Thursday, July 12, 2007

Natasha fights the First Annual battle

One of my former students, Natasha, has started blazing a trail in the copywriting business. She gives me way too much credit for starting her on this journey. She was born with a great gift, and she is one of the proofreaders for my posts.

I'll post soon about proofreading tips--because it's as important as any writing tip.

Anyway, Natasha is in a big office in a big agency in a big city. She shares with me that she has been asked to write a radio spot about an event. Having gleaned the information from the event Web site, she is shocked to see the title contains "First Annual...".

She e-mails me in a panic. "I'm going to say something," she writes me, "because, after all, there is no such thing as a first annual."

Natasha is bright. And she is right. I don't recall drilling her on this, but she has come across this sticky-wicket, as every young writer does.

An event or occurrence can't be annual until the second time it happens, ideally 12 months after the first time it happened. After all, that's what annual means.

The first time, it's just FIRST or INAUGURAL. When next year rolls around, then call it THE SECOND ANNUAL.

I told Natasha to fight the good fight. I told her to tell her co-workers that the media they hope will cover the event will laugh at them (behind their backs of course), and their competitors who know better will think less of them. It will make an unprofessional impression.

That's never good writing.

Let Natasha's battle cry be heard across cyberspace. Death to FIRST ANNUAL. It's the right thing to do for the wrong thing to write.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Taboo # 3: You may not repeat words. Or may you?

Okay, this taboo is perhaps the most dangerous taboo of all.

You see, one of the oddities about the English language is that it has very few exact synonyms. You really can't pluck out a word and plug in another one and mean the same thing.

But along the way, "You May Not Repeat Words" became a RULE OF GRAMMAR and that's what was drilled into our heads. (Don't miss the bottom of this post for the end of the story on rules of grammar.)

I was taught English Composition by nuns (and I've got the scars on my knuckles to prove it!). One day, my seventh-grade teacher, Sister Mary Christopher, assigned us a short story themed around a farm.

Being the budding little writer I was, I decided to use an emotional lightning rod and tell my story through the eyes of Bessie, the cow on the farm, and share a day in her life. I wrote my little heart out and turned it in.

Nuns are incredibly fast graders, living in a convent and all, so I got the story back the next day. With great anticipation, I awaited my paper, and when Sister Mary Christopher handed it back to me, my heart sunk. "C" was emblazoned across the front of my paper.

Opening it up, I quickly saw lots of red marks. Most of what I saw was down the left margin. She had written "You may not repeat words," "You may not repeat words." And she had circled every time I used the word "cow" to refer to Bessie.

Now, here's the thing about Catholic school. You don't just take your "C." You have to take your paper home and correct it and turn it in. You don't get a better grade, but the idea is you learn to correct your mistakes.

So, being the hopeful writer I was and wanting so badly to do it right, I sat down with my thesaurus (yes--I had a thesaurus in seventh grade. Go ahead and call me a geek.) and I came up with alternatives for "cow." After the first time I used it, I said things like, "cud-chewing farm animal," and "four-legged milk-producing mammal."

Wow. What a crazy thing to do with a language that has so few exact synonyms. By doing this, I was confusing my readers--giving them words that could have a different meaning from what I intended. I was giving them room to interpret what I was saying. After all, there is more than one four-legged milk producing mammal and more than one cud-chewing farm animal.

Talk about a clarity killer.

Thankfully, I learned better. I shed this bad habit after I got out of school and entered the real world. (Don't know if Sister Mary Christopher shed her bad habit. I'll have to look her up.)

The moral to this little story, and the reason to shed this taboo, is this: The best word to use is the one you mean. Even if you have to say it again.

The three taboos I've shared (beginning sentences with "and" or "but," ending sentences with a preposition, and not repeating words), need one final nail in the coffin. We learned these as RULES OF GRAMMAR. Here's the thing. They never were rules of grammar. Ever. What they were were syntax guidelines.

This means that the National Council of Teachers of English, decades ago, came up with what sounded like proper English usage. These guidelines got written into curriculum, and became interpreted as rules. Emancipate yourself from them. Set yourself free. And watch your writing precision soar.