Category : style

You can tell an editor is ill when she mixes up her words…

getting your words right

During a recent consultation with our local GP, I accidentally mixed up the words “panacea” and “placebo” – which confirmed, in a way that nothing else could have, that I was not a well woman!

Joking apart though, it did give me the idea for a blog post that looked at a few oft-confused words, and my resolve was strengthened this evening when I saw the word “reign” instead of “rein” in an online article published by leading marketing journal The Drum.

Let’s look at “panacea” first – a Latin word, which was derived from Ancient Greek. Its original meaning was a remedy (in those days probably plant-based) which was able to cure all types of diseases, and even to prolong life.

Over time, the word also came to be used in a more general way to describe a solution or plan that would solve all problems, e.g. “The UN’s proposed scheme offered no panacea for the deep-rooted problems of poverty in the region, merely providing a basis for future discussions.”

Placebo is also a Latin word – a verb whose literal English translation is “I shall please”.  In medical terms, a placebo is a medicine or procedure with no therapeutic effect, which is prescribed purely for the psychological benefit of the patient rather than for any physiological effects. Often placebos are used as a control when testing new drugs, to ascertain whether the drug being tested has genuine therapeutic properties.

Two other words – homophones in this instance – which often cause a mix-up are “reign” and “rein”.  Now, if I had a fiver for every time I’ve spotted the phrase “to give free reign to…” in the UK press, you wouldn’t be reading this post. Why? Because I’d have already made my fortune and retired to the French Riviera, where I’d be happily sipping fresh orange juice and grenadine by the sea.

Perhaps my equestrian teenage years give me a certain advantage here, but the correct phrase is actually “to give free rein” to (no “g”, just a gee-gee!) and it means to loosen the reins, thereby allowing the horse to move as fast as it wishes.

Similarly, I often see the phrase “to reign in” written in articles (such as the one from The Drum, which I mentioned earlier). Here again, we’re dealing with an equestrian term – this time “rein in” (again without a “g”), which means to pull on the reins and cause the horse to slow down.

In other words, the only time you should use “reign” with a “g” is when you’re talking about the period of office of a monarch or other authority (“reign” – noun) or the act of being a monarch or in another position of authority (“to reign” – verb).

If you come across other examples of word confusion (perhaps with amusing consequences!), do post your suggestions on our Facebook page. We look forward to reading them soon! Meanwhile, try this very simple quiz featuring commonly confused words. Good luck…

 

photo of two editing books

Five tips to help you compile a company style guide

Whether you’re a sole trader or a multinational organisation that employs thousands of people worldwide, it’s important to ensure your corporate tone of voice remains consistent across all your documents, presentations, promotional print, and social media platforms. However, as you may already have discovered in your own business, this is easier said than done…

Let’s be honest: it’s hard enough to remain consistent in your use of the English language when there’s just one of you generating copy. Multiply that by tens, hundreds or even thousands of texts being written by myriad writers in a larger company, and suddenly the task of remaining consistent in your turn of phrase and terminology escalates to one of gargantuan proportions.

I’ve mentioned before the concept of having a corporate style guide to help address this issue of consistency. So here are five tips to help you start compiling a guide which you can give to anyone writing text for your company:

  1. Decide how formal/informal you wish to sound in your communications with your customers. My previous blog post No ducking out of it: your business needs a consistent tone of voice talked about the different ways you can address your readership (e.g. “you” or “our customers”) or indeed refer to yourselves (“we” or “Messrs Brown & Co.”), as well as examining various other techniques that determine formality or informality of tone.
  2. Compile a list of in-house terminology that has been agreed for use by your company. Every industry has its own jargon and even within individual branches of a business, an in-house vocabulary will evolve.  The interesting thing about jargon is that often those using it are so familiar with this (to them) everyday terminology, they don’t appreciate that someone new to the company might not understand what certain terms mean – far less feel confident about including them in a report or presentation. By providing your writer(s) with  a list of the specialist terms or specific words and phrases that your business uses regularly, you’ll make it easier for new additions to your team to become conversant with your in-house style rather than drown in a sea of unfamiliar vocabulary.
  3. Clearly set out in your style guide any words or turns of phrase that your company does not wish to use (or at least would prefer to avoid using, wherever possible) in its written materials. For example, it may be company policy to refer to people who buy your products as “customers” and never “clients”, or vice versa.  You might wish to ban completely the use of the word “change” in your commercial documents and insist on using “improvement” or “enhancement”, etc. However, you can’t expect a new member of staff to know, without being told, these small – yet significant – details.
  4. Stipulate whether you wish to use UK or US spelling in your corporate communications (e.g. UK spelling “organise” or US spelling “organize”, “favour” or “favor”, “colour” or “color”, “labour” or “labor”…). When you’re proofreading any text that you or your colleagues have written, always run a search for common US or UK variants, depending on which spelling you wish to banish from your prose. And remember to exercise extreme caution when using the search and replace facility – for reasons that I mentioned in a previous post Spellcheckers – the proofreader’s friend or foe
  5. Flag up regular offenders, i.e. words that you’ve noticed staff writing about your company’s products or services sometimes mix up or get wrong. This may vary from company to company or even from department to department, but over a period of time, a content manager or communications manager will begin to identify certain “rogue” spellings or incorrect word choices that pop up again and again. Just to give you an idea of the sort of thing I’m talking about, here are three that seem to dog many people who write corporate copy:
  • Practise vs practice: I’m presuming that most of the people reading this blog will be using UK English in their documentation. If so, “practice” is a noun, e.g. “There is a new veterinary practice opening in town…” or “My music practice starts at 7  p.m. every evening…” The other spelling (with an “s”) is reserved for the verb e.g. “Tomorrow I’m going to practise my golf swing.” NB: American English uses just one spelling for both noun and verb (“practice”).
  • Loose vs lose: In basic terms, if you are referring to the verb that means to mislay something then use “lose”, e.g. “He loses his tie every morning.” If you are describing a new pair of trousers that is too large for you round the waist (I wish!!) then you want the adjective “loose”.
  • 1960s  vs 1960’s: No apostrophe is required if you simply mean the decade of the 1960s, as this is a plural noun, not a possessive, e.g. “I went to every Beatles concert held in the 1960s.”  However, if you are talking about the best-selling record of the specific year 1960 then you would write, “This was 1960’s biggest hit.”

So complex is the process of maintaining a consistent style across hundreds of documents that these pointers are, admittedly, just the tip of the textual iceberg. However, at least they will give you a good foundation upon which to start building your very own company style guide. Good luck!