Thursday, October 1, 2009

Use Characters as Subjects!

Readers like to know, as soon as possible, whom or what a sentence is about. Hence, readers like to find the subject (and verb) quickly. If you write a sentence whose subject is an abstraction, your reader will struggle to understand your meaning. For instance, examine this sentence:

Avi’s hope was for the peaceful preservation of the client relationship, but the client’s attack on Avi’s colleague made a confrontation an inevitability.

In the italicized sentence above, the word “hope” serves as the subject of the first clause. It is followed by its verb “was”, as well as two words that seem like verbs, “preservation” and “relationship”. You would not consider the word “hope” a “character”. It is more of an abstract concept. When you use these kinds of words, you cause readers to do a double take while their minds translate the sentence, perhaps as follows, “Avi hoped to preserve the client relationship….” This, of course, wastes the reader’s time.

The latter half of the sentence suffers from the same poor craft. The word “attack” serves as the sentence’s subject whereas it should rightly serve as its verb. If it does serve as the verb, then the word “client” (a character) better serves as the subject of the latter clause.

The sentence, then, is better written as: Avi hoped to preserve the client relationship, but the client attacked Avi’s colleague and this caused them to confront each other. (You may have an even better translation.)

The sentences below lack clarity, as well, because they lack a character as a subject:

There were predictions by his staff that the team leader would receive quick executive approval.

Attempts were made on the part of the CEO’s aides to assert his innocence regarding the scandal that had overtaken the company.

The client’s analysis of our data omits any citation of sources that would provide support for his criticism of our argument.

You will now see quickly, perhaps, that each of these sentences can be improved by creating characters as subjects (and using action verbs as verbs and not nouns):

His staff (character) predicted (action verb) that the executives would approve the team leader.

The CEO’s aides (characters) attempted (action verb) to assert his innocence in the scandal.

The client (character) analyzed (action verb) our data but did not cite sources to explain why he criticized our argument.

You will write stronger sentences when you use characters as subjects and action verbs as verbs. You are well advised, then, to review the first few words of all the sentences you write to look for characters as subjects and action verbs. Your readers will thank you!

Avoid the Subjunctive!

“We could do this.”
“We might have it ready on time.”
“Maybe we should contact the client.”

Those aren’t very inspiring words, are they? They don’t overwhelm you with confidence. If you were the client, would you want to hear that kind of talk? Probably not!

Those italicized sentences were written in the subjunctive mood (or mode). What does that mean? Well, all verbs have properties called tense, number, person, voice, and mood. When you use verbs, you must use the right tense (time). You must also make the verbs and the subjects agree in number (singular or plural) and in person (first, second or third person). And, you are well advised to prefer active voice verbs over passive voice verbs. Lastly, you must choose a mood.

This paper asks you to choose the indicative and imperative moods (or modes) over the subjunctive mood, especially in business writing. But, what are these moods?

Indicative mood makes a statement or asks a question. “We will deliver the report to the client next Friday”. Or,” Can we deliver the report by next Friday?” Imperative mood makes a command, a request or a suggestion. “Deliver the report by next Friday.” Or, “Please deliver the report by next Friday.” Or, “We will serve the client best when we deliver the report by next Friday.”

Indicative and imperative mood suggest confidence, and when coupled with active voice, as opposed to passive voice, the indicative and imperative moods create direct and clear language. For example, compare these two sentences:

1) “Forward this report to the client by this Friday.” (Imperative mood and active voice)

2)” It would be appreciated if you would forward this report to the client by Friday.” (Subjunctive mood and passive voice)

The latter sentence suggests indecision. We do not serve our clients well when we are indecisive in our business dealings. Therefore, avoid the subjunctive mood in your business writing. Avoid subjunctive mood by avoiding these helping verbs: should, would, could, and might. Instead, prefer will and must. For example, don’t write, “We should complete this report on time.” Instead, write, “We must (or will) complete this report on time.”

Our clients hire us to deliver business solutions. They want to feel confident in us at all times. While we recognize that many people, especially those from Asia, are predisposed to use could, would and should as terms of deference and politeness, we ask that you use subjunctive verbs sparingly and, instead, prefer indicative and imperative mood in your writing. We need not be arrogant or aggressive in our client relations. Quite the opposite, we must be assertive and respectful, and we can do that while we use the indicative and imperative moods.

Avoid Sexist Writing

Prejudice, of one person or group of people over another, affects both men and women. However, sexism as a form of prejudice has unfortunately been used to discriminate more against women than men. This problem has historical and political roots. For years women were kept out of certain occupations and roles. Today, however, we find women in the police force, the postal service and the infantry, among other previously male-dominated professions. For this reason, we need to use a vocabulary that reflects the important role women play in society.

Over the years our language has, unfortunately, relied on words such as these: policeman, infantryman, chairman, postman, fisherman and the like. People who use these terms are considered not just sexist but unfair, insensitive, uninformed and archaic. In addition, when we use these terms we subject ourselves to the attending legal implications. Obviously, we are best served to understand how words like these show prejudice against others and to avoid using them.

Consider the following list and ask yourself if the words are sexist: Mankind, Modern Man, Brotherhood of Man, Forefathers, Housewife, Poetess, Old Maid, and Working Man. It doesn’t require much thinking to know that these words reveal sexist thinking. Sometimes, however, sexist references are more subtle. Look at these sentences:

Each man should be sure that his secretary does her work well.
He studies to be a male nurse.
Last week the city fathers voted to close saloons on Sunday.
Our Constitution tells us that all men are created equal.
God has promised his people a place in Heaven.

Much sexist writing is subtle. An “aggressive man” is not typically considered a negative comment; however, the term “aggressive woman” is often pejorative. Imagine a scenario where a visitor to an architectural firm tells the woman he first meets that he wants to speak to an architect. Keep in mind that not all secretaries (or nurses) are women. Indeed, if you are sensitive to this issue, you will easily be able to answer this riddle: How could the baseball game have had a score of 5-3 when not a man reached first base the entire game?

When we write, we must be prepared to understand how to use pronouns, word endings, nouns, titles, salutations, signatures, modifiers, and names. When using pronouns, you may use “he or she” and “him or her” sparingly. You may change words from singular to plural to avoid sexism (“An individual may check HIS credit records” becomes “Individuals may check THEIR credit records”.) You may repeat nouns (The driver must maintain a safe speed. He must also…” becomes “The driver must maintain a safe speed. The driver must also….”) The writer may use “you” when appropriate (“A client must check with his account manager” becomes “As a client, you are responsible to check with your account manager”.) You may also alternate the use of he and she when writing a long passage.

Word endings such as –ess and ette create other problems. Other than waitress, actress and hostess, you may omit these endings from most words. For nouns, use person instead of man, as in salesperson. For titles, avoid Mrs. and Miss; use Ms instead. These constitute just some of the forms you can use to be certain that you are not using language that demeans or discriminates. To make sure that you are not using sexist language, look for further instruction in this subject.

Master the Article!

Writers of English as a Second Language (ESL) have the worst time with articles. These pesky little words include “a”, “an” and “the”. Native speakers have seen and used them so many times that we have no problems with articles; but, these three simple words bedevil non-native writers. So, let’s take a look at articles and their usage.

We call “a” and “an” indefinite articles; that is, they don’t usually point to a specific thing that follows them. We say “an apple”, not referring to a specific apple, such as, “I want THE apple with the worm hole.”

Also, we do not use “a” or “an” with non-count nouns. Obviously, the non-count nouns refer to something that can not be counted, such as news, snow, knowledge and courage (the list is very long). You might say, “Vijay asked Raj for news of the merger.” You would not say, “…’a’ news of the merger or ‘an’ news (although in a different context you could say ‘the’ news)”.

We can use “the” with most nouns, especially if we already know the noun. We might say, “A project for ABC Company is coming our way. The project will keep us busy for months.”

As you saw in the previous sentence, the noun “project” was already mentioned and that signals that you may use “the” before the next use of the word “project,” as you are referring to something you already know.

Sometimes certain words signal an occasion to use “the”. These words include superlatives such as “most” and “best”. In that case you will use the word “the” before a noun, as in the following example “That was the best seminar I have ever attended.” Or, “He has the most e-mail of anyone I have ever known.”

However, you need not use “the” with singular proper nouns. For example, you need not say, “I attended the Carnegie Mellon University (unless you intended to emphasize). However, you will use “the” with plural proper nouns, such as, “I attended Carnegie Mellon University in the United States.”

Lastly, do not use “the” with plural nouns when they mean “all” or “in general”, such as “Clients are wonderful people.” Here you mean that all clients are wonderful people or clients are wonderful people in general.

When you are uncertain about whether or not to use an article, read your writing aloud. If it sounds bad, then it is probably misused.

Use Action Verbs to Charge Your Writing

All writing tells a story! And, stories are driven by action. The villain chased the hero. The hero rescued the fair client. The hero won the contract! For this reason, good writing, especially business writing, prefers action verbs!

We can define action verbs by what they are not! They are not being verbs. The being verbs include: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been (or various versions of those forms, such as has been, will be, and is being, among others). When you write for business, when you write to move a reader to action and outcome, avoid those verbs.

Instead, let us prefer, and use, action verbs! Rather than restrict our writing, action verbs free us to use the hundreds of startling and moving words in the English language. We can accomplish a task, satisfy a client, motivate our team, frighten the competition, and change the world!

Yes, we want to use action verbs in our writing, and we must be careful not to turn those beautiful actions into vague and empty ideas. We don’t want to weaken our verbs so that they become the accomplishment of our task, the satisfaction of our customers, the motivation of our team, or the fright of our clients. When we weaken our action verbs by turning them into nouns (nominals), we sap them of their great strength and vitality. We suck the life from them. We, then, write like bureaucrats.

As you think of action verbs and writing, let the newspapers guide you. Newspapers sell stories to their readers, and, in so doing, they use plenty of action verbs, especially in their headlines: Computer technician hits the lottery, DOW gains 500 points, Cognizant wins major contract.

So, the next time you must write an e-mail, a letter, a memo, or a report, tell a story and tell it with action verbs. Then, edit your writing; use characters as subjects and action verbs. Your readers will thank you because they will understand what you are trying to tell them – on the first reading! If they understand your message on the first reading and act on your instructions, you will have saved time and money. You will succeed in your mission. And you employer will reward you!