Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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New world, lost words

Where the heck did we leave all those words that our grandparents used to know?

This blog is full of encouragement for taking a new (less structured) approach to writing. I advocate language that acknowledges migration, technology, community and change, so long as it upholds the golden goose: good communication.

But what is the fallout from stepping into a ‘new world’ of English? I guess vocabulary would be the biggest loser. Yes, we are inventing new words all the time (and at an increasingly faster rate). But more words are disappearing from use, without us even noticing.

These words haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth: we still have them in the dictionary. But fewer people can spell them, pronounce them, define them or use them in a sentence.

When was the last time that you dropped ‘piscivorous’, ‘dipsomaniacal’ or ‘uxorious’ into a conversation? I admit, I had to look up two of these words.

But we are not only discarding our traditional vocab. We are tampering with it too.

We are happy to use words that do not have the exact meaning we intend, because we don’t know we’re wrong. We usually make this error with words that sound vaguely alike, or are somewhat connected to the same topic.

Below are some words that I’ve seen used in the wrong sense (the left words in the pairs). Based on the context, I’ve guessed what the writer really means (the words on the right). Do you know the proper meaning of each word in these pairs?

misanthrope, misogynist

perspicacious, perspicuous

specious, spurious

verbose, voluble

loquacious, garrulous

naysayer, iconoclast

taciturn, laconic

circumspect, retrospect

Unless you have a solid (and quite formal) English vocabulary, this test is tricky. You may be confident about some of the words, but unsure about others. I’ve popped all the definitions below, to help you.

But, first, think about the length and breadth of your vocabulary. You’re definitely taking on dinky new words (probably short and tech based). Are they taking up mental space that used to store words of more than one or two syllables? And does it matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The definitions

misanthrope (someone who hates or mistrusts humanity), misogynist (someone who hates or mistrusts women)

perspicacious (able to easily understand, of good insight), perspicuous (clearly expressed, easily understood)

specious (seemingly plausible but actually wrong), spurious (false or fake)

verbose (using more words than needed), voluble (talking fluently and readily)

loquacious (talkative), garrulous (excessively talkative, particularly about trivial matters)

naysayer (a person is expresses themselves pessimistically or negatively), iconoclast (a person who attacks beliefs, institutions, traditions etc. for being wrong or superstitious)

taciturn (reserved in speech, uncommunicative), laconic (in the style of using few words, spare in expression)

circumspect (wary, unwilling to take a risk), retrospect (in light of the past)

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ABC means Always Be Communicating? Really?

We are getting better at cramming longer messages into fewer words. First, the advertising industry boomed mid 19th century (a la Mad Men), and everyone got slogan happy and grab savvy.

Then television and journalism became allies, and we had a new generation of broadcasters and newspaper men and women adept at the 30 second grab and the killer headline.

At the same time, marketing and human resources became dominant in the business world. And they too focused on how the written word could solve problems, sell stuff and persuade people.

Now, mobile devices are the apparent cherry on top. They have prompted a whole new way of writing — a way that takes the writing trends of the past 50 years, along with our opinionated spitballing, and funnels it all into pop-up nuggets of simple text.

We now even write in code, such as IRL (in real life) and ISO (in search of).

Texting, social sites, user driven news … we love writing and reading this stuff. We can do it on the run, and then we comment/reply while hanging out the washing, watching a footy game, walking the dog or even doing our paid work.

For writers, producing online text is not so much a case of write it right, but write it ‘lite’. Our text needs to be like a drive-through coffee vendor: the reader pulls up, collects our ‘message’ and heads off. It’s a 10 second transaction.

But, as we crunch our message into ever smaller take-away containers, we sometimes make it ambiguous or untruthful. Ever read a news headline that has nothing to do with the actual story? Or misinterpreted a colleague’s dashed off email? Or clicked on a web link that doesn’t relate to the content that you expected?

Check out these examples:


Sensationalism: George Bush is accused of ignoring a memo that warned of impending terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.


Poor word choice: Bus passengers need seatbelts, not a beating.


Grammar problem: More correctly, ‘Two Soviet ship collide, one person dies’.


Misuse of data: More correctly, ‘One in four seeking erectile dysfunction treatment is younger than 40′.

I may definitely need your help. (email)

Conflicting message: The ‘maybe/definitely’ combination requires the reader to follow up to clarify.

We need to take on more complex projects. (email)

Ambiguity: Does the writer mean more projects that are complex, or projects that are more complex?

In these cases, the sharp ABC (always be communicating) has become the decidedly uncool NRC (not really communicating).

So, as we increasingly streamline our messages, the real question is whether we’re talking straight, and representing our stories and ourselves honestly, or whether we’re spreading scandal, misdirection or mistruth.

My bottom line? When you’re keeping it short, keep it real.

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Talk about yourself, differently

One of our trickiest writing tasks is writing about ourselves. We don’t want to sound arrogant or pushy. And we usually don’t want to sound off the wall. But not boring either! No, we just want to sound like a great person to know and have on board.

Whether you’re describing yourself in a CV, or in a bio for a tender, conference or company website, you need to craft your ‘persona’. That is, you need to box yourself as a neat package tied with a bow (and by ‘bow’ I mean a cool fact that your reader can mentally file away about you).

Try these three tips.

1. Be engaging but truthful. Don’t cast around words like ‘expert’ and ‘whiz’ and ‘experienced’ unless they do actually apply to you. Instead, make your education journey part of your appeal:

I am learning to use Nuance Dragon Magic, and I love it! I now use this speech recognition program to prepare first drafts of all my writing.

2. Keep it real, paint a picture. Don’t say you’re an ‘avid reader’ or you ‘love travel’. Instead, create an image of you in action:

I have a tower of novels on my bedside table. As I knock off one, I buy another one to replace it. Always surrounded by new books!

I have been around most of Australia, but I also love exploring other countries. For me, the ‘travel’ starts when I get there: new food, new people, new music, even new transport. (I once travelled to an Irish pub by tractor.

3. Be fresh. Don’t use the same old phrases. Filling out an application for a student leadership role, my daughter had to address the criteria of being ‘confident’, ‘flexible’ and ‘passionate’. Blah, blah, blah. I suggested she skip the descriptors and instead talk about situations that implied those characteristics. Look at these examples that I helped a young friend prepare:

I volunteered at a nursing home last year. I learnt how to hold a conversation with dementia patients, how to follow instructions to the letter, and how to deal with days that have both highs (a banjo playing bingo caller) and lows (a grieving relative). (Implies someone who has empathy, and who is patient and adaptable)

I play the violin in the school choir. It is often hard, but the other students are inspiring, and the music can lift me out of an ordinary day. (Implies someone who keeps trying, and who draws energy from creative pursuits and from colleagues)

These last two examples contain a simple fact (the volunteering and violin playing) followed by a statement that nails down something about the person’s manner/style/growth.

You’ll find plenty of other material out there to help you choose good words for your bio, so get started on the best text version of yourself!

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You honestly shouldn’t

In an online video about words that we overuse, three words resonated with me: honestly, literally, absolutely. I used to fling around these words every day, without a second thought. Then my children reflected them back to me, with some clanger comments:

‘Seriously mum?’

‘If I’m being honest, I don’t like this dinner’

‘I have absolutely no idea what you mean mum’.

And I ground my teeth at the tone.

Turns out I like saying these words but not hearing them. And my kids feel the same. Those innocuous sentence fillers that were a daily part of my speech are inappropriate, not just because they are overused but because they patronise the listener. Not good communication.

We don’t often use these three words in our work writing. But we do use them in other workplace dialogue – presentations, meetings, speeches. Just as I encourage you to use fresh language in your writing, let’s aim to knock these oldies (but not goodies) out of our speech.

Often the best approach is to drop such descriptors all together. But sometimes we want a bit of emphasis. In this case, try replacing your go-to adverb with language that better helps achieve your communication goal. A question or an instruction may be your best approach:

Turn ‘I am seriously trying to make a point here’ into ‘Do you understand my point? Do you have any questions?’ (Goal = knowing whether people understand you)

Turn ‘I honestly don’t know where this project is heading’ into ‘Do we know where this project is heading? What can we expect?’ (Goal = getting people’s help to predict an outcome)

Turn ‘This approach is absolutely our best option’ into ‘Let’s take this approach. I recommend it as our best option’ (Goal = getting people to choose a particular approach)

Yep, say it straight. Tell people what you think and what you want them to think or do. And leave out those three words that probably just annoy people.

By the way, while we’re purging words, let’s do away with frankly, genuinely, positively, in point of fact, truly, really, actually

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Where are your manners?

I’ve decided Twitter and other social media are a form of verbal warfare. The current worldwide campaign against online sexual violence agrees: people are not prepared to tolerate the vile online abuse hurled at women.

While we enjoy online text that is informative, inspiring, funny, witty and even trivial, we are learning how it can also be aggressive and criminal.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for a stop to online battles. All forms of text have been used for debate and argument, and I expect that. The written word has always been the mouthpiece of opinion—writing can be deliberate, thought-out, crafted. So it is ideal for planting the flag on an idea.

But we need some manners. We need boundaries for our writing, rather than the open slather that dominates now.

And these boundaries are needed for workplace writing too. So, what are the modern manners of a polite writer? I think we can probably start with the following 7 rules of etiquette:

1. Easily the most important rule: don’t be rude, offensive or untruthful. Ever.

You may write about hard truths, or your disappointment, resentment or anger. But stick to the facts (and maybe your feelings). Don’t slay anyone.

2. Don’t act like a 10 year old girl.

Don’t use kisses and emojis to make friends or soften a hard message. You are a grown person at work, and you should act like one.

3. Don’t text or email sad or serious news.

People deserve to hear upsetting news from you in person or by phone.

But a company can bend this rule in some situations. For a product recall, for example, a company may send letters to alert consumers, but they may also start a Twitter campaign. In this case, circulating the warning far and wide, and quickly, is more important than being polite.

4. Get back to people (or at least say when you’ll be free to chat)

Too often I send work emails or leave work voicemails that I may as well send to space: zip response! I politely follow up, and sometimes I’m ignored again. I understand time pressures and all that jazz. But I also know typing ‘Got it’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ takes 10 seconds.

So please acknowledge people trying to communicate with you (and do it quickly, to show you recognise they are busy too).

5. Stop writing and start talking face to face.

People complain about the tone of messages in their email battles. Whoa! Email is not a weapon. If you have an issue, walk up to the person and bravely discuss it. Or, if you’re not in the same space, arrange a convenient video/call time.

6. Spell check and proofread.

Do you spell check every piece of your writing? It takes 5 minutes, but it’s worth brownie points with your reader. Typos make you look lazy, and your writing look hasty.

Better to run a quick spelling/grammar check. And even better to invest in some proper proofreading, which makes you look truly professional.

7. Don’t write when you’re meant to be listening.

Texting, replying to emails, updating your Facebook page, posting a tweet … but what are you NOT doing during all this writing? Put down your device and listen up. Who’s trying to talk to you? Your colleague, client, manager, supplier, lawyer?

These 7 rules for work writing are not hard. And they definitely keep us more conscious of our ‘rudeness footprint’.

For more about writing manners, check out the thoughts of business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore in The Wall Street Journal last year.

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That’s a strange way to say it, but I know what you mean

I moved to Singapore from Australia in late 2014 (one reason for the rather long gap in my blog posts, sorry!). And language has been one of the biggest changes. With just our English and a smattering of French, my family is the minority here. Singapore has four official languages, and then all the expat workers and visitors speak their home language. Just in my building, the residents speak German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, multiple Chinese languages, Arabic and Swedish. Oh, and English (with Aussie, English and American tweaks).

English is everywhere in Singapore, but only as a tool, not as a socio-cultural construct. In other words, when people in a conversation here speak different languages, they can usually get by if they revert to English. Most people seem to know enough English to make themselves understood, and to understand what someone else is trying to say. Which makes English a bit of a default position when people are struggling to communicate.

So, from thinking about English in terms of expression and technique, I have come to this multilingual country where English has no pure form. Ironically, one of the Singapore Government buildings displays banners that promote correct spelling and define parts of speech—a visible effort to be ‘correct’. But every day I see and hear English being used just to understand and be understood. People don’t uphold the English language here; they hang onto it as a desperate last attempt to communicate. And they entwine it with the words and syntax of their home languages.

What results is the relief that two people feel when they conquer a language barrier and actually communicate. I feel that relief every day when I talk to people in my community, whether they be my Italian neighbours, a Singaporean taxi driver or my children’s Malaysian school bus driver. Believe me, I twist and turn my English into whatever it takes for me to make sense to the other person. And they do the same to talk to me.

So why, in Australia, are we so caught up with making our ESL workers conform to our ‘right’ English? I have a new baseline: so long as what someone says makes sense, the English can be unorthodox. So long as the message is true and clear, the English can sound ‘not right’.

Next time you hesitate about the ESL writing of a colleague or someone you manage at work, first ask yourself whether you easily get what they’re saying. If you do, then think about whether there is benefit from giving feedback on their English. Would it actually help? And definitely check whether the person wants to know more about English before you wade in with a tutorial. As I’ve learned, all we know about English only has value in some places and on some occasions. Elsewhere, and at other times, English is just a last resort.

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Who cares about phrasal verbs?

Not you? You don’t even know what they are? Join the club! Most people could care less about verbs (the action words), let alone complicated ones. But, if you don’t have a basic idea of phrasal verbs, then they can really mess up how your reader understands you.

A phrasal verb is simply a verb plus a particle (which is usually a preposition and sometimes an adverb—please see my 5 minute grammar sheets). So, in addition to using the verb ‘to run’, you may say ‘to run on’ or ‘to run over’, with completely different meanings:

I will run all day.

The words will run onto the next page.

The concert will run over time.

From these examples, you may think phrasal verbs are easy: you understand the three different sentences above, and you correctly use the two phrase verbs (‘run onto’ and ‘run over’) without even thinking. But are they so easy for writers with English as a second language? And do you always know where in the sentence to put the preposition after the verb?

To both questions, the answer is no. ESL writers find phrasal verbs difficult to use because we pick up the difference between ‘pick’ (meaning ‘choose’), ‘pick at’ (meaning ‘gradually consume’ or ‘continue to jab at’), ‘pick on’ (meaning ‘annoy/bully’) and ‘pick up’ (meaning ‘move something upwards), for example, from increasing practice with the English language. The language has hundreds of phrasal verbs. We learn them only from hearing and reading them repetitively, and then knowing how to use them in context.

The other problem is that we understand phrasal verbs only when we know where to put the preposition. Let’s check out the four types of phrasal verb, and where the preposition (bold in the examples below) should sit in each type:

  1. When the phrasal verb isn’t acting on anything (that is, it has no object) AND the preposition must immediately follow the verb

These are called intransitive phrasal verbs—for example:

My grandfather recently passed away. (died)
The truck broke down on the highway. (malfunctioned)
The girls broke down with emotion. (cried)
What time did she get up today? (arise)

2. When the preposition must immediately follow the verb AND an object follows the preposition

These are called nonseparable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

You should look into the reasons for his behaviour. (investigate)
He came across the missing folder in the drawer. (discovered)
My friends dropped by my house on the weekend. (visited)
The lodging puts up travelers from all places. (accommodates)

3. When the phrasal verb must have an object AND the preposition can follow the verb or the object

These are called optionally separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

The school will call off the swim carnival due to the weather. (cancel)
The school will call the swim carnival off due to the weather.

Please hand out this card to people you meet. (distribute)
Please hand this card out to people you meet.

My teacher always mixes up the students. (confuse)
My teacher always mixes the students up.

4. When the object is a pronoun (when the order has to be verb, pronoun, preposition), rather than a noun (when the order has to be verb, preposition, noun)

These are called obligatorily separable transitive phrasal verbs—for example:

Can you add up the prices? (total)
Can you add the prices up?
Can you add them up?
* Can you add up them? (incorrect)

That woman shouted down the rude man. (yelled at)
That woman shouted the rude man down.
That woman shouted him down.
* That woman shouted down him. (incorrect)

The upshot? Most phrasal verbs are an action phrase of two or three words. They can be challenging for English learners because sometimes they have a literal meaning (such as ‘stand up’) and sometimes they have a figurative meaning (such as ‘give into’).

If you are an ESL writer, or you have a work team with ESL writers, take charge of this area of English. First, prepare a list of phrasal verbs that often pop up (there’s one!) in your workplace writing. Start with 10 to learn, then another 10, and so on.

And use the English speakers around you. It’s simply a matter of saying ‘Does this sound right to you?’. If the person corrects your phrase, then add the correction to your learning list.

Right, time to turn off my laptop, top up my coffee and run over my to-do list. (Did you spot the three phrasal verbs?)