Monthly Archives: July 2011

Where does the “only” go?

One of the most frequent edits I find myself making when editing other people’s writing is moving the modifier “only” to its rightful spot close to the word or phrase it modifies. What does this sentence mean: “I only drive to work and back”? Does it mean that’s the only place to which you drive your car, or does it mean you never take the bus to work? It’s hard to tell what you intend. Move the “only” to just before the word “to,”and it’s clear that you mean that you don’t drive the car anyplace else. Leave it where it is, and it really means you don’t use any other form of transport to work. If the latter is what you mean, a less potentially confusing choice would be to say, “I drive my car to work because the bus is always late.”

Just something to think about when your fingers are flying across the keys.

The Words We’ve Come to Love: We May Be In Trouble

What are the two hot words for 2011? I’m voting for “social” and “app.”

Let’s start with “social.” With the ubiquity of “social media” these days — everyone and their Uncle Earl is on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogging away through the night — the catch-all generic term for these activities has become so mainstream that advertisers wanting to reach into the wallets of this cyber-savvy crowd to sell them, well, anything from bras to patio furniture, has decided to play off of “social media” and build the “social” concept into their pitch. I’m not talking about companies advertising on social media platforms; that’s been going on for quite a while and isn’t even interesting any more.

I’m talking about the word “social” itself, and I’m interested in it from a language perspective. Why? Because our language shapes our thought. I’d go a step further and say our language determines our thought – what we can and do think, and what we simply can’t think at all. If there are no words for something in the language(s) we know, no detailed thought about it is possible. OK, enough about that.

What does the “viral” (a term for another day) use of “social” mean for what the word itself will come to mean? If social becomes the buzz word for anything and everything (e.g., a sale on towels at Target Stores as a way to become more “social”), then the word itself will ultimately lose the meaning it has traditionally had of people interacting with other people.

It’s really interesting that we can point to computer applications (apps) as the source of a change in the meaning of “social.” We already know, of course, that computers have now so insinuated themselves into our social lives that The Borg of Star Trek fame may have to leave the realm of science fiction. We now locate our soulmates via computer, along with our homes, jobs, cars, pets, linens, shoes, and all of our entertainment. So the computer, via language as well as technology, has become as much of a social force in our lives as Uncle Earl himself. Actually, a great deal more.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’m a marketing guy by trade, and if throwing the word “social” around mercilessly will help buy my client (and thus perhaps me) a 60-foot sailboat or a photo safari in Kenya, I’m there. I have been accused of wanting to hold the line on language evolution, like the French Academy. That’s not actually true. It’s the dumbing down I’m worried about. When words become meaningless, thought becomes blurry and amorphous, and when that happens. Well, let’s just hope that all nuclear weapons are destroyed before we start watering our crops with Gatorade because they have “electrolytes.”

I was going to add the word “app” to this random musing on the hot words of the year, but really, the only thing interesting is that it’s short for “application,” and I bet half the people who use the word “app” as they download assorted stuff to their iPads, iPhones, Droids, and other devices don’t know that. So eventually the word “application” will disappear entirely. I don’t think I like the sound of “One app of this ointment on your scalp will make you smarter.”

Sidenote: It’s interesting that Microsoft is opposing Apple’s trademark of the phrase “App Store.”

Monkey Business

I know of a law firm marketing director who’s firm allowed her to entitle herself as “Director of Mischief.” While she might disagree, this may be the most forward-thinking law firm – when it comes to marketing and business development – in existence. Personally, I like the phrase “monkey business.” I like to answer the question, “What business are you in?” with “monkey business.” Yes, of course it’s one of my favorite Marx Brothers movies. To me it means stirring things up. It means playing. It means trying new things and not being afraid to make a little mess (emphasis on “little”).

Most of the law firms I have worked with have been self-admittedly very conservative. They don’t want to do anything that will make them stand out, in the belief that their successes in the court room or at the negotiating table will magically do that for them. No question, those successes help. But they are like having a drivers license: all they do is get you onto the road. The people who hire lawyers for high-dollar commercial matters are nearly always lawyers themselves. They’re logical, analytical people (emphasis on “people.”) But they are not immune to things like humor, the effects of color, a well-written phrase. Law school did not, in fact, suck all the fun out of most of them. So if a firm and its lawyers have the credentials to play in their chosen arena, they need to think about what will turn the crowd’s eyes toward them.

I’m not talking about abandoning professionalism – not in the least. What I’m talking about is considering the audience first, and thinking of them as people. If a firm wants a company to hire it for legal work, it makes its pitch to people, not the company’s legal issues, but rather to a group of people who need to have a positive impression of the firm and its people beyond the record of its success. That impression is created by lots of different inputs, and one thing is certain, going out of your way not to stand out will have precisely the intended effect.

My point is simply this: lawyers and other professional service providers who want to grow their businesses and cause people to want to hire them need to engage in a bit o’ the monkey business. They should listen to the monkeys they hired to determine exactly what that means. Oh, and if the monkeys have been around too long and are starting to look and sound too much like their captors, it’s time to get some fresh monkeys who are willing to mash a little banana on the conference room table.

That’s what this monkey thinks.

When People’s Speech Drives You Nuts