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Oh, words. So useful, but so easily confused.

Back story/background

Recently overheard in the hallway: That’s the back story to the file.

Well, not quite. A back story is the fabricated biography that a spy is given as a cover, especially for the purposes of a future interrogation by someone hostile.

What the person in the hallway meant was just background – although perhaps back story sounds more exciting.


A recent request that crossed the screen: Can you queue up a meeting?

While you queue up for tickets (or, more usually, in North America, line up), timing a meeting is to cue it up.

Think of an actor’s cue to do something at a particular point in the script.


These are close in meaning, so any confusion is perhaps to be forgiven.

To be reticent is to be unwilling to speak freely.

Reluctant is a bit broader: it is to be unwilling to do something in general.

Hesitant is like reluctant, but suggests the person may get over that momentary unwillingness.

While someone who is reticent is also reluctant, the reverse is not (necessarily) true.

So don’t say I am reticent to participate in the meeting.


People still get these confused? They do!

Like CNN, which stated that ‘The President’s claims of innocence looked even more incredulous Tuesday night after The New York Times reported …’

What they meant was incredible – that is, ‘hard to believe’ or ‘fantastical’. (Incredible has also joined the list of words that have come to mean ‘superlative’ but which started off meaning something else, like awesome, fantastic, terrific, tremendous and unbelievable.)

Incredulous, on the other hand, is what one says of people when they hear – but do not believe – an incredible story (in the ‘not capable of belief’ sense).


Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Exhibit A, posted on LinkedIn by a copywriter and editor:

My husband, John Blank and I are relocating to Canada in April.

Without a comma after John Blank (the name has been changed to protect the guilty by association), this means the writer is moving with an unnamed husband and this other dude, John Blank.

What is probably meant is that our copywriter is moving with one husband, whose name is (for our purposes) John Blank, and him alone.

There needs to be a comma after the husband’s name to indicate that we’re not dealing with a throuple (unless that is the case).

Exhibit B, from no less a source than the Financial Times:

The writer, Jose Luis Borges, once likened …

This is the opposite problem; those limiting commas offsetting the name of the writer indicate that he is the only writer.

The following sentences, while perhaps intially confusing, are punctuationally pure (remembering that smith is both a noun and a verb):

Will smith Will Smith smith?

              Smith Will Smith will smith.

The FT should dispense with the Borges commas and adopt the Will Smith approach, unless it seeks to reduce world literature to a single author.

Maybe they were using the copywriter/editor from LinkedIn…


Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Noting up legislation is straightforward. On CanLII you enter the name or citation of the act in the note up field; in Lexis Advance you enter the citation of the section you are interested in preceded by cit: (e.g. cit: SBC 2011 c 25 s 160) and in Westlaw Canada you enter the citation of the section you are interested in preceded by kc: (e.g. kc: SBC 2011 c 25 s 160).

However if you note up only the current version of the legislation you may miss out on some older but still relevant cases.

In order to note up the equivalent section in an older act you will need to know what the correct citation is. Section numbers change from consolidation to consolidation since acts are renumbered when a revised consolidation is produced. Section 27 of the R.S.C. 1985 version of an act may not refer to the same thing as section 27 of the R.S.C. 1970 version of that act. How you determine the correct section number depends somewhat on the jurisdiction of the legislation.

Keep in mind that the section of an act referred to by an older case may read dramatically differently from how it does now. If you find an older case that appears to be relevant, you should confirm how the legislation read at that time.

Susannah Tredwell


This phrase, beloved of vendors of products and services you probably don’t want and with whom you are unacquainted, is puzzling.

What do they mean?

The first possibility is that the sender hopes (or pretends, for the sake of fake-friendliness) that when the e-mail finds me, I am well.

That is, healthy, in a state of contentment etc.

That interpretation is unlikely not only because it presupposes the sincerity of the wish, but also because I am 99.999% sure that the sender would use good (not the grammatically correct well) in response to the question ‘How are you?’

The only other possibility is that the sender is hoping that the e-mail finds me well in the sense of its having travelled ’directly’ or ‘without difficulty’ to me through the ether.

Now that we’ve entered the third decade of e-mail’s widespread use as a communications tool, it is wholly unnecessary to be asking that very 1990s question, ‘Did you get my e-mail?’

Oh, it found me all right (and I wish it hadn’t). If it hadn’t, you’d have received a bounce-back.

Since the possible meanings of I hope this e-mail finds you well are either unlikely or inane, can we please consign this leaden opener to the dustbin of sales clichés?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Translation: ‘too long; didn’t read’.

This is the verdict, Aaron Orendorff argues, on most work-related writing.

Orendorff, a writer and editor, suggested a while back in the New York Times that your work colleagues really don’t want to read anything you write in a professional setting.

It’s not that they don’t like you or that you write badly; it’s just that they (like you) are inundated with reading material.

He offers eight strategies to get people to read what you send them (because some of it actually might be important):

  • Write less often
    • scarcity is more valuable
    • keep personal conversations separate from professional channels
    • wait before you send or reply, sometimes up to 24 hours – or don’t send at all
  • keep it short
    • brevity is the soul of wit (Shakespeare’s joke being that it is the tedious old bore Polonius who says that in Hamlet)
  • put action words in the subject line of your e-mail
    • not ‘Budget attached’ but ‘APPROVAL REQUIRED FOR ITEMS 9-12: Budget attached’
  • listen rather than talk
    • ask a clear, concise question that invite answers
  • ask, don’t answer
    • ‘use one or two sentences to describe the situation; then ask a single question and let the team chime in’
  • ‘lead with the need’
    • skip opening niceties and cut to the chase
    • move the final sentence of your first draft to the top and then cut most of the rest
  • provide an executive summary
    • call it ‘TL;DR’, even
    • especially useful for memos, agendas and group e-mails
    • say who needs to do what by what date
    • if this covers everything, omit the rest of the draft
  • think of your readers
    • is what you’re writing interesting or relevant for them?
    • include your reader by referring to we not I or even you
    • asking for someone’s opinion invites criticism; try to build on a shared identity

These eight points won’t make people hang on every e-mail you compose, but you may at least get their attention.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Problematic because they are newfangled and ugly.


Seen in a recent lawyer blog post: The court errored when …

Nope. It erred or made an error.

To paraphrase the poet, to err is human; to error is unforgivable.


We correctly refer to the skilled trades, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to turn skill into a verb.

Even worse are those jargony hybrids, reskill and upskill, and their derivatives reskilling and upskilling. (Can one ever downskill?)

You mean training, learning, acquiring new skills.


Typically a noun, but halfway to a verb in the dreadful visioning that people seem to be doing in (probably equally dreadful) team-building exercises.

One envisions, one sees.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


If you’re trying to find an Alberta government publication one very helpful resource is Alberta’s open government portal. This is “a collection of datasets and publications by government departments and agencies.” Currently it contains 24,503 Government of Alberta publications.

To search for a publication go to; you can limit your results by topic, ministry and publication type. It also includes tags which can be helpful in locating similar publications.

Susannah Tredwell


The slash is more correctly called the solidus, the oblique or the virgule. We see it in URLs all the time.

It is much older than the interweb, of course.

If you are old enough, and British enough, you’ll remember it as the mark for a shilling: 2/- meant two shillings in pre-decimal currency. It was also used after the number of pounds: £4/5/3½ is ’four pounds, five shillings, threepence halfpenny’, that last bit pronounced thruppence hayp’ny.

The ½ symbol calls to mind another use of the solidus, in fractions (when the numbers aren’t placed vertically, with a straight line between). It is also used to express per, as in 100km/h. These are essentially the same usage, per here being the Latin for ‘by’ (1 (divided) by 2, 100 km by the hour).

We also use the slash in colloquial abbreviations where it separates the initial letters of syllables: A/C (‘air-conditioning’), b/c (‘because’), w/e (‘week-end’), w/o (‘without’).

So far so good, but there are some problematic uses of the solidus.

I can never remember which is a forward slash and which a backward one. Doesn’t it depend on which way you’re facing?

More significantly, the solidus can mean or but it can also stand for and. This might cause interpretive difficulties.

He/she and s/he probably mean ‘he or she’ and ’she or he’, but perhaps now have an element of gender fluidity to them.

In constructions like and/or, the solidus clearly means or. (But don’t use and/or, for reasons I’ve pointed out previously.)

The solidus can also function as and, as in this piece from the Law Society which describes James Wilson Morrice as ‘probably the most internationally renowned Ontario lawyer/artist’.

Better to say lawyer who was also an artist or lawyer-artist.

Why? Because it could be unclear whether your solidus is disjunctive (or) or conjunctive (and).

The party room and gym in this luxury condominium have state-of-the-art audio/video systems.

Hmm, that probably means they have both audio and video, but you can never be too sure…

Whatever you do, please don’t follow the lead of this writer for Slate, who spelled out each solidus as the word slash:

President Donald Trump issued a stunning threat-slash-promise-slash-constitutional fantasy.

We might do this in speech, but please — not in writing.

Thanks to John Hightower of Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne PC in Huntsville, Alabama, for suggesting the topic and directing me to that Slate horror.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


This adjective isn’t my favourite. Perhaps it’s that weak, adverb-like —ly ending.

It’s unobjectionable in a timely reminder, but in a timely manner is like fingernails down a chalkboard, somehow.

I think that’s because of its fussy, needlessly formal tone and use of four words when one or two would suffice. On time (or even early) would do just fine.

Also unattractive is the American legal usage that turns the adjective into an adverb (as seen in the title of this US blog post): Does Your Company Timely Respond to All Reports of Potential Misconduct?

Are there are other ways to phrase it?

Promptly. That works.

Timeously. Very Scottish, so a bit outlandish in North America (or England).

Timelily. Perhaps the weakest of weak adverbs, with that unusual (but correct) —lily ending. Don’t.

I’d go with on time.

And in the timely reminder sense, you could also say well-timed, opportune, seasonable.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Is it Amber and Veronica’s children or Amber’s and Veronica’s children?

It could be either, depending on what is meant.

The first refers to the children Amber and Veronica parent together; the second to two sets of children, separately parented.

So, you would say Amber and Veronica’s children are in regular contact with their biological father but Amber’s and Veronica’s children went on the school outing, travelling in separate cars.

Things are different when you combine a noun and pronoun in the same sentence, however.

This is correct: Angela’s and my view is that …

Thanks to Ross Guberman for suggesting this topic and pointing out where Justice Kagan of the US Supreme Court gets it wrong (at page 8).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)