What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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27 December 2017

A brilliant collection of silly modern business cliches, explained by the man from the Financial Times (in today's paper)

Embrace failure and shoot for the moon — tech cliché bingo
A good conference always contains a good goosebump moment


This year I have been lucky enough to attend several tech events. Lucky because I love nothing more than to hear improbable tales of plucky individuals defying the odds, fulfilling their dreams and launching successful businesses. A conference is not a conference unless it contains a good goosebump moment.

But, it has to be said, tech events seem to generate a disproportionate amount of thoughtless guff. During such lulls, I have taken to playing tech cliché bingo.

Here are some of my favourites:

So . . .

Apparently, it is obligatory to start every tech talk with this superfluous verbal tic. I blame Mark Zuckerberg.

We are the Uber for . . .

It is often helpful to give the audience a snapshot of what you do. But it is probably not so helpful to associate yourself with a massively lossmaking, ethically warped, and reputationally challenged business.

We are the Airbnb for . . .

One step better in terms of reputation, but not much better in terms of originality.

We celebrate failure.

This phrase is only ever said by highly successful people little acquainted with the true meaning of the word. It should be obvious to everyone: failure sucks. It kills relationships, drains money, and destroys lives. The alternative is always preferable.

We champion diversity.

Invariably said by one of four white men sitting on a panel (or manel).

We are going to disrupt industry x, y, z.

Disrupting an industry is good for the disrupter and may be good for consumers. Then again it may not. Disruption can result in the erosion of employee rights and mass job losses, one of the causes of populist outrage. Not many people want to live in a disrupted society. Probably not such a good meme for 2018.

We don’t want to boil the ocean.

It is surprising how many people who use this phrase then go on to outline business models that aim to do precisely that.

We believe in a sharing economy.

This one is often said by companies proposing to rip data out of unsuspecting users and exploit them for blatant profit extraction.

This is a moon shot project.

This really means: we don’t know what we’re doing and our technology doesn’t work. What’s more, this phrase is often used by extreme libertarian types seemingly unfamiliar with history. For the record, a much-derided public sector organisation — Nasa — was the first to achieve a real moon shot.

We aim to become a unicorn.

A unicorn is a mythical creature. The financial success of many of the companies who use this term may also remain mythical.

One other common feature of tech events is the opportunity it gives for big company bosses to come onstage to tell the audience how much they love millennials. But these corporate types have their fair share of clichés too:

We believe in open innovation . . .

Our company has run out of ideas. Does anyone else have any — please?

As Bill Gates said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Great quote but almost always misattributed. One minute on Google shows that this quotation came from Roy Amara, a former president of The Institute for the Future. That’s why it’s known as Amara’s Law.

Here’s to the misfits.

This one is sometimes uttered by a chief executive whose suit costs more than the money raised in a start-up’s “friends and family” financing round. They are to hip what the former Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer is to dancing (check it out on YouTube).

All that said, it’s time for a small confession. I have moderated a few sessions at tech events this year and may — perhaps — have used one of or two of these clichés myself.


15 November 2017

Editing today: spot the wrong word!

Editing today and came across this unconsciously amusing sentence. Can you spot the wrongly used word?
"...in the Doing Business ranking of the World Bank, which assesses the regulations that enhance business activity and those that constrain it, Russia has been steadily climbing upstairs and was placed in 2017 the 35th among 190 countries...." 

05 October 2017

Reading for profit or for pleasure?

I have been blessed with the opportunity to earn my living by editing documents which include passages like this:
'Over the past two decades the field of social sciences has been enriched with newly-emerging disciplines and terms such as ‘development studies’ and ‘development economics’, ‘social capitalism’ and ‘sustainable development’, ‘venture philanthropy’ and ‘impact investment’. All these terms are positioned within a large space defined as ‘development’ which we define as “a holistic and multi-disciplinary concept concerning sustainable growth and processes leading to enhancements in human development, quality of life and subjective well-being”.'
The thing is, I prefer to read stories which begin like this: "The shades of night were falling fairly fast as I latch-keyed self and suitcase into the Wooster GHQ..."

Or this: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills..."

In these two cases, I feel the writer is talking to me. In the first one, I wonder if he is not talking to himself, or to the wall, or to his mother's bottom. In each case, I feel like an intruder rather than a member of an enthralled audience. 

Should reading be for profit or for pleasure? And is it possible to combine the two purposes? What do readers think?

15 September 2017

Spelling mistake of the day: Reasons for editing, № 1

Reasons to have your Russian texts closely scruitinised by a native-speaking editor like me, № 1

Today I had to change a word written thus: "significunt".

'Nuff said!

24 May 2017

When is жадность not разумная – when putting Russian thoughts into English prose, if you don’t want to seem провинциальный

I am a writer, but I earn my daily bread by editing texts which Russians have written and putting them into smooth, idiomatic and clear English. I have recently tried to explain to some potential customers why this is so important. It occurs to me that I should maybe try to make my point to a wider audience.
     The main reason is the difference between verbal and written communication. Face-to-face you communicate as much by body language as by the words you use. If your listener does not understand you, he or she will ask what you mean, and you can correct what you have just said. Likewise, if you say something offensive, or obviously stupid or wrong, you will see by your listener’s reaction and have an opportunity to correct what you said, or to elaborate on it to make your meaning clear.
     None of this applies when texts are in writing only. That has to be absolutely correct, or you will risk creating all sorts of communication difficulties. 
     In addition, there is something attractive about a Russian accent, and interesting about the unusual ways in which Russians misuse English when speaking. But accents do not come across on the printed page, and mistakes on paper are not interesting; they simply look провинциальные.
     Editing is much cheaper than looking a fool. The best example I have ever come across is the sign (pictured above) on the Kazan railway station which I saw when travelling to Siberia some years ago. РЖД had previously spent billions of roubles modernising and beautifying the station for some international football competition or other. Yet they put that sign up. The idea of giving instructions in English was a good one. But to do so in the way it was done looks idiotic. There are four mistakes in the six English words used.
     I usually charge 4 roubles a word for style-editing and correcting texts. So it would have cost the Russian Railways 24 roubles to have had me correct that sign. The fancy modern new station would not have cost billions of roubles and looked naff, but would have costs billions and 24 roubles and looked smart, modern (as the rest of it does) and, due to the use of English, welcoming to visitors from abroad.
     Which is more sensible? Why is meanness considered sensible in matters like these? Always get important text checked by a native speaker. 
     Send an email to me at language.etiquette@gmail.com
and I will send you back my sheet describing what I do and why.
     I'll give a discount to every customer who can give me the correct translation of the sign!


09 March 2017

"Sanctions" - a word much misused in Russia today: иногда "бойкот" лучше

It is high time that Russians who wish to be thought of as speaking correct English (like the Foreign Ministry) stopped misusing the word "sanctions".
     The West has imposed "sanctions" on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support for the "separatists" in the eastern Ukraine. By way of retaliation, Russia said it was imposing "sanctions" on the West, by making some types of food illegal to import and so on. These are not sanctions. They are a boycott. The difference is crucial if the English language is to be used correctly and therefore clearly.
     Sanctions, in essence, are restrictions which are intended to prevent OTHERS from doing this or that, including buying things you sell. A boycott happens when a group of people, which can include a country, decides to restrict its OWN actions in the hope of harming someone else by, in most cases, refusing to deal with that other person or entity (which can also be a country or group of countries).
     The word "boycott" - in Russian: бойкот or бойкотировать - comes from the name of an English land agent in Ireland in the nineteenth century with whom many native Irish refused to deal, due to his unpopular way of dealing with them. There is a good entry in Wikipedia which will give you the whole story.
     The man concerned is pictured above. His name was Captain Charles Boycott, and it is his surname which has come down to us as the word for causing self-harm by mass action in the name of public policy or morality. Causing harm to others by preventing them taking advantage of what you would normally offer them is something else entirely. The distinction can be illustrated with reference to the picture.
     Due to the size of Captain Boycott's beard, you could draw one or other of two logical conclusions. Either he decided to boycott the makers of razors, or the razor-makers imposed sanctions on him, by refusing the supply him with their products. Those are two different situations, described in correct, and therefore precise, English by two different words. Do not mix them up!

24 January 2017

Grammar police and a delinquent politician

The picture Pete posted
(see third quote)
A passionately mediocre politician in Scotland, called Margaret Mitchell MSP (Conservative), recently posted an advertisement for her compassion on Facebook - something to do with the cost to the public authorities of vandalism in Scotland - which ended with her saying we should "address the problem." I posted an objection to this phrase, under one of my many assumed names:

Dear Mrs Mitchell,
You "address" an issue, but you "solve" a problem.
Do you have any figures about how much vandalism to the English language costs the Scottish tax-payer?
Your sincerely,
Hamilton Ursqhuattle, M.A. (Kint.)

Within five minutes (literally) the whole comment was taken down from Her Marggieness's page and I blocked from it. I then posted this:

I commented on Margaret Mitchell MSP's ropey grammar about five minutes ago. ALREADY the whole comment has been removed or blocked. She really must have a complex about her lack of education - which starts with speaking your own language correctly and, if possible, elegantly - how sad for a grown-up woman in public life!

A friend from Australia, then accused me pictorially of acting like the grammar police, to which I answered as follows: 

No, no, no, Pete! I am happy for ordinary people to use the language any way they like. I am NOT happy that PUBLIC FIGURES (like members of the Scottish parliament) who continually try to control public behaviour get away with language which the more literate among us would not understand correctly. Since language in a law-abiding society is the chief weapon of control, then it behoves our wannabe controllers to use it precisely, clearly and correctly.

That remains my position.