Incent or Incentivize?

This is going to make you mad, but I will not be taking potshots at these awkward back-formations today. Sure, they roll off the tongue like cement doorstops, but as is often the case with corporate-speak, these words are here to stay.

INCENT: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

INCENTIVIZE: “To provide with an incentive” — Merriam Webster Online

Well, duh.

This is going to make you mad, but I will not be taking potshots at these awkward back-formations today. Sure, they roll off the tongue like cement doorstops, but as is often the case with corporate-speak, these words are here to stay. Like their sisters in sin impact and enthuse, verbified nouns are the sweethearts of managers, marketers and motivators — you know, folks with good people skills and atrocious writing skills. (note from ed.: Otto currently holds the title of Marketing Manager at his company, where he writes motivational literature. Thanks, Otto. Carry on.)

Making verbs out of nouns is an act that has a storied history in English. The word escalate was preceded by escalator (itself derived from the French escalier, meaning staircase). While escalate originally meant “making use of an escalator,” where would we be today without wars, threats and other nasty things that escalate? Go back even further to the 1700s and you find the word donation, but not the verb donate. Again, charities would be the poorer if they could only ask people to give, offer, contribute or bestow.

Which brings us back to the two words in the dock today. Incentivize seems to have come first (appearing sometime in the 1970s), followed by incent in the 1980s. Both words are clunky and sound like you’re adding a splash of Mongolian to a conference call in English. But there is a slight difference in nuance between incentivize/incent and encourage and motivate. One encourages and motivates with goodwill and enthusiasm; one incentivizes or incents with a prize or giveaway, especially when the target audience would be unmoved without the incentive. In other words, the first set of words sound positive and optimistic, while the newcomers sound cynical.

And yet, businesspeople insist on incenting. Maybe it’s a sign of our materialistic age that goodwill and leadership just don’t cut it anymore with the troops. Whatever the reason, we at Lexicide grudgingly welcome these neophyte words and encourage corporate wordsmiths to consider three things:

1) Encourage, motivate, drive, urge, lead and spur are still more universal, positive and readable.

2) The first time I heard incent, I mistook it for incense and wondered why we wanted to enrage our customers. This could happen to you.

3) To incent or incentivize, you must offer an incentive. If you don’t have one, use another damn word. If your “incentive” is the spectre of firing or other penalty, you should try the word threaten or browbeat.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: The Boston Globe’s “Dissent on Incent”
Grammar Girl’s take on “verbification”
The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Unique

UNIQUE: “being the only one of a kind; not like anything else” — New Oxford American Dictionary

While most lexicides occur out of sheer ignorance, I have a sneaking suspicion unique’s demise is due to another deadly sin — pride. Yes, folks, unique does not mean “special” or “pretty decent.” Something that is unique is the only one of its kind. There are no other blue diamonds of its size; therefore the Hope Diamond is unique. Unless you have an identical twin, you are genetically unique. The opportunity to win a million-dollar contract is not unique, unless you know for a fact you have no competition in the RFP.

Yes, we at Lexicide concede this word has been mercilessly slaughtered, leaving behind its grieving mates singular and sui generis, so now the secondary entry for unique (please note the uni- root) often reads “special, remarkable.” This writer is certain that business writers the world over know damn well what unique means, but in their pride really do believe any “opportunity” that involves them must be as one-of-a-kind as the Hope Diamond. Not just beneficial. Not just “exciting” (another overused biz-buzz word). No no — at the very apex of desirability. 

And who am I to say otherwise? Just pick a different word.

 Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. If anyone still cares, unique things are just plain unique. By definition, they cannot be very unique, sort of unique or extremely unique. A one-of-a-kind thing is just that — one of a kind. So no modifiers.

P.P.S. While we’re at it, one-of-a-kind means, literally, one of a kind, not “special.”

Differential

DIFFERENTIAL: “a difference or the amount of difference, as in rate, cost, quantity, degree, or quality, between things that are comparable.” — Random House Dictionary

There is a difference between differential and difference. However, it would be inaccurate to say there is a differential between differential and difference. Are we clear?

Differential  in its noun form refers to a difference in quantity — more specifically, a change in quantity. Accountants prize knowledge of “price differentials” and engineers can bandy about “bandwidth differential,” but you (and you know who you are) cannot refer to the differential between a PowerPoint deck and the handout. And if you argue that you can because presentations involve numbers, you need to go back in time to the Middle Ages, where universities taught logic instead of the semiotics of Kanye lyrics (and didn’t tolerate the kind of stream-of-consciousness word association so many substitute for reasoning today).

The word you seek is difference. There is a difference between right and wrong. There is a difference between decaf and full-test. There is even a difference between the prices of toner at your local Staples and OfficeMax. (The differential is between the rate of increase in their prices, or between one store’s prices in different markets.)  Look. If you don’t know, just use the word difference. It works fine even if differential is proper, and you don’t sound like a pretentious ignoramus (or a manager) if it isn’t. 

 Otto E. Mezzo

Moot Point/Mute Point

MOOT POINT: “a debatable question, an issue open to argument; also, an irrelevant question, a matter of no importance” — The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

MOOT: “subject to debate, dispute or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision” — New Oxford American Dictionary

We don’t typically address mishearings, misreadings or misspeakings here, but this one presents an interesting opportunity. Before 2008, I had never heard “moot point” rendered as “mute point.” Now, it seems the mangled usage is ubiquitous enough to signal an impending shift. Click on the links below and hear “Joe the Plumber” say it and The Nation and The Guardian print it. Granted, the publications employ mute point as a pun, but now that thousands of people have seen it, it’s-a gonna stick.

Two developments make this lexicide particularly fascinating. First, it’s a lexicide of a lexicide. Moot’s original meaning was “open to debate;” the word is related to meet. Moots were assemblies convened to discuss or debate a topic, and this sense lives on in moot court, where law students face off in a courtroom to argue a hypothetical case. Because of moot courts, which have no legal consequence, the meaning of moot shifted from “open to debate” to “irrelevant.” Moot still retains its original meaning — in fact, all the dictionaries I consulted list “open to debate” as its primary definition. But in the States, at least, when you read moot, you think “of no consequence.”

But now that moot point is becoming mute point, it appears the whole concept of a worthless discussion is about to disappear. Several sources (web pages, fellow consultants) indicate that business folk believe mute points are those you make while using the mute button (See the Urban Dictionary entry below). Unpoetic (I preferred The Nation’s usage), but sadly funny, too.

So first people misunderstood moot, then misheard it as mute, and now transform the meaning to match the definition. I’m not even sure modern office denizens, who seem to have limited language skills, understand that the word mute has meanings apart from the little button on the phone. But I’ve learned better than to waste my breath defending an irrelevant point, even one open to debate.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: Joe the Plumber makes a mute point with Bill Maher
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051017/dantohttp://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/mar/14/comment.sport
http://languagerules.wordpress.com/2006/09/25/moot-point-not-mute-point/
The Urban Dictionary 

Dilemma

DILEMMA: “a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive” — The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

“In Gwinnett County, the drug dealers are able to hide in plain sight,” county District Attorney Danny Porter said. “…The presence of the organizations is a dilemma enough that we have to develop new tactics.” (Mexican drug cartels thrive in suburban Atlanta, CNN.com, March 19, 2009)

Ah yes. Three years of law school wasn’t enough to eradicate the lexical misinformation which so suffocates our nation. Not that D.A. Porter, Esq., is to blame. Almost all dictionaries (except for the New Oxford American, my favorite) allow for what is now the main definition of dilemma: “any difficult situation,” although some, like NOAD and ADH4, include usage notes decrying this meaning. 58% of ADH4‘s usage panel rejected the watered down definition, although, surprisingly, 64% said dilemma was acceptable when referring to a choice between three or more bad choices.

Surprisingly, because dilemma comes from the Greek for “two propositions” (mathematicians will recognize the stand-alone lemma). The word has been with us since the 16th century and has its origins in formal logic. Dilemmas were often posed as intellectual exercises, since in real life, it is rare that two alternatives are equal in their badness.

Nevertheless, a Google search reveals another surprise. Despite casual misuse of the word, most news outlets, bloggers and even rap artist Nelly seem to be within striking distance of the traditional definition of dilemma. Which puts me in a difficult spot — I either criticize them and be in the wrong, or else congratulate them and momentarily surrender my righteous condescension. A true dilemma indeed.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/03/19/atlanta.drug.cartels/index.html
Wikipedia’s explanation of dilemma 
A more detailed exposition of what makes a dilemma, with sample dilemmas you will recognize
Lyrics to Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” 

P.S. In case you were interested, a choice between three equally diabolical alternatives is called a trilemma. Four, a tetralemma, and so on.

What was E-Prime?

After college, I was working at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I was an art major, I soon found myself writing instructional copy. Before long, I was an official copywriter. The year was 1992, and “E-Prime” was the talk of business writing journals and articles everywhere. “E-Prime” advocated using active voice and eschewing the verb “to be” in most instances, including the preceding four sentences, which would instead read:

After college, I took a job at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I majored in art, I volunteered to write instructional copy. Before long, I added “copywriter” to my job description. In 1992, articles about business writing touted something called “E-Prime…”

Linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., proposed E-Prime as a way to eliminate passive voice and other lazy writing habits. As I mentioned, E-Prime forbids using the verb “to be” in all but the existential sense, and thus makes it impossible to use passive voice. 

Alas, E-Prime was only a fad in the annals of business writing. Now it is mostly an academic exercise (which is why I’m using the “to be” verb again). But its brief appearance on the scene called attention to a problem: writers don’t think when they write. More than anyone, I understand the demands of deadline. I also understand sometimes one must use passive voice when defining the doer is difficult or impossible. (“Too many buildings in our neighborhood are neglected.”) But thinking is neither difficult nor time-consuming. In fact, if you write for business, it’s what someone pays you for.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker that claims “well-behaved women rarely make history.” If Lexicide sold bumper stickers, one might read “well-behaved writers rarely make sense.” It’s time to misbehave and not accept trendy words. What’s more, it’s time to put some thought back into memos, white papers and proposals. Having E-Prime in mind when you write forces you to think about nouns and verbs. I don’t advocate it as a way of life, but you might find it takes your brain off auto-pilot, and makes writing not only mischievous, but fun again.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Confuse, obscure, evade

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Nothing, right? Now try these:

Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
We can use available technologies to make the changes your company needs.
The opportunity to work together fills us with excitement.

When you read the two sets of sentences above, there is no question the second set represents clearer, more forceful writing. Why, then, are we far more likely to see sentences from the first set?

When I started writing copy for an instructional software company in 1992, business writing seminars and journals were working to stem the tide of “corporate-ese.” Experts begged us to avoid jargon, obfuscating phrases and passive voice. They touted “e-prime,” a linguistic style that eschewed most forms of the verb “to be,” forcing writers to use active voice and evocative verbs. Even the SEC got into the act. Then-chairman Arthur Levitt demanded corporate and mutual fund prospectuses use “plain English.” What has happened since then? Why does one “engage in issues-based solutions” instead of “solve problems?”

David Silverman, a business writing professor and contributor to harvardbusiness.org, blames “an education system that rewards length over clarity.” Since teachers look for certain key points in essays and papers, students carpet-bomb them with verbiage, hoping they hit the magic words by sheer volume. This habit carries over into the working world, where, according to Silverman, it’s “better to make every possible point, use three words where one will do, and even be redundant, than leave out something that might win the boss over.”

Still others blame the rise of electronic communication. Tom Clark, a business professor at Xavier University, sees a new generation of professionals fixated on speed instead of quality. “Young people are wrapped up in the speed with which they communicate rather than seeing writing as a reflection of their best selves,” he said in a December 5, 2006, Associated Press story. In the same story, another business writing expert shares a different thought on the cause of poor business writing: laziness.

As a writing professional entering his thirteenth year of reading (and occasionally penning) appalling prose, I have my own thoughts on why people, including myself, resort to inelegant, roundabout or redundant phrases, or use words incorrectly. Before I lay them out for everyone to read, though, here’s a disclaimer:

Any reference, implied or explicit, to any client, associate or employer, past or present, living or dead, is unintentional. All examples are for entertainment purposes only. Tumble dry on lowest setting. Cool iron if needed.

• The writer is terrified of offending someone.

“Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes” commands. It implies a hierarchy, where the writer is superior to the audience. In our age of “teamwork” and “buy-in,” this cannot be permitted (or rather, “it is not advisable”). How, then, does one say what’s needed without sounding too imperious, admonishing or skeptical? Simple — make it sound like someone else — some mysterious otherness — is doing the writing. The Associated Press article quotes a touchstone of achievement in this department:

“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”

Translation: “Hi. I’m the training manager, and I’m here to whip you incompetents into shape.” You almost feel sorry for this person, being forced into this job and all it requires. He craftily avoids all verbs in favor of nouns — he doesn’t sustain, he ensures sustainment. And best of all, he litters this short missive with meaningless buzzwords.

• The writer is terrified because he doesn’t know what he is saying.

I’ve written for the tech industry and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what “best practices” means. I’m fairly certain it means different things to different people. What I have learned is that if you pepper your writing with these catchphrases, you can disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s like saying “d’accord” every five minutes in Paris. It doesn’t mean you know French, but you sure sound like a Parisian. Likewise, calling attention to “management solutions” instead of plain old “management” seems to indicate you’ve read your Fast Company.

But here’s the thing — corporate catchphrases are like the emperor’s new clothes. I’m convinced no one really knows what they mean, and those that do are too afraid to speak up. How many times has a manager asked for a post-mortem after a project kick-off, or requested a quick perusal of a document, or (my favorite) concise verbiage? Each of these phrases contains a gross contradiction. Not only do we not question these usages, we propagate them, maybe because re-using them might, as Silverman surmised, “win the boss over.”

• The writer is terrified of being understood.

Another benefit of using buzzwords is the ability to disown them. If you “meet expense management goals,” a manager can’t accuse you of cutting her budget. If you “optimize resource allocation,” you’re really not taking away the department copier. Not only do you avoid offending people, you avoid communicating. And that seems to be the new goal of business writing.

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for “a new era of responsibility.” Perhaps it’s time for managers and writers to take this to heart. Stand up and be understood. Be direct and be effusive. Use active voice. Let everyone know you’re doing your job with gusto, and let your fair and pleasant demeanor inoculate you from your audience taking offense.

Or not. But at least keep a dictionary at your desk.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Postmortem (spotted on FoxNews.com)

Who Were Madoff’s REAL Partners In Crime?

March 13th, 2009 9:06 PM Eastern
Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin. Would you like to know who were his real accomplices in this affair? It’s a gang that goes by the nickname, the “Securities and Exchange Commission” and it brazenly operates right out in the open in Washington, D.C. And the nature of their fraud? Why, they con the investing public into believing that they’re “protected” against guys like Bernie Madoff! (read the rest here)

See Postmortem.

Postmortem

POSTMORTEM (or POST-MORTEM): “an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Aside from the lexicide of verbiage, no other meaning drift is as disturbing as this one. You don’t have to be a first-year Latin student to recognize the irony. As every fan of detective novels and “CSI” knows, postmortem means “after death.” At the risk of sounding didactic, let me repeat that: “after death.” Not “after the fact.”

So, corporate manager, you simply cannot call a postmortem meeting to discuss a project kickoff. You just can’t. Postmortem documentation is for coroners, not strategic consultants. I’ll say it again: postmortem means “after death.” If necessary, I’ll post an entry defining death.

And that is why this lexicide is so ironic and disquieting. It’s not just that college-educated business folk everywhere are witlessly wishing for their enterprises’ demise. (Will we soon start eviscerating our strategies instead of analyzing or dissecting them?) Merriam-Webster, Random House and AHD4 have all given in to popular misuse by adding entries acknowledging that yes, postmortem means “after the fact” or “an analysis after the event.” In other words, this entry is a postmortem for postmortem. To which I say, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him after the fact.”

My suggestion? The next time someone calls a postmortem for a live project, show up with scrubs and a bone saw. If you get funny looks, the correct response is, “what?”

— Otto E. Mezzo

In case anyone cares, to say “after the fact” pretentiously yet properly, try post hoc or post facto. Or you could just say what people used to say: wrap-up, summary or (here’s a gem) after the fact.

SIGHTING | March 13, 2009

http://foxforum.blogs.foxnews.com/2009/03/13/miller_madoff-2/
The lead-in: “Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin.” Harsh, man. I’m sorry I missed the drawing and quartering. Did they let Steven Spielberg and Kevin Bacon whip the horses?

Prodigal

PRODIGAL: “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Apart from the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is probably Jesus’s best-known parable. In the story, a rich man’s son squanders his legacy on wine, women and riotous living, only to return home when the money runs out, starving and truly repentant. The Prodigal Son Returned Home. 

So ingrained in Western culture is this story, we could be excused for thinking the word prodigal means “wayward, gone from home a long time.” Well, no actually, we can’t be excused because also ingrained in Western culture is the dictionary. I can access several lexicons by typing “dictionary” into my browser. I can even call up a dictionary and thesaurus by pressing F12 on my keyboard. We’re talking a pinky’s effort here. So why do so many people, even — gad! — journalists, persist in this wrongheaded definition of prodigal? In a quick Google™ search, I came up with a Time (June 21, 2005) story entitled “The Prodigal Returns” and an International Herald Tribune (April 14, 2006) article entitled “In the Arena: Prodigal returns to Chinese home.” The Time piece chronicles Vladimir Horowitz’s first concert in Russia since he defected; the other similarly recounts Wang Zhizhi’s return to China after leaving the NBA. I suppose from a Communist perspective, any lifestyle in the decadent West qualifies as wastefully extravagant, but I’m not sure that’s what these writers (and their editors) had in minds. 

Admittedly, prodigal is rarely used outside the context of the Prodigal Son parable, so perhaps it’s become a keyword of sorts, triggering the image of a happy reunion after a long spell apart. But the Prodigal Son did not leave because of political oppression; he was selfish. By referring to Horowitz and Wang as prodigals (not “Prodigal Sons,” which would have at least referenced the parable), Time and the International Herald Tribune (the “global edition of the New York Times“) cast them as lascivious good-time Charlies. I mean, the Time article goes on for nine pages! Couldn’t anyone — an intern, since obviously editors can’t be bothered — locate a well-thumbed paperback Merriam-Webster?

I could go on, but that would be — well, prodigal.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1075118-3,00.htmlhttp://www.iht.com/articles/2006/04/13/sports/ARENA.php?page=2

P.S.: I’m about to start Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which is what prompted this entry. Judging from the description on the book jacket, the author seems to be channeling the secondary definition: “having or giving something on a lavish scale” (NOAD), which carries a connotation of generosity. She writes the book is a “hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature.”