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Message in a Bottle

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"cf_message_in_a_Bottle" photo by Tony Persunis licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been cropped.

This weekend my daughter who teaches English in Belgium told me about a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

Student: “You like to write, don’t you.”

Daughter: “How did you know that?”

Student: “Oh, you’d be surprised what someone can discover on the Internet. [Laughs.] I read your blog, and was especially touched by the entry about…” That led to further discussion, and a warm human connection.

The exchange made me think about why anybody writes anything, from blog entries, to advertising copy, to business plans. It isn’t merely to express ourselves, but rather to reach out for a connection.

To illustrate, let me turn to the 1979 song by The Police, “Message in a Bottle,” with these lines of the chorus:

I'll send an SOS to the world…

I hope that someone gets my

Message in a bottle

and these first lines of the third verse:   

Walked out this morning

Don't believe what I saw

A hundred billion bottles

Washed up on the shore

The point of the song, according to its author, is the comfort of recognizing that we’re all alike in trying to connect—to communicate.

I believe there’s a deeper lesson to be learned. It has to do with intent.

In the chorus of the song “Message in a Bottle,” the intent is inward focused. It’s all about “Hey, look at me.” However, in the third verse, the focus becomes outward focused. It’s the sudden realization of “Hey, look at all of you.”

If the flood of media gushing from the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey, look at me” doesn’t accomplish much. It’s just more noise.

“Here’s something for you,” on the other hand, accomplishes a lot. Metaphorically speaking, a sea full of bottles with the same “Here I am” messages is unremarkable, especially to another castaway. But imagine opening a bottle and finding a recipe for coconut soup, or instructions for building a raft and navigating back home, or even just a note saying “I know you feel alone, but we’re all in this together.”

The point is this: To really stand out, be helpful. When the rescue ships sail, they’ll look for the person with the coconut soup recipe first.

—Lester Smith

Stylists Aren’t Rulers

Friday, November 21, 2014
The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

—Lester Smith

When Less Is Not More

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Due Mani Due Generazioni - Two Hands Two Generations - by Dino Olivieri 

Maybe your pet grammar peeve (like mine) is a misplaced apostrophe, or maybe seeing a blatant error in agreement sends you up the wall. One of the biggest complaints of many is mixing up words that describe amounts: less and fewer, or more than and over.

The difference lies in what the words describe. There is a clear delineation between the words fewer and less. Fewer describes things that can be counted (“count nouns”) while less applies to things that cannot be divided up (“mass nouns”).

            We counted fewer than a hundred people in the audience.

            The size of the audience was less than we had anticipated.

But the decision between more than or over is not as clear-cut. It used to be the rule that more than was used for count nouns, while over was for noncount nouns. However editors were divided on that rule and tended to disregard it whenever they wished.

Now, an announcement by the Associated Press, that bastion of journalistic style, has rocked the world of words by declaring that it is now acceptable AP style to use more than and over interchangeably.

            There were more than three dozen applicants for the job.

            There were over three dozen applicants for the job.

Reaction to the announcement was strong, both positive and negative. One wag (RT@TheSlot) Tweeted “More than my dead body!” Meanwhile, others blithely noted that the argument was moot, as there had never been any hard-and-fast rule about interchanging these words.

For your own use, either common sense or your editor’s choice should rule. Stylistcally, however, it sounds odd to my ear to say:

            That building will require more than a million dollars in repairs.

I’d argue it sounds better to say:

            That building will require over a million dollars in repairs.

English is a living language, which means there will be changes in usage over time, and this is just one of them. Also, bear in mind that language “rules” and language “style” are not coequal. Change in style usually comes about to enhance communication, so know the rules, but, as indicated by RT@TheSlot, use common sense in your style. 

—Joyce Lee


Write It Down, Write It Down

Friday, October 17, 2014
Lost in Thought

A man was talking to his friend, bemoaning the fact that he’d get excellent ideas when falling asleep or sleeping, but always forgot them when he awoke. His friend offered this advice: “Put a pad of paper and a pencil on your nightstand. As you fall asleep, say to yourself over and over, ‘Write it down, write it down.’ Then when you dream an idea, you’ll wake up and write it down, and you’ll have it in the morning.”

The man did as advised: he put a pad and pencil by his bed and repeated, “Write it down, write it down,” as he sank into sleep. Sure enough, when he dreamed a brilliant idea, he woke up and sleepily scratched his thoughts on the pad, then fell back asleep, content that his idea was safe. The next morning he woke up and eagerly read the pad.

What he had written were the words, “Write it down, write it down.”

Okay, it’s a joke. But the concept is solid. Writing your thoughts down is a great way to preserve them. It’s too easy to lose those valuable ideas that pop into our heads at odd times—standing in line at the grocery, on an elevator, waiting for the bus, mowing the lawn. If you keep a small notepad in your pocket, or a notes app on your smartphone, you can quickly jot down a reminder to revisit when you have time later. And yes, a voice recorder serves the same function, but for many people the physical act of writing helps to implant an idea in their mind.

So when you get a thought—whether it’s a brilliantly original idea or simply a reminder to call a colleague—write it down, write it down. 

—Joyce Lee

Be a Star at Work

Monday, September 29, 2014
Plejaden - M45 (star cluster)

When I was a child, school was like a factory. Subjects crossed student desks in discrete periods of time, and we worked individually to master them. Every test was a solitary effort. Even group activities like sports and music celebrated the individual champion—the star.

When I graduated, I got a job at an actual factory. Work crossed my table in discrete pieces, and I labored alone (talking was forbidden) to accomplish it as quickly and accurately as possible. If I managed to beat the standard time, I could even earn a piecework bonus. Again, individual effort was the norm, and stellar effort was rewarded.

However, when you gaze upward at a night sky, it’s obvious that true stars don’t work alone. Constellations are composed of many. The band of the Milky Way consists of 300 billion stars. Similarly, even the US flag has 50, representing the joint efforts of 50 separate states, of some 320 million citizens.

It wasn’t until I landed a job in publishing that I learned the benefit and joy of working as a team, each of us tackling what we do best, relying on one another. It wasn’t until then that I discovered the fiction of the solitary writer was just that—a fiction.

Conceiving a topic doesn’t happen in a true vacuum. Even composing a draft is a dialog between a writer and an imagined reader. Editing is done by another person entirely. Proofreading is usually the work of several. And when it comes to business writing, even the initial draft is often composed by multiple writers.

So when you write, be a true star. Don’t expect to light the sky alone. Rely on others in your quadrant to help get things arranged in clearest black and white. When stars align, great things can happen.

—Lester Smith