The Good, the Bad, and the Email (Act I of IV)

(With summer upon us, this seemed like a good time to revisit the method of communication that nearly put the U. S. Postal Service out of business. Just between the two of us, I miss the old days, arriving at the mailbox one minute late, the taste of glue on my tongue. I know you do, too. Those were good times. After much thought, however, I have decided that email might be around for a while, so we should make peace with it and figure out how to use it effectively. In that spirit, today and for the next three weeks, we will explore the art and science of email.)

 

When I first tried email, I had to ask my secretary to print each one, so I could read it and dictate a response over her shoulder. When I learned how to use it myself, I remember feeling a little jaunty. Words I would never write on paper seemed to fly from my fingertips, loose stuff, funny stuff, CLEVER STUFF! I loved hitting “Reply All” to let EVERYONE know how clever I was! I could hardly contain myself!

The Lesson

Scary email statistics:

  1. A great majority of emails are handled within six seconds of arrival;
  2. After each email interruption, the average time needed to return to the flow of accomplishing a task is 64 seconds;
  3.  Email language loosens because of the “online disinhibition effect”;
  4. We are 50% more likely to lie in a negotiation over email;
  5. We consistently overestimate our ability to communicate effectively with email.

Researchers have determined that to a user email feels “less permanent, closer to chatting than writing a letter.” Because email is closer to “chatting,” its ephemeral nature encourages us to write loosely, informally, sometimes carelessly and ungrammatically, even on important matters. But while we’re “chatting,” our recipients are judging us and our emails by the far stricter standards of “writing.”

If we are to connect with our recipients, we must understand that tension between what is forgivable when we “chat” and what is expected when we “write,” then err on the side of precision.

 

I have mostly recovered from those days, but a vestige remains. Psychologists call this the “online disinhibition effect.” It’s similar to wearing a mask at Mardi Gras, which frees us to drink bourbon through a straw and goose strangers.

 

However psychologists try to explain it, we approach email with a different mindset. In an article titled “Email’s Dark Side: 10 Psychology Studies,” the author notes:

 

“People consistently overestimate their ability to communicate effectively with email.”

 

A 2010 study found that “participants lied 50% more when they negotiated over email compared with pen-and-paper.” One of the reasons, surmised researchers:

 

Emails are less permanent: it feels closer to chatting than writing a letter.”

 

And therein lies the crux of the problem: Subconsciously, a sheet of paper and an envelope feel permanent, and this informs how and what we write. When we know it will be around for a long time, we try harder to do it well. Email feels like it’s going straight into someone’s ear, rattle around for a moment, then head out the other side. So why should we care?

 

Here’s why: wisely or unwisely, we have embraced this medium to communicate important things, and the devil-may-care informality inherent in its use inspires us not to worry about typos and grammatical slips and bloated phrases, even as we use it to develop business, assuage clients, and convince regulatory agencies.

 

Remember that each of us has three vocabularies:

 

  1. Our reading or comprehension vocabulary – by far the largest;

  2. Our writing vocabulary – in the middle; and

  3. Our speaking vocabulary – the smallest and least grammatical.

 

When speaking, we use, and tolerate (to a point) others using, ers and uhs and sos and wells and likes, and confusing who with whom and lay with lie because most of us can’t think fast enough when we speak to get it all grammatically correct; plus we have tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language to help us communicate. Our writing must be more precise than our speech because we have only words to convey our meaning.

 

Email is a weird hybrid existing between speaking and writing. In that gap, our email mindset might be loose and informal, but our business recipients do not forgive our typos, grammatical slips, and bloated, unnecessary, abstract, sometimes nonsensical phrasing. That’s where the tension lies: we write it as though the message is impermanent; they judge it and us as though it’s permanent.

 

If we’re to use email to communicate without embarrassing ourselves in front of colleagues and clients, we must understand that tension between the mindsets of permanence and impermanence and err on the side of precision.

 

For the next three weeks, we will explore how to communicate effectively in email, from addressing to editing to signing off.

 

Stay tuned next week for Guess Who’s Coming to Email (Act II of IV).

You Insane Steaming Pile of Horsehockey

This Fourth of July, I wanted to do something different, so I exhumed three of our Forefathers for a beer.

 

I dug up Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams because they had written the most important document in human history: the Declaration of Independence. “There were five of us on the drafting committee,” said Adams, “but everyone agreed that Jefferson was the best writer, so we picked him to write the Declaration.”

 

Franklin and Adams suggested he open with something like this:

 

When in the course of human events, some people get so fed up with some other people trying to tell them what to do all the time, and they don’t want to have anything to do with those people anymore, by god, they have the right to tell those other people, like you, George, to ‘Kiss our sweet cheeks.’ You are a sterling example of what happens when we mix royal inbreeding with small doses of arsenic. But before we go, we thought you, you putrid pile of pusillanimous pustules, should know why we are leaving. Mainly, it’s because we are just as good as you are, you effete foppish prig, and we have every right to do whatever we want to do, which includes drinking untaxed tea and good wine, and making candles and love and shoeing horses and flying kites whenever and wherever and with whomever we please, you insane steaming pile of horsehockey. Etc., etc., etc.

 

Franklin explained, “This was to give Jefferson an idea of the tone we wanted.”

 

With that in mind, Jefferson repaired to his rented rooms in Philadelphia to spend the next two and a half weeks, rising before the sun each day for tea and biscuits, to write with a quill dipped in ink, scratching on parchment, ripping up page after page after page, trying to get it right. He told me, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words where one will do.” The pages of his rough drafts look like pages from a Hemingway manuscript, cut to pieces with crossouts, arrows, and insertions of line after eloquent line. Baby America in ink. He begins slowly:

 

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . . .

 

He adds:

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Then he states his business:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . . it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

 

One of my favorite lines is the pivotal point:

 

. . . let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

 

As all good writers do, Jefferson then lays out facts: that King George has refused, forbidden, called, endeavoured, made, obstructed, erected, kept, affected, combined; that he has exceeded his authority by quartering, cutting, imposing, depriving, transporting, taking, abolishing, altering, suspending.

 

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people . . . . In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Then he brings it home and stamps it with resolve:

 

We, therefore, . . . in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

 

Franklin and Adams agreed it was better than their draft. They took the Declaration to Congress on July 2, and there debate raged until the afternoon of July 4. The cuts were mostly for content, like Jefferson’s section attacking the slave trade.

 

It is a fine choice of words up to the task of birthing the strongest nation on earth. Click here to read them, not because they are the cornerstone of our democracy, but because they are an example of the power of words, only 1323 of them–the length of the average writing assignment for a high school sophomore.

 

PostScript: The two men most responsible for our Declaration of Independence, later our second and third Presidents, Adams and Jefferson, with disparate personalities and politics (Jefferson defeated Adams in Adams’s bid for a second term), died within hours of each other, exactly fifty years later, on the Fourth of July.

 

Happy Fourth. And be safe.

Houston, No Problem

Every time NASA calls, it’s the same: The angst, the hand wringing, the terrible indecision, the leaving behind, the goodbyes. That well-worn black satchel sits in my office ready at a moment’s notice to go anywhere in the world. Or out of it: 30 minutes to race to the landing field to board the helicopter to take me to the airport to catch the plane to fly me to Orlando to jump in the limousine to drive me to Cape Canaveral to launch my hide into outer space. Once I get to the Cape, I’m fine. Waiting atop a rocket that rises from beach sand and points into a blue sky, I’m looking forward to eating all that Spam and Tang for free. But I have to travel light: A toothbrush, a change of underwear, and 35 words.

Unless you count Stedman’s Medical Dictionary and Black’s Law Dictionary, we have about 175,000 words in the English language, so I have to shed most of my vocabulary. It’s a painful process. Do I really need the word specifically? If I had specifically with me, I could write, “Specifically, if you rip your spacesuit, your brain will bubble out of your hair follicles.” But I don’t need specifically to make the point. Well that’s one. Command Control sees how hard this is for me. They make me an offer: I can take along another 10 words if I leave behind the toothbrush or the underwear. It’s a difficult choice.

I look around. “In regard to your needs currently, we provide legal and policy analysis.” Wow, I could ditch currently too; everything’s currently. That’s two. How about presently? Presently is so much like currently. “We presently represent many tribes.” Exactly which nanosecond qualifies as presently/currently? How about…now!…or…now!…or…right now!? Trying to pin down presently or currently is like trying to giftwrap tap water. I don’t need them. I’m on a roll.

On any given afternoon, the promenade teems with life. (Not just any afternoon, but a given one!)

James basically identified three areas for improvement. (Wow, and there are so many other ways to identify stuff!)

We can assist your agency in a thorough investigation of the relevant facts. (Why stick to the relevant? I want them all, every fact ever!)

Melinda Gronski has personally conducted more than 12,000 private coaching sessions. (Unless she’s a medium, there’s no other way to coach!)

A good solution might be to have appropriate Armstrong & Aldrin attorneys work in tandem with Ruiz and me. (I’m thinking some of those inappropriate folks at Armstrong & Aldrin might be more fun!)

Now I’m really getting rid of words; so many I don’t need. WordRake finds and discards seven out of the eight useless words above, plus actually, applicable, basically, effectively, essentially, obviously, and so many more. Finally, I am finished. I relax. During the countdown, I think about what life will be like on Mars. I think about the first chimpanzee to orbit the earth with a diaper and a banana. I think about the 174,955 words I had to leave behind. I think about the underwear. Three…two…one….

 

Barbra and the Woolly Mammoth

I’m sure many of you read about the archaeological find along a windswept slope of peat and heather on Scotland’s Isle of Skye: the jawbone and tusk of a woolly mammoth dating from the mid-Pleistocene, which places it tens of thousands of years before the Sumerians chiseled the tale of Gilgamesh into clay tablets. This is significant because lining the jawbone nine feet out to the tip of the tusk appear tiny, consistent scratches from a life form not quite animal, but not yet human. Curiously, not one of the crude sentences describes a living creature doing something. Things happen by themselves. Archaeological linguists theorize that prehistoric “writers” constructed sentences like this because people had not yet been invented. A small sampling:

hanging, please find t-rex t-shirts
boiling, please find aardvark egg
impaled, please find bernie
no more carving on tusk until bernie extricated

As eons passed, animal bone became cave walls became clay tablets became the foreheads of Babylonian slaves. As recording methods evolved to parchment then papyrus, we see a few “people” appear in stories, doing the boiling of the eggs and the extricating of the fallen. But soon individuals grew into societies, then whole civilizations, and humans slowly recognized themselves as “people,” and they realized that people needed other people, and that that alone made them perhaps the luckiest people in the world. Concurrent with that realization, scribes recognized that things did not happen by themselves, that someone had to do them. But despite this historic revelation, the penchant of our pre-historic ancestors to inscribe sentences without people continues to suffuse our writing today. Things happen, but no one does them.

With seven billion “people” now on the planet to do things, we should all be amazed at how many professionals work hard to avoid using even one word that refers to a person. Things get attached, enclosed, needed, completed, performed, and worked on without one person in sight. It’s like robots do half of the business in this country. Or magic.

Attached, please find a letter of apology.
It is not possible to email a Word document containing suggested but not yet accepted edits.
It might not be necessary to hire an in-house attorney.
We hope the enclosed materials will be of interest.

The next time you write: “Significant progress has been made,” ask yourself, Who’s made the progress? and instead write, “Deirdre and Samantha have made significant progress.”

Or: “It has been a pleasure to work with . . . .” Who’s found it a pleasure? “I have enjoyed working with . . . .”

Or: “Steps are being taken to resolve . . . .” Who’s taking steps? “Rolf Rosenthal is working to resolve . . . .”

Or: “Our goal is to continually provide . . . .” That might be our goal, but what about us? “We at Zimex will continue to provide . . . .”

Whether you write to clients, customers, or colleagues, putting people in your sentences is the easiest way to enliven your writing. Or as someone else put it – who doesn’t matter – when you put people in your writing, a feeling deep in your soul says you were half now you’re whole. I have to go now; my tongue is stuck in my cheek.

Headhunters in the Mist

You know how it is. You’re at 14,000 feet, dropping down the other side of the Cordillera, trekking past the trickles, dropping into the headwaters, paddling along the Huallaga into the Ucayali, destined for the Big River itself, when suddenly, WHAM! What! A dam? Who stuck a dam out here? Everything was moving so nicely!

Think of your writing as the Amazon River, each sentence a small tributary flowing into a paragraph, each paragraph a major tributary, sweeping toward Pará, your conclusion. As our river guide, you must put us in the flow, but too often, we’re with you, cruising, taking in your meaning, when suddenly, WHAM! What! An artificial transition? Who stuck an artificial transition in here? And another. And another: Therefore, Consequently, Accordingly, Furthermore, In summary:

Additionally, Eugene reserved a power of appointment . . . .

Finally, in analyzing federal agency employee’s motivations . . . .

Someone taught us to do this. Probably the same someone who taught us to stick a topic sentence at the beginning of every paragraph. (See Tip: “The Worst Writing Advice You Ever Got.”) But if you shun these transition words that mean only, “Oh look, there’s more,” your sentences will keep us in the flow and move us faster. But for too many of us, our Ucayali looks like this:

In fact, DelTech advertises that its 7200 Skimmer removes 100 gallons of oil per hour. Moreover, their catalog describes the 7200 as “capable of removing 100 gallons every hour.” Furthermore, their Sales Manager, Rine Hepburn, told Bogart he could “rely on that beast to suck a hundred gallons an hour.” Indeed, when Bogart skimmed his lagoon with the 7200, he found it processed only 30 gallons.

The relationships of the first three sentences to each other and to the fourth sentence are obvious. When we use concrete statements, we don’t need to editorialize before or after, and we don’t need transitions between. We need only a little “but” to turn and contrast it at the end, a correction touch on the oar.

DelTech advertises that its 7200 Skimmer removes 100 gallons of oil per hour. Their catalog describes the 7200 as “capable of removing 100 gallons every hour.” Their Sales Manager, Rine Hepburn, told Bogart he could “rely on that beast to suck a hundred gallons an hour.” But when Bogart skimmed his lagoon with the 7200, he found it processed only 30 gallons.

Occasionally, an opening transition serves a purpose, but only if the word means more than, “Yeah, and this, too.” Otherwise, skip the cheap transitions and rely on your simple tools sparingly: Also, And, But, Or, However, Nevertheless:

And in Millennium 3 Technologies, the holding has been . . . .

However, for the FAA to apply, “evidencing” requires . . . .

Nevertheless, Lender is more interested in . . . .

I have an idea for those who insist we keep damming up our sentences with artificial transitions: Turn them over to the Campa to have their heads shrunk and stuck on a pole. I’m just kidding; they don’t do that anymore. They lost the art when they ran out of missionaries. But we still have boas, blowguns, and vampire bats. We’ll think of something.

The Condiments of Style

We’re shuffling around the Writing Style Bar with others who also write, reaching out, dropping and slopping and plopping all sorts of goop onto our sentences, anything to make the words go down better. We begin with our own fresh All-Natural Writing Style, squirt it with ketchup, slap it with mustard, sprinkle it with Worcestershire, A-1, maybe a little Tabasco, toss on some relish and onion, add avocado, bacon bits, mayonnaise, tomatillo, chopped almonds, shredded cheese, sliced olives, jalapeños, and top it with a dollop of sour cream. Somewhere beneath all of that same stuff everyone else has piled onto their Writing Styles lies our own pristine All-Natural Writing Style.

That’s the part we can’t help, our All-Natural Writing Style. It is our unique voice, a product of our personality, of our DNA, of our sibling rank, of where we grew up, who taught us English, where we went to school, how long we went to school, our parents’ education, and topics discussed at the family dinner table or not. It is a product of every experience we have ever had, how we have been shaped, how we have endured, how we have prevailed, how we have come to where we are in our lives at this moment. Why would we adulterate what is uniquely ours?

But here we are, circling the Writing Style Bar with all of the other managers and lawyers and engineers and students and architects and teachers and accountants, spooning up and piling on the same wilted verbiage and expecting our clients and colleagues to appreciate what’s on our plate. We squirt it with “net-net,” slap it with “bottom line,” sprinkle it with “at the end of the day,” toss on some “suffice it to say” and “impacts our productivity,” add chopped acronyms, office insider slang, corporate speak, Twitter jargon, and top it with a dollop of “that being said.” Somewhere beneath all of that is a clear thought.

A hint: Read good writing, feel what is good about it, and transfer that feeling to the page in your own words. Then think about those words. Think about what they mean, and what they don’t mean, and if they mean nothing, delete them.

If at all possible, I need to finish the SharePoint migration before Monday.

If there are any issues that have come up, feel free to let me know and I’ll pass them on to corporate.

And, if that was not enough, PSU filed two more answers.

Let’s face facts: For years, universities have looked at their law schools as profit centers.

Insurance companies, for their part, can’t refuse you coverage.

Our mistake is assuming we have to feed at the same Writing Style Bar where everyone else feeds. Or any Writing Style Bar.

One last point: unless you are Mark Twain (unlikely) or Will Rogers (also unlikely), don’t try to affect a breezy, folksy, down-home style. It will sound stilted and false because it’s unnatural. Speak with your own well-reasoned, or humorous, or colorful, or spare, or intrigued, or informed, or sincere voice, and let your reader hear it clearly.

Now I’ll stop, and take Will’s advice: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

Pickle with That Corned Beef

As you might have heard, I am really good at impersonating former presidents. Like Ronald Reagan: “Wellllll.” See what I mean? If I didn’t know it was I, I would ask myself for an autograph.

For Clinton, I have to make my voice sound raspy, a little twangy, and real Southern, which is how my voice sounds anyway: “Ah have grown weary and gray saying this, but ah will say it one more tahm. Ah did not…have pickle…with that corned beef!”

Now, for the first time ever before a live audience, I will attempt to impersonate both presidents at once. The Press Briefing Room: 300 blood-thirsty reporters circle like barracuda over a crisis involving Iran, the People’s Republic of China, arms shipments, drug deals, and illegal contributions to the Democratic Party. The two presidents take the podium. The room goes silent. They speak as one, the Gipper meets Arkansas: “Mistakes were made.”

True stories. You remember. I just melded them for theatrical effect: Two Presidents, two political parties, two crises, one sentence, zero attribution. Which brings me to our topic today.

Over the last two years, mistakes were made by me in writing these Tips. Fortunately, you have been quick to let me know, and I love to make fun of myself, especially publicly. Chagrined, here are three that sent me to the reference books I mentioned a few weeks ago. (See Tip: (See Tip: “Once Upon a Time I Fell, and It Has Made All the Difference.”)

The first came from a Senior Editor with the United Nations. She liked the Tip, but not the title: “6 Sentence Openings That Aggravate Judges.” She gently reminded me:

. . . “aggravate” is not a synonym for “annoy” or “irritate” but means “to make worse.” (You can aggravate a judge’s headache but not the judge.) I’d be interested to know if you considered the above and rejected it, or if this was a slip.

Uhhhh.

Next, Senior Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice in San Francisco read the Tip “One Thing Judges Never Read” and objected to the line “jurists in powdered wigs spent much of their time drafting obtuse rules for pleadings and lying in wait”:

I believe the word you wanted was “abstruse” (“hard to understand”), not “obtuse” (“dull, blunt, stupid”).

He was right, and I felt so obtuse.

And last a corporate IP guy in Ohio who does not like our WordRake signature logo, “Write Simply to the Point”:

I find it odd that you do not follow your own guidance. It is more direct to state, “Write simply,” than to state, “Write to the point.” “To the point” requires interpretation of an abstract geometrical concept, e.g., the point where two lines intersect, to reach an understanding of essential meaning of what is being written. “Simply” is an adverb to the verb “write.” “Simply” encompasses far more meaning than “to the point” ever could and sheds any abstract geometrical baggage.

He signed “Q.E.D.” I had to look it up: an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “quod erat demonstrandum,” which translates literally as “which was to be demonstrated.” It’s a formal way of ending an argument by alerting your opponent that the immediately previous statement was arrived at naturally by an unbroken chain of logic and, voilà, was the original statement requiring proof! In English, Q.E.D. means “Checkmate, Jerk Face.” More people have been shot for writing those three initials than for holding aces and eights.

But for calling these mistakes to my attention, the Senior Editor, the Senior Counsel, and the Corporate IP Guy each will receive a one-year subscription to “Write to the Point” absolutely free. Oh, wait, that’s right; it’s already free.

Kluber’s Head Rolls into Right Field

For weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a way you could dazzle friends with clever comments about pronouns. At first I tried for something oblique and dismissive, but thought-provoking – like standing before a painting at Chicago’s Art Institute, thumb and forefinger caressing your chin, and muttering, “It’s so derivative.”

 

Then it hit me: a parlor game! Like “Charades” or “Jenga!” We’ll call it “Pronopoly!” Just throw out a pronoun and everyone tries to guess its gender, person, number, and case! (Who knew pronouns could have so many properties? Or be so complex?) Someone yells, “Her!” and the room erupts, “Feminine, third person, singular, objective!” You can imagine how quickly this could get out of hand. I’ve tried it in social settings, and the game gets so intense, people faint. I taught it to our WordRake engineers, and now they’re leading conga lines.

 

I thought again: Why not ratchet it up a notch? Let’s see who can come up with the Oscar Wildest play on words using misplaced pronouns, like:

 

Peter’s dog died when he was 42. (“An old dog,” Oscar would say.)

 

Or:

 

After Bryant lined the ball off Kluber’s head, it rolled into right field. (“What happened to the ball,” Oscar would say.)

 

In my experience, such witticism in the parlor usually subsides into thoughtful reflection and leads to enlightened discussion on how pronouns help to curb formality and monotony, so we can communicate better and faster to avoid this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate Mr. Leiberman. The partners knew Mr. Leiberman was a member when the partners hired Mr. Leiberman, and the partners were committed to accommodating Mr. Leiberman’s Guard schedule.

 

by writing this:

 

Mr. Leiberman’s membership in the National Guard was not a factor in the partners’ decision to terminate him. They knew he was a member when they hired him, and they were committed to accommodating his Guard schedule.

 

The news of Peter’s 42-year-old dog might not be so serious in the middle-schooler’s neighborhood blog, but if one of us makes a similar mistake in professional life, it can confuse clients and colleagues who don’t know whom we mean by “they”; that’s when we see time and money lost, and patience thinned. To wit:

 

Although supervisors do not receive these reports, they could help us explain the company’s position.

 

We have two antecedents out front, and they could refer to either. Who or what could help us explain: the supervisors or the reports? Our readers don’t know. Until someone does know, no one can act. Do we call the supervisors or gather the reports? Our client’s clock is ticking, and we’ve just lost our kingdom for a pronoun.

 

Wow, who knew we could learn so much from a parlor game? And have so much fun? Wow again. When and where you play is up to you. I’m thinking a round or two between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. When the guy in the apron asks, “Would you like the pumpkin or the mincemeat?” yell, “You!” and stand back while the place explodes. “Generic! Second person! Singular and plur . . . .”

Whether Pigs Have Wings

I think we left off last time with Tweedledee telling Alice about the Walrus:

“’The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘to talk of many things,
of ins – and ofs – and useless words
and whether pigs have wings.’”

Which is so ironic: just as the mischievous Tweedle twins strut through Alice’s dream, so ins and ofs prance through our writing, dosey doe in and out of our sentences, then duck and hide among gatherings of words that mean nothing. They are drawn to the absurd and unnecessary, and we hardly notice them nestled there.

But let’s separate them just long enough to see how these two tiny English words attach themselves like barnacles to nearly half of the verbiage we write. Here’s a portrait of each, frozen in various poses:

of

This is a tiny amount of our income that could save millions of people.
They want to subscribe, but they don’t like the idea of paying $4.99 a month.
An American will consume 21,000 entire animals in the course of a lifetime.
We even toyed with the notion of setting up our own bottling plant.
The head-to-head conflict between her and McMurphy creates the story and reveals the their essential character of each of them.

in

All of this is just as he had pictured it in his mind.
We have significant tax issues in the event that if we sell it.
It will make you wonder why we even bothered to apply in the first place.
Christian Dior acted quickly in an effort to limit any damage to the brand.
In an attempt to root his food, Brock turned agricultural anthropologist.
Those statements can be as general or as detailed in nature as you desire.

Sometimes, they squish a useless phrase between their little round bodies.

Our literary era has offered little in the way of insight into the workings of the human soul.

I am in the process of reviewing all of our catering accounts.

Other times they separate to frolic randomly in the same sentence:

So it is, in a sense, acting as a kind of “police officer” for the way in which how sentences are constructed.

The sole dispute in this matter is whether the plaintiff is entitled to a rescission of rescind the loan under the Truth in Lending Act.

The problem of describing the ways in which how film and theatre diverge is a lot like trying to define the difference between a cat and a dog.

Why do ins and ofs fraternize with words that have no meaning? I don’t know; I know only that they do. The immortal words of Tweedledee might shed light:

“If it was so, it might be;
and if it were so, it would be.
But as it isn’t, it ain’t.
That’s logic.”

Contrariwise, I can’t explain it any better.

(Tweedledum asked me to remind you that of the 21 edits above, WordRake would have made 19 for us at the push of a button. See you ’round the mulberry bush.)

Ford. Go Figure.

Most of you have seen the commercial; it’s hard to miss: Ford introducing its new line of hybrids. At the end of the commercial, below the Ford logo, this sentence pops onto the screen:

Go further.

We’re talking cars now, especially vehicles that can travel from here to beyond the old there, because of their superior fuel efficiency. So it should be farther. Right? Do all of those smart people at Ford and their ad agency really not know the difference between farther and further, which I can’t imagine, or is this a nefarious plot to undermine the intelligence of the American people? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Back to the hybrids going . . . . At one time, farther and further were the same word. Over a few centuries, their meanings split. Farther mostly referred to “distance,” and  further mostly referred to “quantity or degree.” “How much farther do we have to walk?” And “Upon further reflection, I agree.” But over the past few decades, further has crept back deeper into the domain of farther, even when referring to distance. However.

SUGGESTION #1: Sometimes, generations have to die before one word finally overtakes another as more acceptable. In the meantime, use the one we know is correct; and when we refer to distance, that’s still farther.

But maybe Ford meant that driving one of their hybrids would enhance our station in life, so they’re not measuring distance here but offering us a way to see ourselves in a new light at the wheel of a Ford hybrid. If that’s true, then further would be correct. Except a few years ago, Ford also ran a full-page magazine ad for the Ford Escape Hybrid with the tag line:

That means less trips to the gas station.

The only way I can explain this is that Ford used less instead of fewer (and further rather than farther) on purpose; that their ad agency wired the brains of thousands of focus folk to test their reaction to the correct usage of fewer and farther against the incorrect usage of less and further. Because Ford was chasing the “down” market, they discovered that the incorrect less and further appealed more to that group. (Why they would consider the hybrid shopper part of a “down” market is another issue.) So.

SUGGESTION #2: Yes, come down in your language; use words that average people understand; but whether you’re a huge corporation or an individual, never purposely use a word incorrectly because you fear your audience might resent your using the correct word. That only contributes to the dumbing down of America.

Ford should travel the high road. It might not sell more cars, but neither would it sell fewer.