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A Perfect, Imperfect Sign

On vacation in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I try not to focus on business writing. But it’s a habit that’s hard to break. Words, phrases, and messages grab my attention, even on vacation.

Here’s a sign I like for its brevity and directness, though traditionalists may quibble with its structure.



Do you like it? I appreciate the no-nonsense “DON’T DROWN.” I also like the clear action: “TURN AROUND.” What could be clearer?

Even “WHEN FLOODED” works. Everyone knows what that means.

UPDATE on December 19: Reader Laura informed me that “Turn Around Don’t Drown” is actually an ad campaign that  is part of National Weather Service communications. Thank you, Laura!

But traditionalists may need a few small corrections for their sign. Do you?

What do you think of these markups?


Why the addition of “IT’S”? Without it, the structure suggests that you, the reader, are flooded. Compare it with instructions like these: “When [you are ] ready, ring bell” and “When [you are] calling out, dial 1.” But of course, this sentence does not mean “When you are flooded.” It refers to the road or bridge ahead. However, in a flood I don’ t think people would stop to analyze the structure–well, maybe one or two of my readers would. We are all about the language.

Greetings from the Land of Enchantment! That’s the motto of New Mexico.


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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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