The five most annoying ways to use an ellipsis

What do those three dots mean?The three little innocent-looking dots of an ellipsis (…) probably carry more power to annoy and confuse your readers than any other punctuation mark, writes Jacob Funnell.

Apostrophe mistakes look harmless in comparison. Nobody seriously reads ‘orange’s 45p’ and assumes that the orange must own a small amount of loose change. Ellipses, by contrast, can completely change the tone and meaning of what you write. And people who misuse them often don’t realise what they’re doing. Here are five ways not to use an ellipsis.

1. Using them … like a written ‘erm’ …

Trailing off in the middle of sentences in spoken conversation is common and almost unavoidable. (Unless you’re Oscar Wilde – WB Yeats said Wilde was the first person he’d met who spoke in perfect sentences.) But it’s rarely necessary to do this in writing.

In spoken conversation, you can rely on various cues to tell you whether the other person understands what you’re saying, and clarify as needed. But in writing, you need to be clear first time. Many writers use ellipses like written equivalents of ‘erm’ and ‘er’, but this can be confusing and frustrating for the reader.

To avoid inadvertently creating a ‘fill in the blanks’ puzzle, force yourself to finish your sentences. This might mean you have to do a bit more work before pressing send – quite possibly work you were trying to avoid. But just console yourself with the knowledge that you’re sending out a little more good karma into the world.

Compare these emails:

‘I haven’t had the full invitation to tender back yet … whom do I talk to? … no idea about the competitors … haven’t started the tender … not sure about our solution or details.’

‘I haven’t received the full invitation to tender document yet. And I only know the bare bones of the solution we’re going to propose. At this stage, I don’t even know whom to talk to about getting all the necessary information (about costs, materials, people) together. Do you have any suggestions?’

Concrete writing like this will naturally take longer than simply typing the first things that come to mind. But the extra time you spend focusing on what you’re actually saying, and why, will help clarify your message both for you and your reader, and ultimately increase your chances of getting the kind of response you want.

If you need to create a pause (a purposeful one, not an ‘erm’), consider using an en-dash instead of an ellipsis. It feels much more confident, especially when you need to link related parts of a sentence – like this.

2. Trailing off for no reason …

An ellipsis at the end of a sentence implies that the writer has trailed off. But why has the writer trailed off? Are they suggesting something? Does it represent a nudge or a wink?

Those three little dots suggest something is going on, but give the reader no clue about what it might be. This can make otherwise straightforward sentences confusing and (occasionally) somewhat unsettling.

Compare these sentences:

‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday.’

‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday …’

The trailing off in the second example could suggest the writer is having doubts (perhaps it is a problem). Or maybe it expresses confusion about why a meeting is even necessary. Or, if the writer is a chronic ellipsis-abuser, it may mean nothing at all. The reader must then judge what the meaning might be, or ask for clarification.

If you’re unsure about meeting on Monday, say so and explain why. For example: ‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday, but I’m not sure if that will be helpful because John won’t be here and we need his input.’

3. Three is the magic number

Some style guides recommend writing an ellipsis as three full stops: …

Some prefer three full stops with spaces between them: . . .

And some tell you to use a special ellipsis character (PC shortcut: ALT+0133, Mac shortcut: COMMAND+semicolon): …

Whichever you use (we prefer three full stops without spaces, except on Twitter), all style guides agree that ellipses are three dots long. Not four, or two (and five is right out).

You may see what appears to be a four-dot ellipsis at the end of some sentences (eg ‘And then John fell asleep ….). This is in fact an ellipsis with a full stop at the end. You may also sometimes see three dots, a space and then a further dot (eg ‘And then John fell asleep … .). Again, style guides vary on this.

4. Omitting crucial parts of a quotation

You’ll often find that you need to condense quotes, and you can use an ellipsis to show that you’ve removed parts of the original. But be careful. To be completely transparent, you need to be sure that you’re not changing the meaning of what somebody has said.

Take this remark from US President Coolidge and the often-quoted condensed version:

‘The chief business of the American people is business’

‘The … business of the American people is business’

This changes the meaning of his sentence. The original version says that business is the most important concern, whereas in the second it sounds as if business is the only important thing.

5. Implying you have more to say when you haven’t

This is a very particular kind of trailing off, and possibly the most annoying of all. It often implies that what needs to be said is so obvious to the (knowledgeable) writer that it should be obvious to the reader, too. This can backfire badly – at worst, it can appear smug or condescending.

For example:

‘That’s a good plan, but there are important considerations …’

This kind of ellipsis is more suited to enigmatic status updates on social media (’OMG some people are so annoying …’), not that we advocate that sort of thing. For business it’s better to spell things out.

Ask yourself why you’re tempted to use an ellipsis, get the answer straight in your head, then politely say that instead: ‘That’s a good plan, but I’m worried about how expensive it is. We’re also working on so many other projects that I’m not sure we’ll have the time to spare’.

Use with caution …

Like many of the best things in life, ellipses are fine when used well and in moderation, but troublesome when used recklessly. (OK, OK, we’re sounding like your dad now.) So keep using them, if you wish, but do so consciously. And if you catch yourself dot-dot-dotting to cop out of saying what you actually mean, take a moment’s pause. What is likely to be the most positive approach in the long run? At work, usually, clarity is king.

OK, OK: repetition isn’t always a no-no

Repetition at its cutestRepetition isn’t a dirty word. I repeat: repetition isn’t a dirty word. But some of the tricks we use to avoid it are positively vulgar, writes Richard Smyth.

We’re quite happy, it seems, to repeat ourselves when our intention is rhetorical – when our priority is emphasis, emphasis, emphasis. And yet when repetition is required for the purpose of clarity, we shy away. We become embarrassed by what feels like clumsiness, and resort to ‘elegant variation’ – the desperate attempt to avoid using the same word more than once.

Repetition can indeed sometimes seem clumsy; no-one wants to read: ‘Our business is a business that is considered one of the world’s best businesses.’

The problem is that the cure is very often as bad as the disease. Does anyone, after all, really want to read: ‘Our business is a firm that is considered one of the world’s best companies’?

In a famous essay, the grammarian HW Fowler described elegant variation as the preserve of ‘second-rate writers’, but that’s not quite fair; it’s a trap anyone can fall into.

You might, for example, find examples in the blurb on the back of a posh restaurant menu. What appears in the first paragraph as ‘good food’ will be revisited in the second as ‘fine dining’, in the third as ‘top-end cuisine’ and in the fourth – as the writer urgently thumbs through their thesaurus – as, say, ‘elite nutriment’.

News stories are another rich source. It’s the pursuit of elegant variation that has resulted – to quote two real-life examples – in former Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy being labelled ‘the blue-and-white-striped king’ and the banana ‘the curvy yellow favourite’. Sub-editors at the Guardian have even created a tongue-in-cheek quiz out of journalists’ attempts to avoid repetition.

Fowler gave a further example: ‘From one great dinner for 20 covers to another of eighteen guests.’ Here, ‘covers’ and ‘guests’ are supposed to have exactly the same meaning. But the use of two different words is confusing for the reader, who ends up wondering if the two words in fact have subtly different meanings. So why not just use ‘guests’ (or ‘covers’) twice? Fear of repetition.

In this case, there’s an easy way out for those unable to overcome their repetition phobia: simply leave out the second noun. I did the same a couple of paragraphs ago. ‘Labelled’, you’ll see, did the job for both Terry Leahy and the bananas; I could have said that the bananas had been ‘called’ or (another news-speak favourite) ‘dubbed’, but it would have been unnecessary, and might have seemed ambiguous.

There’s another obvious way of avoiding the problem of repetition, but this, too, is often something modern writers are cautious of: the pronoun. For many English speakers – particularly in business – the personal pronoun (‘me’, ‘you’, ‘he’) has come to seem distressingly direct. Remember the last time you were on a train, and the guard urged passengers to ‘ask myself’ if you had any problems?

There’s nothing wrong with using ‘I’, ‘he’, or ‘she’ (subjective), ‘me’, ‘him’ or ‘her’ (objective). It’s not ill-mannered or unrefined – and writing ‘he said’, for instance, is certainly far less silly than ‘the blue-and-white-striped king said’.

People writing for the web have a more practical reason for fearing repetition. Search engines such as Google will often filter out duplicate content from their searches – effectively treating it as spam. Bad news for the writer with one eye on SEO, right?

But actually, as Google’s Matt Cutts explained recently, a website that repeats content for usability reasons won’t be penalised in its search-engine rankings.

‘I really wouldn’t get stressed out about the notion that you might have a little bit of duplicate content,’ the California-based webspam boffin he said.

So there’s no need to confuse your customers by talking about your ‘24-hour rush’ service on one page, your ‘one-day turnaround’ on another, and your ‘overnight despatch’ on another.

As with most problems in writing, it really isn’t too difficult to strike an appropriate balance between repetition and variation. It’s just a question of thinking about the words you use, and asking yourself why you’re using them.

If you’re running up against a lot of repetition, maybe vocabulary isn’t the real problem; maybe it’s the ideas behind the words that are in need of variation. If the same words keep springing to your pen, it might be because you’re trying to say the same thing too many times. Remember, if you’ve told them once, you don’t need to keep telling them. Duplication of information might not fall foul of Google, but all the elegant variation in the world won’t conceal it from your readers.

‘We always write it like that.’ But why?

Ten to two: time for change?Sometimes we can’t remember why we do things a certain way. This is certainly the case with company reports and other documents. It may not always be the best way – far from it – but that’s the way they’re written and that’s that.

‘We must always start with two pages of background,’ explains a manager to a colleague who’s about to write her first monthly sales report. ‘Don’t write it like that,’ advises a technical manager. ‘It doesn’t sound right.’

I don’t believe in change where none is needed. But it’s scary how often we stick religiously to doing things a particular way, even though that way is far from optimal. In fact, we often stick to these methods even when no-one can remember why.

Longer ago than I care to remember, when I was production editor of a woodworking magazine of all things (yes, really), our design manager gave me a piece of advice on photographing clocks. We’d commissioned five time-pieces and were featuring them in a lavish centre spread – or as close to that as you could get in a publication like ours. ‘Always set the time to ten past ten or ten to two,’ he said. ‘That way, they’ll look like they’re smiling.’

Believe it or not, that’s standard advice for clock photography. If you’re sceptical, do a Google image search for ‘clocks’ and see how many of them are set to that time.

It makes sense. Anything that sends some positive cheer, even subliminally, is a good thing. After all, every little helps, as an old clock maker almost certainly never said.

But a couple of years ago, I was glancing through the Argos catalogue and came across the section on digital clocks. And yes, you’ve guessed it, every single one of them was set to 10:10.

Now, either the photographer was sharing an in-joke with old-school picture editors, or someone had followed the traditional advice and forgotten to ask the crucial question: ‘Why do we do it that way?’

So, think again about why you write things a particular way in your team and ask yourself if there might be a better way.

What would happen if you put the main messages of your report up front and put the background second? Would that be more useful for those who read it? How about shortening the executive summary from three pages (which isn’t much of a summary at all) to three paragraphs?

How about replacing ‘initiate’ with ‘start’ or ‘utilise’ with ‘use’? What’s the worst that could happen? Would you really incur the wrath of the entire board of directors, leaving you to dive for cover under your desk and stay there with your offending laptop, emerging only after the scandal of ‘wordgate’ had safely faded in your colleagues’ collective memory? Or would the recipients breathe a sigh of relief, read and understand what you’ve written straight away (without needing to fortify themselves with a stiff double espresso), and – gasp – act on it?

Even if you’re not quite ready to leave your old writing habits behind, at least pause for a moment to question why you do things that way.

The answer might put a smile on your face.

Want some inspiration? How about trying a new way of structuring your reports, looking at different ways of communicating numbers, or experimenting with a one-month writing detox?

Five unusual tips to inspire original writing

For many people, feeling they have nothing to say is one of their biggest writing challenges. (Unfortunately, there are many more who have nothing to say yet write anyway. But that’s another story.)

This is something that much advice on beating writer’s block – which focuses on how to get started – overlooks. So here are five innovative ways to ensure you always think clearly and never run short of original things to write about.

Before we start though, it’s worth stating the obvious: engaging your brain before you write is critical. Most of us have had the experience of reading a document or blog post that is neither original nor particularly helpful – the result, almost certainly, of insufficient time spent researching and thinking.

It’s not surprising, of course. A word processor is merely a tool, just as a car is. A car is useless if it doesn’t take you where you need to go, and for that it needs a driver who knows where they’re going. To stretch the analogy further, most people would rather go somewhere new than drive endlessly round a multi-storey car park.

So it is with writing. Firing up Microsoft Word and tapping away at your keyboard for a few hours won’t automatically produce a good document or blog post. You still need to have something worth saying – and if it’s new, so much the better. So here’s how to ensure you never run out of ideas again.

1. Prime the pump

Here comes the science bit: concentrate. You have an idea when nerve cells in your brain fire in a unique combination. But for that to happen, the information needs to be there already. This is good news, as ideas are never truly original. Rather, they’re connections of other thoughts and concepts. The English coffee-house boom of the 1600s is inextricably linked with the explosion of new ideas that we now call the Enlightenment. That’s because it brought people together to exchange information (something non-scientists call ‘talking’), prompting nerve cells to fire in new combinations all over the place. Innovation favours the connected mind.

You can recreate this effect by conjuring up a coffee house in your head. Start by filling your mind with other people’s ideas – not just before you write a word but before you even plan your document.

Use a variety of media: books, web pages, audio and video. All of this will stimulate your brain and get you thinking effortlessly. But for it to work, you need to consume the information without getting hung up on what you’re going to say. You are merely priming the pump. ‘The best ideas come from building on the ideas and inventions of others,’ says Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation.

2. Wake up

Admittedly, the caffeine that the coffee houses served up probably helped a little too. Most people drank weak beer from dawn to dusk before coffee became popular. (It was safer than water.) So it’s no surprise that they started to think a little more clearly when they eased back on the sauce. But even if you’re not in the habit of taking a tipple while you wait for your PC to warm up, you still need to make sure you have a clear head. That means getting a decent amount of sleep. Caffeine will help only to a point: it’s recently been discovered that sleep appears to flush out the biochemical by-products of the brain’s metabolism (‘toxins’). So continually burning the midnight oil is going to make it a lot more difficult to write good reports. No amount of coffee will clear a tired, fogged up brain.

3. Pick the right environment

A common piece of advice is to take yourself away to a quiet room, clear of clutter and other distractions, so that the ideas will flow. In fact, this is the opposite of what you should do.

‘Ideas hate conference rooms, particularly conference rooms where there is a history of criticism, personal attacks or boredom,’ says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, who has based his whole career on having new ideas. It makes sense. Getting a number of neurons to fire in a unique combination is unlikely to happen in the place your brain associates with management accounts meetings.

In fact, silence is probably not that conducive to innovation at all. Research published last year by the Universities of British Columbia and Virginia found that the background murmur of coffee shops boosted creativity. If the caffeine gets too much, switch to decaf. In fact, there’s now an app that will enable you to bypass the coffee shop altogether.

4. Capture your ideas

Apple chief designer Jony Ive says that ideas are fragile. Functional MRI research has now revealed just how fragile. In fact, most people can remember only four or five facts at a time. And what’s more, those facts stay in your working memory (the ‘front of your mind’) for only 15-20 seconds. In practice, this means that it’s critical that you record your ideas when you have them. Never rely on remembering them later – you probably won’t, and they’ll be lost forever. You can go analogue here and use pencil and notebook. But digital voice recorders or apps such as Audio Memos or eRecorder can make it a lot easier to collate your ideas electronically later.

5. Plan

It’s important to separate the thinking process from the writing process. Raw ideas or collections of bullet points are not much use, but neither is a random collection of thoughts thrown into a document in a stream of consciousness. Used properly, mind maps are an excellent way to bring ideas together and connect them in a logical path. (You can learn more about this on our courses.)

Following these steps can be amazingly powerful: so powerful that you may even end up with more ideas than you can use. Be careful though: even the best ideas will be wasted if you don’t communicate them to your audience – by making sure you save enough time and energy to settle down and write that report.

Tell us how you get on. Do these work for you? What are your tried and tested ways of generating ideas?

One space or two after a full stop?

In the battle of spaces, no one can hear you scream.

The argument about whether to use one space or two after a full stop (period) is surprisingly heated, writes Jacob Funnell. So, should you use one space at the end of a sentence? (Like this.) Or two?  (Like this.)

Until the early twentieth century, guidelines were numerous and often contradictory. There were a variety of space sizes, such as the large ‘em-quad’ (traditionally the width of a capital ‘M’), the smaller ‘en-quad’ (the width of a capital ‘N’) and the even smaller 1/3 em (one third of the width of a capital ‘M’).

Typesetters followed various, sometimes complex, rules of style. Generally, the em-quad was used after full stops, while the en-quad was used after all other punctuation (for a detailed exploration, see this post).

Some of us were taught a similar rule in handwriting at school: a finger’s width between words, a thumb’s width between sentences.

When typewriters were invented in the 1860s, the practice of having a longer space between sentences was carried over. But instead of an em-space, typists simply used two normal spaces. This was where the ‘gappy’ look came in: two normal spaces are wider than one em.

By about 1950, most house styles had dropped the double space and agreed to use a single space in all instances. Today, almost every major style guide recommends this, including The Economist, the Guardian and the Chicago Manual of Style.

So, given this general consensus, is using two spaces after a full stop actually incorrect?

Some say it is, and pretty unequivocally too. It’s ‘totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong’, according to American journalist Farhad Manjoo, writing on Worse, says Telegraph columnist Damian Thompson, it’s a ‘typographical atrocity’.

If you think this seems like a bit of an over-the-top reaction to what is essentially just a millimetre or so of white space, we agree. As writing style columnist ‘Johnson’ puts it in The Economist: ‘We’re barely in the territory of rules at all. The relevant concept here is not grammar but style.’

We would even go further and say that focusing on your own personal stylistic choices misses the point. The most important things about writing are not rules and style. The most important things are your reader, your message, and the reaction to what you’ve written.

And what’s the most common reaction readers have to double spaces after full stops? Simply: ‘It seems old-fashioned.’ Many people associate double spacing with a bygone era of clattering typewriters.  Others find it makes text look gappy and distracting. And to some, defiantly typing two spaces comes across as pedantic. After all, we live in an age where modern fonts and software are designed for single spaces.

In contrast, single spaces make practically no impression on your reader at all – they’re so common as to be invisible. They’re unlikely to distract, so they won’t draw attention away from what you’re writing. Unless your reader happens to be a hardcore double-space campaigner, that is, but these are mercifully few in number.

So, should you use a single or double space? We strongly recommend just the one. It’s less likely to distract your reader from your message, which is more likely to help you achieve your goal. And at work, getting your writing to achieve what you need it to is the most important thing. Full stop (period).

Can you spot the one double space in this article? And [psychotherapist voice] how does it make you feel?

Q&A: should you start a letter with ‘I am writing’?

We’re always happy to hear from you, especially when you set us a challenge. This month, one of our readers asked us to settle an office debate.

Dear Emphasis

I really enjoyed the report-writing course I did. But I now have a query about letter writing.

We are debating in the office whether you should start a letter with ‘I am writing’. Some say yes, some say no.

What would you say?



And here’s our reply:

Hi Jane

Thanks for getting in touch. We’re really pleased to hear you enjoyed the report-writing course.

The same ‘KISS’ principles that you learnt then apply as much to letters as to reports.

For that reason, I wouldn’t usually recommend starting a letter with ‘I am writing’, any more than I would starting a phone call with ‘I am calling’. Both are self-evident and therefore a waste of ink/breath. They are also arguably a little lazy.

However, starting with ‘I am writing’ can be a great way to get the words flowing, provided you go back and edit it out again.

For example:

Dear Clare

I am writing to thank you so much for inviting me to last week’s seminar …


Dear Clare

Thank you so much for inviting me to last week’s seminar …

Here’s another example:

Dear Acme Telecom

I am writing to complain about the shockingly poor level of service your company has (or rather hasn’t) delivered recently …


Dear Acme Telecom

I wish to complain about the shockingly poor …

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. For example, you could argue that I have subtly changed the meaning in the second example. And it’s far from certain whether my change would get a different result.

Our advice would be just to avoid it if you can. And if you can’t, don’t worry.

Hope that helps.

Kind regards

Rob Ashton

Do you have a business-writing query you’d like us to answer? If so, get in touch at

The seven rules of writing difficult emails

Writing about emotive subjects in an email is hard. There’s no way around it: even the best writers struggle, writes Jacob Funnell. That’s because email doesn’t convey body language or tone of voice, and readers can skip or skim crucial sections. So conveying your meaning can be very difficult.

The one ray of hope is that email allows you to take time out to think before you communicate. This is especially useful when it comes to responding to communications from other people – it gives you a real advantage over other methods. (In conversation, for example, it’s normal to have no more than a few seconds to work out how to reply.) The key to writing difficult messages is to learn to harness that advantage, by sticking to these seven rules.

1) Figure out your goal

Work out what you want your email to achieve before you start writing it.

It’s important to be realistic at this stage. For example, if you’re responding to an angry email from the office grump, you may be unlikely to get them to apologise. But you can at least correct any factual errors in what they’ve written.

Warning: if you’re having a tough time figuring out a realistic goal, this could be a sign that you shouldn’t be sending an email.

2) Stay focused

Once you have your goal, keep it at the front of your mind. When you’re writing, or editing, remove anything that doesn’t move you closer to what you want to achieve. This will help you keep the email as brief as possible, so your reader will have less to disagree with. They’re also less likely to skip anything you write.

With emotive subjects, you may feel the urge to explain yourself at great length, but this can distract from your goal. You don’t need to explain all of your thoughts and reasoning to make your point.

3) Stay concrete

Try to be as specific as possible. A direct ‘you were late three times last week’ is much harder to dispute than ‘your behaviour is unprofessional’. (You can soften this by phrasing it as an observation eg ‘I noticed that you were late three times last week.’ David Levin explains more here.) General statements can escalate the situation, and take you further from your goal.

4) Give the benefit of the doubt

If you’re responding to an email that has upset or angered you, try taking a deep breath and re-reading it, assuming the best plausible intentions on the sender’s part.

We tend to see what we expect to see in communication. This filling-in can sometimes go into overdrive, especially when body language and intonation are absent from the equation.

So if we expect to be criticised, ‘Your report is due in on Thursday’ can read as a doubtful, nagging reminder. But if we expect only to be informed, we’re more likely to read it as an innocuous statement of fact. You may be surprised how much the meaning can change if you alter your assumptions about the sender’s intentions.

5) Ask for clarification if you need it

Sometimes, instead of trying to guess, it’s better to come straight out and ask someone what they mean. This will put both of you on a better footing for resolving your problem. Learning to use simple clarifying phrases, as this poster on FreethoughtBlogs points out, can help you avoid conflicts caused by misunderstandings.

For example:

‘It sounds to me like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?’

‘I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?’

6) Ask a friend or colleague to read it

Your main priority is to figure out the reaction you want in your reader, and how to achieve it. Unfortunately, you may not be the best judge. A 2006 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people consistently overestimated their ability to convey their intended tone in emails.

An outside opinion can be extremely valuable at this stage. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to read the email (if it’s confidential, omit the recipient’s details), and make it clear that you want honest feedback.

You may be surprised at how statements you wrote without judgement can read like critical remarks to somebody else.

7) Send the email to yourself

Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient by sending the email to yourself. You’ll often see your own writing differently if you view it in your inbox. (This will also help you catch any errors in your email.)

If possible, wait until the next day before re-reading it. This is especially important if you were feeling emotional at the time of writing. You’ll find it easier to read your words effectively and objectively with a cooler head.

Calmly does it

Most of all, don’t rush. Save a link to this guide, and the next time you find yourself trying to write a delicate email, read it again. Then take a deep breath, keep calm and steady, and work your way through the seven rules. Let us know how you get on. And if you have any further email-writing tips to share, why not add them below?

Five fun festive facts (etymologically speaking)

Go prepared to your office parties and family gatherings this year. If the conversation wanes and you’ve already exhausted the Christmas cracker jokes, no problem. Simply crack out one of these little beauties and get the party restarted* in no time, writes Cathy Relf.

1. Are the yoof of today to blame for ‘Xmas’?

Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone! No. In fact, the Greeks are the guilty party. ‘X’temmas’ dates back to 1551, when ‘X’ was adopted as a substitute for ‘Christ’. The ‘X’ came from the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Χριστός (Christos). However, ‘Xmas’ remains widely frowned upon, despite Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge and Lewis Carroll all having used it.

2. Why is stuffing a farce?

We coined the word ‘stuffing’, at least in the culinary sense, in the 1530s. (We started using it for lewder concepts slightly earlier.) Before that, we’d been using the French word, ‘farce’, from ‘farcir’ (to stuff). At the time, ‘farce’ also referred to the improvised comedies performed between acts in religious plays – literally ‘stuffed’ in – to keep the audience attentive. Today’s meaning of farce has its roots in the improbable plots and slapstick humour of these interludes.

Around the 1880s, the somewhat graphic-sounding ‘stuffing’ fell out of favour in Victorian kitchens and ‘dressing’ appeared. ‘Dressing’ is now rarely used in this context in the UK (though we do use it for ‘salad dressing’). But it remains fairly common in US and Canadian English. There’s a good discussion of this on Lynne Murphy’s Separated by a Common Language blog.

3. Where’s the typo in gravy?

‘Gravy’ is what they call in the business a ‘ghost word’. That is, one that came into being by mistake – usually through misinterpretation, mispronunciation or misreading. With ‘gravy’, the mistake appears to have been made by a monk in the fourteenth century, who misread ‘grané’ (sauce, stew) and transcribed it as ‘gravey’. In French writing of the time, ‘n’ and ‘v’ were difficult to distinguish, especially by candlelight (and after an ale or three).

4. Why is Boxing Day called Boxing Day?

It’s not, as your humble author had assumed until recently (despite a complete absence of supporting evidence), anything to do with boxing matches. There are a couple of explanations – probably related – both of which involve boxes. One is that on the day after Christmas, employers would give their tradesmen and servants a ‘Christmas box’, containing a gift or money. Another is that Anglican churches used to display a box during Advent for their congregations to put money into. On the day after Christmas, the boxes would be opened and the money inside distributed among the poor. Both traditions are far older than the name ‘Boxing Day’, which first appeared in 1809.

5. Why do we say ‘merry Christmas’ and ‘happy new year’, and not the other way around?

‘Happy Christmas and a merry new year’ just doesn’t sound right, does it? And for good reason. Merriness tends to be a fleeting thing, involving mirth, high spirits and perhaps a tot or two of tipsiness. It is festive by nature – and it passes, like Christmas Day. Happiness, meanwhile, can mean a more lasting state that involves contentedness as well as joy and pleasure. So, while we hope that your New Year’s Eve will be a most merry affair, we hope your 2014 will be a happy one. Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

*Party restarting not guaranteed.

Make your reports irresistibly interesting

People who are extraordinarily knowledgeable unfortunately have an extraordinary capacity for being boring, writes Richard Smyth. So when you’re writing reports, how do you make sure they impart all the information they need to, without putting the reader to sleep? The chap in the picture knows a tip or two, and we’ll come back to him a bit later.

One thing that can make knowledgeable writers boring is an imbalance in information between writer and reader. If you know a lot, and your reader knows very little, there is a danger of factual overload. This can be very dull. (If the reader is polite, they will probably call it ‘dense’ or ‘technical’ – at least to your face.)

It’s context that’s the problem. Context is the medium within which facts make sense. You, having immersed yourself studiously in your subject for months or years, are positively dripping with context. Your reader, coming face to face with the subject for the first time, isn’t. As a result, what you may find interesting, they may find rather dry.

As a question-setter for the BBC quiz show Mastermind, I’m routinely confronted by this kind of imbalance. I stand by the principle that knowledge is never boring. To those who know all there is to know about their specialist subject, it’s all interesting: when you know that Joseph Gayetty is said to have invented the first commercial toilet paper in 1857, it’s interesting that Emperor Hongwu of China was ordering custom-made toilet paper for the imperial court back in the 14th century.

When you know that, in cricket, the googly is usually delivered out of the back of the bowler’s hand, it’s interesting that the Australian Jack Iverson found a way to deliver it from between his thumb and forefinger. Every field of endeavour and every sector of business is stuffed with this sort of arcana.

Not all facts are equally interesting

So how do you persuade your readers that they should find these things just as interesting as you do?

It’s not about compromising on accuracy. Without integrity, without a commitment to the facts, your reports won’t do the job you need them to do. Putting reader-appeal before accuracy might suit a tabloid newspaper, but it’s simply self-defeating when your primary goal is effective communication.

Instead, it’s about identifying the elements of your report or proposal that are able to flourish without a support network of life-giving context. We might call them ‘mudskippers’, after the fish that have the ability to breathe and move around on land as well as underwater.

How do you spot a mudskipper? Let’s say I have room in my report for 50 facts. Let’s say that the central, critical message of my report constitutes 20 of these. These are the facts that simply have to go in, ditchwater-dull or mudskipper-interesting, and that’s fine – this is a business report, after all.

What we’re discussing here are those other 30 facts, the information that comprises your supporting argument and turns a stark list of take-home statements into an effective and fully rounded report. This is where your mudskipper-spotting skills can make the difference.

As a knowledgeable person, you’re in the privileged position of being able to see the goings-on behind the green curtain. You’re the scuba diver who can see the vast, vibrant coral atoll that to the airline passenger flying overhead is just a bleak bollard in the middle of the ocean. This privileged position is hard-earned – but it’s one you have to relinquish if you want to do a good job of communicating your expertise. You have to swallow the unpalatable reality that, to your readers, not all facts are equally interesting.

You’ll soon understand how Charles Darwin felt when, after spending decades establishing himself as an all-time world expert on barnacles, all anyone ever wanted to ask him about was On The Origin Of Species. It’s frustrating, but it’s necessary.

How to spot a mudskipper

Mudskippers – those versatile ideas that don’t perish when taken out of context – needn’t be sensational. If they are, treat them with extreme caution. And they shouldn’t be trivial. They should help the reader understand your message, but, just as importantly, they should make the reader want to understand.

They’ll often jump out at you during the research process. They might be of a different category to the surrounding information (a name, rather than a number, say). They might have a hinterland (historical, geographical, cross-sectoral). They might introduce an element of humanity (a quotation might sometimes be a mudskipper).

Mudskippers are facts with flavour. They’re the information equivalent of umami – that fifth flavour of savoury hard-to-describe ‘meatiness’ – the quality that makes everything just that bit more moreish.

Knowledge is power. But only when you know how to use it.