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Customer Service! July 3, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I had a startling customer service experience this week that is worth sharing.

I am a long-time reader of the Wall Street Journal.  I think the Journal is the last great newspaper in America, with an editorial viewpoint that resonates with my own political leanings.  It comes as no surprise to me that a paper run by conservatives is successful and profitable, in contrast to a certain other high-profile New York paper that positions itself slightly to the left of Karl Marx.

I have been distressed recently to see an uptick in spelling and grammar errors in the Journal.  Loyal readers know my feelings on such things, and I was not happy to see the Journal slipping to a level of quality normally associated with USA Today and its ilk.  I reached the end of my rope when earlier this week a Journal article referred to the owner of a Toyota dealership as “Mr. Yaris,” replacing the real name with the name of a Toyota model.

Knowing that they await my feedback on a regular basis, I dashed off an email to the editors.  You can imagine the consternation in the Journal offices when word got out that I had written; I can only presume they brought the whole operation to a grinding halt while my thoughts were shared across the organization.

Well, something like that must have happened, because in less than two hours, I received a personal response from the author of the article, apologizing for the error, thanking me for my concern, and assuring me that the Journal worked very hard to keep such things from happening.

Wow!  A real response to a (mildly) disgruntled customer!  Imagine an organization that reads their email so quickly, routes it to the responsible party, and ensures that a response occurs so quickly!  I was impressed, and wrote back to say just that.  Later, I found that they even listed the error in the next day’s corrections.

Does your organization handle customer feedback that well?  Are your people taking personal responsibility for their errors with their customers in such a professional manner?  If not, why not?

Pedantic Punctuation, Part 2: Emphasis Quotes March 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Another in my ongoing series on punctuation errors that drive me crazy…

There are a few simple rules to using quote marks correctly. These are easy to remember, so let’s get them out of the way quickly:

  • Quotes are used to indicate words that are directly quoted from another source.
  • They are also used to indicate an alternative or non-standard usage of an otherwise well-understood word or phrase.

That’s it.  You may not use them emphasize words or phrases.  You may not use them draw attention to the important part of a sentence.

Here’s a topical example that makes this clear:

Elliot Spitzer was seen at the hotel with his “wife.”

Hmmm.  In this case, efforts to emphasize that Mr. Spitzer was seen with his wife seem to have gone astray.  I am also fond of statements like this in restaurants:

Try Our “Beef” Special

Thanks, but I’ll pass.  Mentally, I am saying the word “beef” while making “finger quotes” in the air, which leads me to believe that the special may be many things, but it certainly isn’t beef.

If you are directly quoting a source, verbatim, make sure you use the quotes.  If you are making finger quotes to the reader while saying something, get those quotes in there.  But if all you want to do is draw attention to what you are saying, there are other proven conventions that still work.  Really!

Pedantic Punctuation, Part 1: The Serial Comma March 14, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I am a stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.1 There is no greater indication of the decline of modern civilization than the lax attitude taken towards these foundations of correct communication.  Recently, my son took the North Carolina State Writing Test for seventh graders.  Among the various metrics used to grade the test was “Conventions.” Conventions are spelling and grammar; they comprise 10% of the score.  The only way to not get full credit for Conventions is to commit some error so egregious that it renders your essay completely unintelligible.  As long as the student “comes close” to correct spelling and grammar, modern educators are satisfied.

Ahem.  Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not “conventions.”  They are rules, well defined, easily taught, and easily applied.  They indicate that the author actually cares about his work and respects the intelligence and time of his audience.  While incorrect essays in school may be overlooked by teachers, incorrect communication in the real world is viewed at best as sloppy and at worst, illiterate.

To that end, and to inaugurate a new series of occasional posts, let us address the serial comma.

The serial comma is the comma that should always be placed after the next-to-last element of a sequence, just before the “and” or “or” that joins the last element to the sequence.  This is not an optional comma, to be deleted by the sloppy or careless writer as is their wont.  It is a required element that always makes the sequence clear and unambiguous.2

Consider the sequence

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese and crackers.

Confusing?  Of course!  We’ll never settle on a dinner menu. But the serial comma removes all doubt:

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and crackers.


My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni, and cheese and crackers.

There are some who will insist that most sentences do not suffer from this kind of potential problem and are thus exempt from the serial comma rule, as if commas are in short supply and must be hoarded for such crucial uses.  In fact, punctuation should be consistently applied throughout a document so that all lists use serial commas all the time.

Next time on Pedantic Punctuation: inappropriate use of quotation marks for “emphasis!”

1 As a result, this post is almost guaranteed to have some spelling, punctuation, or grammar error.
2 Contrarians can create sentences that are ambiguous with or without the serial comma, but these are fundamentally unsound sentences that should be rewritten anyway.