Loose language in media’s coverage of U.S. government ‘shutstorm’

© nebari - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably figured out that you can’t visit Yosemite,  federal workers are on furlough, nine million women and children usually served by the WIC program can’t  get access to nutrition, and some random guy has taken it upon himself to mow the lawn at the Lincoln Memorial.

There are many words to describe the government shutdown (now in its 10th excruciating day), but the most fitting one that comes to mind involves a storm of excrement. Of course, the Twittersphere and ‘The Daily Show’ have taken a shining to #shutstorm and Shutstorm 2013 — and lately, I have too.

But the madness isn’t isolated to the government. The media coverage has also come under scrutiny, particularly for relying on loose language that confuses the issues. The result is a generally misinformed public about the root causes of the shutdown and what needs to happen to bring Shutstorm 2013 to an end. Here are a few sample offenders:

Obamacare vs. Affordable Care Act
The real name of the new health care law is the Affordable Care Act, but you’ve probably heard it called Obamacare far more often. What’s in a name? Jimmy Kimmel illustrated this beautifully in a segment on his show, where he found that some Americans support the Affordable Health Care Act but not Obamacare (remember, they’re one and the same).

The problem is that the term Obamacare was actually coined by opponents of the law, but it’s become so ubiquitous that nearly every media outlet — from Fox News to NBC to NPR — has used it. (Thankfully, NPR recently announced that it will use the term ‘Obamacare’ less often.) Objective coverage of the shutdown starts with not using loaded terms.

Shutdown vs. Slimdown
“You know, paying federal employees for their work is a sign that our government is bloated. We need a slimdown” … said nobody ever. Well okay, Fox News seems to think the current crisis is basically a diet to help the government slim down.

This analogy is particularly offensive when you consider the millions of Americans in poverty (including children) who have lost access to food as a result of the shutdown. Fox has been rightfully shamed for this, but slimdown has still become the ubiquitous word of choice on their website for discussing the crisis.

Stalemate vs. Brinkmanship
The words you hear most often in the shutdown coverage are stalemate, gridlock, and standoff, which suggest two equally matched parties who can’t reach an agreement despite active negotiations. But what we’re actually witnessing is brinkmanship, or one party allowing a situation to become dangerous in order to get the results they want.

As John McCain observed, moderates in both parties are being held hostage by the extreme views of Tea Party Republicans. He even described their effort to defund the Affordable Care Act as a “fool’s errand.” In other words, this isn’t a stalemate or a negotiation — it’s hostage-taking.

The debt ceiling deadline is only a week away, and the U.S. government could default on its debt obligations for the first time ever.  The stakes are high. The words we use matter.

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5 common expressions you’re probably screwing up

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English is a colorful language. We have idioms and puns and delightful compound words like shitstorm, bushwhack and blockhead. You would think with this jackpot of expressions, we’d never have trouble saying precisely what we mean.

But of course, being imperfect humans, we’re masterful at taking a perfectly meaningful expression and turning into something that makes no sense at all. To be fair, I’m guilty of this too — and there’s nothing worse than a fellow editor friend calling you out on your improper usage of allude vs. elude.  How dreadful!

So, to spare you from being pilloried by a grammar snob, here are five expressions that are commonly misused. Be prepared for people to correct you for using the correct expression — but you can rest easy knowing that if it leads to a Google war to see who’s right, you’re sure to win some gloating points.

1.) Pass muster (NOT pass mustard)
So, you finished a project. You’ve worked hard on it.  But you’re nervous.  Will it make the grade?  Will it… pass muster?  As much as I’d love the expression to be “pass mustard” (since I love a nice pungent mustard), that just isn’t the case.

I know what you’re thinking … isn’t there an expression about mustard? Yes, there is — and that one’s about cutting the mustard. There are various theories on the origins of this expression, but it’s possible it evolved from people misusing the phrase “to pass muster.”

2.) Home in (NOT hone in)
I know this sounds crazy.  But this one is so commonly misused that the original expression sounds incorrect.  The verb “home” means to be guided towards a target or to move towards a goal (like homing pigeons). The verb “hone” means to sharpen or perfect.

Because “hone in” is used so frequently in North America (“home in” is more common elsewhere), some dictionaries even give it its own entry. And whether “hone in” is actually wrong is certainly up for debate, as illustrated in this New Yorker piece from last year.

3.) All intents and purposes (NOT all intensive purposes)
I’m pretty sure I misused this for years. But if you think about what the expression is actually trying to convey, it becomes pretty clear. We’re trying to say, “in every practical sense”: For all intents and purposes, panda bears are struggling to survive in the wild. 

But “intensive” means either “concentrated on a single area or short time” or “giving force or emphasis. To make the phrase correct, you’d have to put it in a different context:
Ex: She approached the last month of studying for the LSAT with intensive purpose.

4.) Nip it in the bud (NOT nip it in the butt)
Part of me prefers the misused version of this phrase.  But alas, if correct English is to prevail, the technical expression is “nip it in the bud.” You don’t want those pesky wildflowers to grow? Cut them off at the buds instead of waiting for them to flower.

Nipping someone in the butt is what a poorly trained dog would do. But if you’re trying to say that you want to put an end to something pernicious before it has a chance to grow too big, then “nip it in the bud” is your best friend.

5.) Whet your appetite (NOT wet your appetite)
The reason why people misuse this phrase so often is that we simply don’t whet things the way we used to. To whet something means to sharpen or stimulate it. Have dull knives or scissors? In the old days, you’d pull out your whetting stone to take care of them.

To wet your appetite means to pour liquid on it … or pee on it … which would presumably mean that you’ve dampened it. And that’s the opposite of what it means to whet your appetite — that is, to stimulate it so you’re ready to indulge.

Sure, there are plenty more of these phrases to go around. But these are the ones I find the most egregious (maybe because I’ve been guilty of misusing them myself). And hey, if you’re happy using your expressions however you damn well please, go right ahead — after all, I couldn’t care less.

Think Like an Editor: 5 tips for better blogging

© Mimi Potter - Fotolia.comLast week, I attended a class at CreativeLIVE, a startup-to-watch that offers free, high-quality live workshops on everything from photography to design to marketing taught by world-class experts. (If you can’t attend a live class online, you can purchase the course later to access the video and all the bonus materials).

The course was Fearless Marketing by Barbara Findlay Schenck, a marketing strategist and small-business advocate whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. During her course (which I highly recommend if you’re a freelancer or creative entrepreneur), she asked me to weigh in as an editor on what makes a blog post stand out and more likely to be shared. So, I thought I’d round up my top five tips for better blogging:

1. Establish your expertise. What sets you apart in the crowded blogosphere?
As of a year ago, there were nearly 42 million blogs in the U.S. alone. So getting noticed can be a real challenge. While it can be tempting to blog about everything that interests you (who doesn’t love talking about baby pandas and existential cats?), it’s often better for your readers — and easier on yourself — if you establish a theme that relates to your expertise, focuses your energy, and gives readers a sense of what to expect from you.

Remember: Pick a topic you can keep up with for more than just a few months. As WordPress notes, “Many of the bloggers you admire have probably been at it for at least a year.” Before you blog, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can in five minutes. If you can’t think of more than three, your topic is too narrow or doesn’t deeply interest you. Think about what you have to say on a topic that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam.

2. Be timely. Tie your posts into notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics.
Inspiration to write strikes at unlikely times. When that happens, write — but don’t necessarily publish right away. In the editorial world, timing is essential. A story about Patrick Swayze’s best lines from Dirty Dancing is evergreen, but it’s more likely to get shared on social media on his birthday or the anniversary of the movie’s premier. Research notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics related to your industry or theme.

The second piece of this is to keep a calendar. If you’re writing a post about the hot new toys for the holiday season, publishing in mid-December is way too late — you need to strike while the iron is hot before Black Friday, even earlier. Keep track of major events and milestones in a calendar so you can plan for those in advance. That way, you can save those on-the-fly, quick-response posts for relevant hot topics in the news.

3. Think visually. Images and videos are highly shareable, but quality matters.
If you have a knack for presenting info in a visual manner, tap into that. If a recent study comes out and you can break it down into a compelling infographic that simplifies the data, your picture will be worth a thousand words. Are you rounding up a list of local startups or small businesses of note? Get photos. Do you have a great idea for a video series related to your industry? Don’t be afraid to put something together for YouTube.

And for that matter, make sure you have quality images (either a headshot or photos of your business) that you can share if reporters come knocking on your door. If you get a press mention, be sure to post the video or a screenshot of the article on your website. Press begets more press, and prospective clients, consumers, and media outlets view these kinds of mentions as you having credibility and thought leadership in an industry.

4. Use bullets, numbers, and bold headings to make your post scannable.
People love lists. In fact, they love lists so much that there’s a new term for an article in list format — a listicle.  We’ve all seen those lists from sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy circulate on our social media feeds: “51 Corgi GIFs That Have Changed the World” (seriously) or “27 Way More Awesome Things to Buy With $38 Than Facebook Stock.” You’d be tempted to click, right? They’re funny, interesting, and highly shareable.

Think about topics in your industry that lend themselves well to lists. Even if you don’t use numbers or bullets, use bold headings to make your post scannable. Remember: People are reading on devices the size of an index card, and you only have a matter of seconds to grab and hold their attention. A list that promises six items helps readers know how much time they need to commit to your post — and they’re more likely to make it to the end.

5. When it comes to promotion, think like the tortoise rather than the hare.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. That’s one of the hardest things to accept about blogging or building an online presence in general. So what do you do if you feel like the only feedback you’re getting is crickets chirping?  Well first, remember it’s slow and steady wins the race. Building an online following of the right audience takes work and time. While it’s tempting to go after quantity, you should focus on quality instead.

Gimmicks to get people to like your profile or post might work in the short-term, but they don’t build the long-term following of readers or influencers you’re trying to attract. Always respond to people who post meaningful comments, and be sure to follow like-minded people, from fellow business owners to reporters covering your industry. And remember — don’t just promote yourself. Share interesting ideas from others. Be an invaluable resource.

Finally, if you’re wondering why blogging is worth it, remember that relevant content is what brings people to your website or business. Aside from being good for SEO (search engine optimization), it shows that you have authority and personality — two valuable traits in setting yourself apart and getting noticed.  For further reading, I recommend two sources:
The Resources page on Barbara Findlay Schenck’s website, BizStrong.com
 Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Good luck, and happy blogging!

She Who Must Not Be Named: J.K. Rowling and the power of pseudonyms

© Marijus - Fotolia.comFor a few fleeting weeks, anonymity meant freedom for J.K. Rowling.

A London law firm apologized late last week for exposing Rowling’s secret pseudonym — that is, Robert Galbraith, the supposed first-time author of the critically acclaimed but modestly-selling detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Soon after the secret was leaked, The Cuckoo’s Calling skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list, with first edition copies going for over $1,000 a pop. Great news for her publisher, no doubt, but Rowling was not pleased.

She who must not be named
So what exactly is Rowling griping about? For starters, a respected law firm leaked her identity in a major breach of confidentiality. But more than losing a sense of privacy or anonymity, Rowling lost her ability to experiment and play without the pressure of expectation. As she notes in the FAQ section of Robert Galbraith’s author website, her pseudonym wasn’t a marketing ploy, but rather a desire to fly under the radar: “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.”

Rowling also notes that eventually, things may have gotten complicated with requests for interviews with Galbraith coming in — but she hoped to reveal her pseudonym on her own terms, if it came to that. For people wondering why in Voldemort’s name Rowling wouldn’t publish under her own name in the first place, just consider the very public lukewarm reviews she received for The Casual Vacancy, her first work following the Harry Potter series. It was impossible for her to dabble in a new genre without constantly hearing from fans or reviewers that it wasn’t as masterful or immersive as Harry Potter. A good problem to have, in a way. But I understand Rowling’s desire to have a secret, just for a little while.

The purpose of pen names
These days, it feels like there are so few secrets.  That’s why we get such glee out of mysteries like the anonymous writer behind the hilarious Ruth Bourdain Twitter account, which satirized food writing with particular relish (excuse the pun). In the age of personal branding and over-sharing, it was hard to imagine someone not taking credit for creating something so popular. I guess sometimes, a pen name is about the sheer joy of mystery.

Of course, there’s the dark side to anonymity as well. Anonymity on the Web makes it possible for people to share questionable and sometimes downright harmful ideas without having to be accountable for the consequences of their actions. To be sure, there’s power and bravery in putting your name on a piece of writing that’s open to ridicule, debate, or misinterpretation by anyone in the world with access to the Internet. But not everyone’s lucky enough to be granted freedom of expression, and sometimes pseudonyms serve a real purpose. Here’s a look at why a few famous writers adopted their pen names:

George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Dupin)
George Sand was a prolific French author, writing in the mid-1800s with contemporaries like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. As a woman, she struggled to find publishers who would take her seriously — which is eventually how she stumbled on the nom de plume of George Sand (a lover named Jules Sandeau supposedly helped her settle on the name).

Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)
Samuel Clemens was America’s first celebrity author, but one of his earliest jobs was piloting riverboats.  “Mark Twain” was a term referring to the second mark on a line that showed where the Mississippi was two fathoms deep. It became Clemens’ pen name when he became a reporter — a common practice, especially to protect crime reporters.

Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel)
Theodore Geisel adopted the pen name Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, after he was banned from writing for Dartmouth’s humor magazine (he got caught drinking with friends in his dorm room). He upgraded himself to Dr. Seuss after graduation. A playful pen name bolstered the sense of whimsy he created in his books (true for Lemony Snicket, too).

Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden)
Hobb, a best-selling science fiction author, first published her work under the name Megan Lindholm. She was originally going to publish as M. Lindholm, when an editor told her it was important for women writers in science fiction to “declare themselves.” Eager to explore new styles and perspectives, she later took on the pen name Robin Hobb.

Like Rowling, she likely realized that maintaining two successful author personas as just one real person wasn’t going to be easy — and she eventually revealed herself as the writer behind both identities. Today, she continues to publish under both names.

The lesson for the rest of us writers? If you’re in a rut or paralyzed by a vicious attack of “what ifs” (What if they hate it? What if it’s no good?) consider writing under a different name, even if it’s just on your blog — you might find a voice you never knew you had.

Word Nerd News: California bill defines ‘hot dog’; The NYT insults Scotland; Washington state gets rid of sexist language

© elfivetrov - Fotolia.comCalifornia bill seeks to define ‘hot dog’

NPR reported on a recent California bill that, among other things, defines a hot dog as: “a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in casing, that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.” Sounds about right to me.

But why are legislators defining tasty meat treats, you ask? Well, the bill is actually about the California food code and this particular definition is being pushed by health inspectors who want to emphasize that hot dogs should be cured or pre-cooked. That means “street vendors who reheat them are held to different health standards than restaurants.”

The New York Times accidentally insults Scotland

Andy Murray  clinched the Wimbledon title on Sunday, making him the first British person (as in from Great Britain — including Scotland and Ireland) to win the title in 77 years. Despite the pressure placed on him from, well, just about everyone in Great Britain, he played the tournament of his life. Even coach Ivan Lendl couldn’t help but smile.

The New York Times heralded Murray’s win with this headline: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule” (they since changed England to Britain). This touched a nerve and set off a fury on Twitter because Murray is Scottish. And if you ask Scottish people, Scotland is not England. They are two separate entities that are both part of Great Britain.

Washington state removes all gender-biased language from the books

Reuters reported that earlier this month, Washington (my former home state with strong female political leadership) became the fourth state to officially remove gender-biased language from the law, joining Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. This means that 40,000 words in state statutes have been changed to reflect more gender-neutral language.

What exactly does this look like? Well, ‘penmanship’ is now ‘handwriting,’ ‘fisherman’ is now ‘fisher’, and ‘his’ is now ‘his and hers’, to name a few.  Lawmakers said this ended up being a much bigger project than they envisioned, but their hope is that removing sexism from official language is a first step towards combatting it in our daily lives.