In defence of language pedants

I have a little bone to pick with Stephen Fry. I couldn’t agree more with his impassioned plea that people take more pleasure in language. But Fry’s argument that the language pedants who complain about poor grammar and usage are linguistic killjoys is as skew-whiff as the kinetic typography that illustrates his rant.

According to Fry, people who complain about grocer’s apostrophes or misused words are ‘semi-educated losers’ with a ‘silly’ approach to language. He pours withering scorn on those who claim to stand up for clarity, accusing them of ‘eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness’. Ouch.

After all, according to Fry, there’s nothing unclear about ‘5 items or less’, and only a dolt fails to deduce the intended meaning of ‘disinterested’ from the context, age and education of the speaker.

Well, call me a dolt. Unless I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t actually want to have to deduce the meaning of communication more than necessary. In Steve Krug’s immortal words, don’t make me think if you want your message to be understood. Noticing a mistake and ‘deducing’ the real meaning may only take nanoseconds, but it momentarily impedes the message processing and is a distraction I can do without in my information-overloaded everyday life.

If ‘5 items or less’ no longer confuses anyone, the language pedants are fighting a lost cause and can safely be ignored. Natural selection in language evolution will weed out the distinction between less and fewer in due course. But I’m with the pedants who go into bat for clarity because it’s a vital part of enjoying language. You may not be on our side, Stephen, but we are on yours.

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language



January 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm 2 comments

Show some respect

An email has remained unread in my inbox for nearly a week even though it contains important information.  I’ve relied on a friend’s summary rather than battle through the grey wall of words that hits me when I open the email.

I know from previous experience that the important nuggets of information in this email are buried among screeds of waffle. The important bits are usually bad news. When I do make the effort to decipher the message, I get the distinct feeling that the waffle is intended to distract me and dilute the impact of the bad news. The upshot is that I get angry – but not because of the bad news.

I’m angry because the writer has wasted my time. I’m angry because the writer makes ME do the hard work of extracting and constructing the key message. I’m even angrier because the writer clearly hoped that most readers wouldn’t make the effort to sift through the meaningless dross and so somehow miss the bad news.

How many letters have you received from companies announcing price increases that use the same strategy of sugar-coating and obfuscation? First these letters tell you of spurious benefits and service improvements for a page and a half. Buried near the end comes the news that you’ll have to pay more.

Here’s a plea to the writers in marketing, PR or communications departments: please don’t fudge, don’t use fillers, excuses or distractions. Just tell me what I need to know. Respect my time and my intelligence and give it to me straight. I may not like your message, but I’ll appreciate being treated with respect.


October 18, 2010 at 9:09 pm 1 comment

Ten tech-enabled business trends to watch

McKinsey Quarterly recently published an interesting article covering ten tech-enabled business trends to watch. I summarised these below.

Trend 1: Distributed co-creation moves into the mainstream. Distributed co-creation means gaining value from your web community (followers, influential bloggers, etc.) by getting them involved (giving feedback, sharing ideas, asking questions, reviewing and rating products and services). To do this successfully, an organisation needs to gain and maintain the trust of their web community.

Trend 2: Making the network the organisation. Organisations can optimize access to sought after skills by setting up internal or external networks using web technologies.

Trend 3: Collaboration at scale. Using Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, etc.), organisations can reach better collaboration between their knowledge workers. To do this successfully, an organisation needs to understand how knowledge work takes place (information pathways, employee interactions, etc.).

Trend 4: The growing ‘Internet of Things’. This term refers to assets (such as cars) becoming elements of an information system (e.g. by having a sensor installed in a car that collects vital information). Organisations need to explore ways on how to use assets to collect information and data.

Trend 5: Experimentation and big data. Big data includes customer data from public, proprietary, and purchased sources, web communities and smart assets. Organisations need to understand the value of experimentation (a ’test and learn’ mind-set ) and learn how to access, capture and analyse data.

Trend 6: Wiring for a sustainable world. Sustainability has already become a performance metric for organisations. In future, organisations will also need to manage the environmental impact of their IT (e.g. by using green data centres, reducing the number of servers, etc.). At the same time, IT will help to use resources in smarter, more efficient ways.

Trend 7: Imagining anything as a service. The key word is cloud computing which, simply put, means to access computer resources provided through networks, rather than running a software. Web-based Software as a Service (SaaS) allows organisations to access and use services, and to market their own services to potential and existing clients.

Trend 8: The age of the multisided business model. One example is the “freemium” model: Organisations (such as Flickr or Skype) provide free services to a large number of users while charging a smaller number of users for premium services. Organisations need to investigate whether they could benefit from a multisided business model – because if they can, so can their competitors!

Trend 9: Innovating from the bottom of the pyramid. Technology has gone global and reached emerging markets. Local entrepreneurs and businesses best understand the needs of these markets and are able to respond with innovative approaches. This new type of competitor not only challenges the players in the developing markets but also in the developed ones. Organisations need to understand how best to tap into the local resources.

Trend 10: Producing public good on the grid. This refers to the role of governments and the use of technology for creating new types of public goods and improving access to and effectiveness of public services. Areas that are already impacted include, for example, mass-transit systems, law enforcement and education. Open data initiatives and new forms of collaborations will make public policy making more transparent and efficient. Public organisations will need to embrace new approaches to creating, delivering and managing public goods.

For the full article, go to (login required).

I would like to thank Robin Van der Breggen, Managing Director of Mavim New Zealand Ltd, who shared this article through LinkedIn.

September 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm Leave a comment

LinkedIn Gems

I’m on LinkedIn, complete with profile, recommendation, picture and memberships in various LinkedIn groups, neatly selected to feed my different areas of interests. Needless to say, the latter keep my mailbox busy. With daily or weekly digests, there are always some discussions, comments, news and links that need to be shared. While this may be clogging up my mailbox from time to time (I heartily admit that I spent at least an hour each day going through these emails), I have found the odd information gems in the forms of interesting people to connect with, blogs and websites to check out, and new knowledge to keep my brain cells alive.

These gems aren’t always just of value to myself but also and often more so for my wider network of family, friends and colleagues. There may be someone looking for a service or product, and you may just happen to have the right contact for them, or someone shares where to publish your first e-book and you know that one of your closest friends had been considering this for the past months. Sometimes, of course, I do also stumble across a contribution that should have better been left un-posted, or a discussion that turned rather heated. So the selection below constitutes an eclectic array of all of the above – enjoy the sparkle!

Socially responsible sparkle: Give Family a Break

Go on a break and support a good cause – if that doesn’t make you feel good, I don’t know what will! From 1 to 30 August, you can bid for $1 reserve accommodation and dining options throughout New Zealand’s InterContinental  Hotels Group (IHG) to raise money for the Salvation Army on The money raised will help up to 40 disadvantaged New Zealand families have a one-week holiday this coming summer.

Request sparkle

As stated in the introduction above, many LinkedIn users are looking for information or resources. Rosemarie Begbie, owner at Enterprising Women, a networking group for women that are running their own businesses in New Zealand, is looking for inspiring women speakers. This has sparked a long list of valuable responses for Rosemarie, and an invitation to come along to a Zonta group meeting. It looks like Wellington women in business can look forward to a number of interesting networking events!

Twitter sparkle: Oldest Twitter user passed away

Ivy Bean, an English lady who was widely considered to be the oldest Twitter user, died at the age of 104. She had over 56,000 followers on Twitter, and she was also an avid user of Facebook.

Regional sparkle: New Courses at the Business Centre, Wellington

Gabby Simpson, Operations Manager at the Business Centre in Wellington, announces the centre’s upcoming courses and events for August (what’s left of it) and September. TACTICS has been partnering with the Business Centre and we just offered a couple of free one-hour workshops in Wellington. If you missed out this time, sign up for our newsletter on our website and we’ll keep you posted.

Now it’s your time to shine – send me a comment to share your LinkedIn gems (or grime) with me.

August 20, 2010 at 12:18 am 1 comment

Useful Tools for Technical Writers – Part I

This post is the first in a series with the aim to introduce tools that are:

  • useful for technical, professional and business writers
  • accessible online
  • easy to use, and
  • free.

Each tool is described briefly and accompanied by a screenshot that shows the tool ‘in action’.

Note: Tools are introduced in no particular order.

1. FreeMind

FreeMind is an open-source tool.  It is a mind-mapping software that allows you to create electronic mind maps.  A mind map is a diagram that you can use to represent words, ideas, tasks, content structures, etc.  It allows you to:

  • structure your information using branches and groupings
  • connect related portions of the information, and
  • name groups of information.

This relates to the information mapping principles of chunking, relevance and labelling.

As a writer, you can use FreeMind to analyse and plan the structure of your document or your website content.


FreeMind is easy to download.

2. Writeboard – Write, share, revise, compare.

Writeboard is a collaborative writing software.  It makes editing a document a safe and easy process as it creates a new version every time the user saves an edit.  Writeboard is not meant to produce the final, formatted document; rather you would use it during the writing process, particularly if you are collaborating with multiple writers. This can be particularly useful if you include your audiences in the writing process.


Writeboard works with Internet Explorer 6.x, Safari, or Firefox.

3. Stickies

Stickies is an electronic version of post-it notes.  Stickies can store text or images.  You can attach them to a web site, document or folder.  You can also set an alarm to a sticky if you want to be reminded of your note at a certain point in time.


Stickies is a useful tool if you get lost in all your physical post-it notes (or they get lost on you).

Stickies is easy to download.

Final word

If you want more information or need help with any of these tools, drop us a line.  Alternatively, if you know any awesome tools we should be blogging about, tell us.

Happy tooling!

August 6, 2010 at 1:55 am Leave a comment

Corporate Governance

Corporate governance is defined as the structures and behaviours by which a company is directed and managed. It influences all company decisions, and guides how directors and managers meet expectations, ensuring they are responsible and accountable in their respective roles.

The companies that maintain good corporate governance are the ones that are transparent, and nowadays transparent means having a user-friendly intranet system. The ideal is that any employee can look up your company’s structures, processes, procedures, systems etc. and readily describe how the organisation works. Oh, and perform their jobs productively.

Companies looking to assess their corporate governance generally need to start by looking at how well defined their processes are. When high level processes are in order, and are visible to employees (transparent), everything else starts to fit into place. Divisions know who they work with and if/when they deal with other divisions, and instructions for individual procedures (such as loading an item into a computer) are accessed through the main process diagram.

Once transparency is obtained, the key is maintaining, reviewing and improving the content.

A comparison I like is one to the rules for a professional sport. Whatever sport it is it will be at its best when everyone knows how to play and there are no contentious issues. When a referee blows the whistle, it must be clear cut why, and spelt out in the rules in a manner that avoids all confusion. Then when something starts to become an issue, the rules are reviewed and adjusted as appropriate.

Technically professional sport is a business though, so that may be why it is governed in much the same way.

June 17, 2010 at 3:10 am Leave a comment

Articles vs Blog Posts

When does an online article become a blog post? When does a blog post turn into an article? What exactly is the difference?

The general consensus is that blogs are written more in the nature of a conversation than an article, with grammatical orderliness mostly ignored. Blog writers take full advantage of the writing freedom this allows and, due to the fact everyone seems to be able to type so fast these days, blogs have basically become the modern day soliloquy.

Many websites have a blog specifically in order to build site traffic and increase their search results. Having a lot of links in the content does this, and in blogs that are somewhat abstract you can turn specific words into links that lead to explanations for those not on the same wavelength. Although articles have started to do this more and more, especially those on the tabloid newspaper websites, the ideas and points still have to be introduced and structured properly.

For a blog to work it needs to keep churning out content, so it’s common to see writers post about things because they are topical, even though they haven’t given it much thought yet. There will no doubt be a superficial promise to give more details later, but this type of blog post is a conversation starter. The comments section is going to provide the body for the piece.

Articles aren’t quite as temporary as blog posts and are considered to be more informative and accurate where details are concerned. While a blog post is generally anywhere from 200-500 words (if you can even narrow it down), articles tend to be 800 words plus. You tend to need to do a bit of research for an article, and even when its finished it needs to be edited to ensure immaculate language free of flaws.

That’s not to say some people don’t blog like that… it’s just not that common.

June 1, 2010 at 4:20 am Leave a comment

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