Just Chill.

Guess what? My most recent blog post received double-digit comments—a new record for me. Whether that occurred due to the subject matter or the fact that I shamelessly asked for comments (remember…I’m breezy!) is debatable, but a couple of the responses have led me to develop another first—a follow-up post.

Consider this comment from Lou, one of my Plante Moran colleagues:

Just chill out! I understand and appreciate the concern expressed about undermining authority. However, authority is earned and is the product of effort and contribution times experience. Using “gentler pressure” is actually a way to influence the longer term, not only the moment you respond. Once you’re viewed as harsh or overly direct, your audience shuts down. I use the adage that I attribute to Frank Moran (likely he noted from someone else): “gentle pressure, constantly applied yields results and avoids major interruptions.” Just my $0.02.

Of course he’s right. Authority is earned, and I understand that there’s a fine line between direct and abrupt. Moreover, I consider that Frank Moran quote a personal mantra (though for my purposes, it’s “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied”). I think about the people I respect most professionally—men and women—and all have made an art out of this. But there are “just” so many gray areas…

Consider this.

The same day my last blog came out, I was copied on an email from Lindsay, PM’s marketing tax consultant. It began like this: “Hi Mike — wanted to give you an update on the latest private equity tax article.” Immediately afterward, she forwarded that email to me with the following comment: “You’ll be happy to know I removed three instances of ‘just’ from this email.”

And I was happy! Because I could see the effect of removing those “justs” in action. Look at that first sentence; I’d be willing to bet my next paycheck that it initially said, “Hi Mike — just wanted to give you an update….” But instead she went with the more direct “…wanted to give you an update….” And there’s nothing harsh or off-putting about it.

What do you think? Should I just chill out? And are there any specific topics you’d like me to touch on? I’ll be back in about two weeks.

Word of the Week:  Anodyne (I heard a vendor say this in a presentation last week. Good word.)
Song of the Week:  “Summertime,” Will Smith


Judgment-Free Zone

Every couple of months or so, a spelling quiz will make the rounds on Facebook. You know the kind:

Which of these is correct?

  1. Acommodate
  2. Accommodate
  3. Accomodate
  4. Accommoddate

I like these quizzes. They remind me of spelling bees back in grade school which, despite never actually winning (damn you, “supercilious!”), I thoroughly enjoyed. I was making my way through one of these, recently, when I came upon this:

Which of these is correct?

  1. Judgement
  2. Judgemint
  3. Judgment
  4. Judgmint

Today’s Mindy confidently selected “3.” But the Mindy of yesteryear once insisted superciliously—and, rather embarrassingly—that the answer was “1.”

I was temping as a secretary—one of the many jobs I had while in college—at a law firm. The paralegal asked me to type up a letter that required me to use the word “judgment” several times. I developed what I considered to be the “Moby Dick” of letters—it may, I thought, have been the single best letter ever to grace the offices of that particular law firm—and I was still mentally congratulating myself when the paralegal came over to me with the word “judgement” circled several times in red.

I don’t remember how the conversation went, exactly, but I do know that I proceeded to make an ass out of myself. “I know how to spell ‘judgement,’” I likely announced. “How could I be a 20-year-old English major and not know how to spell ‘judgement’?”

But when the paralegal returned a few minutes later with a dictionary, all that vehemence and self-righteousness dissipated, along with a little piece of my dignity. Turns out, “judgement” is a “variant spelling” of the preferred word, “judgment.” (Unless you’re in England. Which we weren’t.)

That day was a lesson in humility for me. Today, if someone disagrees with me on a grammar point, I look it up—even if I’m “certain” of the answer.

So how about you? Have you ever been so certain of something that you argued passionately and loudly for your point of view, only to realize you were wrong? Share your story!

Word of the Week: Supercilious
Song of the Week: “The Judgement,” by Elvis Costello (he’s English, so it’s okay)

They Is Here to Stay

It used to be so simple. “He,” “she,” and “it” were singular pronouns, and “we,” and “they” were plural pronouns. Then, last year, The Washington Post incorporated a gender-neutral, singular “they” into its (or should I say “their”) style guide and, more recently, the American Dialect Society selected the singular “they” as its (their?) word of the year. (I should point out that the ridiculous two-word expression, “on fleek” was also a contender, so apparently this entire sentence could be up for consideration next year. Here’s hoping.)

I’ve had a number of conversations about this in recent weeks, and reactions have been mixed. Some people were dismayed by the announcement. Others were thrilled. (One woman in particular proclaimed, “You just made my day! If I had a happy jar, I’d deposit that into it.”)

I get it. It’s an awkward issue, to be sure. You end up with sentences like, “Each partner must then determine any additional tax that he or she would have owed.” It would be much easier to replace “he or she” with “they.” But just because something’s easier doesn’t necessarily mean we should change a rule that’s been around for centuries.

Except people have been ignoring it for centuries, too. The singular “they” has deep historical roots, from Shakespeare to Chaucer to Jane Austen. Someone at Pemberley.com even went so far as to tally up the instances of the singular “they/their/them” in Austen’s six novels—75, in case you’re curious—as part of a web page titled, “Jane Austen and Other Famous Authors Violate What Everyone Learned in Their English Class.” As someone who often takes a contrarian viewpoint when it comes to conventional wisdom and grammar, you’d think that would’ve been enough to sway me. But it wasn’t.

So what’s making me rethink my stance? Articles like this one from the Poynter Institute. “More recently, singular ‘they’ is being considered as an alternative to ‘he’ and ‘she’ for people who don’t identify as male or female or who don’t identify with any gender all,” it reads. “The Associated Press already recommends identifying someone by the pronoun that person prefers, but what if someone doesn’t prefer either?” The singular “they” has become the preferred go-to pronoun for this segment of the population, and failure to adopt it results in pronoun avoidance which only unnecessarily complicates things. That’s different than laziness; that’s cultural shift.

So when I came upon the sentence, “When someone steals your identity, they have the opportunity to file a fraudulent tax return,” earlier this week, I left it alone. And when we were describing the target persona for our new, executive-level video series yesterday afternoon and a colleague pointed out, “We keep saying ‘him’ instead of ‘him or her,’” I thought, “The all-inclusive, newly singular ‘they’ would come in pretty handy right about now.”

And if that allows others to put deposits into their happy jars while we’re at it, so be it.

What do you think? Can you embrace a singular “they”? And do you have a least favorite word? Last week’s blog was all about great underused words; now I’d like to explore annoying, overused ones. See you in two weeks.

Word of the Week: Eviscerate, because—believe it or not—3 separate people noted that it should have been included in last week’s blog.
Song of the Week:Fifteen,” by Taylor Swift, because it was attacked by the Princeton Review for its use of a singular “they.”

Contractions: They Can’t Take Them Away From Me

While an undergrad at Eastern, I took a class called “Writing About Controversies.” Our first assignment was to write an essay challenging conventional wisdom. Dr. Arrington—the best writing teacher I’ve ever had and the instructor of this particular course—showed us an example from his oeuvre called “In Praise of Contractions: Madam Grammar Vs. Dame Rhetoric.”

In one corner you had Madam Grammar—conservative, critical, nose haughtily and perpetually in the air. She would never use contractions—especially in writing!—due to fear of perceived impropriety and would scoff at anyone who did. In the other corner was Dame Rhetoric—relaxed, approachable, inclusive. Someone who’d contract readily and frequently because, after all, the whole point of writing is to communicate effectively.

And Dr. Arrington wasn’t alone. I didn’t have a single instructor in the English department—or any department, really—who objected to contractions. On the contrary, they were encouraged—so much so that I even used them in my master’s thesis.

So you can imagine my surprise when I came to Plante Moran and practice staff began editing away my contractions. Take this recent example: “I know one area where Mindy and I disagree is on the use of contractions. She put them in, and I have taken them out. The article may be more readable with contractions but more business professional without them; this is one of the few lessons I remember from my business writing professor in college.”

Sigh. And he didn’t even contract in his explanation about the contractions in the email! Why so formal, PMer?

One of my favorite exchanges about contractions occurred years ago while I was working with Jerry, a tax partner, on the firm’s year-end tax guide. Jerry, unsurprisingly, was not a fan. “When I read a contraction, I ascribe a southern drawl to the writing,” he explained. So to Jerry, a contraction in a tax article conjures up images of Larry the Cable Guy doing tax returns. (Possible new firm tagline: “Plante Moran. We get ‘er done.”) On the other hand, when I read articles without contractions, I find the formality off-putting. They sound robotic. Read the quote from the fourth paragraph again. To me, he sounds like Spock from “Star Trek.” He might as well add, “I find human illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”

So who’s right? Well, let’s consult the Chicago manual of style, which has this to say: “A complete avoidance of contractions is common only in the most formal writing (think wedding invitations, or speeches before the queen). Even scholarly books freely use contractions in sentences that would sound stuffy and pompous otherwise.” Or, as Stephen King once wrote, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”

But notice that Mr. King chose not to contract there—because “does not” emphasizes his point in a way that “doesn’t” cannot.

So my final point is this: there’s always room for compromise. While we may not choose to contract in every instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of contractions either. Contractions have personality; they humanize us and make us easier to understand. And at the end of the day, our goal is to write for our audience—to write for our readers. I know what my preference is. What’s yours?

Word of the Week: Oeuvre
Song of the Week: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” by Lisa Stansfield