When Word goes rogue

I installed Word on my new PC and I’ve not got around to turning off the grammar checker yet. One of the reasons is that our creative director at Afia told me that clients run our documents through Word’s grammar checker to see if we’ve got anything wrong, so she likes to see if we can avoid arguments, even when we know we’re right and it’s wrong. Sometimes clients can get nervous when we tell that we know better than Word.

Here’s one from today.

I wrote “Making yourself sound important is inconsiderate.” And Word wants to change it to “Making you sound important is inconsiderate.”

Of course I know what it thinks it’s trying to correct, but I was interested to know how it justified that. So I looked it up and this is what it said.

Reflexive Pronoun Use

Use pronouns ending in “self” in conjunction with a noun, as in “Andrew himself” or when the pronoun refers back to the subject, as in “I hit myself.” Use “own” in conjunction with a pronoun only when referring back to the subject.

  • Instead of: They heard herself on the radio.
  • Consider: They heard her on the radio.
  • Instead of: John watched her own meal get cold.
  • Consider: John watched her meal get cold.”

I don’t think I’ll be taking advice on grammar from something which doesn’t know that John is a man.


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Last week I was at an excellent event for speechwriters, but got into a slight row with a grammar expert whose company checks for mistakes in people’s writing. It was quite simple. He believes that it’s wrong to start a sentence with and or with but. It’s always better, he said, to use however instead of but. But if I want to use grammar incorrectly that’s up to me. He said.

There is no grammar book that says starting a sentence with and or but it wrong, but somehow it’s become part of the English language mythology. It’s been encouraged by generations of primary school teachers, despite Shakespeare, Austen, the Bible, the Economist and the Financial Times doing it all the time.

He also said that he’s been called a pedant. And he mispronounced it. I win.

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Speaking Buisinglish

Just last week I was in Belgium for a clothing company’s European sales meeting. Everyone spoke English – sort of – but found the British quite hard to understand. And none of them found it as funny as I did to be invited into a workshop called “Men’s bottoms”. (Jeans and chinos, to you and me.)

It turns out that the rest of Europe thinks that “sexy”, applied to women, means that same as “cool”, applied to men. No matter how strongly the British disagreed – we said that cool and sexy can describe both sexes and that they mean two different things – we lost the argument.

Apparently we don’t really understand international English, and we should try harder. Tricky. I think that if the meeting had been in French, the French might have been a little more outraged at the reinterpretation of their mother tongue. On the other hand, I didn’t have to learn to speak fluently in a second language to be invited.

I’ll get my coat.

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The one about Coca Cola

One more short post from the forthcoming book. My version, followed by the editor’s improvements. OK, I admit that perhaps I got a bit carried away, but I don’t think I deserved this.


Coca-Cola has arguably the world’s most recognisable lettering. Its flamboyant loops and waves make the words distinctive even when they’re written in different alphabets from the original Roman, including Russian and Arabic.

Like other long-serving handwritten logos, such as Virgin, it’s been very slightly tidied up, but has hardly changed since Coca Cola’s book-keeper, Frank Mason Robinson designed it in the Spencerian handwriting script, which deserves a story of its own as it was Mr Spencer’s attempt to give American handwriting a brand identity which he felt it lacked.

With its predominant colour, red, plus the distinctive bottle, the Coca-Cola’s handwriting consistently puts it at the top of the list of the world’s most recognisable brands.



Coca-Cola uses one of the world’s most recognisable letterings. Its flamboyant loops and waves make the words distinctive. Together with its striking red colour and the distinctively-shaped bottle, it makes Coca-Cola stand out as a unique brand.

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And the editor said…

The continuing story of the rogue editor.

Here’s one that won’t fit on Twitter that I thought you might enjoy.

I wrote:

Coffee and tea shops had tables and chairs. When you finished your coffee, you left. Smart ones had waitresses who came to the table to take your order. Self service ones had counters.

Coffee was often instant, or it was made with a machine that gurgled weakly then burned it; you could have a sandwich at lunchtime, and possibly a salad. At tea time you could have a scone or a cake. At five o’clock they closed and you all went home.

And suddenly there was one with sofas.

The editor wrote:

Coffee and tea shops have tables and chairs. When you have finished your coffee, you leave. Some have waitresses who come to the table to take your order. Self-service cafeterias have counters. Coffee was often instant, or it was made with a machine that gurgled weakly. And suddenly a coffeehouse with sofas opened.

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The Audacious Cheeky Theorem

In the words of Mrs. Merton, we’ve been having a heated debate.

I’d like to name the result the Audacious Cheeky theorum.

The theory states:  A writer should choose the word cheeky over the word audacious, if  and only if 95% of the readers probably won’t know what audacious means. The rest of the time, if you mean audacious, write audacious.

Of course, this means that I can only write that theorem in places where I believe 95% of readers will know what audacious means, otherwise it would appear thusly:

A writer should choose the word cheeky over the word cheeky, if and only if 95% of the readers probably won’t know what cheeky means. The rest of the time, if you mean cheeky, write cheeky.

Which is complete claptrap, but you get the point, don’t you? There’s a movement in business writing to help everyone (not just people who get paid to writing for a living) to send emails and letters that are more likely to be read. Sometimes it’s attached to a brand’s written tone of voice, but not always. I’m part of this movement, but I don’t join in with the extremists who want to ban long words where a short one will do nicely. Where’s the fun in that?

I’m definitely up for taking out pomp and blather, business bollocks, industry dialects and jargon that mean nothing to people outside the four walls in which it is generated. I’m all for using words that you find in a dictionary. (Recently I worked for a company who started using “onboarding” to mean getting a new employee settled in and trained ready to join the team. It got banned by their overseas chairman because if it wasn’t in the dictionary it wasn’t allowed. Good on him.)

Audacious and cheeky do not mean exactly the same thing. However, cheeky generally does the job. It doesn’t work the other way around. If a small child called you a fat tart (I’m from the north) you wouldn’t call him an audacious little monkey.

I also have a rule: never use utilise when you could use use. In this case, the two mean the same, but one’s a lot longer. Even better: never use utilisation when you could use use. Adding syllables in order to sound serious is a crime against good writing.

There is a point, of course. It’s this. When we are working on updating an organisation’s style of writing, let’s not get overwhelmed by simplicity. In English we have a bounty of beautiful words, some long, some short. In general, when we’re writing for organisations we’re aiming for clarity. We’d like our readers to understand us. (Although lots of people do seem to forget that and just love to burble on and on thinking they are impressing readers who have long since dumped their words in the recycling.)

Most of the time, using a short word makes your meaning clearer. At other times a lovely long word just nails it. There are long ones we reach for automatically merely because they’re the ones that our bosses’ bosses use. Ditch those. There are others that have an elegant nuance, a subtlety that the short ones lack. There are times when only these words will do. Use them, and if your readers don’t understand they can just go out and buy a dictionary.

That was cheeky.

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A new one for the dictionary

Bifle me, I'm famous.

So there we were in Aix-en-Provence for a couple of days. Our hotel was right next to a student residence, and on the corner stood a student bar. I like to think that my French is not that bad, so when I see a word I don’t know I look it up. But this one wasn’t in the dictionary.

I was thinking of asking the French family we were visiting to tell me what it meant. Thank the lord I trusted my instincts and decided against. Because when I got home and did a bit of online research I found that it really is a fabulous word, but not for polite company.

Put it this way, a biffleur, someone who bifles, is a streaker but specifically a male streaker. For the verb to bifle is a combination of two words meaning slap and ermm…willy.

So while I’m not sure why following Wednesday’s thing party, Thursday’s pub quiz and Friday’s karaoki, the Saturday night entertainment is “Bifle me I’m famous” or what that entailed, I did feel compelled to share that with you. (We left Aix on the Saturday morning, or I promise I’d have returned with a full report.)

We tend to see the French as a conservative lot when its comes to protecting their language. They banned the word microwave, pronounced meecrowav, and replaced it with the snappy “four à micro-ondes”, oven with microwaves. Computer had to be replaced with ordinateur. But they really do know their slang. Please, feel free to use it as appropriate.

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Summer School in Falmouth

Writers, how do you fancy a busman’s holiday?

Last year, the lovely people at University College Falmouth’s writing department invited me to run a Monday-Friday summer school on business writing, and they’ve asked me back. It’s 11 – 15 July on their leafy Falmouth campus. This year we’ll be doing a bit more on writing for the internet (which is about remembering that it’s going to be read by human beings, not just search engine algorithms). There’s lots about writing for customers, about branding using words and writing for the press.

You can find out all about it here. We had a great time last year, and I’m looking forward to the 2010 class reunion almost as much as meeting team 2011. It would be stonking to see you there. See if you can get the training department to fork out, why don’t you?

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A book for my friends

When your first book comes out you get amazingly excited and think that it’s going to earn you enough to retire to Trouville (or maybe Saltburn). When it doesn’t, you don’t really mind. Books turn into what my chum Tim Rich calls the world’s most expensive business cards. Athough Smythson do run a close second.

A few years later, when you’re chatting to your lovely publisher about something you’re working on, and how there aren’t any books out there that really do the job, and he says, “Well, write it then,” you decide to do it all over again. That’s why, this week I have in my sticky paws the first edition of Online Marketing in 7 Days, a practical approach for people who can’t avoid it any longer.

I was teaching a course at my local, the University of West London; it’s only 18 minutes from my house if you cross the park on exactly the right pathways. My mate Caroline had nudged me into it because it was a new degree and they needed someone to step in and lead this particular module for their degree in entrepreneurial business. We had a huge range of students from an IT security expert to two young owners of a beauty salon, including a wedding and portait photographer and a bicycle repair man who wanted to start a blog about the eco house he was building in his garden. All of them needed some help, and as they were already running businesses, they needed it in quick, concise, usable chunks. I’m hoping that this will work as the coursebook for next time, and by itself for everyone who would like to dip their toes into the water but are far too afraid of imaginary sharks.

It’s a book about not rushing in before you’re ready. It tells you what to think about before you invest your time or money. It’s for intelligent beginners. Now I think I should probably go and read it again and follow its advice. If you do get one, I’d be very interested in your views.

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The Apprentice (against my better judgement)

It’s been a few years since I watched The Apprentice because the arrogance, agressiveness and ignorance distress me. And then there’s the competitors. I watched it a couple of years ago when they were working at Lush on their cosmetics. (“They cost pence,” said Lord Sugar dismissively, then one of his teams used half a litre of sandalwood essential oil that cost the same as a nice new car.)

I can just about tolerate Lord Sugar saying “you was” and “you wasn’t” all the time. I suppose he does it to show he’s still one of the lads. He could probably get it right if he felt inclined. However, what he shouldn’t do is use long words when he doesn’t know what they mean. The lad last night wasn’t pontificating, he was closer to procrastinating, but really he was just changing his mind and wasting time. It was Lord Sugar who was pontificating. I wonder if anyone will dare tell him the difference.

After the cedarwood/sandalwood snafu. Lush decided to run its own two day product invention day with its own staff. The owners were unimpressed by the dismal efforts of the pick of Britain’s business brains, so they handed the product development labs over to their shop managers and manufacturing team. There were some great products invented over those two days, some of which made it into the shops including one that’s now just called Sugar Scrub. It was called something different, but I’m not allowed to write it down; it turns out that Lord Sugar lacks a sense of humour. (I know this because we were all allowed to listen in to the phone conversation he had with Mark Constantine OBE that happened during a creative team meeting as long as we kept quiet.) I can’t tell you how proud I was that my window headline and Hannah Dymond’s cartoon got banned for upsetting him.

What worries me that is people who’ve never worked in the business world are going to think that it’s really like The Apprentice, and to want to be business people for that reason. I wonder if the BBC might consider firing him, bringing in someone with a sense of humour and a sprinking of kindness, and ask that person to confine themselves to using words they understand.

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