The decline and fall of common phrases

February 13, 2020 § Leave a comment

A woman slammed the phone down on my friend yesterday – or did she. They were talking – on mobile phones – she got angry and she abruptly and angrily ended the call. But did she actually, literally, physically, slam down the phone on him? Probably not – unless she was also intent on wrecking her mobile.

So that’s one phrase in the English language whose days are numbered. There are others:

  1. Carbon copy. When I was a young journalist using a manual typewriter I used carbon paper to make a copy of the story I was writing. Carbon paper isn’t necessary now that we all use computers. However…we’re using ‘carbon copy’ often without knowing it. When we cc somebody on an email, we all know that we’re copying them in. We don’t all know (I didn’t) that cc stands for carbon copy.
  2. Winding down the window (of a car). We don’t do that anymore. In place of the winder-type apparatus that was fitted in old cars, we use a button and the window shoots down.
  3. Kodak moment. In the days of camera film, we were careful about capturing the moment we wanted to cherish on film – frankly because we had to pay for it to be developed and, in the first place, make the effort to go to the developer. So a Kodak moment, named after popular photographic film, was a special picture moment. These days billions of pictures are taken every minute on Smart Phones, special or not. We just snap away.
  4. Nothing to write home about – meaning it’s not big news. Back in the day, before mobile phones, people actually wrote letters to family when they had news – even sent postcards when they were on holiday! But if they didn’t have news or weren’t on holiday they had ‘nothing to write home about’.
  5. Put somebody through the wringer – to give them a hard time. Several generations back wringers were used to squeeze every last drop of water from just-washed clothes. Now machines do the hard work but we’ve carried on using the expression to suggest someone’s been drained of everything they’ve got! eg. the lawyer really put him through the wringer.
  6. Snapping a photograph. I just used the ‘snap a picture’ expression in Point 3 – where did we get that from? Simple – old cameras used to make a snapping sound when they took the shot.
  7. And, is a newspaper still a newspaper when it’s published online – no paper involved!

There must be many more phrases that don’t really make sense any more. Any thoughts? Answers on a postcard please – well, not literally. We don’t need to send postcards when we can whizz over a suggestion via the comments box.

Write it like you say it so everyone gets it

January 11, 2018 § Leave a comment

It amazes me how companies use a completely different language when it comes to their written marketing stuff which should be directly connecting with customers. They don’t write the way they talk and people have to work too hard to understand what the company’s offering.

If you see anything on my site that falls foul of what I’m about to say – please pull me up on it. I mean it. I don’t want to write anything I wouldn’t say.

A good example of the ‘different written language’ I’m talking about was nearly used the other day when a friend of mine wanted to complain about the shoddy service she was receiving from a company who was supposed to be supplying some wedding invitations for her. She started writing a flowery email to them and asked my advice, basically about the ‘big’ words she was using. There was nothing wrong with the email but I asked her what she’d say if she was talking to them about the problem. Let’s just say, we got to the point quicker by writing with words of one syllable and her message was all the more powerful for it.

There is a place for formal language – I suppose solicitors still have to use it but not many solicitors read my blog and they’ll ignore what I’m saying anyway. I’m talking to and about the people who are trying to get attention via their marketing and will struggle if they use fancy language.

I know when we’re writing we can be more thoughtful. I know when we’re talking we can often think afterwards ‘I wish I’d said that’. But if we use a mixture of those two elements in down-to-earth language we can get a good formula.

Crafting a direct message that gets to the point and dumps unnecessary frills that the customer doesn’t have time or energy – or will, frankly – to read is a skill. I think it should be a law of marketing.

I suppose a good test is to ask yourself: would ‘I’ read it?

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How do you sign off your emails?

February 22, 2017 § 1 Comment

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I’ve said it before but I’m saying it again because I still don’t know the answer: Do you have a standard sign-off for emails or do you vary it for each recipient?

I would guess that most of us throw out the rules if we’re emailing friends or clients we know well but what’s a good standard sign-off for anybody who falls into a more formal group. I don’t really have a ‘standard sign-off’ and am always finding reason to tailor it.

What I mean by that is that I’ll write the email in a way that Many thanks makes sense as a finishing phrase or Speak soon because both of those seem friendlier than many of the alternatives. I’ll take you through them as I see them:

Very best wishes – It sounds a bit over-sincere, I’ve decided;

Best wishes – alright but a bit stiff;

Best – manly (I can’t really explain why I’m giving it a gender but I said this was how I saw it);

All the best – old-fashioned and somehow too ‘old’ to be coming from someone of my age;

Kind regards – I’m not sure it’s ‘me’;

Warm regards – twee;

Regards – to the point. I feel fine when I receive a ‘Regards’  but signing off with one doesn’t come naturally;

Sincerely – not right for an email, not right for anything anymore – too formal;

Yours – same problem as ‘Sincerely’;

Sincerely yours  twice the problem of ‘Sincerely’ and ‘Yours’;

Take care – I like this, both for friends and for clients I know well. It’s not too personal but it’s friendly;

Love – I write that on birthday cards (because I love the person I’m sending them to. The same can’t be said for all email recipients so it’s not right.)

Name only – sometimes I sign off with just my name, particularly if we’re having an ’email conversation’ when wishes of any kind start to make the messages look clumsy. Otherwise it looks lazy unless you know the recipient well;

Initial only – rude;

Cheers – we’re doing business not buying a round;

Smiley – no;

See you soon – you probably won’t so as a generic sign-off it’s inappropriate;

Thanks for getting in touch – I like that;

Thanks so much for getting in touch – too needy;

Many thanks – a favourite but you’ve got to have something to thank the recipient for otherwise it doesn’t make sense. That’s why this blog started out with me saying I rewrite emails in order to be able to use this sign-off;

Speak soon – I also like this. If you’re emailing a client you know well you probably will speak soon. If you don’t know the client well yet, the sign-off reinforces the fact that you’re opening channels of communication.

So having run through many of the usual suspects I still haven’t found a generic sign-off I feel comfortable with. Something you might say at the end of a meeting goes towards deciding your ideal sign-off but it’s not a standalone decider because often you haven’t met the person at the receiving end of the email so the relationship is different.

Which means that even after giving the issue much thought I haven’t got anywhere with it. There will be some who will say I’m over-thinking the issue. I don’t agree. Every piece of communication goes towards your professional reputation and the way you close an email could be seen as smooth or awkward and that matters very much indeed.

Any thoughts??

Don’t let the little ones get away

February 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Watch out for the tiddlers

We  make the biggest effort to check complicated words that are tricky to spell but so often overlook the little ones that have drifted from, say, ‘or’ to ‘of’. We’ll have been concentrating our proofreading efforts on more challenging words – take something like ‘accommodate’. We’ll make sure we’ve got two ‘ccs’ and two ‘mms’ because we know that’s an easy one to get wrong.

Or if we mention McDonalds, we’ll double-check that spelling, knowing you can buy a Big Mac from the place although there’s never been an ‘a’ in the company’s name. It’s a helpful hint for getting the spelling spot-on.

But…and take it from someone who proofreads every day, the mistake we make time and time again is to forget to check the easy-peasy tiny words we can spell in our sleep/with our eyes shut/without even thinking about them.

And we’re so focused on making sure the body copy reads perfectly the howlers sometimes appear in the headline of the piece. It’s a fact of writing life: people tend to overlook headlines, subheads and captions when they proofread.

Much as I’d like a proofreader to be hired for any job that involves words I can see it isn’t happening. That being the case it’s wise to write your content, save it as a draft, walk away, have a cup of tea and read it again 30 minutes later. You’ll be surprised what you discover and your copy will be all the better for it.

Always – but always – be wide-eyed and alert when you see words like:

  • is
  • it
  • if
  • in
  • up
  • us
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • to
  • too
  • he
  • her
  • here
  • you
  • your
  • for
  • four

To name a very few…

I lost faith in the offer because the copy was spelt so badly

October 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

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I want to do yoga – frankly I need to do yoga – so when a Winter sun/yoga offer plopped into my inbox it looked just ‘the thing’. I was nearly on my way to find my leggings and book my place. And then I read the copy.

Seriously?

They wanted me to believe that there were professionals at the end of this venture into yoga which, they explained, means union of “body, mint and spirit.” (Please note: this is the sort of mistake your spellcheck can never pick up because although the word’s completely wrong, the spelling’s entirely right so there’s no reason for the spellcheck to question it.)

‘Whether’ was spelt ‘Wether’, sentences were constructed inside-out and back-to-front and the punctuation thrown randomly at the copy like confetti.

This was a three-paragraph email. It’s not hard to get that right – language/writing clearly wasn’t their strength, and they should have given the job to someone who could have polished it up properly. Then more people would have actually followed through, found their leggings and booked a slot.

When I see a company can’t be bothered to spell properly, I wonder what other corners they’re cutting.

Mind your language – would-be customers will doubt your professionalism if you don’t – and you’ll do nothing for your reputation.

I can’t buy from you if you can’t spell!

November 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

That may sound a bit (outrageously even) harsh but I’ve just had an email that’s prompted this outpouring. I haven’t even checked the supplier’s work – it may be fabulous and well-priced. But since they couldn’t manage to spell their introductory email to me properly, I’m not going to be able to find respect for them.

‘Words’ is an area I understand so I can spot their mistakes but they’re offering a data provision service that is much more difficult to check and I would only buy from a supplier who had earned my respect. They managed to trash that in their first sentence.

I know people think I bang on about stuff that isn’t critical in the ‘real world’ of commerce (where do they think I live, by the way…) but how you say what you say speaks volumes about you.

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I don’t confine my rants to grammar – but that message is spot-on

So let’s clear up some myths:

  • If you’re in sales/ recruitment/ finance/data provision…should you also be expected to produce word-perfect marketing copy or client communication?
  • Answer: Absolutely yes, if you want to be seen as a professional and top of your game. Children can be forgiven spelling mistakes, you can’t.
  • What if the error has no direct bearing on your offer? Say, the price and other info are essentially right but spelt wrong.
  • Answer: Would you visit a client if you were looking scruffy? Obviously not so don’t send them sloppy communication that suggests you overlook detail.

And the persistent offenders:

  • There (place); they’re (they are); their (belonging to them);
  • It’s (it is); its (belonging to it);
  • You’re (you are); your (belonging to you);

Apostrophes have nothing to do with plurals, for example:

  • More than one RT are RTs (not RT’s)
  • If there are four Emmas in a class, that’s how you write it;
  • The 20s, 30s, 40s etc. simply take an ‘s’ and don’t also need an apostrophe;

The tone of your communication is also really important because if people find it easy to read they are much more likely to do so. If it’s full of jargon and goes over their heads they’re unlikely to invest much time trying to work out what you’re saying. Often you’re too ‘close’ to your company to read what you write objectively and you need feedback from people outside of the business before you sign off any written word about it.

And – probably this sounds politically incorrect but it’s worth saying – if you outsource any part of your work to overseas companies or any of your staff have English as a second language, make sure you have a good look at the language they’re using when they’re writing to your customers. Non-native speakers have turns of phrases that don’t really work. As customers, we worry that you’re looking after the detail.

To some extent, corporate literature and websites can be the easier pieces of communication to get right because you’ll invest time and, almost certainly, money in getting them together. Watch out for the emails that are fired out from your company or the text messages that staff are sending to customers.

Next time I receive a ‘Hope your ok’ message I’m going to name and shame!

Money for old rope – literally

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

The phrase ‘money for old rope’ stems from the days of public hangings, according to a game I was playing at the weekend. Actually I know that story’s up for debate but I like it so I’m going to believe it.

Legend goes that ghoulish spectators wanted to buy pieces of the rope used for the hanging as a sort of souvenir and it was regarded as a perk of the job for the hangman to sell it.

Another explanation has it that workers in the workhouse were given used and damaged rope to pick apart to salvage the good stuff to be spun into new rope. Possible but not nearly as interesting a story so I’m afraid I’m going to dismiss it in favour of the ‘hanging’ version. Any thoughts?

Do you know about Bowler Hat?

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Actually I don’t mean do you know about Bowler Hat Media, the agency, but do you know about bowler hat, the hat? I confess I didn’t until just now when I was looking though a new book I bought the other day, Bloomers, Biros & Wellington Boots – How the Names Became the Words.

It talks about the famous one we all know, for example – Hoover – which is a word many of us tend to use for a vacuum cleaner but was in fact handed down by Henry Hoover who invented a contraption to suck up dirt so should really only be applied to that specific brand.

Bloomers, biros and wellington boots are similarly named after their inventors and, I was surprised, to see, so is the bowler hat. Well, sort of – I’m not sure how convinced I am about this one. I thought the hat got its name from being bowl-shaped but the book maintains that bowler is a derivative of Beaulieu, the surname of feltmakers Thomas and William who were involved in its production.

This book by Andrew Sholl is full of gems and some others I liked  were:

  • mentor – in Greek mythology Mentor was an old friend of Odysseus who acted as an adviser to his son;
  • plimsolls – English politician Samuel Plimsoll (late 19th century) campaigned against unsafe conditions at sea. He became known as the sailor’s friend and gave his name to new rubber-soled footwear introduced on boats;
  • mesmerise – Austrian physician Frank Mesmer used hypnosis as a therapy back in the 18th century and gave his name to the word;
  • galvanise – Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy in Italy discovered that frogs’ legs would move and twitch when they came into contact with metal during a thunderstorm;
  • biro – it was Lazlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, who hit upon the idea of a pen with a steel ball to control the ink flow and he registered his first patent in 1943;
  • bloomers – womens rights campaigner Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-94) saw the baggy knickers as good, comfy wear for women;
  • wellington boots – it was the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who made them popular and gave them his name.

It got me thinking, what legacy have I left that should be named after me in years to come? But, you see, there’s a major flaw in that thought, nobody can pronounce the name, Lefebve and that includes some of my own family…..

Why a dead ringer’s a dead ringer!

September 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

I love finding out the origin of phrases and ‘dead ringer’ is a pretty spectacular one, to say the least.

A ‘dead ringer’ is somebody who looks very much like someone else and the expression stems back to Medieval Ages. Back in the day medical science wasn’t what it is now and when someone seemed to have stopped breathing, medics weren’t terribly sure that they were actually dead. Ridiculous as this may sound, the poor sickly person was buried anyway, rather than clutter up the place! To be fair, it’s thought that comas weren’t understood at that time and that could be one of the reasons that people were thought to be lifeless.

Often bodies were exhumed and corpses were found with their fingers literally worn down to the bone and the insides of coffin lids scratched silly by the poor people, who had regained consciousness, trying to escape. So nightmarish was this vision that the gentry began to bury their loved ones with a string attached to their wrist, connected to a bell – and should the medics have the diagnosed death wrongly, the prematurely buried body could ring for attention.

It sounds like a bit of a pantomime but it actually worked and many bodies were dug up and returned to where they belonged (above ground).

As the freshly-exhumed went about their normal life, though, they shocked acquaintances who thought they were dead. Friends would wonder: ‘That looks like Fred Smith – he was buried last month’ and then they’d figure ‘Oh, he must be a dead ringer.’ And, of course, they would have been right!

I could of screamed…

September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

…when I realised how many people actually thought ‘of’ was the right word to put before ‘screamed’ in that sentence!

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We live in a world where there are so many opportunities (texts/Facebook, for example) for people to prove that they didn’t listen much in their English class – where the teacher would have taught them to write ‘have screamed’. Am I sounding a bit old-school? Can’t help it.

Another howler that drivers me bonkers is the mess that’s made with there, their and they’re. I’m not going to insult anyone by explaining what each of them means because I’m sure everyone knows, they just don’t bother to choose the right one and select any old right-sounding ‘there’ in the belief it will ‘do’ Well, it won’t – for me  or for many others who are particular about the language. Same muddle goes for too and to – two is stretching the case a bit. Then there’s it’s and its. Why not just spend another nano-second to work out whether ‘it is’ something or possession is involved.

THE most common written error award has to be handed to misuse of the humble apostrophe and, in particular, misuse of the apostrophe to denote plural,  eg. photo’s. There’s no logical reason to put an apostrophe there but the poor little mite gets mangled and squished into all sorts of places it has no right to be. I wrote about it in more depth here: Apostrophe Protection Society 

Although, weirdly, it’s so often overlooked when it’s really needed – rudely and routinely dumped, for example, by those who want to know what ‘you’re’ doing but chuck a ‘your’ in place of the right word.

What’s your bugbear when it comes to the written word?

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