Readers label you based on your style

I’m in Seattle at the Association for Business Communication conference. Erin Kane and I will present “Reader Perception of Workplace-Writer Attributes” this afternoon. (Our fellow researchers, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning couldn’t make the trip.)

We had more than 600 working adults in the US tell us

  1. whether they preferred the more plain or less plain version of 21 written passages
  2. what two labels described the writer of their preferred written passage
  3. what two labels described the writer of the written passage they did not prefer

Good news for those who promote a plain style in their teaching or consulting. People do think plain style is more appropriate in a routine workplace email. The plain passages were preferred 80% of the time (±3.17 at a 95% confidence level). While you might think this is obvious, we have found little research that clearly establishes the style we recommend is actually valued by workplace readers. Most existing evidence is anecdotal.

Good news for those who write in a plain style, too. For example, results for one pair of passages testing nominal usage are shown in the bar chart: 70% of our participants preferred the plainer style without nominals (“defines” over “definition”).Nominal

The writer of the plain passage was most commonly described as clear and straightforward. The writer of the passage that was NOT plain as inefficient. Telling writers that, based on empirical research, they will be labeled as “inefficient” by most workplace readers when they use nominals is qualitatively different that telling them they shouldn’t use nominals.

We have lots of interesting results to share. Some today. Some in future publications. Thanks to the ABC’s C.R. Anderson Research Fund for supporting our work.

More on word choice in evaluations of men and women

Today, I’m following up on a short post about the use of the word abrasive in performance reviews for women. Similar discussions of word choice in student evaluations of college professors have been a hot topic in the past week. See Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant in the New York Times. Or in Inside Higher Ed yesterday:

A law dean last month urged students to stop commenting on female professors’ attire in reviews, noting that they don’t do so in the same way for men.

Professor Benjamin Schmidt provides an interactive chart for viewing the distribution of words used to describe male and female instructors in a range of disciplines based on reviews from Use of abrasive, although relatively rare (e.g., appearing twice per million words for accounting instructors), still appears to be linked to gender. The chart plots its use in negative reviews. What’s up with students of criminal justice and political science?

abrasive negativeHere are the results for rude. Note that this word is far more commonly used (e.g., between 250 to 850 appearances per million in negative reviews). And it is clearly attributed more often to female than male instructors across nearly every discipline.

rude negative

I encourage you to do your own searches. And, for those who want to investigate Schmidt’s methodology, he explains details of the sample, etc. on his website

If the tool itself interests you, it’s called Bookworm. You can use it to explore lexical trends in texts collected by the developers or even in your own. 

What word is used only in a woman’s performance review?

Wanted to share this piece from Fast Company even though I have no time to elaborate today. (Tip o’ the hat to Marie Paretti for sharing it!) Those of you who write performance reviews for women need to reflect on your word choice. And what it says about you!

The answer = abrasive. 


Friday fun with word frequencies

Calling all word nerds! For some Friday fun, try the Macmillan Red Words Game, which tests your awareness of English word frequency. It’s not as easy as you might think.  After a couple of tries, my highest score was 195. Can you beat it?

Along the same lines, Roberto Trotta has written an interesting book.

From the big bang to alien worlds, from dark matter to dark energy, from the origins of the universe to its destiny, The Edge of the Sky is a tale of the great discoveries and outstanding mysteries in modern cosmology — with a twist. Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta has used only the 1,000 most common words in the English language to talk about difficult concepts in cosmology in beautifully simple terms that everybody can understand.

I haven’t read the book yet. But the story on NPR is worth a listen. If you visit Trotta’s website, you can even use the 1000-word rules to try writing something yourself. 

For the TRUE nerds (researchers), there are word frequency tools galore at from the work of Mark Davies.

Friday fun with translating economic jargon

yellenIf your brain isn’t too tired yet, check out this quiz from the Washington Examiner and do your best to translate statements from the current and former Federal Reserve Chair(wo)man into plain language.  Somehow I got 5 out of 5.  It was sheer luck!

If this jargon was used only with other economists, it would be forgivable. But these are remarks aimed at Congress or the press. I think that’s supposed to mean a U.S. citizen should understand it.

Thanks to the folks at Write in NZ for pointing me to the quiz. Happy weekend to both Southern and Northern Hemispheres!

Choose your words carefully — when it counts

Which should you write: “Jane is an adequate team member” or “Jane is an OK team member”? The adjectives in the two options are synonyms.  So how do you choose? Are you wondering about “OK” in a written message at work?

Here’s a list of readers’ attributions made about writers based on a choice to use one of two different words in a workplace email. (These were collected during our own current research project.):

  • unsure
  • reserved
  • vague
  • passive
  • insecure
  • timid
  • confused
  • wordy
  • uncertain
  • showoff

So how much does it really matter whether you choose “adequate” or “OK”?  The answer is a lot. Sometimes.

As I wrote in The psychology of word choice, a writer has two options when deciding whether to use a word s/he has recognized as “questionable”:

  1. To satisfice by deciding the benefits of using it outweigh the costs
  2. To optimize by deciding to search for a better word

No doubt satisficing is the choice when speed is critical to the writer. Optimizing is worthwhile only when the cost of choosing the questionable word is significant enough to trump speed.

Here’s an example from the video tutorial on word choice you’ll find below. The word choice in question is “peril.” It denotes the same meaning as “danger” or “risk,” but also connotes the sense of life and death. There is simply no way to make a good choice without thinking about the context in which the word is being used. In this case, a technology consultant is writing a recommendation report to finalize his work for a client. Because of the connotation of “peril,” its use is questionable in the document. And because the writer wants to convey an impression of himself as careful, accurate, etc. to his client, he decides to optimize by searching for a better word.

Here’s another example involving the choice between “peril” or “risk.” In this situation, however, a technology consultant is writing an email to a friend and colleague about the client project.  The use of “peril” is still questionable. Because the writer is busy with more important things and isn’t worried about his friend’s impression of him as careful, accurate, etc. in this situation, he decides to satisfice by leaving the word in his email. The cost of searching for a different word in this context is too great.

Language choices cannot be accurately described as right/wrong.  They are ALWAYS more/less appropriate for or successful in a specific rhetorical context. You need to think strategically about whether you will ignore the cost, the speed, or the quality for every document you create. You can’t deliver all three. Don’t feel guilty about satisficing when the situation calls for it.

But keep in mind that everything you write — even the dozens of daily emails — has consequences for your reader, your organization, and you. Just think carefully BEFORE you satisfice!

Principles for optimizing word choice are explained in Chapter 14 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition).You’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix problems with your choice of words in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from a recommendation report based on a sample from David A. McMurrey’s Online Technical Writing textbook. It has been adapted specifically to explore how pros choose words in workplace documents. I summarize the rhetorical context as:

  • Writer: a technology consultant
  • Readers: managers for the client, a commercial brewing company
  • Bottom Line Message: a specific product is recommended for the company’s use

Here’s a revised version of that report excerpt with better word choice.

Video Tutorial

The recommendation report excerpt is included in this ~10-minute video about choosing words for workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with word choice in workplace documents. You can search for “word choice” or more specific topics like “jargon.” There are zillions of studies of the effects of word choice on readers. You could start with the following sources, which provide support for my guidance.

Biber & Conrad (2009). Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.

Bremner (2012). Socialization and the acquisition of professional discourse: A case study in the PR industry. Written Communication, 29, pp. 7-32.

Thrush (2001). Plain English? A study of plain English vocabulary and international audiences. Technical Communication, 48(3), pp. 289-296.

Zhang (2013). Business English students learning to write for international business: What do international business practitioners have to say about their texts? English for Specific Purposes, 32(3), pp. 144-156.

The sorry state of language education

homophonophobicPlease tell me you had a teacher talk about homophones at least once during your educational experience. This story from the Salt Lake Tribune a few days ago depresses me on many levels. In short, an English language teacher was fired for using the word, “homophonic.”  Like I’m watching a car crash . . . I haven’t been able to stop reading about it.

As John McIntyre wrote, “You can’t fix stupid. And you can’t make this stuff up.” There’s a thoughtful post from linguist Mark Leiberman at Language Log. Even Newsweek online ran the story. Which makes me feel good. I’d like to believe this level of knowledge about language isn’t widespread. (Even though I know differently.) Check out 35 Kinds of Hot, Sexy Homophone Action on Mental Floss for a few laughs. I found the cartoon on Gretchen McCulloch’s All Things Linguistic. She also wrote about this story for Slate‘s Lexicon Valley.

Just TRY to look away!

Friday Fun with a Grammar Nazi

Thanks to one of the readers of Lingua Franca, where Lucy Ferriss weighed in on the buzz about “Word Crimes” last week, I happened upon this video. Perfect for a little Friday fun!  Visit Arnold Zwicky’s X Nazi for a little discussion of the use of “nazi” to signal hyperbole. Check out Know Your Meme for more fun with grammar nazis.

Fun with Weird Al’s “Mission Statement”

Weird Al's Mandatory Fun


MTV News says Weird Al sounds just like your boss. What? They’re talking about “Mission Statement,” the final video release this past week from the Mandatory Fun album. Weird Al Yankovic does not only make fun of the way the less powerful use language. This time his target is the language of the powerful. The song’s a parody of corporate jargon using “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN).

Weird Al thought it was

ironic to juxtapose [corporate-speak] with the song stylings of CSN, whose music pretty much symbolizes the antithesis of corporate America.



Pros Write is about helping writers manage the perceptions that others have of them and their ideas based on language choices. As one linguist explains,

command of standard English rules benefits a life trajectory even if the rules are arbitrary. That you’ll have a hard time getting a job is old news. More to the point, if you can’t handle standard English, even if you have a job, you might not get a date.

Writers who use corporate-speak also earn negative attention — as “Mission Statement” makes clear. My goal is to help people communicate their message. In a way that is simple and useful to their audience. After all, there’s meaningful work to be done. But it’s a minefield out there . . .