Down and out punctuation: the apostrophe

A friend shared this photo in twitter yesterday. Of course, the main issue is the furor over Waterstone’s dropping the apostrophe from their name. For the record, I have no problem with their decision. But the dejected apostrophe has issues of overuse in other areas. Note that the sign lists two uses: contractions and possession. It does not list plurals.

Technical presenters often mess up acronyms. It is common to find sentences such as “SA’s are now included in the product” or “New signs were put on all the ATM’s.” Apostrophes are for possession, and the SA and ATM in the sentences above are not possessing anything. The appropriate usage is “SAs” and “ATMs.”

Detail below: skip if you understand the issue already.

I found two web references that discuss the plural issue in detail. The articles are long, so I’ve included just the relevant portions. The key to both of these references is that an acronym is treated as a word and is made plural by adding an “s” to it. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare.

From the Guide to Grammar and Writing: When an abbreviation can be used to refer to a singular thing — a run batted in, a meal ready-to-eat, a prisoner of war — it’s surely a good idea to form the plural by adding “s” to the abbreviation: RBIs, MREs, POWs.

Notice, furthermore, that we do not use an apostrophe to create plurals in the following:

  • The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
  • I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
  • Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from Harvard.
  • SAs will be supported in the next product release.

You can also use Wikipedia’s Acronym page. Be warned that there is much more there than you’d think possible on such a small topic.

I have posted two grammar graphics recently. They seem to work, so please send me more when you find them. The images make the blog more fun and gives me clear topics.

Introducing Grammarly, my automated proofreader

What’s wrong with the text below?

Bad Hyphen – when grammar goes bad, or how to see some humor and learn from the one’s mistakes
This sentence appeared in my main blog, RandomRoutes, a few days ago. And what’s wrong with it? I had a superfluous “the” near the end of the sentence. I did not catch it as I read it out loud to myself. And my proofreaders did not catch it.How did I find it, you may ask? I tried Grammarly, the automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach. This was the first error it pointed out. I looked at the screen in disbelief, but it was true.I do not agree with everything that Grammarly suggests. For example, it suggested that the line “my position was eliminated” should not have been in the passive voice. But I had intentionally used the passive voice. Many other items, including better word choice, were excellent suggestions.

I’ll be using Grammarly user for my future blog posts.

My most memorable customer voice – the power of bad news

Quarterly business unit meetings, otherwise known as “all hands meetings,” were part of the regular schedule at Adobe. Many of them focused on upcoming products and their new technology, revenue success or recognizing key contributors in the organization; they were useful, but blur together in retrospect.
But the meetings that stood out were those in which key stakeholders from installed and deployed customers came to describe their experience with our product and company. One memorable session was with Applied Materials; they had been the first customer to implement our product in a new use case (note that this is a software engineering and requirements term). The implementation had its hiccups along the way, but the customer worked closely with us and we resolved the issues. This often took some assertive behavior from the customer, but we all ended up with a better product and they solved their business problem well. What made this memorable was when the speaker told us that vocal advocacy of issues was part of the company culture from their founder, which could be summed up in the following sentence

Good news is no news,
no news is bad news,
and bad news is good news.

He went on to explain this quote, and I’ll paraphrase from the book Agile Business for Fragile TimesGood news is no news because it tells you what you already know; you’re on track. Everyone likes good news, and it is essential to keeping a team motivated. However, it is insufficient to drive change or precipitate action. No news is bad news, as people fill in their own information. But even more importantly, you don’t know if a quiet customer is very successful and happy or that they have given up on your software in disgust and have purchased a competitive product; you may not know until support renewal comes and they drop support. Bad news is good news because when times are tough you want to hear the worst as quickly as possible so that you can be aware, prepared, and take action.

I later learned that this quote from James Morgan, CEO of Applied Materials, has one extra phrase on action. The complete quote is even better.

Good news is no news,
no news is bad news,
and bad news is good news if you do something about it.

After I heard and read this, I looked back on the customers I’ve known over the years. The ones that had the most impact were those who brought up issues and problems and openly discussed them. We had many difficult conversations, but in the end I learned much more about their problem and they learned about the technology that could be brought to bear to solve their business problem. My best product designs and architectures came from the open dialog with these customers.

Nobody likes bad news, especially if the perception is that you’re bringing just that negative information. But taking this as a launching point for action and improvement is the best path. Better product and customer experiences come from listening to and acting upon the bad news.

Working with annoyed but satisfactory employees (cross functional)

I’ve been looking at job postings lately and have had a few chuckles when I see problems with compound adjectives, whether hyphenatedor solid. [To get technical, it’s an adjectival phrase. The links do a great job describing the proper usage.]

The specific copy got to me today was a description of responsibilities. The sentence read “Work with cross functional and virtual teams.” What it says is that the teams are annoyed, but organized in functional and virtual teams; it is unclear if the virtual teams are cross.

Simply stated, this makes much more sense with a hyphenated compound word, cross-functional. I’d be much happier working with a team like this: “Work with cross-functional and virtual teams.”

Starting another new blog, this time on Customer Experience

After decades of being customer-focused as a developer, product manager, and CTO, I took this up to the next level in my business in 2011. I focused on the “failure to thrive” problem that our customers had, and learned a great deal about them and their views. However, I can’t use the media from interviews: I have to start fresh with my own ideas.

This is my first blog entry on this topic. The goal of this blog will be to describe what I view as the customer service problem, whether solved by CRM, social media, or personal contact. Since I’m outside my multinational company home, I may stray into consumer and retail experience as well.
The other side of the blog is that I also am a customer who has experiences with companies large and small. I’ll point out the notable experiences that I have had, whether exceptionally good or bad.

A new category on grammar

I began this stream early in 2012 with my badhyphen blog, hosted by Blogger. I have now moved to my own consolidated WordPress-based site and blog. Even though badhyphen was a great name for a blog, it does not have the intuitive description that categories require: it is now just the “grammar” category  All of the content from that blog is now carried over to this new site, with the original dates. 

I’ve been working in the corporate world for over 35 years and have witnessed the steady decline of grammar in the workplace during that time. One could blame this on the internationalization of business and the fact that many people learned English as a second language. This is incorrect in my experience: many people in India have better English grammar and a wider vocabulary than native English-speakers in the United States.

People at Adobe knew me as very critical on grammar, as I believe that poor grammar and spelling reflects a negative perception of one’s intelligence and product quality. But I also believe that grammar and spelling are easy to fix if one is willing to learn and to subject your content to review and a proofreader, and possibly even an editor. I ran a short wiki page inside Adobe with my favorite spelling issues, especially misplaced hyphens. I’m now taking issues that I see in public content (corporate response emails, web pages, or presentations) and pointing them out so that we all can learn.

I will not use personal emails or social media, as that betrays a fundamental trust; they are also not channels where people give scrutiny to their content. Wikis are fair game, although I will always comment on the wiki itself or change it if I can.

I hope that you enjoy these and we all can learn from these examples. And DO point out when I make errors: I know I am not perfect and have much to learn. My son, a journalist, points out my errors frquently and I am always grateful.

P.S. The title of the blog should be said the same way that you would scold a dog when you say “bad dog.”