5 Christmas Mondegreens

Merry Christmas, all!

Interrupting the flow of my email rules to bring you my five favorite Christmas song mondegreens.

What is a mondegreen? The term refers to misheard words in a song. According to Leanne Italie of the Associated Press, who interviewed expert Grant Barrett, the word “mondegreen” arose from a 1954 Harper’s Magazine column written by Sylvia Wright. Wright discovered that for years she had misheard (and mis-repeated) the first stanza of the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.”

The original line from the ballad: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the green.”

What Ms. Wright heard: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and the Lady Mondegreen.”

Christmas songs, especially as sung by children, are ripe for mondegreens. Here are my five favorites (in English).

1. From ‘Silent Night’ – “…sleep in heavenly peas…”

2. From ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – “…6 geezers laying…”

3. Also from ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – “…9 lazy Hansens…” (instead of “ladies dancing”)

4. From ‘Santa Claus Is Comin to Town’ – “…making a list, of chicken and rice…”

5. From ‘Winter Wonderland’ – “Later on milk and spiders, as we dream by the fire.” (instead of “Later on we’ll conspire…”)

Do you have some favorite Christmas song mondegreens? Please share!

4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #2

As a memory jog, here again are my 4 rules (guidelines) of business email etiquette:

  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

When I wrote about the first rule of business email – Be Polite – I suggested that you avoid email wars by requesting use of a different communication channel (phone call, face-to-face meeting, facilitated meeting, water pistols at midnight, whatever). But if you absolutely, have to respond by email, please, please remember that you are responding to a human being, not a machine. Most human beings these days – at least the ones I know – are doing the best they can while facing tremendous personal and/or professional challenges. So please remember that.

And if you can’t remember that (really? It’s so hard?), then remember that nasty-grams can live forever on someone’s hard disk drive. So be neutral, be sensitive, be smart and above all, be professional.

And that is our second rule of business email – Be Professional.

Email gurus Silberman and Johnson both remind us to watch the tone of our emails. Tone is a tricky thing. But believe it or not, it’s easier to moderate the tone of a written communication than it is sometimes to moderate the tone of our voice. (You can test this next time your cube neighbor douses you with a water pistol – how high and loud is your voice as you supposedly laugh it off?)

To moderate the tone of your emails, choose neutral words in place of more highly charged words. For example, refer to “status,” “open issues,” and “concerns,” not “debacles,” “problems,” or “mistakes.” While you might consider a shifting deadline to be an “issue,” it’s probably better not to refer to it as “missed” or “failed,” unless those words are used officially by your company or are generated by a software application – and you have your attorney sitting right next to you (holding a water pistol). People do take these labels personally, and you don’t want wade into an inter-departmental (or inter-company) conflict unnecessarily.

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Pushing into controversy myself a bit here (cue toe-in-water image), I’ll say that part of being professional is being sensitive to the person who was concerned enough about a topic to actually send you an email, especially if that someone is lower on the food chain than you. Being tough or clever or “above the fray” doesn’t always win the day; being appreciative and helpful can have more lasting effects (and remember, the email sender might not always be lower on the food chain).

(Note that I am not going to use the American idiom about catching flies with honey here, because, well, it’s gross and, besides, I’ve already used the term “food chain.”)

You know this, because you know it’s true in “real life,” too. I was reminded of this recently when I attended an evening public meeting in my community. Four professionals had formed a panel discussion on a specific topic. (I’ll be neutral here and not name the topic.) Toward the end of the evening, a woman in the audience stood up and asked specifically for help for her child. She was obviously emotional (though not overly so) but very sincere in her request. Not one of the panel members responded. Yes, you read that correctly, not even one.

Finally (to the relief of everyone), another professional in the audience stood up and offered to talk with her after the meeting. (At the same time, he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure that he was the best person to help her.)

How hard was that? Which one of the six people involved in this situation was the most professional, in your opinion?

OK, now I’ll take my toe out of the water, foot out of my mouth, water pistol away from my head, whatever, and talk about one last pet peeve about professionalism in business email. And that has to do with loooooooong email chains – the kind that cross weeks and even months on the calendar – or emails with multiple or hefty attachments. For the love of Mike, people, keep the context but ditch the heft! Mike, by the way, is the poor IT guy responsible for your company’s overtaxed email server.

So the last sub-rule is about professionalism when responding to a business email that’s been circulated through half the world: Be smart. Before you hit Reply All, make sure that all of the right people are on the distribution list; then delete and summarize any of the simple intervening replies (say “the following people on the distribution list have already agreed”; then list them) and keep the original email as close on the page to your response as possible. Believe me, people will thank you (including Mike).

And I will thank you to keep reading my blogs on email etiquette (smooth, eh?). Next topic is business email Rule #3 – Be Clear.

4 Rules for Business Email – Rule #1

Yes, email is still around, and it is still the main form of official communication between business professionals. I realize that rules on email etiquette have been around as long as email has. Email etiquette guru Lindsay Silberman (author of several Email… manuals) has 25 rules for you to follow, and Dave Johnson of MoneyWatch has 9 “keys” for your pocket. But I think I can easily boil those down a bit more.

To start, we should all make one giant assumption in our 21rst century lives: Nothing you send in email will ever die. (This is borrowed from AIIM’s mantra: Nothing on the Internet ever dies.) Emails can be copied, pasted, forwarded, saved and (Hello, NSA!) archived in large data centers somewhere. I am not saying that you should abandon your free-speech rights at the entrance to the corporate campus, just apply your good-sense filters and “look both ways” before you hit Send.

So really there is one overarching rule here: Don’t be stupid. Goes without saying that in the professional business world, you shouldn’t send obscene, rude, sexist, bigoted or otherwise offensive emails (nothing you wouldn’t want your grandmother or grandchild to see). So I think we can explore email etiquette by looking at only 4 rules – well, guidelines really:

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  1. Be Polite
  2. Be Professional
  3. Be Clear
  4. Follow up! (which is an outcome, really, of the first three)

In this blog we’ll explore the first rule (guideline) and what it means – Rule One: Be Polite

Be Polite – I know this sounds as though I have turned in to my mother, and oddly, I found myself asking my 87-year-old mother the other night if she had been “polite” during a recent dinner at a neighbor’s home when she didn’t like the food. (The reasons why I asked this are deep and many, but I won’t overshare here.)

Translation to business email:  Respond politely to whatever is put in front of you, even if you don’t like it and, most especially, even if you don’t like the person who put it there. The key here is to respoooooond, even if you simply say, “Thank you for your email. I’m sorry, but I am swamped right now. I’ll respond by noon tomorrow.” In fact, you can even set this message as an automatic response (using your email tool’s out-of-office feature) on days when you need some uninterrupted time at your real job – say, planning your next pirate-ship takeover. It will buy you some work time now – and some think time later. (Please don’t overuse this tip. And please do what you have promised to do – and follow-up!)

The main idea here is to say something that indicates you received the email (and thus convey to the sender that the email is not lost in the ozone somewhere). So thank the communicator, and/or acknowledge the meeting or clarification, and/or respond to the request. It doesn’t take most of us long to type, “Got it! Thanks.” Or “Thanks. I’ll be there.” Or “Thanks. I’ll discuss this with the team, and get back to you on N-day.” (Where N=the day you follow-up. More on follow-up with Rule 4, topic of a future blog.)

If the email you’ve received is itself impolite or contains provocative or otherwise unpalatable notions, rather than start an email war with cannons blaring, use your email response to set up another communication channel. You can always write, “May we talk offline about this?” to set up anything from a hallway conversation to a conference call. Or – and here’s a unique idea – take the initiative and pick up the phone to call the sender. (If it makes you feel better, you can throw in a pirate’s “Aaaaargh” somewhere in the conversation…see if they notice.)

One last note: It goes without saying here (again!) that you don’t always have to respond to every email. For instance, you do not have to respond to automated emails, or all-hands emails, or a similar widely distributed email. Use your good judgment (or your mother’s good judgment, whichever best applies).

Next blog – Rule #2 – Be Professional

10 Commonly Misused Words

http://hellogiggles.com/10-words-that-youve-probably-been-misusing

Well presented list here! Don’t be compelled to use the word “travesty!”

This is a reblog from “Written Rambles.”

By Tyler Vendetti

There are so many words in the English language that it’s not surprising that the definitions for some of them have gotten mixed up over the years. It’s possible that you’ve gone your entire life without realizing your mistakes. I’m sure people have noticed. One day, you were probably walking down the street, casually chatting with an old friend, and one of these words slipped out of your mouth. Before you can move on to your story about how Mufasa would actually make a very attractive human, your friend stops to correct your error, and suddenly, your whole life starts to feel like one giant lie. How long have you been using that word incorrectly, you wonder? How many angry Facebook rants have you ruined with your improper grammar? While I can’t give you an answer to those questions, I can at least provide you with a list of other tricky words so that you may never have to suffer from this embarrassment ever again:

1) Travesty

What you may think it means: a tragedy, an unfortunate event

What it actually means: a mockery; a parody

This one, I’ll admit, is my own personal error. For the longest time, I equated travesty with tragedy, mostly because in passing, they sound like the same word. It’s stupid, I know, but if you knew how many times I confused fetal position with beetle position, you wouldn’t be laughing. It’s a serious problem.

2) Ironic

What you may think it means: a funny coincidence

What it actually means: contrary to what you might expect

It’s not ironic that you bumped into a talking turtle in a sweater vest right after you told your friend how cool it would be to bump into a talking turtle in a sweater vest. It’s a coincidence, and believe it or not, those two words are not related. Also, you should probably lay off the drugs because I’m pretty sure animals shouldn’t be talking.

3) Peruse

What you may think it means: to skim or glance over something

What it actually means: to review something carefully/in-depth

How this definition got completely turned on its head, I’ll never know, but I’ll be sure never to say “I’m going to go peruse my math textbook” ever again, just in case someone overhears and tries to hold me to it under the real meaning.

4) Bemused

What you may think it means: amused

What it actually means: confused

Again, with the whole “words sounding alike” issue. I’m starting to think I just need hearing aids. This is getting out of hand.

5) Compelled

What you may think it means: to willingly do something, to feel like you need to do something

What it actually means: to be forced to do something (willingly or unwillingly)

The word you’re looking for is “impelled.” I agree, it doesn’t get enough attention.

6) Nauseous

What you may think it means: to feel sick

What it actually means: to cause nausea

When you eat too much ice cream and declare to your mom or the nearest adult, “I feel nauseous,” what you’re actually saying is that you are causing people around you to feel sick. Thanks, jerk. (For the record, “I’m nauseated” is the way to go.)

7) Conversate

What you may think it means: to hold a conversation

What it actually means: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING

This word is a mix of conversation and converse, and doesn’t actually exist, like unicorns or YOUR DREAMS. (I’m kidding. Unicorns are totally real.)

8) Redundant

What you may think it means: repetitive

What it actually means: superfluous, able to be cut out

“Including this sentence is redundant because you already mentioned your love of Santa Claus in the previous paragraph.” This has always been my exposure to the word redundant, so it only makes sense that I would think repetitive was correct. I can’t be the only one? Right? RIGHT?

9) Enormity

What you may think it means: enormousness

What it actually means: extreme evil

I don’t know where the “extreme evil” thing came from (probably the Devil) but enormity makes more sense as enormousness in my mind.

10) Terrific

What you may think it means: awesome, fantastic

What it actually means: causing terror

Okay, so “causing terror” is more of an outdated definition but I still thought it was interesting. Maybe keep this fun fact in the back of your mind the next time you call your favorite camper, “Terrific Tommy,” because technically, a few decades ago, that might have been an insult. Unless instead of a camper, he’s a serial killer. In that case, go for it.

Info via DailyWritingTips.com, Cracked.com, and WriteItSideways.comImage via GinnyTonkin.com.

Punctuation Rules for Blogging

Really appreciate this punctuation infographic from Darin L. Hammond, blogger for Steamfeed.

I think his comma rules need a bit more explanation, which I will provide in a later blog. And I disagree with one of his comments on parentheses (punctuation doesn’t always have to follow – unless it’s the end of the sentence as in this example). But, otherwise, this is pretty useful.

Of course, the challenge is that he assumes you already know what subject, verbs, clauses and prepositions are. Soooo let me know what your questions are!

https://i1.wp.com/2.s.steamfeed.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/578067091.jpg

Between you and me, ‘than’ can take it but not him

This silly phrase is actually meant to help you when using the two very different but often similarly misused words “between” and “than.”

No need to know that “between” is a preposition that can sometimes act as an adverb, and “than” is a conjunction that can sometimes act as a preposition. The most common mistakes with these words appear in the words that follow them – and the sometimes invisible words that don’t.

Okay, I probably shouldn’t be talking about invisible, spirit words now that we are a day past Halloween. But I didn’t get many trick-or-treaters at my house last night. So I am hopped up on mini candy bars today and still wondering about a mysterious knocking sound that woke me up early this morning.

So between you and me, I’m feeling a bit shaky…

And that, by the way, is the correct way to use “between.” Specifically, this word should be followed by nouns (“the lamppost”) and/or by pronouns in the objective case (me, us, him, her, them). Pronouns, are, of course, words that substitute for real nouns, but I’ll bet you knew that already. Objective pronouns are a specific category of pronouns that receive the action of a noun or follow a preposition – as in “I ate them all (“them” being a pronoun that refers to candy bars, which I ate).

We sometimes over-correct ourselves when using “between” because we believe it is prahpah English to say “between you and I.” Nope, it’s not. Go ahead and say me, mee, MEEE after the word “between.” It’s the right thing to do.

The same is not true when you use the word “than.” This is a word that disdains objective pronouns and prefers a diet of invisible words. Weird but true. You must use the subjective category of pronouns (I, we, he, she, they) after the word “than,” because it really expects more of you.

Yep, it’s just like your mother. The word “than” really expects to introduce an entire clause – subject + verb. But often we cut it short – just giving it the subject and leaving the verb (and whatever else might follow the verb) unsaid.

An example is “I am sleepier than he.” Really, you (and my mother) should assume I was going to say “I am sleeper than he is.” But I left off the “is.” The “is” is invisible but understood. (I could say something about a former president and the definition of “is” here, but I won’t. I’ll leave it unsaid.)

What really got me going on this was the jarring sentence I read the other day in an otherwise entertaining magical mystery novel. (Trying desperately to keep a theme here.) In the middle of a long descriptive paragraph, the author wrote “She was younger than him.” Nooooooo! Where was the editor? Where was her mother? How could this have happened?

But then I ate a mini candy bar – and felt better. Happy November!

Good Prose!

Welcome to my first blog = Good Prose! This is an initial installment in the quest to understand the ingredients of and offer recipes for good communication (in English).

Okay, there’s some shameless play involved, too. I admit that I “leveraged” a bit from Alton Brown’s show on the Food Network – ‘Good Eats.’ The search engine blurb
for the show promises to explore “the origin of ingredients, decode culinary customs, and present food and equipment.” Of course, I watch it for all those reasons…but also so that I can catch the latest escapades of the mad French chef.

Prose, Pros and Cons, the last name Kahn – it all works. (Remind me to tell you sometime about the name-the-Kahn-baby contest I was subjected to at a former employer’s.)

So what is “good prose”? Or for that matter, what is prose? Well, it’s generally thought of as anything that isn’t poetry. Surprise! Everyone writes prose everyday. If you regularly write emails, you may genuinely introduce yourself as a “prose writer” the next time you meet someone new. Of course, I’m not promising that will guarantee you a good first impression.

But speaking of good, what do I mean by “good prose”? In their seminal work on writing – The Elements of Style – Strunk and White direct us to “make every word tell” when we write. So that’s a good start, and we can explore more about that on this blog. We can also explore some of the finer points, such as punctuation and emphasis.

One of the overarching principles that draw all of that together, I believe, is a sense of audience:

  • To whom is your communication directed?
  • What is important to them?
  • What questions might they have that you will want to anticipate in your       communication?
  • Especially for email communications, how much time will they realistically spend reading this communication? How will they read it — in-depth or just with a quick glance?
  • Does your audience include non-native speakers of English?
  • If it’s a personal communication, what impression of yourself are you       conveying to the reader?

For me all of these questions are important to answer when crafting a communication. They will influence the techniques you choose to use, for instance:

  • How much information to convey
  • What kinds and levels of details to include
  • What concepts to emphasize
  • How to organize your information
  • What words, tone, and style to use to communicate with your audience

Alton Brown (or at least his writers) has a good sense of audience. He knows that stringing together erudite culinary history with “watch-me-cook” renditions of recipes might not be palatable to the wide audience attracted by the Food Network. So he adds the funny characters and visuals – and sometimes even a plot – to keep us watching. And yes, it’s all a bit silly sometimes. But we keep tuning in.

Please keep tuning in here. Let me know your thoughts on how you adjust your prose to specific audiences.