense-verbs and be-verbs, so you can look good, smell good, feel good, be good. But you don’t look well, smell well, feel well, or be well, unless you’re discussing your ninja-like prowess at these skills.

5. Me vs. I

This one drives me crazy, not because people use the wrong word (okay, that too), but because the rule is still erroneously taught in our schools.

Which is correct:

    • “Would you like to go to lunch with Doug and I?”
    • “Would you like to go to lunch with Doug and me?”Believe it or not, it’s Doug and me. Here’s another one.
      • Doug and me went to lunch.
      • Doug and I went to lunch.

      That one is a little easier. It’s Doug and I.

      I could explain the rule about how it all has to do with who is the subject and who is the object of the sentence and blah blah blah. But that doesn’t matter. Here’s the easy way to figure out whether to use I or me in a sentence:

      Take out “Doug and,” and see what sounds correct.

      • “Would you like to go to lunch with me?”
      • “I went to lunch.”The problem is, we have been hammered to say “Doug and I” by our elementary school teachers for so long that the rule is firmly, but mistakenly, wedged into our brains (and they’re still doing it). Just remove the “_____ and” in your head, and you’ll have your answer.

A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

A word is worth a thousand pictures.

Sure, the reverse is true — a picture is worth a thousand words — but I think the words, in many cases, are more valuable.

Because if I say the word “baby,” “tree,” or “friend,” each of you immediately had a picture flash in your mind of a particular baby, tree, or friend. Maybe it’s your own child or your baby pictures. It’s the tree you climbed when you were a kid. It’s the friend you haven’t kept in touch with.

A photo of my son when he was about 18 months old. A word is worth a thousand pictures, because if I just say 'baby' I'll bet you think of your own.

When I hear 'baby,' I think of my son.

We think in words. Our internal monologue is based on language, not pictures. Even when you flashed on the image of your errant friend, you probably thought, “I haven’t seen her in so long. I should call her.” You didn’t follow up her face with images of a sad face, a telephone, and a scene of the two of you, smiling and laughing, eating lunch.

Language is so ingrained in our way of thinking that it’s actually part of how we learn. In fact, many childhood experts say that it’s not until kids start talking through problems that they can direct their own learning and solve their own problems. According to an article from the National Association of School Psychologists, Motivating Learning in Young Children:

Preschoolers (age 3-5 years) are beginning to be more involved with verbal problem solving skills. They direct their own learning through speech and use vocal communication to direct their own behavior to solve problems. Young children are often heard talking themselves through a series of actions that lead to the solution of a problem. As children get older, this “talking out loud” will become an internal monologue. This newly developing ability to problem solve is the basis for motivation at this stage. Having the self confidence to know that one can solve a problem motivates the learner to accept other new and challenging situations, which in turn lead to greater learning.

Think about your own methods in working through a series of complicated steps, like trying to follow driving directions to an unfamiliar location. You turn off the radio, shush the kids, and start mumbling quietly to yourself:

“Okay, that’s 3235, and we want 3340. So it’s going to be on the other side of the str—dammit, I missed it!”

But that problem solving, that normally-internal monologue is based on our use of words, not pictures. We learn in words, we think in words, we solve problems in words.

Don’t get me wrong. I love pictures. I love photographs. I think people like Casey Mullins and Paul D’Andrea take some stunning photos that I’ll never be able to manage </sucking up>. Admittedly there are instances where mere words cannot do justice to the images of certain photos, and I don’t think we should even try.

But pictures can’t tell the entire story. Words can. Or at least do it better. Photos can’t explain, teach, educate, inspire, or persuade the way words can. Even when we see the most poignant or beautiful photos, we still need words to tell us what the photo is. Who’s in that photo? Where was it taken? What was he thinking when you took it?

What do you think? Do words conquer all? Is the pen mightier than the lens? Or are we visual people who gather and process information by what we see, not what we read? Leave your comments (or photos).

——
My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy, who I also helped write Twitter Marketing For Dummies (another affiliate link).

Stop Saying “Drink the Kool-Aid.” It’s Offensive.

The funny thing about language is that we accept the language of violence, and are shocked by the language of love, sex, and passion.

Last night, I watched Stephen Fry (@StephenFry) on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (@CraigyFerg), in an audience-free show where the two chatted for almost an hour about some intelligent stuff. That’s when Fry said something that — to me, the wordsmith — just floored me.

If an alien was looking down on us, and inspecting our language, they would see that the worst thing we do on this planet is we torture, we kill, we abuse, we harm people. We’re cruel. And those are the things at which we should be ashamed. Amongst the best things we do is we breed children, we raise them, we make love to each other, we adore each other, we’re affectionate and fond of each other. Those are the good things we do.

They would say that how odd that the language for the awful things we use casually. ‘Oh the traffic was agony, it was hell, it was cruel, it was torture waiting in line.’ We use words like ‘torture.’ That’s the worst word.

And yet, if we use the F-word, which is the word for generating our species, for showing physical affection one to another, then we’re taken off air and accused of being wicked and irresponsible and a bad influence to children.

Words have power. They have impact. If I call you a rotten f—er (see, I can’t even use the word, because I might offend someone), that has real power. It’s a verbal slap to the face, soon to be followed by a real one.

But if you’re giving me hard time and I say, “you’re killing me,” we laugh at that, like it’s somehow funny that your minor inconveniences are going to result in my eventual death.

We can’t talk about the creation of life, or the affirmation of life, without howls of outrage, but it’s all right, even funny, to talk about the harm and destruction of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love dark comedy and morbid humor. There’s something liberating to be able to laugh at the things that scare us. But there’s a line I don’t like to cross, and I’ve been thinking for a few months about where that line is.

It’s somewhere around the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid.” We use that phrase in business without a thought. It means undying loyalty. If you “drink the company Kool-Aid,” you’re a company man through and through. You’ve bought into management’s vision, and you’ll follow it to The Bitter End. We throw this phrase around without a thought.

Houses in Jonestown, where the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" came from.It comes from one of the largest mass suicides in all history — some people call it mass murder — where more than 900 people died in Jonestown, Guyana. It was the day Jim Jones persuaded (or forced) all 909 members of his cult to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape-flavored Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid).

I was 11 years old when Jonestown happened. I remember the footage and photos of the bodies. I remember grownups talking about it. In some ways, it’s all the more shameful for us Hoosiers, because Jim Jones got his start right here in Indianapolis. (Click the link above if you’ve never heard the story.)

So I don’t say “drink the Kool-Aid” at all. It’s a horrible phrase about a horrible event created by a horrible man. And to toss it around like a punchline, a throwaway phrase to use in a motivational speech, is repugnant.

And this one phrase illustrates Fry’s point so well: we casually throw around the language of violence like it’s no big deal. We say “drink the Kool-Aid” in board rooms and coffee shops because we think it means “I was persuaded” or “I would follow that person.” All the while not realizing what it actually means.

But we get embarrassed and throw a royal fit when a woman’s nipple is shown on national TV for a fraction of a second. We’re upset by a brief glimpse of a small segment of a woman’s body, yet we think nothing of talking about torture — the “worst word,” Fry called it — and suicide bombings and war and beheadings on the evening news while our kids are in the room. That’s somehow okay, but we fine TV stations millions of dollars because Janet Jackson got a little extra publicity.

(Now, I understand your initial reaction might be to talk about the rampant over-sexuality of our culture, and how our kids shouldn’t be exposed to that sort of thing. And I won’t disagree with you a single bit. Frankly, I don’t want my kids seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl either. But that’s not my point. So, if that’s your response, then you’ve completely missed the boat. Go back to the beginning and start over.)

My point is that language is powerful. One of the most powerful weapons we have. It cannot be used casually. We shouldn’t toss words and phrases, like “drink the Kool-Aid,” around without thinking about the meaning behind them.

In social media circles, we talk about the creation and exchanging of ideas. Yet language is the biggest, most important idea — ideal? — of all. To treat it so thoughtlessly harms it. It reduces our values and ideals to afterthoughts and punchlines.

Bottom line: stop saying “drink the Kool-Aid.” Because it makes light of one of the biggest murder sprees in the last century, and you’re trivializing what it means.

Here’s the segment of Fry and Ferguson’s conversation. The quote above comes at around the 8:00 mark, but it’s worth watching the entire thing.

Photo credit: By Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons