Category Archives: Style & Expression

Handy Word of the Day: Nuance

One of the handiest words I know in English, nuance is like so many other words in English, a straight importation from the French.

Nuance: n. a subtle difference in color, meaning, tone; a shade, a gradation. From the French nuer, to show light and shade; originally from Latin nubes, a cloud

If you were old-fashioned enough to want to be guided in your English usage by the venerable H.H.Fowler, he of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, you might see the use of “nuance” as breaching his admonition to “prefer the Saxon word to the Romance”. Except that, as far as I know, there is no single “Saxon” word that does what “nuance” does.

In any case, a companion admonition of Fowler’s is “prefer the single word to the circumlocution”, by which standard, “nuance” serves better than, say, “a subtle difference in meaning”, “a gradation of color”, and so on.

Pronunciation varies from something like the French, with the first syllable as in “noo”, or in a more Anglicized way as in “new”.

How might I use the word?

One thing I hope I would not do is use a phrase like “subtle nuance”, which would be a tautology, given the “nuance” already contains the meaning of “subtle”.

Thinking about that derivation from the Latin for “cloud”, via the French for “to show light and shade” I would use it in sentences such as the following:

“I listened to both speakers explain the new arrangements and with the second speaker I thought I detected a nuance that these new arrangements would be regarded as strict rules, not just as guidelines.”

“It was supposed to be a curry, which for me would mean that it would be spicy, not bland, but there was only a nuance of some spice I could not identify.”


Why Automated Translations Are Risky

When someone wants a translation into English and feel they cannot afford to hire a translator, it could be tempting to use an online service like Babelfish.

That might help in getting a bit of an idea, but it is risky.

Back in the 19th century, a couple of Portuguese translators produced an English phrasebook which was so bad it was reproduced for ages as a bit of a joke, under the title “English as She is Spoke”.

Someone has now gone one better and compared some Portuguese phrases with the translations in the original phrasebook and translations from the online Babelfish service.

Here is an example:

Portuguese: Vamos mais depressa. Nunca vi pior besta. Não quer andar, nem para diante, nem para trás.
Accurate translation: Let’s go faster. I never saw a worse animal. It doesn’t want to go either forward or backward.
That phrasebook: Go us more fast never i was seen a so much bad beast; she will not nor to bring forward neither put back.
Babelfish: We go more fast. Never vi worse crossbow. It does not want to walk, nor forward, nor stops backwards.

So be careful about relying on those online services!

Real Estate and the Roaming Apostrophe

The real estate liftout in the weekend newspapers is always a treasure trove of grammatical errors.

* Located in one of the most highly sort after areas of Tallebudgera Valley, you will be drawn into the peace and privacy of this large renovated family home.

Well, maybe you will be drawn in if you do decide to be located etc, but they really mean that the large, renovated family home is located there. And we have a by no means rare appearance of “sort after? instead of “sought after?. From years of reading the Sydney Morning Herald property pages I can attest that this error is not just a Gold Coast usage.

The roaming apostrophe has a field day and although my previous post here was on the apostrophe, I just have to list some of my finds from last Saturday’s Gold Coast Bulletin (?the Bully?) real estate section.

* The Seller’s have moved on, creating a great opportunity for astute investors.

* Having it’s own direct private access to the beach, ‘Breakers North’ is situated in a much sought after location.

Hmmmm, ‘Breakers North’: that’s one of the other amusing features of the real estate pages. Not content with letting apostrophes roam around to turn up where they don’t belong (?it’s own direct private access?), evidently the people who write this stuff don’t know that when you use quotation marks like that, either in the single or double formation, you are saying in effect that the item referenced is not real or is fake, or that this is the nickname of the entity (as in the previous paragraph here, “the Bully?) or quoting a word or phrase.

There is an extensive collection of erroneous uses of quotation marks, with some quite humorous comments, at The Gallery of “Misused? Quotation Marks.

More on these lines from the Bully:

* ‘Palm Springs Residence’ is a stunning Beachfront building that oozes style and sophistication (now there’s an original expression!) …

* Offered ‘For Sale’ by extremely motivated vendor’s apartment XXX is stunning… (so it’s not really for sale – and slipped a superfluous apostrophe in there too, as well as leaving out a comma before “apartment?)

* The Magnificence of ‘Marquis on Main’ (well, let us in on the secret, what’s its real name?)

English can be such a rich and expressive language. It’s a great pity that people understand it so little they have to hang little decorations on words in this way, no doubt expecting that this will make their copy more interesting, little realising that it just makes some people either laugh or feel sorry for them. 

There has to be a market for a basic guide to using English in real estate advertisements, doesn’t there? Maybe not.

And I acknowledge I may be fighting a losing battle on the use of “sort after? in place of “sought after?. A quick google on “real estate sort after? (without the quotation marks) gave me 13.2 million results! It was clear from reading a handful of them that the authors were deadly serious.

Apostrophe Madness

At the local farmers’ market the other day I saw a sign which showed that the owner had no clue about when to use the apostrophe, or rather when not to use it.

On the sign, everything that had a plural had an apostrophe, not the way I used it in the previous paragraph, as an indication of the ‘possessive’, i.e. “farmers’ market” (market of the farmers) but in the form of a totally superfluous indication of the plural – thus, vegetable’s, cake’s, biscuit’s, jam’s.

There’s a good summary of when to use and not use the apostrophe at the Apostrophe Protection Society website. 


Double Whammy: Misused Quotation Marks and Apostrophe

You would think that a company offering ‘executive’ coaching would want to impress the world with its professionalism, wouldn’t you?

So who was in charge when a company put up its website placeholder (there are no evident links beyond the front page) and included the tagline ‘Be known for “Leadership at it’s Best”‘?

Not content with inserting an apostrophe where none was appropriate, the person or persons responsible have included quotation marks around the phrase Leadership at its Best. This is a basic and all too common error. Used in this way, the quotation marks signify grammatically that the company is joking or not offering the real thing when it offers Leadership at its Best. In other words, when people use quotation marks in this way to lend emphasis to a word or phrase, they are actually subverting their own communication.

Food shops that advertise products as “fresh” or “organic” evoke probably needless concern among many customers who know their use of quotation marks. It’s unfortunate that shopkeepers choose to undermine their own business in this way.

For an archive of examples that will appal or amuse you, or both, check out the Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks. To give just one example:

Sign on friend’s front door
Doorbell “out of order.” Please “knock” or “rattle” letterbox.
Is your friend wondering why nobody comes to visit anymore?

There is a brief explanation of the correct and incorrect use of quotation marks, with examples, at this site.

The Business Value of Excellent English

Yesterday a colleague asked me to comment on a business proposal. When I’m asked to do this, I endeavour to focus on the business argument and how persuasive it appears to be. I am usually also drawn to comment on aspects of grammar and style or expression. 

Lately I’ve hesitated to do that, because I’ve often found that when people ask for comments they really mean they want to enlist you as a supporter and asking for comments is a way of engaging your interest. They can become quite defensive if you suggest changes to the way they have expressed themselves in the document, because that wasn’t what they *really* wanted!

I can also be sensitive to criticism of *my* prose style, but on balance I would much prefer that friends or colleagues gave me a critique, rather than my finding out the hard way, from the market, that I could have done better. The only thing worse is to never find out and keep repeating the mistakes! 

The fact is, I see the business value of excellent English, written and spoken, as a fairly self-evident ‘given’.

Now I acknowledge that my attitude is almost certainly due in part to two facts: a) my parents – and various relatives – were school teachers; and b) I was a school teacher – and an English and History teacher at that! So sometimes I have been inclined to be pedantic, which comes from an Italian word pedante for ‘teacher’ and which the online defines as: Characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning and formal rules: a pedantic attention to details.

But my teaching days are long gone and I now have years of experience in the public service and in business, which has tended to make my English expression more practical and down to earth than it used to be.

I’ve found consistently over the years that striving for excellence (not pedantry) in English expression has never been a waste of time and has often meant that I achieved my communication goals faster than if I had been careless about what was being stated and how it was being phrased.

I do take some pride in my knowledge of English and its subtleties but I also accept that there are plenty of people with deeper knowledge and better skills than mine. There is also, always, room for improvement. However capable I have been able to become about expressing myself in written English, I know that there are always going to be people who can take apart what I write and show me how I could do it better. Fortunately I’ve met a few of those and they’ve done just that. If I want to get something really right I get a journalist friend to go through it – he usually savages it, but for the better. I got over my wounded pride about that long ago.

Part of the exercise in any sort of a bid document or pitch document is not to thoughtlessly provide meaningless distractions by way of poor grammar or clumsy style. Excellence in expression allows your reader to concentrate on what you want them to concentrate on. That’s where people who don’t understand punctuation and grammar, for example, get it wrong when they say all that ‘grammar and style stuff’ doesn’t matter. It could matter to your reader subconsciously and even consciously. If it does, you are making it harder for him or her to believe that you are thorough and rigorous enough to provide them with consistently excellent service or with products of relentlessly consistent high quality.

That doesn’t mean that our English expression should be flowery and full of big words. Far from it. Plain English is in short supply and is appreciated by time-strapped business people.

Bullet points are also good. A client of mine once told me he liked my reports but as he and his colleagues in the executive group were mostly engineers, it would be good if I could use more bullet points. I learnt to do bullet points, with the result that:

  • I could get my arguments across more effectively
  • People appreciated my taking the trouble to change the format of my reports
  • The client kept paying me!