“25 words or less”

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. The original headline for this post was ‘How many is enough; how many too much?’. It’s the first of what will probably be several posts on the subject of length of text … and the difference between ‘short’ and ‘succinct’. I hope you find it entertaining and instructive.

Yesterday I broke my long-standing rule against clicking on Facebook ads. Fujifilm sucked me in with a competition. They’re giving away cameras, so I couldn’t resist.

Better yet, it’s a photo caption competition. So they had me by the … well, they had me.

They even offered a panel of ‘Helpful Hints’. Listen to this:

Use your imagination — Make your response interesting and creative — include humour, emotion or tell a story.

 Keep it clean — Whilst we appreciate your enthusiasm, let’s leave anything horribly inappropriate at home.

 Can I have a hint? — Each question comes with a handy hint to help you beat that dreaded writer’s block.

Have you ever seen such great writing advice for a ’25-words-or-less’ promotion? It’s not bad advice for business writing in general. Except, perhaps, for ‘humour’; it is not always wise to be witty in business writing. But the one that really caught my eye was this:

A picture is worth a thousand words — Try to use the word limit to its full potential by avoiding short or succinct answers.

If you’ve read my book or some of my blog posts, you know that I’m a fierce advocate of succinct writing. So you might expect me to snarl at Fujifilm’s exhorting their entrants to verbosity.

But I agree with them, because succinct is not the same as short. In fact, ’25 words or less’ is a good exercise for writers. Here’s how to do it:

1. Quickly write a story of about 50 words.

2. Edit it down to 25 words.

If you can do this while retaining the most important parts of the original story, the 25-word version is succinct. If not, it is merely short.  (26 words)

          (EDIT #1)
If your 25-word edit has the most important parts of the original story, it’s succinct. If not, it’s just short.
          (20 words = 23% reduction)
           (EDIT #2)
A 25-word edit that keeps the important parts of the original is succinct, not merely short.
          (16 words = 38.5% reduction)
          (EDIT #3)
A 25-word edit that tells a 50-word story is not short; it’s succinct. 
          (13 words = 50% reduction)

To see a very clever and well-written Facebook promotion, go here —


Thank you for visiting my blog. You can buy my book, Write Like You Mean Business, here — http://thecopymentor.com/index.php/shop

Posted in Business, Digital Photography, Editing, English | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cycling, Doping and Mushmouth Press Releases

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. This post returns to the issue of mushmouth content. This is also covered in Sentence Diagrams — Tutorials #2 and #4

Many years ago my boss asked for a statement to the press. I’ve long forgotten the story, but I will never forget what he said. He asked for “… a form of words …” to express whatever the company wanted to say to the financial market.

The phrase implies that the form of words is more important than their meaning. It echoes the term, ‘formal’, for language of which that is true. It also foreshadows the unique genre of PR-writ that I call ‘mushmouth’.

Truly formal language lends gravitas to legal documents. Mushmouth is designed to blur the truth and to confuse or pacify the reader.

I’ll look at two examples from a current story. This is the tragic tale of Lance Armstrong’s being nailed for doping by the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) and its impact on others in cycling.

Armstrong’s former manager, Johan Bruyneel, was managing the RadioShack-Nissan team. He was spotlighted as one of the ringleaders of Armstrong’s doping gang, so he had to go. Here’s the form of words they used to explain why Bruyneel was no longer managing the RadioShack-Nissan team:

‘His departure is desirable to ensure the serenity and cohesiveness within the team.’

‘… he can no longer direct the team in an efficient and comfortable way.’

Radio Shack and Nissan are telling their customers and prospects that they would tolerate a dope pusher and cheat as long as he was ‘comfortable’ and their athletes were ‘serene’.

What is missing from these statements is a form of words that includes ‘outrage’ and ‘cheat’ and ‘sacked’ and ‘intolerable’.

What is missing from this verbal gruel is reassurance that Radio Shack and Nissan agree with the USADA that Bruyneel is guilty as sin and must be sacked, fired, stripped of his honours, tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Imagine how much positive press coverage Radio Shack and Nissan could have reaped with a form of words more like this:

The RadioShack-Nissan pro cycling team has fired its manager, Johan Bruyneel. We took this action after reading the 200-page summary report of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team. 

The report stated: “The overwhelming evidence in this case is that Johan Bruyneel was intimately involved in all significant details of the U.S. Postal team’s doping program.”  

Radio Shack and Nissan refuse to be associated with drugs and cheating. Anybody else in our organisation who is discovered to have been involved in drugs or cheating will be fired as fast as we fired Johan Bruyneel. 

We would hope that every other team in professional cycling, and every member of every official cycling body, agrees with us.

This makes a much stronger impression than the mushmouth original. It puts Radio Shack and Nissan out front.

Here’s Australian Matt White’s far better statement, qualified though it may be:

‘I am sad to say that I was part of a team where doping formed part of the team’s strategy, and I too was involved in that strategy. My involvement is something I am not proud of, and I sincerely apologise to my fans, media, family and friends who trusted me and also to other athletes in my era that consciously chose not to dope.’

White sets his tone in the first three words: ‘I am sad …’  In the second sentence he uses the form, I am not proud of …’ I believe ‘ashamed’ would have worked better for him in both places. 

Note that he never refers to actually cheating by injecting illegal dope. Instead he apologises for being ‘… part of a team …’ that had a strategy involving doping, and for being ‘… involved in that strategy.’

The form of words defuses the offensive noun, dope, by using its softer gerund form, doping. Then it shifts the reader’s focus away from doping to the neutral words strategy and team. ‘Cheating’, of course, is never mentioned at all.

Grammatically, White is not apologising for ‘cheating by taking drugs’. He is only apologising for ‘being a member of a team whose strategy included doping.’

Here’s a form of words that seems far more heartfelt and contrite:

Today I have resigned from my positions with the Orica-GreenEDGE team and Cycling Australia. When I was riding in the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams, I regularly took illegal drugs. We dominated the Tour de France, if not pro cycling as a whole, for years, but we did it by cheating. 

I am ashamed to have been a part of it. And I cannot let my shame reflect on team Orica-GreenEDGE, which is utterly clean, nor Cycling Australia, which rightly adopts a zero-tolerance approach to drug cheats. I only wish I had had the courage to confess before now.

Such a complete, and frankly worded, confession would have won him even more friends and supporters than he already has.

Thank you for reading. Check out my other tutorials in the archive at right. Order my book here: http://thecopymentor.com/

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Editing Tutorial No. 5 — Parallelism

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. Parallelism is covered in Sentence Diagrams – Tutorial No. 1 of 20 April and Editing HR Jargon of 7 March. If you’re not familiar with parallel structures, please read the other posts as well as this one.  

This tutorial also features the most maligned of English punctuation marks – the semicolon. I also press you – once again – to read your copy aloud when editing. So many times I’ve literally heard a problem that I didn’t see when reading silently. Have somebody else read your work back to you, if you can. Listen with your eyes closed.

For a change of pace, I’ll show you a headline and subhead this time. And it comes from the world of online journalism rather than from business. The site is Slate.com, one of the most intelligent of the USA commentary outfits. The example was posted by Matthew Yglesias on 14 May 2012:

Why Are Teen Moms Poor?                                                                              Surprising new research shows it’s not because they have babies. They have babies because they’re poor.

On a wild guess I’d say the writer wanted the subhead to be parallel. It’s so close, just not close enough.

This one is journalistic, but a head’s a head. You’ll be writing many for business documents. The same principles apply to both genres. The purpose of a head is to give the reader enough information to encourage her to read the body copy.

In this case I think the lead question gets in the way. The crucial fact of most heads is news, so I’d make the research the headline:

   Surprising new research:

Then I’d turn the original question into a statement. And I’d make that statement a parallel mirror-image of the second half of the subhead:

   Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies.                                                       They have babies because they’re poor.

A diagram of the two sentences shows the parallelism most dramatically. Remember that negative verbs are diagrammed as if they were positive statements. For clarity, I’ve written contractions out in full.

Now for the semicolon. Here’s the simple rule for using this elegant punctuator:

Use a semicolon INSTEAD of a comma-and-conjunction, to separate independent clauses in a single sentence.

I want to put the two sentences together as one. They are essentially a single thought, expressed as two, mirror-image clauses. And running them together WITHOUT a conjunction, emphasises the parallel structure.

But first, here’s how it would look – and sound (read it aloud) – WITH a conjunction. In this case, we’d use ‘but’, to highlight the fact that the second clause countermands the first:

Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies, but they have babies because they’re poor.

Now we’ll replace ‘but’ – and its comma – with the semicolon. See how much more elegant it looks. Hear how much better it sounds.

Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies;                                                       they have babies because they’re poor.

Now add the edited headline, and we have a grabber with highly tuned parallel structure:

Surprising new research:                                                                                                 Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies;                                                         they have babies because they’re poor.

The story is a good read, with some enlightened treatment of research and statistics. It’s a wake-up call for those who trust their instincts instead of the numbers. Here’s the URL:

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/05/teen_moms_how_poverty  _and_inequality_cause_teens_to_have_babies_not_the_other_way_around_.html

The video has all of this in living colour and stereo sound. You can buy my book at http://thecopymentor.com

Thanks again for visiting.

Posted in Editing, English, Grammar, Sentence Diagrams | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The missing element in your Corporate and Brand I.D. Manual

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. It’s about writing and editing to make your copy easier to read. Given the importance of brands, it’s worthwhile asking how your organisation’s writing style is affecting your brand.

I searched the term ‘Corporate I.D. manual’ and studied ten of them. Of the first five, only two mentioned writing.

The five manuals had a total of 171 pages, but only 1¾ pages referred to writing. Here are some of the lowlights:

http://www.borrett.id.au/downloads/protech_corporate_identity.pdf — Protech Australia supplied software in 1995. Their 14-page manual for that year offered a bit over half a page on ‘legibility’, but nothing on readability.

For instance, Protech prescribed line lengths of “…maximum 60 to 85 characters per line, and a minimum of 30 characters per line.” But they gave no guidance on words per sentence, which has a far greater impact on the reader.

http://www.witsa.org/news/newsletter_Q309/img/WITSA_CorporateIdentityManual v1.0_20091023_Final.pdf — WITSA is the international association of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry. The second sentence of their 37-page manual went like this:

We earn loyalty and respect when we effectively communicate and reinforce the WITSA brand.

What followed was 30-odd pages of clumsy, ungrammatical and jargon-laced prose. Mercifully, it attempted no instruction on writing and editing for clarity.

Regarding clarity, The Northern Ireland Policing Board (http://www.nipolicingboard.org.uk/nipb_corpguide_v4-2.pdf) offered this:

The Board’s stationery is intended to promote clarity through the use of simple layouts and clear typography. The font used throughout is Helvetica Neue.

As with almost all other corporate identity manuals, ‘clarity’ referred only to typography, never to language.

The most interesting site was a Paris design shop that specialises in developing corporate I.D. programs and manuals: (http://www.logoorange.com/corporate-identity-manual-brand-style-guide.php)

They listed five problems experienced by companies with no I.D. manual. One of them was this:

Inconsistent messages that result in poor sales.

Later on they listed six things a brand I.D. manual should include. Here’s number three:

3. Tone and use of words relating to the brand

Only two of the manuals were instructive about language. One was from Diebold, who make safes and ATMs. — www.diebold.com/brandmanual.pdf  — Diebold’s 48-page Corporate Identity and Brand Standards had one page on ‘Tone and Manner’. These four bullet points caught my eye:

– Be clean and crisp. Use elegant, simple but effective communication. Visually and verbally, less is more.

– Be conversational. The message should speak with people, not talk at them. Diebold is their partner, share our message with them.

– Be respectful and non-promotional. Engage the reader by speaking in a common language. No chest- beating or competitor-bashing. Avoid jargon.

– Be benefit-driven. How does this product or service enhance people’s lives? Talk about the benefit.

The other good one was from Tech Data, an international distributor of digital products. (http://www.techdata.com/content/visitor/abouttd/documents/big.pdf)

Their excellent manual lists six key aspects of ‘Brand Identity’. The first is ‘Message Tone and Voice’. Here’s how the section begins:

Three of our five senses are directly related to language. Defining language and voice infuses a brand with an emotional dimension, helps make it real and distinctive, and creates trust and credibility. A carefully developed brand voice:

* Shapes advertising and marketing communications

* Influences how people in the company speak to customers and each other

* Structures how presentations are framed and delivered

Then it gave four defining words for Tech Data’s corporate voice: ‘authentic, determined, confident, vibrant’. Each was expanded upon, like this:


Definition: Certain

Synonyms: assured, bold, brave, convinced, courageous, dauntless, expectant, expecting, fearless, intrepid, positive, secure, self-assured, self- reliant, self-sufficient, sure, trusting, unafraid, undaunted, upbeat, valiant

Antonyms: diffident, insecure, uncertain, unsure

But there was nothing in the way of instructions or specifications. Nothing to indicate how the writer should achieve this Tone and Voice. Contrast this with Tech Data’s instructions for reproducing their logo:

The minimum size for the logo with the tagline is 1.437” (36 mm). The Tech Data logo without the tagline should be no smaller than 1” (25.4 mm).

Tone and Voice are defined in loose, referential terms, but the size of the logo is specified to one one-thousandth of an inch.

And that’s the problem:

Colours can be specified as one of several thousand possibilities with PMS numbers. Online colour (24-bit Truecolor) can be specified as one of 16,777,216 tints. (Humans can discriminate 2 million to 10 million.)

The size and spacing of type can be specified to a single pixel. At 600dpi this is 0.042mm (0.00167”).

But all of the manuals that mention writing avoid naming a style guide or a minimum Flesch Reading Ease score. So let me offer this suggestion for your Corporate and Brand Identity Manual:

All text must be grammatically correct, correctly spelled and punctuated, according to the …  (fill in title of your preferred style manual). Spell Checker is not sufficient for Corporate and Brand Identity purposes. All text must be proofread by a competent person.

All text must be edited to a Flesch Reading Ease Score of 40 or more – AND a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of Less than 11. In meeting both of these criteria we ensure all text is easy for the vast majority of our audience to read and comprehend.

If you want to be persnickety, you can specify which Flesch calculator they must use. There’s one built into Microsoft® Word, or you can download this one for free: http://flesh.sourceforge.net/

I’m serious. If your outfit thinks it’s appropriate to specify colour tints to a precision of 1:16,777,216 and type sizes down to 0.042mm, then surely they are willing to specify readability using the widely-accepted Flesch scales.

How to edit to this standard is the subject of almost every other post on my blog. Thank you again for visiting.

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Sentence Diagrams — Tutorial No. 5

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. The current topic is sentence diagrams. If you’ve never done it, please start with “Diagramming Tutorial No. 1” and work your way through. Diagramming is the best way to learn grammar, so stick with it.

The sample sentence for this tutorial comes from a friend’s CV cover letter. It stars everybody’s favourite subject — ourselves. Or does it? Who or what is the grammatical subject of this sentence?

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

I highlight the subjects of sentences in blue:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

The verb is highlighted in red:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Draw your story line, and write the subject and verb either side of the dividing line.

Does the verb have an object? In other words, what was helped? That’s not such an easy question. The story is easy enough to understand; my friend helped corporations improve their profitability. But the object of has helped seems to be ‘(to) improve’.  I highlight objects in green.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped (to) improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Were did I get that ‘(to)’ in parentheses? It’s what I call a virtual word — also known as an ‘understood’ word. These are neither written nor spoken but are required to fill a slot in the grammatical structure. They are understood to be there, even when they are not there. Diagram virtual words in parentheses.

In this case (to) is required to make improve into an infinitive. You learned about infinitives in Diagramming Tutorial No. 2. They’re the basic form of all verbs, but they are used as other parts of speech. In this sentence the infinitive to improve is used as a noun.

Remember how to diagram objects: Draw a vertical line down to the story line, but not through it. Put the object to the right of that line. Here’s how your drawing should look:

Infinitives can take objects, just as prepositions do. In this case the object of the infinitive is profitability. Highlight objects in green. You’ll notice that we now have an object of an object.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped (to) improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Diagramming the object of an infinitive used as a noun is tricky. Putting it up on the line would confuse the diagram, because we have an object of an object.

The authorities want you to put the entire infinitive phrase on a little stand, but that’s too complicated as a picture. (Official method here — http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/diagrams2/diagrams_frames.htm)

I put the object below, on a dog-leg line. It looks just like a prepositional phrase, but without the preposition. Here’s the diagram:

That’s the story line completed. The story line gives you the bare, grammatical bones of a sentence. This one says, ‘record has helped (to) improve profitability’.

The next job is to identify modifiers of the story-line words. Modifiers answer questions we might ask about the words they modify.

For instance, we might ask ‘WHOSE record?’ – ‘My record’. Like all possessives, ‘My’ is a modifier. Then we might wonder ‘WHAT KIND of record?’ – ‘track record’. I highlight modifiers in orange.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Diagram modifiers on slanted lines below the words they modify:

Another answer to‘WHAT KIND of record?’ is the prepositional phrase – in services marketing. I highlight prepositions in generic purple. The objects are green – same as objects of verbs and infinitives. Modifiers, if any, are orange.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

You learned to diagram prepositional phrases in Tutorials 1 & 2. Put the preposition on a slanted line. Put its object on a horizontal line. Put the modifier on a slanted line below the object.

Here’s how your diagram should look:

What shall we do with the words in parentheses – (financial, telecommunications and IT)? You will be delighted to learn that even grammar geeks label this structure in Plain English. It is a parenthetical phrase. Parenthetical phrases give essentially repetitive information about the words to which they refer. You can remove them without upsetting the grammar, syntax or meaning of the sentence.

Parenthetical phrases should be placed immediately after the word to which they refer – in this case, services. But my friend placed it after marketing, which is slightly confusing. Ironically, this is yet more proof of the power of diagramming. When something is difficult to diagram, that’s a clue that it needs to be edited

I diagram parenthetical phrases by putting them in brackets, as though they were clauses. Brackets are graphically the same as parentheses.

As you did when diagramming clauses in Tutorials 2 & 4, run a dotted line from the point of one bracket to the word to which the phrase refers. It should look like this:

Incidentally, don’t get hung up on positioning things like parenthetical phrases. I put this one where it is to keep the diagram as large as possible within the column width of this blog template. When you’re drawing them by hand – on a BIG piece of paper, like A3 – put them in the most logical place, or wherever you have room.

For example, here’s a fragment of what would be a much larger diagram, showing the parenthetical phrase directly to the left of services.

Finally, identify any modifiers of the object of the infinitive, profitability. We might ask the question, ‘WHICH profitability?’ First answer: ‘THE profitability.’

The second answer to ‘WHICH profitability?’ is given by another prepositional phrase – of … corporations.

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Let’s diagram just that much:

Now take a deep breath, because it’s going to get messy. First, look at the two words, such … as. Technically they form a compound preposition or, even more arcanely, a phrasal preposition. And while I understand the reasons for these clumsy labels, I’m not convinced they’re necessary.

I think the argument for calling ‘such as’ a compound preposition starts with the assumption that the two words are placed together. So, is there any grammatical difference between these two phrases?

1. ‘… of such corporations as American Express…’

2. ‘… of corporations such as American Express…’

You can see that there is no difference. This leads me to label ‘such’ a modifier and ‘as’ a preposition. I highlight modifiers in orange, prepositions in generic purple, and objects in green:

My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT) has helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

So the diagram looks like this:

Now all that’s left is the infinitive phrase, to name a few. It seems to be commenting on the list of corporations, but it doesn’t really modify them in the sense of answering logical questions. In fact it’s another parenthetical phrase, but without the parentheses. Diagram it in brackets, like the other parenthetical phrase. And use a single bracket to indicate that it refers to all of the corporations listed.

Your finished diagram should look much like this:

Now you probably spotted the fundamental flaw in this sentence when you drew the basic story line diagram. It has the wrong subject. My friend’s record didn’t help those corporations’ profitability; she did.

So let’s fix that first, then look at the rest of the sentence. The new subject is I and the verb is helped.

I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

Now where do we put the left-overs: My track record in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT)? I would suggest an introductory phrase, like this:

Working in services marketing (financial, telecommunications and IT), I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM to name a few.

The participle, working, modifies the subject. The prepositional phrase modifies working. With the Stage 1 Fix, the sentence is diagrammed like this:


Now we can clean up the rest of it. Remember you learned to identify parenthetical phrases by removing them from the sentence to see if it was damaged? That’s your clue. With the commentary removed, we’re left with this:

Working in services marketing, I helped improve the profitability of such corporations as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM.

Here’s the diagram:


Note that both parenthetical phrases were redundant:

  1. ‘financial, telecommunications and IT’  — These merely gave the categories of the corporations actually listed. They added nothing.
  2. ‘to name a few’ –My friend was trying to indicate that she had also worked at other big-league outfits. But if they were truly in the same league, she would have listed them as well. The comment added nothing of value.

But this means we could also get rid of ‘such … as’, for the same reason.

And if we’re serious, we could do away with the entire introductory phrase. Other parts of the cover letter – not to mention her CV as well – made it clear that she worked in marketing. The corporations listed are all service marketers. Therefore the intro – ‘Working in services marketing’ – is not really necessary.

We’re left with a straightforward statement of competence and experience:

I helped improve profitability at American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, Telstra and IBM.

The diagram is now much cleaner:

Thank you for sticking with me on this.

Posted in Business, Editing, Grammar, Sentence Diagrams, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Occupational articles

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. This post is about something more common in journalism than in business. It’s worth discussing because it shows how grammar can be subverted for silly reasons.

A strange fashion has arisen that disturbs me more deeply than it should. This is the bizarre misuse of the definite article when writing someone’s occupation and name.

Here are examples of the correct way to identify people and their occupations. These are from the society-and-real-estate column, ‘Title Deeds’, in The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 April, 2012:

‘… designer Lisa Ho …’ 

‘… actor Holly Brisley …’ 

‘… entrepreneur Joe Coffey …’ 

‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

‘… Nick Whitlam, the chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation …’

‘The former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie (swimsuit) designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

This list is unremarkable because it presents occupations and names correctly. However, I’m sure you have read publications that would have done the first three like this —

‘… thedesigner Lisa Ho …’ 

‘… the actor Holly Brisley …’ 

‘… theentrepreneur Joe Coffey …’ 

— as if Ms. Ho were the only designer on earth, Ms. Brisley the only actor, and Mr. Coffey the only entrepreneur.

For example, here’s the next entry done both ways:

1. As published correctly — ‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

2. As too often misused — ‘… Gail Elliot, the fashion designer and former model …’ 

Grammar, Logic and Class Politics 

Articles are the smallest, simplest words in English. There are two types, definite and indefinite.

The definite article defines the nouns it precedes. It makes those nouns distinct from other nouns of the same category. The definite article is the.

The indefinite articles are so called because they do not distinguish their nouns from others of the same category. The indefinite articles are: a and an.

Grammar website http://www.usingenglish.com states that (a and an) are used before a singular noun that has a plural form.’

In the Gail Elliot case, ‘fashion designer’ does have a plural form, fashion designers. Therefore, the correct article is a, as was published in the Herald. To use the is not just ungrammatical; it is illogical.

However, note the difference when referring to Nick Whitlam and Jennifer Hawkins by their occupations and CVs:

‘… Nick Whitlam, the chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation …’

The Port Kembla Port Corporation has only one chairman. That particular noun can have no plural form, so the is the proper article.

Ms. Hawkins’ case is subtler:

The former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie (swimsuit) designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

The article effectively applies to all three of her titles or positions:

1. former Miss Universe

2. TV personality

3. swimwear designer

We are pretty safe in assuming that she is the only person to whom all three of these apply. Each noun has a plural form, but the combination is uniquely singular. So the is the correct article.

Grammaring (wonderful name) gives these examples of correct use of the definite article with titles and positions —

– Barthez has never been the goalkeeper of Crystal Palace FC.

The head of department allowed me to retake the exam.

The Queen will be opening a new music hall next month.

The Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church.


A soccer side has only one goalkeeper; a department has only one head; England has only one Queen; the Roman Catholic Church has only one Pope. Unless you can say the same about the person/position you are describing, don’t use the.

The first three entries in the Herald column have no article at all. This is called the zero article case. It’s the default setting for writing people’s occupations and names. For instance, I could very happily edit the last three entries in the Herald column to the zero article case, like this:

 ‘… fashion designer and former model Gail Elliot, …’ 

‘… chairman of Port Kembla Port Corporation Nick Whitlam, …’

‘Former Miss Universe, TV personality and cossie designer Jennifer Hawkins …’

Note in the first two that I changed the syntax — placing the descriptive phrases ahead of the names. This will usually mean that you need no article.

Now to politics and class. The worst offenders seem to be the progressive (‘left-wing’) media. Slate.com is one of my favourite sites, but they routinely publish goofball stuff like these:

‘… the critic Lee Siegel …’ 

which should be zero article —

‘… critic Lee Siegel …’ 


‘… wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” the poetry critic and Harvard professor.’

which should be indefinite article —

‘… wishes she “had been Helen Vendler,” a poetry critic and Harvard professor.’

as in the Herald column —

‘… Gail Elliot, a fashion designer and former model …’ 

Note that the occupations ennobled by rogue definitives are artistic and academic. This is another aspect of the craze. I’ve lost track of how many unknowns like the filmmaker John Smith or the author Ann Jones have interrupted my reading.It’s as if there were no longer such things as a filmmaker or an author.

But the (small-‘L’) liberal publications and websites never refer to the farmer Geoffrey Screed or the fish-and-chips shop owner Helen Franks. For instance, would Slate.com promote Gail Elliot tothe fashion designer and former model? Somehow, I doubt it.

This is the dark side of what would otherwise be just an annoying affectation of the literati, who by definition should know better. It’s more than political correctness run amok. The definite occupational article has a whiff of class consciousness about it.

By referring to their peers as THE whatever they happen to be, these writers imply that they’re somehow more worthy than those whose occupations merit only the indefinite a or an — or, even more anonymously, the null zone of the zero article.

I’m intensely curious about how this began and who started it. If you know, please comment. In the meantime, don’t do it. It’s not only bad grammar but also just plain silly.

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Business writing book now available

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. Almost all of the posts are based on topics and techniques covered in my book, Write Like You Mean Business. It is now available for order online. 

To order a copy for yourself — or several for your writers, as a wine company in the U.K. just did — please go to http://thecopymentor.com/.

The audience at our launch were Sydney marketing professionals and a few university lecturers and public education administrators. The response proved that there is a hesitant hunger out there for guidance on grammar in general, and on editing and re-writing in particular.

I say ‘hesitant’ because everybody realised that mastering the skill requires many months of hard study and practice followed by years of disciplined application. While the method does work, it works neither quickly nor easily. This puts it grotesquely out of fashion in the early 21st Century.

That’s what you get in this blog and — in greater detail — in the book. Old-fashioned, hard-core grammar and editing that makes no apologies and takes no prisoners. Thank you again for being brave enough to visit. I always try very hard to make it worth your while.

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