Saturday, July 11, 2015

“A” or “The:" Precise Language Important for Association Communications

Back when I was covering Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon for The Associated Press, a number of reporters gathered to dissect Armstrong’s first words when he stepped on the moon. Although his voice was somewhat muffled, it appeared that Armstrong said:

  • “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A day or so later, NASA officials restated Armstrong’s quote to:
  • “That’s one step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I thought about this Saturday when the two newspapers I get had slightly – but distinctly different – headlines about the Friday ceremony in Columbia (SC) of removing a Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse.
  • “A Conference Flag is Lowered for the Last Time” – The Wall Street Journal
  • “After 54 Years, The Flag is Down” – USA Today
Just like Armstrong’s quote, there is a big difference between “A” flag and “The” flag.

Clearly, this was not the only Confederate flag owned by the State of South Carolina. Thus, saying “The flag” is imprecise. And, USA Today used “the flag” throughout its story.

Precision in the language we use to communicate (and to write policies) is vital to associations and other organizations.
  • (Example: it took a Supreme Court ruling to determine what Congress really meant when it addressed state exchanges in the Affordable Care Act.)
I’ve seen plenty of association bylaws with confusing and/or poorly worded language. And, I’ve seen lots of association newsletters and other communications with confusing and/or poorly written language.

(Heck, I’ve probably even written some of them myself. This is why writers – including me – need editors and proofreaders!)
  • Are your written materials proofed for language? 
  • Does your written language say what you really mean?
  • Do you take time to have your words reviewed by editors and proofreaders?

Armstrong told biographers he did say “for a man” ... that without the “a” the statement makes no sense. While some who have studied the audio contend he did not say “a,” researchers at Michigan State University claim he did. “In central Ohio, where Armstrong was raised, speakers have a tendency to blend the two words together. And previous studies of Armstrong’s own speech “have established well that if the word 'a' was spoken, it was very short and was fully blended acoustically with the preceding word,” Dilley said in this story by Michigan State University Today. Coming out of Armstrong’s mouth, the phrase “for a” would have sounded like “frrr(uh),” according to the story.” 

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