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Thursday, August 4, 2011
Words and Language Toolbox

Attention: Don’t be wrong when being brief

By Paula LaRocque

You’d think some of the best writing we could find, we’d see in announcements — those brief, often urgent little blurbs and utterances. I mean: one line, two, three. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard, apparently.

Here’s a 12-word sentence from a medical notice: Send this to every person you know, it may save their life!

That comma incorrectly separates two complete sentences — correct punctuation would be a period, dash or semicolon. Also, “every person you know” is singular, so “their life” is wrong on two counts: “their” is plural, and “life” returns to the singular. We sometimes create such pronoun gaffes to avoid the dreaded “his or her,” but it’s poor policy to embrace one problem to avoid another. Sentences can always be recast: “Send this to every person you know — it may save a life!”

Another medical announcement:

In a suspected heart attack, the person should CHEW UP, not swallow, ONE aspirin. (2 not necessary). This goes directly into the inter-mouth skin, with it’s capillaries. The aspirin goes as fast as possible to the heart, dissolving blockages along the way.

Wow. Lots going on here. The period before the parenthesis is wrong. The numeral “2” should be “two.” What is “inter-mouth”? The writer probably means “inner mouth,” but what mouth isn’t “inner”? “It’s,” the contraction for “it is,” should be “its.” Better (or at least literate):

A person suspected of having a heart attack should chew, not swallow, one aspirin. The aspirin’s blood-thinning properties go directly to the heart through the mouth’s capillaries, dissolving blockages along the way.

A hotel announcement:

Your pet may be left unattended as long as they are quiet and nondestructive. For transit, place the pet on the floor of the vehicle or keep them in a well-ventilated travel crate if they are small enough.

“Pet” is singular; “they” and “them” are plural. Solution: Keep the plural pronouns and make “your pet” and “the pet” plural: “pets.”

From a human resources department:

This year every employee is required to return their benefit election form whether you are making changes or not. This must be returned to Human Resources by November 21.

“Employee” is singular; “their” is plural. “Employee” and “their” are third-person pronouns; “you” is second-person. Finally, what is the indefinite referent “this” in the passive second sentence?

You could fix the mechanics of this announcement. But a better solution would be to speak directly to the employees, something the business world seems loath to do — apparently preferring to wander around in vague, passive, third-person constructions. That’s a mistake. Clearer and more personal:

This year you must fill out and return the benefit election forms to Human Resources whether or not you are making changes. Please return your form by November 21.

Spoken announcements are usually better than written, simply because they are spoken. We develop a clearer, more conversational style when we hear the words. That’s because saying something aloud is often enough to persuade us that we need to say it better. Not so, however, with the following announcement, heard at a Texas airport:

For security reasons, passengers must closely control baggage or packages and avoid transporting items without their knowledge.

First (and worst), are we really being asked to refrain from “transporting items without their knowledge”? So if our luggage, laptop, toiletries and clothing know they’re going along for the ride, we’re OK? Or is it only a problem if we’re carrying guns, knives, bombs or flaming undies that don’t know they’re being “transported”?

But consider the rest of the announcement. If we were editing it for brevity and clarity, what would we strike? We’d strike that lame beginning: “for security reasons.” The tightest, clearest messages start with a subject: Paula gets on the plane — or with an implied subject: [You] Go there. [You] Stay here.

We’d also strike “passengers must.” Why speak to people in the third person? If we’re in the Starbucks queue, and someone takes our latte, do we say: “People in the queue must not take other people’s latte”?

And what must passengers do, according to the announcement? “Passengers must closely control baggage or packages.” But those items don’t need to be “controlled” — closely or otherwise — for the same reason that they don’t know they’re being transported: They are things; they neither think nor do.

Control that roll-on! It’s trying to get on the plane!

So, back to editing the announcement — strike the whole dang thing.

Other airports do it better. They say something like: “Do not leave your luggage unattended. Unattended bags will be removed and may be destroyed.”

You do this, and we’ll do that.

That’s great. Clear. Crisp. Conversational. And completely unambiguous.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” will be published by Marion Street Press in September 2011. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: paulalarocque.com

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