THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 9, November 2003
* why oh Why Oh why can’t we get Capitalisation Right?
* Words We Hate: the list that could just go on for ever
Welcome to the pre-festive season Plain Text Gazette. This time, we have *good news* for subscribers whose daily routine involves a forlorn search of their in-tray for the printed ‘A-Z of Plain Text’ we once promised to send you. At long last, it is printed. One free copy is reserved for each Gazette subscriber, so if you would like a rather attractive 36-page guide to best practice in business writing, please email us at [email protected] with your name and address and we’ll send it out forthwith.
In this issue, we’re going to rant about capitalisation. It may not bother you, but it sure as hell bothers us. We’ll tell you why. And then we’ve got some more hated words to pillory.
Before either of these things, though, we thought the ‘Fog Index’ (which we’ve only just discovered) was worth a mention. Many Gazette subscribers are likely to be aware of this calculation, devised by Robert Gunning, author of ‘The Technique of Clear Writing’.
The Fog Index assesses how easy copy is to understand, using wordcount, the number of sentences, and the percentage of long words. We won’t detail the formula here, because we hate numbers and typing ‘fog index’ into Google will lead you to many sites on the subject. The view on these sites seems to be that a score of anything above 14 is ‘difficult’. So broadsheet newspapers come in at around 14; Time magazine scores 12; and the Reader’s Digest (a prestigious Plain Text client) hits 8. One website says: “If you have a Fog Index of more than 12, you run a serious risk of not being understood — or even read”.
We’re pleased to announce that a couple of samples of our own website copy came in at around 10, which seems about right for copy that is intended to be readily comprehensible without ‘talking down’ to business readers.
But oh what fun we had applying the Fog Index to some other business copy! A random press release from a major technology company hit 18, not far off the awesome 22.5 achieved by our own fake press release from ‘Prolix’.
Most entertaining of all, the UK government communication service’s description of itself also scores an incomprehensible 18.
Time for a ‘Fog Index Hall of Fame’ on our website?
Enjoy this issue, and don’t forget to ask for your free copy of the ‘A-Z’.
Keep it plain,
why oh Why Oh why can’t we get Capitalisation Right?
If I had a penny for every inappropriate capital letter I’ve edited, I’d be writing this newsletter from the tastefully appointed cabin of my 60-foot yacht. Admittedly, not everyone cares about capitals as much as writers do. We find all that pressing of the ‘shift’ key tiring. But there are many occasions when the misuse of capitals makes text look silly.
The Economist Style Guide suggests that “the general rule is to dignify with capital letters organisations and institutions, but not people”. But it also quotes Emerson, reminding us that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
So there’s no hard-and-fast rule book for capitalisation; but we have strong views on a few areas where a bit of consistency isn’t at all foolish.
1. The Extremely Arresting Powerpoint Slide Title
‘How Our New Services Can Help You!’ If you spoke like this, you’d sound like a Dalek. So *why* does initial letter capitalisation crop up so much in promotional materials and presentations? I guess it’s to do with trying to make words stand out. The Plain Text solution is predictable and simple: if the title isn’t interesting enough, capital letters won’t save it.
2. Very Important People and Departments
‘Sales Manager John Smith and Marketing Director Jane Doe gave a presentation to the Board’. Even the pope gets lower case in correct usage. What did the sales manager do to deserve his caps? And why the big ‘B’ on ‘board’? In both cases, the capital letters are for the glorification of individuals and are unnecessary.
3. Markets and concepts
‘The market for Personal Information Managers (PIMs) has grown rapidly amongst Investment Banking professionals’. By all means use the TLA (once it’s been explained) to describe this deadly ten-syllable market. But there’s no need in this sentence to capitalise the market itself; nor the concept of investment banking. Otherwise the text risks becoming an indecipherable forest of different-sized letters. Which leads us neatly to…
4. Daft ComPany and ProDuct NameS
‘ProDuct’. Geddit? We’re a lobbying group for drains! Right. Just like PowerPoint is something that helps you to point powerfully. We’re in the realm of personal preference here, because it is clear that random capitalisation is a good way to make your company or product more prominent. From DreamWorks to QinetiQ, weirdly capitalised names stand out on the page. All Plain Text would ask is: *please* find another way to do it. Those random capitals make us poor writers wince.
Words We Hate: the list that could just go on for ever
Vision, n (and shockingly v); meaning: ‘a pleasing imaginative
– – – – plan for, or anticipation of, future events’.
The phrase ‘Our vision’ is inevitably followed by a seemingly random combination of ‘usual suspect’ positive words and phrases: ’empower’, ‘achieve’, ‘best-in-class’. I could go on. But is a ‘vision’ really necessary? And how does it really differ from a ‘mission’? (We’ll deal with that word one day). Corporate visions should be honest. If Plain Text had one, it would be: “We’d like a world where all businesses write well. But not in our lifetimes, please. We have bills to pay.”
Workflow, n; meaning: dunno.
– – – –
And that’s the problem with ‘workflow’. It *probably* means ‘an interconnected series of professional activities largely facilitated by technology’; and as such, is pretty good shorthand. ‘Workflow’ has two big problems, though: its definition is somewhat nebulous and difficult to grasp; and not everyone seems to agree precisely what it means. A word as slippery and, let’s face it, as ghastly as this should be avoided.
Architect, v; meaning: ‘to design software’.
– – – – –
I have friends who are architects. But do they ‘architect’ their buildings? Of course not. So why does the software industry need it as a verb? I suspect that the hairy-chested yet intellectual world of technology feels that ‘design’ is just a little bit too namby-pamby and ‘build’ a little too blue-collar. We say that you can ‘architect’ something about as much as you can ‘dentist’ or ‘lawyer’ something. Time to think of another word. How about ‘Make’?
That’s about it for this issue. Before we forget, though: check out Whatbrandareyou.com (a publicity wheeze for a UK ad agency) whose spoof company name generator has generated amusement, website hits and column inches in equal measure.
Paul & Paul
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