Grammar


Every once in a while I get a few minutes to visit all the other sites that link to our blog and I’m usually surprised at the sheer number of people who find useful stuff on our site to tell their own readers about.

I just had a chance to review links from February and March, and have made a startling discovery:  The subject of my last long post, Do Funeral Homes REALLY Need the Internet?, was the subject of a challenge over at Business and Blogging.

Their post, titled Business Blog Challange Number Five: An Independent Embalmer and a Funeral Home, is part of a challenge to find businesses that would not benefit from a blog.

The post is written by an outsider to our industry.  And while the writer, Laura Spencer, is clearly a fan of blogs and their use in business (hence, the name of their website) she lays out a pretty good argument FOR blogging in the industry.

Check out her post to see another argument FOR blogs in the funeral home.

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In my last post, Do Funeral Homes REALLY Need the Internet?, I went off on a tangent about the kind of funeral homes that DON’T need the Internet.

In short, I basically pointed out that if you can’t figure out how to create an effective story for your firm and tell it with the simple advertising media you already use (yellow pages, billboards, brochures, church bulletin ads, etc.) then you’re wasting your time on an elaborate website.

Converting potential clients to paying customers (even in the funeral industry, you have to convince people to use your firm) is mainly about how you communicate with them.  Now, I don’t mean saying “please” and “thank you,” although courtesy is important.  I’m talking about how you identify your firm and the story you tell to your community.

Every person who needs a funeral director has an idea of the kind of funeral and funeral home they want for their loved one.  Some customers value an extremely personalized service and will look for a funeral home that can offer it.  Others might be focused on price and “getting the best deal.”  And some folks just want the most convenient location and the firm that will do the funeral on the day they’ve already chosen.

Those customers are not the same person and they will not all choose the same firm.

So identifying yourself in the market will make it easier for your customers (the ones predisposed to use your firm) to find you.

But if you can’t articulate your “story” in a yellow page ad or in a brochure, you’re just confusing the issue and your potential clients.

 I personally struggle every day to write clearly and represent our company and product (quilted cot covers) in the simplest, most effective way.  And I’m a trained writer!  How much harder is it for trained funeral directors to communicate effectively?

The biggest misconception is that business writing has to be stilted, formal and fancy.  Ugh!!!  Stop writing boring stuff!

Even though it looks easy, simple writing is REALLY HARD.  But effective communication means you have to get rid of the stuff that confuses the real meaning of your work.  Toss out the fancy words and the long prepositional phrases.  Allow yourself to start a sentence with “and” or “but”.  Give yourself some freedom to write like you talk and then edit the crap out of it.

Want to start smaller?  Follow this simple exercise:

Pull out your latest brochure.  You know, the one that looks pretty with all those long paragraphs that tell all about your history and all the great service you can provide.

Now, write a one-sentence summary of each section.  The sentence must be short and not contain commas, unless there’s a list of things in the sentence.

After you’ve written this small summary, read it over for content.  Does the brochure really say what you wanted?   Do you need a few more sentences?  If so, write one more sentence for each section that needs it.  Keep the sentences short.

And remember, Funerals are an intensely personal affair, so any writing for your business should reflect that.

Whenever I write something, I try to set it aside for a few hours or a few days (if I have the time) and come back to it with fresh eyes.  Then I can more closely approximate how you will read it.  Often, I find myself skipping the boring parts, just like you do when you read. 

No, you shouldn’t feel bad.  We all skip stuff when we read because we know that most people aren’t great writers.  Your challenge, when communicating through writing with customers and potential customers, is to make every word meaningful, so the time you “borrow” from your reader isn’t wasted.

Need help?  Drop me an email (finalembraceonline@gmail.com) with a copy of what you’ve written, even if it’s old and needs work.  I’d be happy to give you a quick critique and some helpful suggestions.

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Clear Writing = Clear Results 

Ours has become a visual culture.  Most people have hundreds of television channels streaming into their homes, but very few books, and often just a few magazines.  The written word has been left behind, in favor of exciting images and special effects.  The Internet has changed the way we use language too; muddying the written communication channel.  

If you write your own advertising or informational copy, always (and I mean always) have others read through it.  A second or third set of eyes can make all the difference.  

And, always remember that most people aren’t equipped to read complex information.

While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data, according to the federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.  

This means the old acronym, K.I.S.S. still applies: Keep It Simple…Sweetie!

And, that means, reviewing, editing, and rewriting – until a 10 year-old can understand everything on the page.

Kim Stacey, of marketingfuneralservices.com, has dedicated her career to supporting and empowering funeral service professionals by writing responsive advertising and informational copy. She can be reached most easily at kimstacey@sbcglobal.net, or 831-338-0220. Living in the small coastal town of Boulder Creek, California, she’s in the Pacific Time zone.

I recently highlighted some common mispellings that change the word you intend to write into a completely different one. 

In this lesson, we delve deeper to reveal word pairs that vary by mere letters, but are far apart in their meaning.

Complement / Compliment
To be fair, you might not use the first word very often, but it’s different than a compliment (an expression of praise) because complement is usually a verb which means that something completes something else.  “Your language skills complement your partner’s math abilities.”

Illicit / Elicit
If you ask questions of a shy child, you might be trying to elicit a response.  One could say you try to evoke a response.  Illicit is an adjective that describes something that breaks social norms, as in an illicit affair.  Illicit can also mean forbidden or illegal.

Allude / Elude
To elude something (like eluding capture) is to escape or evade it.  To allude is to refer to something indirectly.  Such as:  “By mentioning that he never broke an important promise, the politician alluded to his opponent’s recently-revealed extramarital affair.”

Principle / Principal
You can stand on principle, because a principle is a fundamental assumption.  If you stand on principal, you’re probably being very rude to the person who runs the local school.  Some learned to differentiate by telling themselves that the principal of their school is their pal.  Maybe not the best assumption to make.  Principal can also describe the amount originally invested in a loan, as in “this payment goes toward the principal.”

Capital / Capitol
The U.S. Capitol and the Capitol in Rome share a name.  Otherwise, other capitals are spelled with an ‘A’.  Capital letters, capital investments and capital crimes each have different meanings because capital can refer to wealth (raising capital), a place (the capital of Tennessee), excellence (a capital hotel) and even murder (caput is Latin for head or existence).

Except / Accept
Except
refers to exclusion.  “They were all there, except Frankie.”  Accept is about acceptance or receiving.  “We will accept your explanation.” 

Insure / Ensure
To ensure something means you’ll make sure it happens.  To insure something you must guarantee (usually with money) that it will not be damaged or lost, much as car insurance does.

Previous Tim’s Grammar Lessons:

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  Spelling Mix-Ups

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  …Overpunctuation???!!!

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  Lists

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  Business Letter Writing

Tims grammar Lesson’s; Part 1

We all do it – mistake one word for another because we can’t remember how to spell it. 

And you can’t count on your spellchecker to find the mistake, because you’ve actually spelled a real word.  It just wasn’t the one you wanted to spell.

Here are some common words that get mixed up:

INPATIENT / IMPATIENT
I remind myself which to use by remembering that an INPATIENT is someone who is IN the hospital.  IMPATIENT  refers to an inability to wait.

THEN / THAN
People get lazy when they speak.  Of course, we often forgive lazy speakers, but we rarely overlook lazy writing.  THEN is a function of time, as in “we ate, THEN we swam.”  (Actually, we probably should have waited 30 minutes, THEN swam, but…)  THAN is a comparison.  “There was more swimming THAN eating.”

THEY’RE / THERE / THEIR
Some people can’t seem to figure this one out.  My rule?  THERE is a place, just like WHERE.  Contractions always get an apostrophe, so THEY’RE is two words connected.  And THEIR is a possesive, like HIS or HER or ITS.

ARE / OUR
This one speaks for itself.  I think this mistake might be as much a function of the accent you grew up with as anything else.

A / AN
I usually mess this one up when I change a word and forget to change the rest of the sentence.  ‘A’ can be used to describe a word that sounds like it starts with a consonant.  ‘AN’ is used for words that sounds like it starts with a vowel. 

A plant that flavors food would be AN HERB while one of a group of men named Herbert would be A HERB. 

THEATER / THEATRE
Some will tell you that ‘THEATER’ is the building and ‘THEATRE’ is the art.  Others will say that the -RE ending was the original British spelling and Webster (the dictionary guy) changed it to streamline an American English.

The realist in the crowd (me) will tell you that it only depends upon how esoteric or sophisticated you want to sound.  THEATRE is hip and avant-garde.  THEATER is where you go to eat popcorn mixed with plain M&Ms.  (If you haven’t tried the two together, do it ASAP!)

TO / TOO / TWO / TUTU
This one’s a bit silly.  TOO indicates excess, TO is a direction, TWO is a number and TUTU is a dress worn by a ballerina.

PAST GRAMMAR LESSONS:

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  …Overpunctuation???!!!

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  Lists

Tim’s Grammar Lessons:  Business Letter Writing

Tims grammar Lesson’s; Part 1

Punctuation is as important as signage on the highway.  Like road signs, punctuation marks tell you how fast to go, when to slow down and how quickly to stop.

But just like road signs, punctuation marks can be confusing if used too often or incorrectly.

I see a lot of overpunctuation on a fairly regular basis.  the most common ones are too many periods or ellipses, too many question marks or exclamation points and too many commas.

PERIODS AND ELLIPSES.  God bless the period.  The most basic of all punctuation, the period tells us when to pause between sentences.  Unfortunately, someone invented the ellipsis, a punctuation mark which looks like three periods in a row (…).  The ellipsis (the plural form is ‘ellipses’) is used to indicate a long pause, an omission in printing or a sentence that trails off.

I can fully defend using the ellipsis for omissions in printed text, as in a newspaper account of a fire:  “She watched the … building burn.”  This would be especially useful if you’ve already identified the building as “The International Trade Union Credit Union Building” and a repeat of the name would just bog down the story and confuse the reader.

Using the ellipsis to indicate a pause is usually the sign of a bad playwright or screenwriter.  My favorite playwright, Edward Albee, uses ellipses to indicate the pauses he intends for each line.  His attempts to direct the play from his typewriter make reading one of his plays an unpleasant experience.

So be…careful…about using the…ellipsis…in your…writing.  And for those of you chuckling because you don’t use ellipses – keep it down – I know that you like to use – dashes.  Yes, I do know – I’ve seen your writing.

And while real people often trail off a sentence in conversation, it has no place in business writing.  Yes, you might want to veil a written threat by trailing off a sentence that would have presumably included unpleasant actions you might take (such as “If you do not correct this error, we will be forced to …  I will leave it there, in the hopes that we will not be forced to take other action.”), but, please, leave this kind of threat language to your attorney.

QUESTION MARKS & EXCLAMATION POINTS.  A ‘?’ at the end of a sentence indicates that you are asking a question.  Typing ‘???’ at the end of a sentence suggests that you are exchanging text messages with a fourteen year old.  Using mulitiple question marks to indicate your impatience or anger does little to advance the conversation.  A reader will focus on the ‘???’ and try to decipher your meaning (and get mad if they sense your rudeness) rather than actually reading the question.

Multiple exclamation points also act a “dumbed-down” version of adult grammar.  The ‘!’ is (hopefully) so uncommonly-used in business writing that its inclusion in any letter will make the reader take notice.  There are some people who email me that seem to have developed an unintentional finger twitch that forces them to end every sentence with ‘!!!’.  I’ve begun deleting them because they’re so hard to read. 

Best rule for question marks and exclamation points?  Use them sparingly.  Much like curse words, they lose their effect when overused.  A signed Babe Ruth baseball card is so special because it’s rare.  Give your ‘!’ and ‘?’ the same treatment.

COMMAS.  The most common mistake with commas is using them in the wrong part of the sentence.  Many writers have heard that commas set off prepositional phrases or separate lists by telling the reader where to pause.  They turn this around to mean that any pause must be indicated by a comma. 

Not, a, chance.  (I wrote that last sentence, but I can barely stand looking at it.)

What most writers forget (and I’m guilty here, too!) is that everyone reads differently.  The trick is to de-clutter your writing so that it can be understood by a wide range of people.

Some folks read slow.  Others read out loud.  Still others skip all punctuation because of past experiences with bad writers.  Frankly, people know how to read and will pause when it’s convenient for them, not when you want them to.

IN CONCLUSION.  (Sorry – I just like the closing argument-like sound of that phrase!)  Be sparing.  Punctuation is meant to help your reader, not confuse them. 

I found this picture on the Defective Yeti blog.  He labeled it “Made 5000 Fishwiches Out Of Five Buns And Two Cod.”

I think I’ll take a less controversial tone.

Made 5000 Fishwiches out of Five Buns and 2 Cod

This picture is a good example of what happens when you don’t consider the way your writing will be viewed by others. 

The manager of this store wanted to recognize the work of an outstanding employee, but failed to see that adding his last name would have spared some confusion.

Although, I do think this would be a good sign idea for a church.  Maybe it could be changed to “Employee of All Eternity:  Jesus” or something like it.

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