Book review: You Can Say That Again

This is the unintentional second installment of Customer and Content’s book review series. Well, it’s intentional, in that I’m writing it of my own free will, but I wasn’t intending to write a series of book reviews. Although calling two articles a “series” might be a bit much.

Was any of that redundant? I’m now very concerned about writing redundant words and phrases. The reason is because I just finished Marcia Johnston’s You Can Say That Again. This is a short, enjoyable book about redundant phrases. It’s funny, but it’s also a little disturbing.

(Yes, I’m having fun with the STRIKE tag; I promise I’ve never written “the reason is because” before, but I have seen it used many, many times by people who obviously didn’t have a high school English teacher with that pet peeve.)

Three types of phrases

Marcia separates the redundant phrases into four types: adjective phrases, noun phrases, verb phrases, and a final “miscellaneous” collection of adverb phrases, odds, and ends. That’s all well and good and grammatically correct…”all well and good” is redundant, isn’t it? Anyway, that’s a perfectly good way to…argh…it’s not like something is imperfectly good, right? I’ll start again.

Those four categories are both grammatically correct and rational. But while reading the book, I came up with my own three categories: Obvious (and Funny), Things I’ve Seen Too Often (so…slightly less funny and more head-desky), and The Ones that Hit Too Close to Home (i.e., “Wait, what’s wrong with…oh. Damn.”).

The key here is that Marcia isn’t making these up. These are examples that she saw in the wild or were reported to her by other technical communicators. We’re a pedantic bunch of nit-pickers, after all.

Because I am a Serious and Professional Writer, most of the phrases fell into the Obvious category. A phrase like “meander all over the place” makes me grin. Of course that’s redundant, and a waste of words. And “kill dead” is something that I hear often, usually in reference to software processes that are using too much memory and need to be killed…well, dead. Very dead, and as quickly as possible.

If you haven’t heard the phrases “position for future growth,” “visual diagram,” or “target objectives” at least a dozen times, then congratulations! You’ve managed to avoid business meetings for the last 10 years. Or maybe 20. Or maybe forever.

Even if we are exposed to these phrases every day of our working lives, we understand that those phrases are redundant, and are often an attempt to make the speaker sound like a Serious Modern Businessperson. Or our coworkers have heard them so often that they assume they’re correct, or maybe even expected.

But we avoid using those phrases in our documentation, and the people in charge of translation budgets translators thank us for that.

That pesky third type

But there’s a third type, those phrases that bring my reading to a screeching halt and draw out that involuntary “Wait a minute…” comment.

“Key stakeholders”: Yes, I should know better. But I’m sure I’ve used that one before. I’ve seen it so often that I’ve accepted it without noticing the redundancy. I guess I assumed that there are key stakeholders and…er…lesser stakeholders who don’t need to be invited to meetings. Like all of these, it doesn’t make sense when I think about it.

“Primary focus”: In my defense, I used this in business plans. Which isn’t a defense at all.

“Collaborate together”: Ouch. I’m sure I’ve used that in email to coworkers, and probably in this very blog. I just hope I’ve never written “collaborate together with key stakeholders,” but there’s a non-zero chance of that.

I mean, “a chance of that,” because non-zero is implied. See what’s happening to me?

Overall impressions

This is a short book. I LOVE short books. I’m busy and I have a ton of books, articles, and witty tweets to read. I don’t have time for books that wander aimlessly before getting to the point.

Now that I think about it, “wander aimlessly” might be similar to “meander all over the place.” Maybe it’s just a tiny little bit redundant.

That’s why I enjoyed this book: You Can Say That Again entertained me and made me think about my own writing choices and assumptions. Marcia writes in the forward, “To get the most out of [this book], read it in the spirit of fun in which is was conceived.”

I believe that. I’ve met Marcia a couple of times, I’ve her presentations, and I’ve worked with her on an STC article. Marcia has a great sense of humor. But I have no doubt that she knows more than a few of these examples will hit their readers where it hurts.

And that’s great. I love it when people like Marcia give me a little kick to make me start thinking in new ways. Even though I know I avoid clichés in my writing (especially tired clichés…those are the worst!), this book has shown me many examples of familiar redundancies that I’ve become too familiar with. Sometimes we all need that little kick, and it’s better when it’s done with a sharp, yet friendly, sense of humor.