Tips from the Editor
By Kelly Laycock
Being a known word and grammar geek, I receive tons of links from friends and colleagues to cute posts they’ve come across about poor grammar and punctuation, like this one:
But there is more to be said about writing in the workplace, and I wanted to share with you a few articles I recently came across that discuss email etiquette. I think we’ve all had that sinking feeling after you send a snarky comment meant for one particular co-worker and you realize you just hit Reply All instead. Or worse, you’ve just hammered out an emotional response and sent it before giving yourself time to cool your thoughts. If only there were an automatic pop-up before sending that says “Are you sure you won’t regret this later?”
Well, here are a few guidelines for writing business emails you won’t regret (as adapted from Business Insider online, “11 Email Etiquette Rules Every Professional Should Know” by Jacquelyn Smith and Vivian Giang):
- Include a clear, direct subject line. This can determine whether or not your email gets read. Plain and simple.
- Think twice before hitting “Reply All”. Seriously. It isn’t just about making a mistake like in the example above. As Smith and Giang say, “No one wants to read emails from 20 people that have nothing to do with them.”
- Use professional salutations. Yo is not acceptable (this isn’t 1996 anymore), and Hey guys is questionable, especially for a mixed-gender group. Hi or Hello followed by the person’s name (Michael not Mike, unless you know he prefers it) is better. With more formal situations, especially if you don’t know the person, try to use their title and last name for initial contact. After that, use the name they sign the email with.
- Exclamation points (!!!) and ALL CAPS are not acceptable. Use them sparingly (if at all).
- Be cautious with humour. As Smith and Giang point out, “Humour can easily get lost in translation without the right tone or facial expressions.” Their advice: When in doubt, leave it out!
- Reply to your emails – even if the email wasn’t intended for you. Acknowledgment of receipt can save you getting repeat emails later on, “I don’t know if you received my earlier email…” Likewise, if you receive something not intended for you, it is just common courtesy to let the sender know their error. Say something neutral, like: “I wanted to let you know so you can send it to the correct person.” You would be grateful if someone did the same for you, so let’s use the Golden Rule here.
- Proofread every message. This one is close to my heart. People will judge you on your poor grammar and spelling, even if it is just a mistake. Read your email a few times before sending. Aloud, if possible. When you mean, “Sorry for the inconvenience,” you really don’t want it to say, “Sorry for the incontinence.” Double-checking can save some embarrassment!
- Add the email address last. It seems so simple and yet this is truly solid advice. You can’t send an unfinished email by mistake if it has nowhere to go. Even when replying, just delete the recipient’s name until you are sure you are ready to send!
If you’re interested, check out the Business Em@il Etiquette blog for more great tips.
“11 Email Etiquette Rules Every Professional Should Know” by Jacquelyn Smith and Vivian Giang, Business Insider online (Sep. 3, 2014). Accessed Mar 1, 2016.
As I mentioned in my previous post about abbreviations, conventions abound, and it is often confusing to know which style to use. I will take a look at the three big considerations: capitalization, pluralization and punctuation.
First of all, style is a choice not an inviolable rule (see my previous post). Every major style guide has made choices about their preferences, and we can trust those style choices because they are the result of years of experience in sorting out trends that work and trends that don’t. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. A style guide is a GUIDE for the most common occurrences, and you are free to disagree, but I suggest you have good reason for it. In this post, I’m going to use a few different sources for style and attempt to highlight the reasoning behind each. My examples will come from the American guide The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the British guide Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), and the Government of Canada’s The Canadian Style (CS). Read the rest of this entry »
Now, I know I’m supposed to be finishing up my discussion of Abbreviation Clarification (Part 2) this week, and I really do want to look more closely at the popular style conventions for abbreviations. But as I started writing, I realized I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about style in general first, specifically relating to the legal profession.
I see style as a complex and ever-changing beast, moving first in one direction and then back again, much like a “Bird Ballet”. As with all style conventions, people often feel very strongly one way or another for no discernible reason (just look at my most popular post to see what I mean!). This ebb and flow and constant change is reflected in the publishing world to some extent, where I’ve found it difficult to find any really “standard” Canadian style guides, legal or otherwise. But more on that in a moment.
The important thing to remember about style conventions is that there is no wrong, there is only preference. Style can change very quickly to match trends in popular culture, or it can stay stable over long periods of time. It can be played with depending on the content. This differs from rules of grammar, which come from language use over time and change very slowly, if at all. Read the rest of this entry »
Abbreviations have been around for as long as people have been putting thoughts to paper (or stone, parchment, or whatever other materials have been used throughout history). From ancient Greece to Twitter, shorthand has been used to save time, space and materials. The process of writing in shorthand is called stenography, from Greek stenos (narrow) and graphie (writing), or sometimes brachygraphy, from Greek brachys (short) or tachygraphy, from Greek tachys (swift, speedy). A great example of an abbreviation devised in ancient Latin that has carried through to today is the symbol we use for and, the ampersand (&), short for the Latin word et. Check out Kate Wiles’s post from The History Vault entitled The History of Abbreviation if you are interested in learning more.
Abbreviation is the umbrella term for anything that is shortened but retains its original meaning. This includes initialisms (pronounced letter by letter: RCMP, HIV), acronyms (pronounced as words: NASA, AIDS), contractions (Dr., don’t) and symbols (&, $). Some abbreviations are obvious either from the context or from convention, such as contractions and symbols, but others require explanation to be understood by readers. I will focus my attention on those. It is my intent with this first post to highlight some of the issues that arise with using abbreviations in formal writing, as well as some guidelines for making your writing accessible to your readers. In the second post, I will tackle the wide variety of style choices available and consider the pros and cons of each. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Laycock
With recent events in the news, from the Dalhousie dentistry Facebook scandal to the charges laid against former CBC talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, the topic of gender equality (among other things!) has come to the forefront of our social consciousness. But it isn’t just in Canada; it is a concern on a global level. For those of you who haven’t seen this yet, take a look at Emma Watson speaking at the United Nations in 2014 about the importance of equality for women and a new global campaign called HeForShe. She addresses the misconceptions of the word feminism and expands on the need for male allies within the equality movement. We are all aware that inequality still exists (and not just between the sexes), and while progress has been made in some societies, equal rights is still a global issue that deserves discussion and solutions.
So what I’d like to discuss in this post is the role language plays in the debate and why it is so important to use unbiased language in our writing and speaking. I’m not talking excessive political correctness, where we find ourselves on pins and needles not to offend anyone, ever. What I’m talking about is making choices in our language that represent the reality we want to see. A society where our daughters and sons don’t feel the weight of being stereotyped into antiquated gender roles just because we didn’t take the time to reflect on the impact our choice of words and expressions has on our world view.
So what am I talking about? We don’t have to look very far to see the male dominance in English:
- human being
- Man, what a game!
These are all so ingrained, it may seem overly sensitive to mention them, but I was struck speechless when I found this generic use of the word man in Merriam-Websters Dictionary:
2b: the individual who can fulfill or who has been chosen to fulfill one’s requirements <she’s your man>.
Ouch! How far have we come, and we still use this kind of expression in everyday English? Were they trying to be gender neutral by using a feminine pronoun to show it is not specific to men?! That is perhaps even worse. But that’s nothing compared to some. Do these make you as uncomfortable as they make me?
- Man up.
- Be a man.
- Are you man enough?
- That’s a ballsy move.
- Grow a pair.
- You throw like a girl.
- Don’t get your panties in a knot.
Have you noticed how most expressions of strength involve masculine stereotypes? Perhaps the negativity is more obvious in the contrasting feminine stereotypes of weakness and hysteria. If you are having a hard time understanding why someone might take issue with these expressions (but by now I hope you see my point!), let’s look a little closer at the theory behind unbiased language. When gender-specific terms like he, him and man are used to describe gender-neutral situations, women become invisible.
- Man is a primate.
- All men are created equal.
Clearly, women cannot be seen as equal when they aren’t seen at all. As the Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out in its article entitled “Feminist Philosophy of Language”:
…there is no doubt that a gender-neutral meaning is intended, but this meaning seems unavailable. As a result, the sentences seem ill-formed:
- Man has two sexes; some men are female.
- Man breastfeeds his young.
- Ask the candidate about his husband or wife.
Or how about terms that call attention to a woman’s presence in a position of authority?
- doctor – lady doctor (apparently still common in the UK)
- manager – manageress (again, common in other parts of the world)
- actor – actress (this one is so accepted, perhaps it doesn’t bother anyone, but I find it follows the theory that these gender-specific terms minimize the stature of women in these roles)
What’s wrong with replacing some of these terms with more inclusive language (as suggested by Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, page 411)?
- chairman ⇒ chair or chairperson (although chairperson tends only to be used for women, continuing the gender bias through a different word), presiding officer, president
- councilman ⇒ councillor, councilperson
- fathers (figurative) ⇒ founders, pioneers, innovators, trailblazers
- fireman ⇒ firefighter
- housewife ⇒ homemaker, householder
- mailman ⇒ mail carrier, postal worker
- salesman ⇒ salesperson, customer service representative, sales clerk
- workmanlike ⇒ skilled, expert
Or what about a few of the guidelines given in The Canadian Style. They suggest:
- Parallel treatment of names mentioned together:
- Knight and J. Philips or Joyce Philips, the engineer, and Alan Knight, the journalist, not Alan Knight, the journalist, and Mrs. J. Philips
- and Mrs. James and Irene Luciano or James and Irene Luciano not James Luciano and his lovely blond wife Irene
- Avoid personification:
- The area was hit by Hurricane Flora. It wrought havoc not She wrought havoc.
- Do not feminize occupations or add gratuitous modifiers:
- Executor not executrix
- Doctor and nurse, not lady doctor and male nurse
- Avoid using generic man to refer to people in general
- Average person not common man
- Ordinary people not man in the street
- Staff/operate/run a booth not man a booth
- Humanity, people not mankind
- Synthetic, manufactured not man-made
- Use woman not girls or ladies
- The men and women of the Administrative Division not the men and girls of the Administrative Division
- Seventy percent of the delegates were women not seventy percent of the delegates were ladies
- Do not suggest that men are the norm in certain situations and women in others:
- Parent and child not mother and child
- Professionals, their spouses and their children not professionals, their wives and their children
- The average worker or wage-earner not the average working man
As a colleague of mine pointed out, when it comes to filling in job applications, women are often still viewed as a minority, despite us being one half the population of the world. They ask you to self-identify as a woman (the same question usually asks if you also want to identify as a visible minority, an Aboriginal person, or a disabled person). I have always found this rather insulting. They call this equal opportunity employment, but what it really points out is the stark reality that women are underemployed in general (not to mention underpaid!) and in order to be considered on an equal footing to men, we are asked to highlight our “weakness” through a government initiative. Way to fill those quotas, ladies.
(Another issue with gender bias inherent in the English language is the lack of a gender neutral pronoun. We’ve talked at length about pronouns in a previous post, so if you are interested in the he/she, s/he, they debate, please click the link.)
Copyeditors (and other professionals in the publishing industry) have long been aware of the use and abuse of biased language. And it’s not all gender related. Einsohn highlights some issues with other biased terminology (page 410):
Copyeditors almost never encounter overt ethnic or racial slurs in manuscripts, but some authors will use derivative terms that may strike some readers as insensitive. Controversies abound: Are colloquial verbs like gyp and welsh (or welch) offensive? Do expressions such as Dutch treat, French letter, and Siamese twins (scientists now use conjoined twins) promote stereotyping? Or are phrases objectionable only when they attribute negative characteristics to the named group: Indian giver, French leave, Dutch uncle? Should writers avoid metaphors in which the adjective black is used to connote discredit (black sheep), illegality (black market), or exclusion (blackball, blacklist)?
She notes that “[p]roponents and opponents of these kinds of phrases are quick to marshal their arguments”, but she warns us that “perhaps it is better to err on the side of caution than to run roughshod over entire nationalities, cultures and social groups”. She aptly calls it “the power (or tyranny) of language”.
So should it come down to relying on a good copyeditor to properly captain the rough waters of inappropriate or insensitive language? Or should that be the prerogative of every conscientious person on the planet? We can’t change the history of language, so moving forward let’s at least make a conscious effort to address the practical ways we can use the power of language to reinforce equality rather than continue to highlight inequality.
The Canadian Style (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997)
The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 410-411
By Kelly Laycock
With the recent push for modernization in terms of plain language and access to justice for the public, why hasn’t anyone pushed to bring not only the content but also the style of our documents into the modern era? As it turns out, there are a few pushers out there.
A few months ago I came across an online book of typography (the style, arrangement or appearance of printed letters on a page) called Butterick’s Practical Typography by Matthew Butterick (typographer turned lawyer). I found the simple structure and easily accessible online content a perfect reference for formatting issues that come up in my daily working life. Here is the premise of his book (as found in his introduction):
This book is based on three principles.
- Good typography is part of good writing.
- As a professional writer, you should hold your documents to the same standards as professionally published material. Why? Because your documents are professionally published material.
Moreover, much of what writers consider proper typography is an accumulation of bad habits and urban legends. These will be set aside in favor of professional typographic habits.
- Any writer can master the essentials of good typography.
Yes, yes and yes. I agree! So when I later came across a mention of this wonderfully practical and comprehensive intro to typography in a SLAW article, I was over the moon! It turns out I’m not alone in thinking about the issue of bringing our legal documents into the twenty-first century!
And what’s more, I learned about another book by Butterick: Typography for Lawyers. In the Foreword of this book, Bryan A. Garner, the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, sums up both the usefulness of this title and my frustrations exactly:
Here’s how to use this book if you’re a supervising lawyer (Sarah) dealing with an associate (Ralph):
“Ralph, thanks for the memo. I’m looking forward to reading it. But…”
“Is there a problem?”
“Well, yes. Frankly, I don’t want to read it. You’re underlining case names, you’re putting two spaces after periods, and the font is just ghastly. I could spend 30 minutes making it presentable, but I want the associates who work with me to do that in the first place. Do you own Butterick?”
“Butterick. Typography for Lawyers. Here, take my copy home tonight. I’ll need it back tomorrow. Learn this stuff, please. I want all your writing for me to comply with Butterick. Got that?”
“Sure, Sarah. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow will be a very new day.
I want tomorrow to be a very new day!
Of course some might buck this idea. After all, there is a historical context to consider; from the robes lawyers and judges wear to the Legalese legal professionals speak, the profession chooses to remain more “traditional”. And the traditions in legal writing and formatting go back to the era of the typewriter (and beyond). While there is nothing wrong with traditional, per se, even traditional needs an overhaul once in a while to avoid becoming antiquated.
And that is the great thing about typography: people are creating modern fonts that maintain the “traditional” style but that look and function like modern fonts. And sometimes the difference between a bracketed serif and a hairline serif is so subtle, that the untrained eye may not see the difference. But to those who deal with these issues daily, that subtle difference can have a huge impact on whether we perceive a document as outdated or modern. (Just try to read a document written on a typewriter now, and you will know what I mean!)
Of course, I’m certainly no expert, but people like Butterick are, and they are doing what they can to help the rest of us see the light.
…a beautiful document is a readable document, one that pleases if only subliminally and then gets out of the way with grace. And a readable document is, well, one that actually gets read. Enter the typographer.
—Simon Fodden, from the SLAW article “Lawyer Type”
SLAW has published many articles on typography, and Mr. Butterick has joined in some of the discussions. Here are a few interesting articles that talk about this matter more:
“What’s your font of choice for legal documents” by Dan Michaluk
“A Typeface Designed for Lawyers” by Simon Fodden
“Lawyer Type” by Simon Fodden
“Rethinking the Way a Court Formats and Publishes Its Judgments” by Melanie Bueckert
By Kelly Laycock
“The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words—past and present—from across the English-speaking world.” 
Four times a year, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) publishes an update to their online historical dictionary, where they add new entries and revise existing entries based on a thorough process of collection and editing from their offices in London and New York. Oh, and don’t forget the ODO (Oxford Dictionary Online), which is also from Oxford but focusses more on current language usage rather than historical. It monitors important resources like the Oxford English Corpus and Oxford Reading Programme to track new words being used in the language.
Both dictionaries recently released their third update for 2014, which prompted this quiz from The Guardian newspaper from the UK, and which I promptly took. I was disappointed to discover I’m not as “amazeballs” at deciphering new slang as I had hoped. But it did trigger my curiosity, so I decided to do a little more research into the OED’s and the ODO’s process of acquiring new words. Read the rest of this entry »