Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fun With Punctuation

Jack Shepherd over at Buzzfeed has just posted an interesting survey of lesser-known punctuation marks.

Orthography geek that I am, I’ve seen (and even used) most of those on the list, at one time or another. Even the “Guillemets”, back when I used to try to write in German. Though I never knew before what they were called.

I was intrigued to learn the word hedera for that little foliate thing that separates paragraphs. I’d have called that a dingbat.

A couple of Mr. Shepherd’s marks look a little dodgy to me. (Like the so-called “Exclamation Comma”, shown up at the top of this post.) Maybe they’re just very new—hip, edgy punctuation devised by phone engineers to sate the texter’s unwholesome craving for constant emphasis.

(I actually love how texting seems to be returning us the grand old days of elocutionary punctuation.)

I suppose my darling, favorite, beloved M-dash is too common to have made the list. But what about the Oxford Comma, which is said to be moribund, but which I love to distraction and will never give up?

Do you have a favorite punctuation mark?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Holiday

  So have you heard about “Jesus Ween”?

The term caught my ear recently, like a hook tied to some verbally tone-deaf person’s oratorical fly-fishing rod.

I looked further and discovered that “Jesus Ween” is the invention of a fundamentalist preacher called Paul Ade. He explains:

“Every year, the world and its system have a day set aside (October 31st) to celebrate ungodly images and evil characters while Christians all over the world participate, hide or just stay quiet on Halloween day. Being a day that is widely acceptable to solicit and knock on doors, God inspired us to encourage Christians to use this day as an opportunity to spread the gospel.”

There’s so much that could be said about this. But let’s just look at the name itself.

“Halloween…” [I imagine the pastor musing.] “Halloween… Hallo. Ween. But I don’t like Hallos. Hallos are unchristian. Let’s get rid of all the Hallos, and put Jesus in there instead…ah, yes—JESUS Ween!"  

But what exactly is a Hallo? Or, for that matter, a Ween?

Halloween is, of course, a contraction of All Hallows Even: the day (and night) before the day that Christians traditionally dedicate to all the saints, November 1. So far from being ungodly, a “hallo” is actually a person who has been canonized and attained the beatific vision in heaven.

The een part is the even, or “eve”. In “Jesus Ween”, it’s staggering along with the w of hallow stuck onto it.

This is an example of what linguists call reanalysis. You take a compound and you do something to it grammatically. You can make it plural, change the tense—whatever you like. But here’s the important part: you ignore the original component parts of the compound, and treat the whole thing as one solid unit.

So, say you want to split Halloween in two. You ignore its original elements hallow and even/een. You treat it as an undifferentiated whole, slicing it wherever the fancy seizes you, and you end up with Hallo Ween. 

There’s nothing wrong with reanalysis—it happens all the time. It might even be considered seasonal at this time of year: to make his Frankenstein’s monster of a Jesus Ween, the tin-eared pastor chose to cut up the corpse of Halloween without reference to where its joints actually were. He chopped it into hallo and ween, then tossed out the hallo and stitched Jesus in instead. A good day’s work for a mad scientist.

The interesting part is, what made him cut it up at all? He must have had some intuition  that Halloween contained two distinguishable units of meaning. And for some reason, he decided that the hallo part was where the trouble lay.

He likes the ween part, though. He even points out that, “the dictionary meaning of Ween is to expect, believe or think.” And it’s true: “ween” is an obsolete word meaning “think” or “suppose”.  So the whole thing sort of makes sense. Sort of.

Though by tossing out even, Pastor Ade has missed his chance to plug November 1 as a day dedicated to Jesus. (Who, btw, was a zombie, but we’ll leave that aside.) If the last day of October (“the October 31st Soul winning initiative”) is no longer the eve of anything, then November 1 can’t be significant. Which is fine with me, as long as he’s happy.

My only complaint? People who celebrate Jesus Ween are apparently known as “Jesus Winners”. How…disappointing.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cold Calling: Seven Strategies to Take Away the Pain

    “Cold calling? I’ll do anything but that.”

    Writers are a relatively introverted bunch. To many of us, the idea of phoning a potential client to say, “Hire me!” is downright scary.

    The thing is, cold calling is a powerful way for us to market our services. And it’s not as frightening as you may think. Here are seven techniques to help you pick up the phone and connect with the person who’s yearning for your call.

1. Have a script. Plan exactly what you’re going to say when they answer. Write it down and keep it in front of you. If you want, you can write up a whole flowchart: “If she says X, then I’ll say Y.” Peter Bowerman offers some excellent scripts (and a ton of valuable advice) in his book, The Well Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Commercial Writer in Six Months or Less.

2. Pretend to be someone else. Are you worried that the person on the other end will instantly divine all your insecurities and insufficiencies? (They won’t.) You may enjoy thinking up a new character for yourself. Someone confident and sought-after, who’s done this a million times. Act the part.

3. Rehearse. When you’re under pressure, does your voice sound breathy? Aggressive? Sqeaky? Practice with a friend until you’ve got a phone voice that represents the real you. (Hint: don’t forget to breathe.)

4. Listen. Once you’re into the call, don’t panic and start talking over your potential employer. I like to sit with pen in hand so I can take notes on everything they say. It’s not that I can’t remember “Tuesday”, but note-taking forces me to listen and not blather.

5. What’s your worst fear? Write it down and look at it. For example:

  • “The person is going to think I’m pushy and they’ll get mad and tell me I shouldn’t be bothering them.”  If the marketing director has any experience at all, she’ll know what copywriters are. She won’t be startled by your call.  She certainly won’t be offended by a skilled professional offering to help solve her problems.
  • “The person is going to laugh, because no one would ever take me seriously as a professional copywriter.” How likely is that, really? If for some bizarre reason your phone partner does get annoyed? Know that that’s not your problem. You just get yourself graciously off the phone, and cross that company off your list (for now.) 

6. Find it funny. Can you see any humor in this process? From a cosmic perspective, is there anything absurd about the whole thing? Hang onto that.

7. Remember that, statistically, only a fraction of your calls will lead to jobs. That’s fine. In fact, it takes some of the pressure off. If you feel you’re not getting traction with the person at the other end of the line, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just remember that you’re now one call closer to the call—the one that nets you work.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Social Media in Transition

Dear Freya,

Is/Are “social media” singular, or plural? Grammatically, I mean. Lately I’ve seen a lot of blog posts where the term is singular, as in, “Social media is attracting new attention from government.” But isn’t “media” actually supposed to be plural? 


M. Bassett

Dear M.,

     “Social media is fab.”

     “Social media are fab.”

     Dang, now they both sound sort of wrong.

     [Drinks a macchiato and runs about the block to clear her head.]

     Okay. I’m back.

     As we’ve mentioned before, languages change all the time. Plurals become singulars; meanings shift; slangy constructions become part of the standard grammar. When one of these changes is going on, it can be hard to identify the “right” way to say something. We doubt our instincts.

     The word media is a case in point.

     Media used to be the plural of medium. It was one of those eccentric plurals that English borrowed from Latin: medium/media, datum/data, memorandum/memoranda…. But like data, media has a singular form that doesn’t get used much. People don’t go around saying, “That’s an interesting datum you got there, Zeke,” or, “Google+ is my favorite social medium”.1

     So datum and medium started to sound unfamiliar. Data and media, meanwhile, got used constantly.

     Well, but, so what? Just because a noun has a rarely-used singular form, that doesn’t mean that the plural is suddenly going to get treated like a singular. Look at cattle: no singular form at all, but you don’t hear people saying, “The cattle is coming round the bend.”

     The thing is, there’s another linguistic change going on here.

     English has two kinds of nouns: count nouns and mass nouns. A count noun is anything that can be counted: hippo, spasm, pirouette…. Mass nouns are things that you can’t count: water, grass, idealism…. 2

     Medium/media used to be a count noun. Right now—at this very second!—it’s morphing into a mass noun.

     We’re forgetting all about that old singular form medium. Media is becoming uncountable stuff, like air or independence. When the change is complete, and media is a genuine mass noun, then we’ll all be running around saying, “Social media is fab.”

     But while the change is still in progress, we waver between is and are. We’re not sure which to use, because our language is still making up its mind.

     So really, both versions are right: one’s just newer than the other. You can take your pick.

1. I actually do say these things, but that’s because I’m a copyeditor and a pedant.

2. Some nouns (like thought and hair) can be used either way. Don’t worry about those for now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Four Things to Leave Out of Your Copy

   Hello again, luvvies. I’m speaking to you from the depths of my hammock, Haagen-Dazs bar in hand, P. G. Wodehouse novel by my side. My phone is nowhere in sight.

Wish you had more time to loll around in peace? Well, here’s some good news: we copywriters can actually add value to our work by leaving stuff out.

Here are four elements that strengthen your writing by their absence. In other words, leave them out (or cut them out), and your copy instantly improves.

  1. Adjectives that claim to emphasize, but actually do just the opposite: very, really, basically…. Sometimes you can replace very (whatever) with a single, more specific word: e.g., very angry —> enraged.
  1. Phrases that qualify your stance: somewhat, to some extent, often… Use these judiciously. You don’t want to mislead, but you do want to make your points with conviction. Copywriting is about engagement and persuasion: you don’t have to anticipate every possible objection to your claims. Own your enthusiasm, and let it work for you.
  1. Redundancy. Look for phrases that say the same thing twice, and trim them down: 
  •  advance warning —> warning.
  • “Gladdice holds meetings one-on-one with her clients for a discussion regarding their needs.”   —> “Gladdice meets with her clients to discuss their needs.” 
  1. Backstory. Your particular project—a white paper, for example—may require you to explain some historical background. But usually it’s best to cut to the chase:
  • “Until recently, social media were a relatively unknown marketing tool. They were used by most people for personal communication. Nowadays, social media are a powerful way to get your business recognized by potential leads.”   —> “Social media are a powerful marketing tool for your business.”   

Get good at leaving stuff out, and you’ll have lots more time to snooze in that hammock. Ah, the bliss of doing less….

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Finding Your Writing Voice: The Secret to Success

                           “Just be yourself.”

                                 —Your Mother

      As a professional writer, you understand the importance of working in your own authentic voice.

     We’re often advised to practice writing like we talk. Spontaneous speech is “real” (the thinking goes), so all we have to do is replicate that honesty on the page and we’ll find our “true” writer’s voice.

     The trouble is, we all speak very differently at different moments, depending on the situation and who we’re with. This is what linguists call register. It can be entertaining to try to “overhear” your own spontaneous speech in various registers. Here are a few of mine:

  • on the phone with my income tax preparer: “I’m scheduled to speak to my financial advisor on Thursday, so I can ask him for the records then.”
  • on the beach with my niece:  “…and I’m all like, [Peter Lorre voice] ‘Steempy, you eee-djot—!’”
  • talking to my brother while watching tv: “Dunno, dude. Toss me the clicker?”

     All of these voices are real. They’re all me. And they’re all different.

     The same thing is true of our writing: we each have a whole array of authentic voices on the page. The (very common) idea that each writer has one—and only one—“real” voice? Romantic twaddle. It can drive you crazy.

      So the question is not, “Which one is the real me?” but, “Which ‘me’ do I want to put in charge of this particular project?”

    Here are some strategies to help you zero in:

  • Read a lot of great copy. I collect well-written commercial copy in the forms that I work in: brochures, white papers, press releases…. Read a lot, and your brain will naturally absorb the tone and cadence of what you like. You don’t have to analyze it. You don’t even have to be able to say why, exactly, you think it’s great. Just hear it in your head, and it will affect your voice.
  • Notice when you get it right. When you discover the perfect voice for a particular assignment, give yourself three loud cheers. Keep what you’ve written in some form that makes it easy for you to refer back to it. (I have a folder called “Voice” on my desktop, full of clips from my own writing.) When that client hires you back again, remind yourself of the voice you found for that amazing case study you did for them. You’ll be able to tune right back in.
  •  Say what you really want to say. Have you been working away for hours without ever quite nailing the right tone? Try writing the words, ‘What I really want to say is—“ in your working draft, and then fill in the end of that thought. You may find yourself breaking through into the perfect voice.
  •  Write “in character”. That doesn’t mean you have to be an actor. Just notice who you’re “being” when you write in a voice that feels right. Who is dictating in your head? How are you envisioning your reader? What response are you looking for, and how are you going about getting it? Are you making them laugh? Giving them compelling numbers? Talking softly in their ear like a best friend? When you want to do more work in that voice, remember how you answered those questions, and you’ll slip back into “character”.

Remember: it’s okay to have more than one voice. In fact, it’s a fact of life.

Are there other techniques that work for you? I’d love to hear them in the comments.


Freya Shipley is a freelance writer and editor with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her on Twitter: @freya_221.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Saying F—-

   Boing Boing just linked to a really interesting article, all about the impact of the word “fuck”.

   Law professor Christopher M. Fairman argues that saying “fuck” is taboo in our culture, just like incest or cannibalism. That’s why the word has such power to startle and offend. The taboo, he suggests, may come from our unconscious and uncomfortable feelings about sex.

   I wonder, though.

   It seems unlikely that the emotional impact of “fuck”’ springs from anglophone attitudes toward sexual intercourse. If that were so, then why isn’t “sexual intercourse” a taboo term? Or “copulation”? As Fairman points out, most usages of “fuck” don’t even refer to sex: utterances like “fuck you” and “fucking incredible” have nothing to do with copulation, even metaphorically.

   As far as I know, we have no subcommunities where munching on human flesh is considered ordinary, or even a signal of group membership. But lots of us feel perfectly fine about saying “fuck” in certain social contexts—at a party with peers, say—but not in others—say, in front of our parents, or in a courtroom.

   So saying “fuck” is not really a taboo. I’d be more inclined to call it a dysphemism that carries connotations about the social identity of the speaker. 

   In other words, its meaning is phatic: saying “fuck” expresses social relationship, just as saying “thank you” does. “Fuck” and “thank you” are both void of what Dr. Fairman calls “inherent” meaning. But they have plenty of social meaning, which is why we get so het up when they’re used—or not used—in our presence.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hey, Lady?


    “You ladies ready…?”

    So said our young server last night – her voice high-pitched and insinuating – clearly intending to express deference toward my friend Jessica and me.

    My mind leapt away from sushi entirely. I was overcome by what my father used to call “the pedagogic itch.”

    “Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute, young woman,” I wanted to cry, mentally seizing her by her Nehru collar. “Do you let people call you a “lady”? If so, you must stop it immediately! Don’t you realize how freighted that word is with patriarchal oppression? We women must pay attention to such things! Don’t go giving away your power, sister! And some extra wasabi, please.”

    Of course I said none of this out loud (except the last bit.) This was not the first time I’d noticed that, among young people, the word “lady” does not seem to connote what it did in my day: an adult female abdicating her own intelligence and competence—a less-than-human icon immobilized atop a pedestal constructed out of mingled reverence and contempt.

    I was born in Berkeley, California during the hippie era. As I came to consciousness, the word “lady” was probably hitting its all-time cultural nadir. No one we knew—certainly no one in the academic/artistic circles my family moved in—would use it as a polite synonym for “woman”. Maybe my mom did on rare occasions, when she was talking about Audrey Hepburn or Leslie Caron. But otherwise, “woman” was the respectful word to use. (We never went so far as to spell it “womyn”, but plenty did.)

    On the west coast, at least, that attitude continued on for quite a while—certainly into my adolescence. Then at some point—could it possibly have been during the Reagan years?—“lady” came back into fashion. It lost its complex social connotations. It became ordinary.

     Or else—and I suppose this is what really got my knickers in a twist at the restaurant—maybe those connotations are actually still there, but today’s young women are quietly willing to accept them. Do modern undergraduates feel the dark undertow of “lady”, yet still identify themselves with it? Do they feel they can’t speak up? I know that the word “feminism” has developed a disturbing valence lately that I (socialist feminist hippie that I am) don’t quite understand. Does the f-word now sound more off-putting to the young than anything else? Better to be called a lady than a feminist.

    In that moment, I wanted to save our server from herself. And from the slavering maw of our so-called “post-feminist” culture. But there was nothing to be done.

    There have always been disingenuous people who argue that “lady” is nothing more nor less than a feminine form of “gentleman”. That’s clearly not so, any more than a “mistress” is a female “master”.

    I do think English needs a good, non-invidious word for a gracious woman. Something that denotes quality of character without being demeaning about it, and without the trivializing tone of “lady”. 

    Let’s revive the lovely and archaic word “gentlewoman”. It would fit the bill beautifully.


Freya Shipley is a freelance editor and copywriter. For a free consultation (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her @freya_221.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

President Obama and the “Drawdown”

  Dear Freya,

What is this “drawdown” word that we keep hearing lately? When politicians are talking about taking people out of Afghanistan? Where did it come from? And why?


P. K. Purvis, San Francisco, CA

Dear P. K. Purvis,

           It’s weird, isn’t it. Talking about President Obama’s announcement on Tuesday, journalists keep mentioning the impending “drawdown” of Americans in Afghanistan. The media suddenly seem to prefer draw down over withdraw, remove, or (my personal preference) bring home.

           Why should that be?

           A drawdown used to mean a deliberate lowering of the level of water in a lake or river. The Google News Archive gives headlines like, “Officials Planning Lake Drawdown” (1986), and “Drawdown of Water Needed for Spawning” (1976). By the early 1990s drawdown was being used in the military sense that we hear today:  “Senate Oks Funds For Bosnia, Rejects Troops Drawdown” (1998).

          Human discourse (including political speeches) happens within the context of a frame. A frame is a metaphor that we use to organize our thoughts: a “marketplace” frame, for instance, or a “nuclear family” frame, or a “housecleaning” frame-–the possibilities are endless. Frames comprise a bunch of interconnected elements, sort of like parts in a play. Invoke a “doctor” frame, for instance, and everyone automatically assumes the existence of a patient and a disease, too.

         If you want to control people’s thoughts, it’s helpful to control which frame they’re thinking with. Politicians and speech writers are experts at this.

         Is “drawdown” part of some larger aqueous frame?

         President Obama’s speech contains lots of water-related metaphors. “The tide of war is receding,” he tells us— framing the war as a natural phenomenon beyond human control. “Fewer of our sons and daughters are serving in harm’s way.” Apparently the number of Americans fighting in Afghanistan is declining naturally, thanks to the motion of the moon. We can be grateful for the diminution, but we can’t engineer it. Mr. Obama goes on to emphasize America’s responsibility as “an anchor of global security”, and applauds “the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world”. Thanks to US public relations efforts, we hear, Al Qaeda has experienced a “draining” of support. They’re being routed out of their safe “havens” —a word that originally meant “harbor”. The time has come, we’re told, for America to “chart a more centered course”. Finally, the president praises “the 101st Airborne that has fought to turn the tide in Afghanistan.”

           Now suddenly the tide is something that can be influenced by military action. Canute-like, President Obama seems to be claiming authority over the waves.

           Unlike withdraw, reduce, or bring home, draw down seems to emphasize that element of control. Withdrawing and pulling out are alsodeliberate actions, but they carry a potential connotation of surrender. “Withdrawing” is what you do when you’re beaten. Draw down, by contrast, emphasizes what the president calls our “position of strength”. No one has (yet) associated drawing down with backing down.  Plus it has a reassuring military ring to it, by analogy with stand down. Maybe this is the reason why commentators seem to prefer it.

          The water-and-tide frame seems to well up a lot in political discourse. Does it have some further significance for those trying to sell us on war? We’ll keep listening for it. If you have thoughts about this—or about the term “drawdown” specifically—I’d love to hear them.


Freya Shipley is a freelance copywriter and editor. Got a project in mind? Contact her for a free consultation:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Write a Gripping Press Release

  Back when I was a young copywriter (harrumph—-hold yer horses now, young whippersnapper….)

   Back when I was young, press releases used to be written for journalists.

   A writer would create the document and send it to an editor or PR specialist. That person would then reframe the information to serve a particular audience.

   Nowadays, things are different.

   Thanks to the internet, modern press releases often go straight from writer to reader. Even where there are intermediaries (like online distribution services), your work may not receive much editing along the way. That means that today’s copywriters need to be able to do two jobs: both articulating the facts, and focusing them for the audience we want to reach. Writers must always ask: Who will read this? What are their needs? Why should they take time to listen to me?

   No matter what your topic, there are certain needs that your readers will always have:

  • They want to get their problems solved. Show how your information will get them where they want to go. (But be careful not to sound like you’re selling something.)
  • They want reliable information. Again, make sure your release doesn’t sound like an ad. Avoid archness and hyperbole. Quote reputable people. Tell readers how and where to learn more. Include photos, videos, and links to source material. Try to use dependably accessible sites like YouTube and Flickr.
  • They want to satisfy their curiosity. Start with an interest-piquing headline: “XYZ Corporation’s New Chat Software Turns Up the Heat”, rather than “XYZ Corporation Announces New Service”.  Follow that up with substantial facts.
  • They want to be surprised. Lead with the unexpected. But remember—a press release is not an emotional appeal.
  • They want to get on with their lives. Respect your readers’ time, and make your release brief and meaty.

   Finally, be sure to proofread your own work. However powerful your writing, a misplaced apostrophe will damage your client’s credibility—and your own.