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August Sales in August?

Our local business journal ran a headline in its online version this week: “Home sales last month were august.” At first, I thought I had stumbled on a typo. Reading the first sentence, I was certain I had: “Western Washington home sales and prices continued to soar in August, despite a surge of new listings. . . .”

Hmmm: august sales in August? In fact, it wasn’t a typo–just an odd editorial decision that slowed me down and confused me.

Apparently the headline writer intended to describe home sales as august. That seemed like an odd choice to me, so I did a quick OneLook Dictionary Search to see what the experts say. Here are a few definitions of august:

  • Marked by majestic dignity or grandeur”
  • “Inspiring awe or admiration; majestic”
  • “Venerable for reasons of age or high rank”
  • “Having great importance and especially of the highest social class”
  • “Of great majesty or dignity”

One of those definitions seemed to fit real estate sales in Western Washington in August: “inspiring awe”; the others didn’t. But it wasn’t just that the word was an unusual choice–it was its similarity to the month being discussed.

It’s bad form to use a word two different ways within a space of a dozen words. It makes the reader work too hard, even when one form is capitalized and the other isn’t.

Just this morning I emailed my daughter’s violin teacher to clarify the fee for lessons. At first I wrote this: “I want to mail you a check, so I wanted to check on the length of the lessons.” But because I was using the word check two distinct ways, I rewrote the sentence as follows: “I want to mail you a check for Eva’s lessons.  Are they one hour long now?” That way, I avoided confusing my reader for even a moment.

It’s worth the time it takes to find the right word or edit the sentence–worth it because your reader will understand immediately and respond as you intend.

By the way, if you’re not familiar with OneLook Dictionary Search, give it a try. With its links to more than a dozen dictionaries, it gives you a quick survey of expert opinion. Just be prepared for pop-ups.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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