Preserving clarity in a bullet-point age
Author: Ray Blake
Ray is Head of Software Design at GR Business Process Solutions, a UK-based business which provides specialist services around knowledge testing and skills assessments. He develops and sells Excel, Access and Visual Basic applications, both as off-the-shelf products and as custom jobs to meet specific client needs.
The website he maintains for his company GR Business Process Solutions contains a range of articles of interest to Office developers, and a page of RAQs (Rarely Asked Questions) on Excel and Access.
With three sons all under the age of 6, he gets little time for interests of his own, but seems to get dragged into each of theirs. Consequently, he has built up an impressive knowledge of young persons literature, mostly surrounding the adventures of rodents and other small mammals. Although not proud of the fact, he can also name each of the Wild Force Power Rangers. Repairing toys and replacing batteries are activities he has learned to undertake in his sleep.
|Wont||Will not (not wo not for some reason!)|
Not unrelated to the apostrophe problem, my next point is what I call the substitution of similars. There are words which are spelled differently and have different meanings and yet which are often confused for each other or used interchangeably. We ve already met such a pair of similars in its and its. There are some others which involve apostrophes, too, as well see in a moment.
The substitution of similars is a problem particularly in the bullet-point construction, because the wider context in general which might give us more clues as to meaning is pared down to a minimum in bullet-points. Each word needs to pull its weight and misuse of similars can render a bullet-point incomprehensible. Its also easier for one mistake in a 25-word sentence to be missed or forgiven by a reader than it is for one in just the 5 words which make up a bullet-point. Bear in mind, the spell-checker wont help you with such substitutions.
As another example of a similar pair, consider your and youre. So it is your opinion that youre the greatest demonstrates correct usage. Your indicates ownership your book, your hair, your personal problems while youre is a contraction of you are, as in youre a bore or youre wonderful. The next time someone writes to you that, Your wonderful! you should ask, My wonderful what?
There is also a rather troublesome threesome of similars as illustrated here: Theyre saying that there is no spare key to their safe. Theyre is a contraction of they are, their means belonging to them and there doesnt relate to them (whoever they may be) at all! There is also a certain confusion sometimes between theres (contraction of there is) and theirs (another possessive form) as illustrated by, Theres a feeling that the mistake was theirs rather than ours.)
Not all of these similars involve apostrophes. Although rarer, we often see the words to and too used in each others place. Too, of course, indicates a surfeit of some quality, so that the hotel might be said to be too expensive, the teacher too strict or the bed too soft. To on the other hand is used mostly in indicating a concept ( To grow as a person, To do a good job), to indicate motion towards (Going to the fair, He read to the end) or as a shorter version of in order to (He looked at the last page to see how the tale ended.)
There seems also to be a growing level of substitution of loose for lose. You lose a few pounds for instance, which makes your clothes seem loose. A prison guard may lose his key only to find that as a result his prisoners get loose. In a slightly more old fashioned usage, an angry King might loose his armies on an enemy, but in doing so, he would be hoping not to lose them!
As a final couple of examples, we take a breath of air before taking a bath. Or, to put it another way, we breathe and then we bathe. Without the E at the end, a breath and a bath constitute nouns, or things. The addition of the E renders them as verbs, or actions.
The great economy of language which the bullet-point represents can often encourage writers to omit too much. Many is the time Ive sat looking at a cryptic 3-word bulletpoint on a PowerPoint slide and thought, What on earth does that mean? Sometimes, such ambiguity is intentional; often, it is not.
The greatest example of this is the dropping of the definite articles which pepper the everyday language. Or, to render that last sentence in PowerPoint:
The articles we are talking about, of course are all those instances of the word the, which grammarians call the definite article. (The word a is referred to as the indefinite article, by the way.) In bullet-point format (and in newspaper headlines, incidentally), it is customary to drop articles freely and let the nouns stand alone. But there are times when at least some of them absolutely need to be retained. For instance, there is a difference between school and the school that needs preserving; the former relates to all schools, perhaps the very concept of educating children, whereas the second clearly refers to one particular establishment. Consider the difference between, School is appalling. and The school is appalling.
There is also the issue of what I call internal articles. When we change the cost of living to cost of living we have dropped a leading article. When, on the other hand, we change sign of the times to sign of times then we have dropped an internal article. I would argue that dropping a leading article will often be acceptable, whilst internal articles should usually be preserved. Why? Simply because when we remove words from inside a phrase like this, it is harder for the reader to put them back. However colloquially we speak, we will always use sign of the times in speech rather than sign of times, so I would argue that we should always retain the form in writing. Most people when reading turn the written words into ones they imagine being spoken in their heads, so the writers task is to facilitate this process, and preserving the internal articles is one way to do this.
Weve seen that PowerPoint requires a grammar, albeit a new, pared-down grammar, if its communications are to be understood. As things stand, the battle to establish such a grammar against the forces of grammatical anarchy is only just beginning. The other great new communications innovation of the age (if we accept that email is just an evolution of the written letter) is text messaging. Its generally accepted that that grammatical battle in that realm has been firmly lost and anarchy reigns. Given that the text messaging medium continues to prosper nonetheless, why should we worry about establishing a grammar for PowerPoint? Quite simply, it is because text messaging is a medium for private ommunications, where there is a wealth of external context to the message in terms of existing and ongoing relationships. PowerPoint, however, is about public communication, often to strangers and has to be able to stand on its own. I suggest that how we write our shopping lists and sticky notes matters not, but how we write our dissertations and public speeches certainly does.
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