Speaking the lingo: a learning curve

I’ve often been complimented on my ability to adjust my language to the audience I am addressing. It’s part of what makes me good at what I do. I find it difficult to explain exactly how I do it or what the difference is between the words I choose for one piece of text compared with another: it’s innate; subconscious; it just happens. But I’m not as good at tailoring my words when I’m talking: I fumble for the words that are on the tip of my tongue; I say the wrong thing; I go blank. Also, it turns out, when I’m talking about my own business I take a lot for granted.

The other day I wanted to speak to someone who I knew was in the process of creating her business website. ‘In case you need any help with content,’ I said, handing her my business card.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘My business card,’ I began, getting the wrong end of the stick.
‘No, I mean what is it you do?’ she clarified.
‘Oh,’ I said, in embarrassment. ‘Text,’ I added, making myself no clearer. ‘For your website,’ I bumbled on, repeating myself and circling confusedly until she seemed to grasp my meaning (or perhaps pretended she did so the pitiable exhibition could stop).

What I should have said, in my most confident and professional voice, is, ‘I hear you’re working on your website. I’m a writer. Get in touch if you’d like any help with the words or spell checking.’

Having to explain myself completely wrong footed me but it shouldn’t have. If I had been writing or proofing for any other industry facing a lay audience, I would have picked apart every word that might have been unclear or construed as jargon.

Especially when introducing your business to someone you don’t know well, KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!). Assume no understanding and be concise but clear. I sounded like a flustered idiot, certainly not the professional wordsmith I market myself as. So I may have lost that bit of business but I haven’t lost the lesson, which will make me better prepared to present myself next time I have to explain what I do.

‘I am a writer.’

A bad workman blames his or her tools. A good worker proofreads!

I’ve been highlighting the spelling and grammar rules that often get forgotten, leading to mistakes in written work. There are other culprits.

I’ve mentioned that social media encourages us to post in a hurry, without checking what we’ve typed. Today I was working on the back end of my website, trying to make the portfolio easier to navigate and my wireless keyboard was having a field day!

Admittedly, I was sitting at an awkward angle from the computer, which is itself tucked away, challenging the tech on an ordinary day (one day I’ll get round to optimising my work station…), but this morning it was going to town! It knew I’d typed a double letter but wasn’t sure which one; or it skipped a couple of letters I had typed and added a random one of its own. If I had been typing in a word processor, and working on standard prose text, that might have picked up the issue for me but, to be honest, spell check is shaky on URLs at the best of times, so in this instance it didn’t stand a chance!

It’s very fortunate for me that I have eyes like a hawk when it comes to typos, but what can you do if you don’t? That’s right, proofread. Proofread everything and test your links. It’s so easy to overlook a URL or email address but these are the most crucial things of all! In my case, this morning, I would have made myself look incompetent if my links hadn’t worked. In normal text, I might have lost clients who were following a link to a nonexistent website or email address and got fed up with not finding the site or getting no response to their message.

Business is competitive and a quick check is so easy to do, you really have no excuse for losing out this way.

Commonly confused words: part 1

(There will be more – these are just the ones I’ve noticed this week!)

Following on from last week’s apostrophe angst, here are some sets of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently) that I have noticed being misused on my social media feeds this week.

Your / you’re

Perhaps what throws people about this pair is the fact that it is the reverse of the possessive apostrophe rule. ‘Your‘ = ‘belonging to you’ while the apostrophised ‘you’re‘ is a contraction of ‘you are’ (so it does still adhere to the normal apostrophe rule).

Similarly, their / they’re

Their‘ = ‘belonging to them‘, while ‘they’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’. This set of homophones is complicated by the addition of a third – ‘there’ – which seems to be the most popular pick of the three (usually doing double or even triple duty for all the meanings) when in fact it has nothing to do with those other people (they) but in fact refers to a place – over there. It might be helpful to remember that ‘there‘ (the place) shares most of its spelling with ‘where’.

I saw a mouse!
There on the stair!
Where on the stair?
Right there!
A little mouse with clogs on.
Well I declare!
Going clip-clippety-clop on the stair.
Oh yeah!

I had planned to stop there, for today, until I noticed this van parked across the road and felt that I must add a third set of homophones.Van signwriting mistake typo error

Two / to / too

Two‘ is the text form of the number 2, memorable if you think what it becomes when you multiply by 10. ‘Twenty‘ has a w and so should ‘two‘.

To‘ is a preposition or a particle (in either case, a function word) indicating the relationship between objects, places, events, etc., and 9 times out of 10 it’s going to be this spelling you want.Van signwriting mistake typo error

Too‘ simply means ‘excess‘ or ‘also‘, e.g. ‘too cold‘ or ‘me too‘.

Please check your writing. Especially if you’re going to spend three figures having a description of your business inscribed semi-permanently on your vehicle or building. Mistakes degrade the perception of your business, and help is both available and affordable.

Apostrophe angst

Social media is great. It allows us to connect instantly; with our friends, our customers, and beyond. We can post as often as we like, as opposed to the old days when you talked to one person at a time or sent out painstakingly crafted mailshots.

The downside to this is that the care that went into those mailshots is lost. We are less likely to check our words before pressing ‘post’. This can have all types of unintended consequences including, as I have said before, making a highly professional business look a bit amateur.

One mistake in particular has bothered me today.

Misuse of apostrophes can change the meaning of a sentence or just look a bit rubbish. To recap our primary school English class (in case it was as long ago for you as it was for me): apostrophes are used for possession and contraction.

Does something belong to you? Then you need an apostrophe between your name and the S (assuming you like to speak about yourself in the third person): Juliet’s bugbear.

Are you abbreviating a word or joining two together? You need an apostrophe to mark the missing letters, don’t you?

You do not need an apostrophe when making a normal noun into a plural (unless you’re talking about something belonging to it). So ‘mum’s in business’ is wrong if you’re talking about multiple mums rather than trying to say that one ‘mum is in business‘. See what I mean about changing the meaning? *

The most common exception: ‘it is’ contracts to ‘it’s’, as you would expect, but something belonging to it becomes ‘its’ – no apostrophe. Don’t you just love the English language?

The other thing I’ve been seeing a lot lately is ‘who’s’. Now technically this is correct use of an apostrophe, and I wouldn’t even bring it up except that we’re on the subject already. However, there is a lovely English word that you might have forgotten exists. Whose. Personally, I much prefer it. Try it yourself and see what you think.

I remember at school we had the most trouble with the possessive of multiples, where something belongs to a group, e.g. the girls’ team. However I can’t say I’ve noticed this issue online. Perhaps where I’ve seen ‘the girl’s team’ I’ve assumed that the writer meant the team belongs to one girl (or is talking about the team from one girl’s point of view). Or perhaps the apostrophe is omitted entirely and I roll my eyes inwardly and move on, slightly disappointed but less bothered than I would be by a misplaced one (why does this bother me less? No  idea). Has anyone else noticed this?

Have you made these errors in your business posts, or have you seen any howlers?

Which language rules trip you up?

Don’t forget that, just as you can reach more potential clients through social media, you can lose them through mistakes. Always check your post carefully before releasing it into the wild. And, for important documents, consider getting a second pair of eyes to check.

* Note: you also do not need an apostrophe when making an acronym into a plural, e.g. ‘CD’ becomes ‘CDs’, not ‘CD’s’. J