The Words They Are a-Changin' *

In a networking meeting some time ago, I was asked to spot an error in a comedy show flyer. I spotted several possible errors (whether they were actually errors depended more on style than anything else) and asked my questioner what he thought. He pointed to a sentence that read something like this:

This troupe of hysterical actors will make you cry tears of laughter as you watch their on-stage antics.

What caught my friend’s attention was the adjective hysterical. He had learned the word as referring to the emotional outbursts of people who could not control themselves. My friend understood the writer’s intended meaning, but thought the word hysterical was poorly chosen. Hilarious would have been a better choice, he believed.

That got me thinking. Has hysterical’s meaning of extremely funny become widely accepted by lexicographers (the folks who write and edit dictionaries)?

I first looked in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2008 edition). Its entry for hysterical is

1. Of or characteristic of hysteria
2. a) Like or suggestive of hysteria; emotionally uncontrolled and wild b)extremely comical
3. Having or subject to hysteria

 

So, according to the 2008 version of Webster’s, using hysterical to refer to a group of comedians was very appropriate. Still curious, I looked at an American Heritage Dictionary from 1994. That dictionary defines hysterical as

1. Marked by or due to hysteria.
2. Having or prone to having hysterics.
3. Informal. Extremely funny.

 

I noticed that using hysterical as an adjective meaning extremely funny was proper only for informal situations. Finally I looked at the oldest dictionary in my library: a Random House Dictionary from 1978. It lists hysterical as an adjective form of the noun hysteria. It defines hysteria as

1. An uncontrolled outburst of emotion or fear.
2. A psychiatric disorder characters by violent emotional outbreaks, disturbances of sensor and motor functions, etc.

 

No mention of a definition related to being funny. I suppose one could argue that the first definition could be applied to someone so filled with joy they could no longer contain the pleasure within them and so had to laugh uproariously.

So three dictionaries differing from each other by both publisher and printing date each define hysterical in different ways. The fact that all three are from different publishers, however, makes it difficult to conclusively argue that hysterical’s meaning growing to include extreme humor was a function of time. One could also argue that modern dictionaries from American Heritage and Random House still retain their historical definitions.

In the hope of resolving whether time or publisher was the greater factor, I turned to OneLook.com. For serious wordsmiths, or those merely curious, OneLook is a great tool. It enables people to look up words in many dictionaries at one time and compare entries. When I want to see what are the common definitions of a particular word I almost always go to OneLook and spend some time looking up the word’s definition in several dictionaries.

So I entered the word hysterical in OneLook and searched the listing for an entry from American Heritage or Random House. Seeing an entry from American Heritage, I opened it to discover it defined as

1. Of, characterized by, or arising from hysteria.
2. Having or prone to having hysterics.
3. Informal Extremely funny: told a hysterical story.

 

Apparently, American Heritage lexicographers continue their belief that expressing humor is an informal use of hysterical. Their only real change from 1994 to now was to add an example to hysterical’s third meaning.

Interestingly, while many dictionaries in OneLook’s listing for hysterical did not include Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition of extremely comical, those that did not were almost unanimous in using hysterical laughter as an example of excessive or uncontrollable emotion.

Will extremely funny continue to be an informal use of hysterical in another 20 years? Perhaps, but to find out for certain, be sure to consult a future current edition of your favorite dictionary.

* Apologies to Bob Dylan, whose third studio album title The Times They Are a-Changin’ was just too applicable to this post to not borrow.

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The Hyphen: The Punctuation World’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Horizontal Line Family

The hyphen is part of the punctuation world’s often misunderstood family of horizontal lines. There are actually five members in the family.

  • Hyphen
  • N-Dash
  • M-Dash
  • 2 M-Dash
  • 3 M-Dash

In the grammar and typography worlds each member of the family has one or more specified purposes. The hyphen is the most widely used of the five and the subject of this post.

Why is the hyphen grammar’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Because the hyphen has a split personality; it’s used to divide text in some places (separators) and combine text in other places (compound words).

Hyphen Used to Separate Text

Hyphens are the preferred horizontal punctuation mark to use when separating digits that don’t form a number. For example, telephone numbers or social security numbers. Hyphens are also used when you want to indicate the individual letters of a word. For example, parents learn to s-p-e-l-l words they don’t want their young children to understand.

Hyphen Used to Combine Text

Using hyphens to separate parts of numbers or words is pretty simple. Using hyphens to combine words is more complicated. Words that are combined using hyphens are called compound words.

Compound words function as one unit. The same words in the same order without the connecting hyphen(s) operate as individual words. Here are two examples.

A well-fed pet means the pet eats good food. The word well modifies the word fed and together they describe the pet’s eating.

A well fed pet means the pet is healthy and has eaten. In this case, both well and fed independently describe the pet. Usually in this latter case, a comma would be placed after the first word to further indicate the two words independently describe the pet. E.g., A well, fed pet.

In the examples above, the words well and fed are used in two different ways to describe pet. Some pairs of words, however, are often used together to express a single idea. In this case, hyphens are used as a sort of middle-ground to show the close connection of words that have not yet been universally accepted as one word.

For example the phrase electronic mail was shortened to become the compound word e-mail. Most people and dictionaries have now dropped the hyphen and spell the word as email. Some dictionaries (such as Webster’s New World) and style guides (such as the Associated Press Style Guide), however, specify using e-mail.

When Should Words be Hyphenated

When should words be hyphenated depends on what meaning the words are intended to convey. Are the words being used as adjectives to describe a noun? Are the words being used together as a noun themselves?

There are several grammar rules that govern when two or more words used as adjectives should be joined with hyphens. If you don’t know the rules, it’s best to consult a reference book or ask an editor or writer.

For words such as e-mail, it’s best to look up the word(s) in a recently published dictionary to see whether the current acceptable practice is to write the words separately, hyphenate them, or mash them into one word. If you commonly use words that are in the process of changing from a word phrase to a single word, it’s a good idea to add the word to your company style guide or select a commercially available style guide or dictionary and follow its dictate on how the word(s) should be spelled.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim. 

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Using Quotation Marks for Emphasis

Quotation Marks

Two Uses for Quotation Marks

Like most punctuation marks, quotation marks have multiple uses. Their primary use is to enclose words quoted by another. Another common use is to show one or more words are being used in a non-standard way by enclosing them within quotation marks. This latter use of quotation marks is the subject of this post.

Quotation Marks with Sentence Ending Punctuation

Using quotation marks to indicate one or more words are being used ironically or for emphasis is a time-honored technique. It’s simple to do, effectively draws attention to the word(s), and tells readers the word(s) are being used in a special way. But there’s a problem when a quotation-enclosed word is at the end of a sentence. How should the final quotation mark be used with the sentence’s ending punctuation?

When quotation marks are being used for emphasis, style guides generally agree question marks and exclamation points go outside the ending quotation mark.

  • For night owls, arising in the early morning can be “strange”!
  • Have you ever dreamed you were floating in “space”?

Ending Quotation Marks and Periods

Unfortunately, whether the final quotation mark goes in front or behind a sentence ending period is not so easy. For example, which of the two sentences below is correct?

  1. The period should be “here.”
  2. The period should be “here”.

The short answer is Yes! Which should be used depends on the style used by the publisher. The primary style guide in journalism is the Associated Press Style Guide. It recommends option 1.

For the book, magazine, and general purpose writing industry, the most authoritarian U.S. style guide is the Chicago Manual of Style. Of the two choices, it prefers option 2, but it recommends sidestepping the problem by using formatting to emphasize the word as shown below:

The ending punctuation should be here.

Using bold or italic type nicely draws attention to the word, and avoids the problem by not using quotation marks at all.

Change Your Habit

If your habit is to use quotation marks to draw attention to words, you might want to change your habit. Most of the time, when the word you want to emphasize is at the beginning or middle of a sentence, using quotation marks is no problem. But, when the word is the last word in a sentence, using quotation marks to show non-standard use can jar readers if they see the period in what they consider to be the wrong place.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers  provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Do You Breathe When You Punctuate?

Common English Punctuation MarksWhat is the most used punctuation mark in English? If you guessed the period or the comma, you’re right! But whether commas are used more often than periods seems to depend on whether incorrectly used commas are subcontracted out.

Commas are definitely the most misused punctuation mark. Why? Basically because there are two competing schools of thought about the use of punctuation.

The First School of Thought — Punctuation Is For Breathing

The first, and historically earliest, school comprises those who believe punctuation marks are similar to music rests—the pauses within music in which no note is played. This school takes the view that some kind of punctuation mark should appear wherever a reader would pause for breath if reading something aloud.

How long the reader should pause is dictated by what kind of punctuation is used. End punctuation such as periods, question marks, and exclamation points equal a long pause. Semicolons and colons equal a medium pause. Commas equal the shortest pause—just long enough for a quick inhale.

In the first school of thought what punctuation to use is mostly determined by the ear and breathing capacity of the writer. If the writer thinks a reader should briefly pause, use a comma. Want a long pause? Use a period.

Most people need to breathe if reading a long sentence aloud. Everyone who has passed grade school knows that you should not write a long sentence like this one without some kind of punctuation to help the reader know when to stop and take a breath before continuing on to read or else the reader will keel over for lack of oxygen and whoever writes a sentence like this just doesn’t care about their reader. Gasp!

The Second School of Thought — Punctuation Is For Clarity

The second school of thought developed fairly recently. In 1575, Aldus Manutius the Younger is reputed to have written the first book in support of the idea that punctuation should be used to clarify syntax. Syntax is the part of grammar concerned with how words are arranged in sentences to convey meaning.

Over time, the rules of this second school gave punctuation marks specific grammatical purposes. For example, use a comma to set off an introductory phrase as this sentence and the previous one do. Use a colon to introduce a list as discussed in the How to Use Colons post. Use a period to indicate the end of a thought.

The rules of the second school standardized punctuation and, so long as writers and readers understood the same set of rules, writers could create wonderfully varied sentences with clearly conveyed meanings.

Miscommunication Runs Rampant

Unfortunately, if writers and readers are not following the same set of rules—or even the same school of thought about punctuation—miscommunication runs rampant. Since English is a required subject in school, most readers have learned there are rules for punctuation and expect writers to follow them. So, in general, readers expect punctuation to follow the second school of thought.

Because English is a complex language, it’s easy to forget, misremember, or imagine some punctuation rules. That makes following the first school of thought appealing to some writers; especially those who feel constrained by time or lack reference resources to look up the rules.

When it comes to punctuation, which school of thought do you follow?

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

 

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Engage Readers with Good Copywriting

Writing to Capture Interest

What’s the first goal of copywriting? Engage the reader. If the material doesn’t grab readers’ attention and get them to read the next sentence, the sentence after that, and so on to the end, the copywriting will fail its primary goal. And what is that goal?

  • Induce those in a target market to buy or use an organization’s products and services.
  • Create a favorable impression of the organization in the mind of the target market.

What is Copywriting

Copywriting is defined as writing to support an organization’s marketing and advertising purposes. The organization can be a business, a government entity, or a non-profit. Marketing writers, advertising writers, SEO writers, online content writers all copywriters.

Many business owners take on the role of a copywriter without knowing it. Writing a press release; sales brochure; event poster; an advertising script for a radio, TV, or online ad; tweeting an endorsement about a product are all examples of copywriting.

On the other hand, writing strictly meant to provide information or entertain is not copywriting. Magazine feature articles and the stories within books are not copywriting.

Know Your Target Market

A critical element to successfully writing good copy (copy is the industry term for text) is to identify and really understand the copy’s intended audience. This intended audience is often not the same as the organization’s target market. It is usually a subset. If the intended audience includes people who learned English as a second language,

For example, a non-profit may be focused on environmental issues in a particular geographic area that affect young children. Its target market would comprise parents, government officials, government agency workers, regulatory organizations, children, other environmental groups, and businesses that have an interest in that geographic area.

The intended audience for the non-profit’s upcoming fundraising event, however, may only be parents and businesses within the area. The copy on event posters and flyers would be targeted to resonate with those likely to attend or support the fundraising event: parents, businesses, and perhaps other environmental groups.

Someone writing the words on the flyers and posters to announce the event would want to use words that get the audience’s attention, make them want to come to the event, and/or contribute to the non-profit.

Denotation and Connotation

Words carry two kinds of meanings: denotative and connotative. Denotative meanings are the direct, explicit meanings of the words usually found in dictionaries. Connotative meanings, however, are harder to pin down. These are the meanings associated or suggested by the word. Connotations carry emotional shades of meanings that can conjure reactions ranging from faint to booming.

Copywriters are particularly interested in the connotative meanings. Using the right words creates the desired resonance with the target market. Using the wrong words means the copy won’t capture the target market’s attention, or even worse, get their attention and make them hostile to the organization.

A Copywriter’s Challenge

One of the challenges of copywriting is to select words with the right denotation AND connotation. Often changing one or two words in copy can dramatically change the effectiveness of the copy. Knowing the intended audience and the intended reaction to the copy is crucial.

For example, let’s consider poison and pesticide.

Denotative and connotative meanings for poison and pesticide

Denotative and connotative meanings for poison and pesticide

Most people would agree with the connotations above and so would have an adverse reaction to the word poison. However, many (if not most) environmentalists would attribute poison’s connotations to pesticide as well and use pesticide and poison interchangeably.

An invitation to celebrate an environmental organization’s achievements in preventing the use of pesticides would likely generate a negative attitude toward the organization if the invitation were sent to the general public. But if the same invitation talked about preventing the use of poisons, the general public’s reaction would likely be more favorable.

The danger for writers is to use words without understanding their connotations and the effect they will have on the target audience.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers  provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information. 

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Why Are Business Procedures Important?

I frequently joke that for most business owners, creating or updating the policies and procedures manual ranks somewhere between doing annual employee reviews and closing down the business. For small businesses closing down the business usually happens before the office procedures are written. I often think that not having—and more importantly, not using—written business procedures is a reason why many small businesses fail within a year or two of starting.

Why are procedures at the bottom of the priority list? When procedures are explicitly stated and available to those who need them, they are an invaluable business management tool. They answer the who, what, when, where, and why questions about the company’s business processes. They help specify what makes the company different from its competitors.

I plan to begin a series of blog posts championing the benefits of business procedures. Before I do, however, I want to briefly touch on the overall costs and benefits to small and medium sized companies of documenting their business processes by creating office procedures. 

Costs of Written Business Procedures

There are some disadvantages to written business procedures. One commonly encountered disadvantage is igniting an employee rebellion against the creation of procedures. In the 1980s and 1990s, business process analysis and improvement (which required creating business procedures) became synonymous with the grim reaper appearing to cut expendable employees. Those still standing lived in mortal fear that a subsequent mowing would result in them being escorted out as well.

While this fear is understandable, employee morale and support for office procedures can actually be increased by management. Showing how the advantages (listed at the end of this post) of creating and following the policies and procedures manual benefits employees own self-interests goes a long way toward this. For an example of poorly managing employees’ fear, however, watch the 1999 cult comedy Office Space.

Another disadvantage is the cost of creating the procedures. Depending on the complexity of the business process being documented and the level of detail needed in the documentation, costs, including managers and employee’s time, to create procedures can range from under $200 to tens of thousands of dollars. The fact that the costs to document the business process are all upfront and easily identified, often swamp the longer payback time and often overlooked savings resulting from creating a policies and procedures manual.

While many business owners and managers think the biggest cost of written business procedures is their creation and maintenance, that’s simply not true. The biggest cost is documenting the company’s business processes in the form of a policies and procedures manual and then never taking the manual off the shelf.

Why? Because by not implementing the office procedures as documented the company loses all the benefits of documented procedures, swallows the costs to document the procedures, and reduces faith and support for any later projects to document the internal business processes.

Benefits of Written Business Procedures

The reason I think business procedures are so important is they provide a wealth (pun intended) of benefits to business managers. When procedures are used well they reduce waste in a variety of ways:

  • Improve internal communication within the business
  • Improve external communication with vendors and customers
  • Simplify and quicken new hire training 
  • Ease workflow management, especially when work is conducted at multiple locations
  • Provide a standard to measure performance by
  • Facilitate creating a baseline to measure improvements by
  • Help employees fulfill work responsibilities of those on vacation or sick
  • Improve company value when selling business

If you know of any business that doesn’t need one or more of the above benefits, copy what its management is doing! For companies that invest the time, money, and effort in creating, following, and updating company policies and procedures, they gain significant strategic advantages over their competitors. 

Next time, I’ll write about how creating and using business process documentation improves internal communication within the business.

 

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Using Business Policies and Procedures to Engage Employees

Four hands each holding an interlocked puzzle pieceI read an interesting article recently called How to Engage & Retain Employees by Roberta Matuson. In the article, Matuson mentioned three factors that typically appear in employee surveys of what they want from their work:

  • The opportunity for them to learn new skills
  • Control over how they do their work
  • Managers who give them the support they need to succeed

Systematizing a business (i.e., documenting the work policies and procedures that live in the heads of managers and employees) is a great opportunity to increase employee engagement. Satisfying the wants of employee and management through systemization creates many benefits for everyone. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Why?

Employee Resistance to Policies and Procedures

Most business owners and managers prioritize business systemization somewhere between annual employee reviews and closing down the business. For those enlightened owners and managers who do allocate resources toward systematizing the business, the effort often fails to produce desired results. This is partly caused by management failing to

  • Enroll their employees in the systemization project
  • Get active participation and input from employees

Workers have good reason to resist business systemization. It’s often been the prelude to layoffs and firings. If management has detailed procedures that show step-by-step how to do employees’ work, employees often fear they’ll be let go.

Systematize the Business to Engage Employees

One key to successfully systematizing a business is for management to acknowledge employees’ fears. This is especially important when employees would have difficulty getting a new job. Following that acknowledgement, management should enroll employees in the project by showing them the benefits employees personally get from the effort. Here is how the three job factors employees typically want can be increased through business systemization.

The opportunity for them to learn new skills

When an employee’s job is documented through policies and procedures, it becomes much easier to successfully transfer that knowledge to another employee. Systemization facilitates employee cross-training. It enables employees to quickly gain new skills, makes them more versatile, more valuable, and more marketable.

Control over how they do their work

When management gives employees freedom to design their workflows, employees feel respected for their job knowledge. Management should identify what the results of workflows should be, not how the work should be done. Employees who consistently produce the desired results know better than management how to do the work. By empowering employees to specify how work should be done, management creates employee ownership of that work. The work becomes something personal to employees, not just something to endure to get a paycheck.

Managers who give them the support they need to succeed

Systemization makes it easier to identify the skill sets needed to excel at individual jobs and to match jobs to employees’ own skill sets. Lateral transfers can afford employees the chance to use the skills they’re most effective with, make them more efficient, and free up time that can be used for other strategic projects to improve the company’s bottom line.

When the workflow is documented through policies and procedures, it’s much easier to identify problems such as choke points, duplicative work, and missing or late-arriving resources. It also becomes much easier for management and employees to work together to create solutions. They see the same set of steps instead of their own mental picture of the steps.

By properly enrolling employees in business systemization, business owners and managers can not only increase worker engagement, they can also begin to identify and eliminate hidden wastes (i.e. costs) from the business. Reducing hidden costs can significantly increase business profitability.

 

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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The Quirky Apostrophe

What Are Apostrophes Used For

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark with two common uses, a third less common use, and some quirks that often lead writers astray. The two main uses for apostrophes are to show possession and to show that letters have been removed in words. Apostrophes are less commonly used with s’s to show plurals, as I just did. Unfortunately, adding an apostrophe and an s is also the way to show possession. Is this fact of apostrophes quirky or frustrating? You decide.

I’m going to leave the apostrophe’s use in showing possession for another post. Right now, let’s look at the second and third uses, and I’ll show some quirks of the apostrophe along the way.

Gluing Two Words Together

Apostrophes are always used to show letters have been dropped when two words are combined into a contraction. For example, shouldn’t is a contraction of the words should and not. The apostrophe is used to show the o in not has been removed. Usually the second word loses one or more initial letters, and the apostrophe is used to stand in for the missing letter(s) and hold the first and second words together like glue.

Native English writers have an advantage over ESL writers when using apostrophes to replace the missing letters. They’ve heard they have replaced with they’ve since birth. In school they learn how to use the apostrophe to signal that letters have been dropped from the mashed up words. A native English speaker wouldn’t write th’have because it doesn’t sound natural.

One technique to make writing more conversational and informal in tone is to use contractions. It’s easier to read because it follows the rhythm of spoken English and isn’t stilted like formal English. On the other hand, if you’re writing something that should be formal, e.g., a business report to the board of directors, then you would want to leave each word alone and not glue some of them together with apostrophes.

Notice I used you would in the previous sentence instead of you’d. One effect of contractions is that they weaken the force of the original words. Like termites chomping a wood frame, taking out even one letter weakens the word. Take a look at the next two sentences.

  • You will be home for dinner.
  • You’ll be home for dinner.

Can you hear how the first sentence is almost a command while the second could be a statement or a question? Native English speakers grow up subconsciously associating the sound of a command with words that were normally contracted in everyday use. I can still hear my mother say, “You will wash the dishes, young man!” in a way that made plain I had little choice in the matter.

Words such as you will spoken individually with emphasis meant the sentence was a command. When those same words were mashed into a contraction, the sentence’s last syllable often ended with a question’s higher note. That higher note provided another subconscious indication of how to use contractions to communicate a particular message.

Showing Letters Removed in a Single Word

Writers also use apostrophes to show letters have been removed in a single word. This is sometimes used in dialog to show a character’s dialect or age has caused some letters to be silent in the spoken word. For example, “That singin’ was b’utifu’.” A similar example is the nautical word forecastle which is often shortened to fo’s’le.

Using apostrophes with Plurals

In one of the many quirks of the English language, apostrophes are sometimes used with s to indicate multiple instances of a thing rather than possession. Normally the sentence’s grammar clearly indicates whether the apostrophe s is being used to show plurality or possession.

If you’re writing about plural single lowercase letters, the apostrophe should be used to avoid confusing readers when they inadvertently combine the letters into an unintended word.

  • There are no i’s in because. [Intended meaning]
  • There are no is in because. [Unintended word]

Rather than acting like a glue to join two contracted words, the apostrophe in this case becomes a wall between the two letters so they don’t form an unintended word.

Instead of using an apostrophe, some experts suggest capitalizing the letter as a way to show the reader the letter and s should not be combined.

  • There are no Is in because.

If you are referring to multiple instances of two or more letters, e.g., abc, the general rule is add the apostrophe if the letters are lowercased and just use s if the letters are capitalized.

  • Children now learn the abc’s at home.
  • Children now learn the ABCs at home.

That advice changes when dealing with numerals. Since there’s very little chance of readers combining numerals and letters to form unintended words, most experts recommend butting the s next to the numeral as shown below.

  • There are four 4s in a standard deck of playing cards. [Correct]
  • There are four 4’s in a standard deck of playing cards [Incorrect]

As with all punctuation, the apostrophe’s use is meant to help readers understand what the writer meant to communicate. If you’ve read this far, you’ve hopefully gotten a good refresher on some uses of apostrophes. Let me know whether you now think apostrophes are quirky, and what punctuation mark uses you’d like to see in the next punctuation post.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

You can contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Three Failures to Communicate

In his article, “Basics in Internal Organizational Communications”, Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD lists seven common communications problems that plague businesses. In this post, I’m going to talk about three of those seven and aim to show how having documented policies and procedures can help solve those problems.

Problem 1—If I know it, then everyone must know it.

Information is not a gas that expands to fill the container it’s within. It’s literally words, numbers, sounds, and pictures that must be transmitted in some form for others to be aware of it. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, information tends to clump and concentrate within individuals and within groups.

For any business to succeed the right people must have the right information at the right time. As my own tagline suggests, that’s the purpose of my business and the reason I’m passionate about business process.

What often happens in business, however, is that some people have needed information, but others don’t. Often it’s because units within a business don’t communicate with each other. Sometimes it’s members of one unit being ignorant of another unit’s information needs. A classic example is Sales hears about features wanted by customers, but not relaying those feature requests to Operations. Or Operations planning a maintenance period, but not telling Sales of the expected reduced capacity.

Well designed and supported business processes ensure necessary information goes out to those who need it and checks that those who need it not only received it, but actually absorbed it. 

When the right people have the right information at the right times, the work of the business flows smoothly. Problems occur but they are the exception rather than the rule and employees have the time to deal with them because they are not an everyday or occurrence.

Problem 2—I told everyone, or some people, or …?

Problems occur when the right people aren’t kept informed on a timely basis. Conversely, if too many people are informed the problem of information overload occurs. How do you find the sweet spot? By identifying what inputs and outputs are needed at each step of each workflow in the business. If that sounds daunting, that’s because it is. But it’s not unmanageable. Nothing springs into being fully formed in an instant.

The goal of documenting the systems of a business is reached like every other goal; it’s reached one step at a time. Identify all the tasks that need to be documented, prioritize them, and set aside one to however many hours can be spared a week to create or update the policies which drive the system and the procedures which support the system.

If there is no time that can be spared, think about all the time that is used to fix problems within the business. The statement there’s not enough time to do something right, but there’s always enough time to fix something, proves there’s enough time to work on the process. It there’s truly not enough time, get out of business sooner rather than later. The business is going down in a whirlpool from which it cannot escape. 

Problem 3—If I need your opinion, I’ll tell it to you

The belief that business owners know how to do all the jobs in their business is pretty risky–especially if their business has more than one employee. There are just too many tasks inherent in a business for any one person to master. Marketing and sales, operations, finance and administration, and leading the business all require different skills and knowledge.

Allowing people who do the various tasks well to help design the policies and procedures provides several benefits. It builds employee morale, it takes advantage of hard-earned experience, and it gives employees a sense of ownership over how their own jobs should be done.

Of course, upper level management should review the procedures and judge whether they adequately implement the desired policies. If the offered procedures don’t implement the policies, management needs to explore the disconnect. There’s a gap in upper management’s or employees’ understanding of what is possible or wanted. Working together, management and workers can and should create the documentation which explains how the processes should work for the benefit of all.

In the article, McNamara began with the statement, “As leaders and managers mature, they realize the need to effective convey and receive information, and efforts at communications (internal and external) increase substantially.” As Writing Jim, I provide written communication to help to those “mature” managers who realize they and their staffs don’t have the expertise or time to adequately meet their communication needs. If you’re one of those managers or know of one, contact me. I’m in business to increase other businesses’ profits.

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Time Management For Small Business Owners

Woman Juggling ClocksBecause of nearsightedness, I grew up very uncoordinated. In grade school one of my teachers would toss out candy to students who gave the correct answer. Even knowing the answer, I never raised my hand; I was afraid I’d miss catching the candy.

In my late teens, I learned juggling. Through thousands of practice hours, first with rocks and finally with machetes and torches, my eye-hand coordination immensely improved. In fact, some of my happiest moments have occurred while juggling with several people at the same time.

There’s a kind of magic in focusing solely on what’s happening Now. And let me tell you, when several juggling clubs are stacked in the air and about to arrive within a second or two of each other inches from your face, there’s only enough time to catch and throw.

I obviously got over my fear of dropping things.

Juggling Is Time Management

How is all this about time management? Because juggling is the art of doing one thing really well for a split second, then doing the next thing, and so on over and over again. Running a small business is a lot like juggling. It’s a never-ending stream of decisions and actions. But in business the consequences of those decisions and actions are far more significant than whether a ball or even machete is caught or dropped.

As business owners we’re making decisions about quality, money, and time on a daily basis. Our target market is our audience and like a street performer putting on a sidewalk show, if we drop too many times, our business success drops as well.

I’ve been a writer for a long time, so the quality of my service is very good. Because my wife and I were both lucky enough to be raised by Great Depression era parents, we learned to save and be frugal. Perhaps too frugal, but more on that in a moment. The thing I’ve found most difficult is managing time effectively.

Time Management Tools

By working in business so long, I’ve learned of several basic, time management tools. You probably know and use these tools as well:

  1. Set goals
  2. Prioritize activities
  3. Block out meetings with yourself to get things done
  4. Reduce distractions like e-mail announcements
  5. Do only what you do well
  6. Delegate the rest

To varying degrees, I’m handling 1-4 pretty well, but 5 and especially 6 are a challenge. I’m finding it hard to wrap my head around delegating things I don’t do well to others. Actually, it’s not delegating I find hard; what is difficult is the idea of paying someone to do something I could do instead.

Remember, I was raised by parents who grew up in the Great Depression. One of the fundamental lessons I learned from my dad was to “get the mostest for the leastest.” (What my dad lacked in spelling he made up in creativity.)

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned a little about a range of skills necessary for business success. The problem is I learned just enough to think I could do marketing, sales, administration, finance, and management by myself. I was trying to save money by paying no one.

Do only What You Do Well and Delegate the Rest

Lately I’ve begun accepting something very painful: I don’t have all the skills I need to succeed as a business owner. I need help. I’m realizing that if I want business success, I need to get past my dad’s penny-pinching mindset. Trying to do everything myself is actually keeping me from the prosperity I want.

So, several weeks ago, I decided to hire a personal coach, Christoph Nauer of Life Coaching with a Twist. He’s been asking me some tough questions, suggesting options, and helping me escape the straitjacket that’s kept me from catching and tossing all the stuff I need to do.

When I stopped juggling objects years ago, I’d gained enough skill to keep five balls aloft for up to 20 or so seconds. But when I juggled with others, we kept at least six things flying between us for several minutes. That same principle exists in business. If you want to get more done in the same amount of time, you have to have help. Especially help doing the things you and your team don’t do well.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing help to owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

If you want help communicating better with your target market or employees, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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