language & style

Fact-checking and ‘fake news’ land on the same page

Like millions of viewers, I tune in nightly to watch The Daily Show. Its edited segments let ‘authorities’ state the facts–as believed. Yes, the show provides a humorous bias on current events, but it rarely needs to regret an error in fact. Thank you, research team!

Old Farmer's Almanac

Fact-checking takes nothing for granted. Some questions researchers ask are:

  • Is the issue covered in all aspects?
  • Is the report current?
  • Is it sponsored?
  • Is the authority an author? An actor?
  • Who has editorial control?

In the age of digital media, I wonder whether it’s more important to not get sued than to get it right.

authors & audience design & typography language & style

Drawn to War and Peace

I finished the 2167-page eBook version in about 100 days. About half the number of days it took Napoleon to advance toward and retreat from Moscow. I thought of the rich layers of data presented in the multi-flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

While the Minard map uses geography and temperature as part of the visualization, Tolstoy uses descriptive details and analogy to bring the struggle to life. “The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.” (p1456) Here are some favourite quotes that add another layer of data to the map.

On filling a role, “Our fire is mowing them down by the rows, but they hold on.” said the adjutant. “They want more! Let them have it!” said Napoleon. “And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhumane role predestined for him.” (p1455)

On preparing to die. “What are you saying about the militia?” “Preparing for tomorrow, your Serene Highness—for death—they have put on clean shirts.” (p1366)

On describing vacated Moscow, “It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.” (p1557) Paragraphs go on about what happens in a disfunctional hive. It’s so vivid, you could substitute names of soldiers and generals for each bee carcass.

On losing nine-tenths of his men, “Ney, who came last, have been busying himself blowing up the walls of Smolensk which were in nobody’s way, because despite the unfortunate plight of the French or because of it, they wished to punish the floor against which they had hurt themselves.” (p1896)

On cutting off invaders, “One can cut off a slice of bread, but not an army.” In December as the French retreated, the Russian army “acted like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (p1903-5)

On reoccupation, “Besides the plunderers, very various people, some drawn by curiosity, some by official duties, some by self-interest—house owners, clergy, officials of all kinds, tradesmen, artisans, and peasants—streamed into Moscow as blood flows to the heart.” (p1970)

language & style

Mind the cap

Subway riders “Mind the gap”. Word lovers mind the cap, consistently. It’s just that capitalization rules can vary by the style guide. We know the rules for proper nouns and proper names but not so much for eponyms, acronyms and initialisms. Here’s how various references cite capital letters.

  • 16th century
  • baby boomer
  • Bible, Torah, Qur’an
  • braille, often capitalized
  • Cesarean section
  • Cajun music
  • diesel engine
  • dumpster
  • eBay
  • Generation X
  • Grammy Award
  • Gypsy
  • iPod
  • k. d. lang, except when the first word in a sentence
  • medieval period
  • middle aged
  • Middle Ages
  • n/a – not applicable
  • Na – chemical symbol
  • Old Man Winter
  • Olympian
  • Petri dish
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Platonic solids
  • Q&A
  • single malt Scotch
  • T-shirt
  • the Sixties
  • the West Coast
  • thermos
  • x-coordinate
authors & audience grammar & speech language & style

Language support serves meaning first

We used an immigration lawyer to start the paperwork six months before we arrived. Worried whether Canada would let us land the lawyer calmed us by saying something like “… you can speak the language.” It was a moment of introspection.

Seeing how many people face communication barriers, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada publishes an Interpreter Handbook. The code of conduct advises practitioners to take all reasonable care to accurately interpret or translate what is stated in the source language, having regard to meaning first and then to style.

Persons performing oral or written translation must express exactly what has been said. No paraphrasing, no embellishment, no omission, no explanation, no opinion.

If a speaker says he was “struck” an appropriate equivalent term would be “hit”– but not “assaulted”. If a speaker says “I will appeal…”, the interpreter repeats “I will appeal …”, not “my client will appeal..” and not “she will appeal …”. Getting the meaning right takes care, skill and diligence.

book types & parts language & style

An addendum or two

This topic raises a question about common usage.

In my world, an addendum, like an appendix, is a supplement to a book. Publications may conclude with several of these add-ons but not usually in combination. So what is acceptable usage when a book contains more than one addendum or appendix – Addenda? Appendices?

Conversationally, this sounds pretentious if not passé. It took a short twenty years for appendixes to become the preferred term. Updating the style guide neither hastens a term’s use nor demise.

I turn to Merriam-Webster for guidance. The dictionary recognizes the use of addendums but keeps silent on whether that form is correct. says addendums is an acceptable plural.

These days when I hear appendices and especially indices the words ring like nails on a blackboard. (Does anyone even know what a blackboard is?) Addendums will become generally accepted no doubt. A living language gets tweaked every day.

grammar & speech language & style

Look who’s talking

Want to compose your documents by voice instead of by keystrokes?

Mom probably never thought that her advice to ‘think before you speak’ applied to technical speaking, but today, that’s all you really need to do to use dictation software.

Current systems are so reliable that even a child’s voice can serve as a suitable input. Not that you’d want baby Kaylie dictating court proceedings, but it’s technologically possible. If you were going to choose Kaylie’s voice, the setup might look something like this:

"Please select a dictator"
Benevolent types only

Fortunately, two decades of steady improvements have untethered the technical speaker from desktops in quiet rooms. You could say that technical speaking is as easy as chattering on a cel phone – if you know exactly what you’re about to say.

language & style

Welcome World

Typically before a hockey game you’ll see transit buses destined for “Go Canucks Go”. In the run up to the 2010 Winter Olympics buses changed the route to “Welcome World”.

'Go Canucks Go' route in Vancouver
alternate route

Canada did a pretty good job getting the word out worldwide. With Olympic-size crowds to be welcomed, businesses and schools flexed their hours and some locals left town.

The blue and green, sea and sky motif is the theme of Vancouver 2010. The signage is as familiar as an umbrella – just totally unexpected a half a world away.

But there at the Canadian Embassy in Hanoi was the familiar signage, welcoming visitors like me.

Stop the bus!

Vancouver 2010 signage - Canadian Embassy - Hanoi
Vancouver 2010 signage in Asia
grammar & speech language & style

Another day, another money

That was the translation offered by an Asian gentleman as I paid for a bus pass. I had to know if the same symbol represented both money and dollars.

Another day, another money
Another day, another money

They appeared to be different enough but conceptually the idiom worked. Learning the global language of money one idiom at a time. Next up:

  • sixty-four-thousand-dollar question
  • phony as a three-dollar bill
  • day late and a dollar short
  • bet dollars to donuts
book types & parts language & style

Comma me this

Hearing that educated women have fewer healthier children seems questionable sure, but the reporter understood the subject’s context. This Q&A is from an article in Rotman Magazine, an interview with economist, Michael Spence.
Q Why is it so important for developing countries to focus on educating young girls and integrating them into the labour force as a way to break intergenerational cycles of poverty:
A Educated women have fewer, healthier children; they have them later in life…

The comma means ‘and’; fewer and healthier children, no question.

Report style v Q&A style

The Global Health Council addresses the same subject in a report on Girls’ Education: A Self-Sustaining Investment in Children’s and Women’s Health.

Educated girls:

  • Delay marriage and first pregnancy
  • Have fewer low-birthweight babies and healthier newborns
  • Have smaller families

Same issue. Different presentation style. Know the context. Say it right.

authors & audience grammar & speech language & style

“Land In South Carolina”

The junk mail subject piqued my interest but not to own a swamp or make a pit stop. No, I wanted to know if “land” was on the approved verb list.

According to the authors of simplified technical English it’s not.

The Simplified Technical English standard is used by those who prepare maintenance documentation for the North American and European aerospace industry. A method of writing using controlled language aims to prevent misinterpretation. This is accomplished by limiting general word use to fewer than 1000 and adopting around 200 approved verbs.

stop, start, get, make – approved verbs
begin, end, land, manufacture – not approved

A dictionary plus set of writing rules and training are things that help writers cope.