Archive for November, 2011


Magazines are edited, right?

November 30, 2011

Magazines have editors, right? So presumably magazines get edited. After all, you don’t find too many errors in most professionally produced magazines.

If only they applied the same rigor when editing their web copy or email marketing copy…

Email marketing for magazine -- error


Perhaps they didn’t edit the email marketing piece at all.


The serial or Oxford comma

November 29, 2011

Chris asked me to write something about the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma, among other names). Thanks for the suggestion, Chris!

Bottom line: Separate the last two items in a list with a comma if they could be misinterpreted as being a single item.

A serial comma is the final comma in a run-on list of items; it goes before the ‘and’. (A run-on list is contained within the sentence – it’s not a bulleted list.)

In this phrase, the serial comma is the one immediately after ‘selecting’:

‘…identifying, screening, qualifying, selecting, and integrating the appropriate new technologies to be used in the project’.

Whether you use a serial comma in your writing or not mostly depends on where you went to school. If you went to school in the US, there’s a very good chance that you always use it. However, if you went to school in Australia or Great Britain, you may not use it at all, or only sometimes.

Various style guides have differing rules for its use, so it can all get a little confusing. The Australian Style Manual says this about commas in run-on lists:

‘Commas are used to separate items in a simple series or list within a sentence (e.g. The details required are name, date of birth, address and telephone number.) Sometimes a comma is needed between the last two items to ensure clarity (e.g. They should seek the support of landholders, philanthropists, government, and community and industry groups.)’

Despite being raised in the Australian education system, I tend to add a serial comma after the second last item in most run-on lists to avoid any possibility of ambiguity.

Let’s look at a simple example:

Her favourite pies were lemon meringue, mulberry, apple and pecan.

Without the serial comma, ‘apple and pecan’ could be interpreted as a pie containing both apples and pecans. If the writer meant that apple and pecan were two different types of pie, then they should have added a comma after ‘apple’ to remove any possibility that ‘apple and pecan’ could be interpreted as the one pie:

Her favourite pies were lemon meringue, mulberry, apple, and pecan.

That single comma after ‘apple’ removes all ambiguity and makes it clear that she likes four different types of pie, not three.

Other resources:

[Links last checked November 2011; based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]


Word: Page size not listed

November 25, 2011

Here’s an interesting problem I faced the other day. I needed to insert a section break for an A3 page into a Word document. Everything went fine until I tried to select A3 as the paper size for that section — A3 wasn’t listed! It had been listed for earlier documents, so I was surprised that it wasn’t listed for the document I was working on.

And then I remembered printer drivers. Different drivers have different print capabilities. For example, my office printer cannot take A3 paper in any slot, so it’s unlikely to list A3 as a possible paper option.

I checked the document’s printer settings and found that it was set to the SnagIt printer driver. I changed the printer to Adobe PDF and then checked my available page sizes again — and A3 was there.

I didn’t actually have to print the document — just changing the printer assigned to the document was enough.


Escape? Cancel? What…?

November 24, 2011

I was opening a PowerPoint presentation on my client’s network, using my not super fast VPN connection. I got this cryptic message:

So, I have to press the ESC cancel to stop the presentation from opening. Fair enough, though it could have been written in simpler language (e.g. Press the ESC key to stop opening the document.)

However, that Cancel button just confuses the message. You have two instances of ‘cancel’ in the one message box and it’s not clear as to what the Cancel button does. Does it just cancel the message (I suspect it does) and the document keeps on opening, or does it substitute for the ESC key?

Someone who’s not very familiar with creating a PowerPoint presentation or presenting one, may not be familiar with using ESC to get out of full screen mode once the presentation is open.  Thus they are likely to be really confused by this message.

A better option for the developers/UI text people may be to keep the message, and instead of a Cancel button, adding a ‘close’ icon at the top of the message box, or changing the text on the button to something like Close, though I still think that’s not clear either. Even better would be a wordier message like Close this message. Sure, it’s more text, but there would be no confusion as to what that button does.


Error messages that make you feel stupid

November 18, 2011

Back in 2008 I wrote a post on writing useful error messages (, where I stated:

The worst kind of error is one that tells the user nothing and doesn’t help them recover from the error condition.

Also, don’t insult the user or call them stupid… there are many ways developers call users stupid without saying so. For example: “The password is wrong! [OK]”. This sort of error message doesn’t help the user at all, and they feel idiotic for not knowing ‘what the computer wants’. The exclamation mark so beloved by certain developers is like a slap in the face and just adds insult to injury.

Well, I came across one a few days ago that:

Here it is:

Error message with an exclamation point

Thanks for making me feel unworthy

There was no other information on how I could get these obviously special privileges available only to the very few. Even a line about contacting my system administrator might have lessened the impact of this error message.

Removing the exclamation mark would have done a lot to convert this message from a ‘You are too stupid to have privileges’ insult to just a statement of fact. That single punctuation mark in a message such as this has the power to make a person feel like an idiot.

[Links last checked November 2011]


Keep your relatives close!

November 17, 2011

What’s wrong with this sentence?

Physical barriers are provided around the Acme Plant to help prevent damage injury or from dropped or falling objects includes overhead protection and kick plates.

At a quick glance, there are several things wrong with it:

Let’s look at that last one. When you read the sentence as originally written, you could think that ‘overhead protection and kick plates’ are examples of dropped or falling objects because the ‘including…’ phrase comes straight after the ‘dropped…’ phrase.

Someone who does not have English as their native language could easily misinterpret this sentence; native English speakers may compensate and switch the words around in their head to get it right, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. So, how can this sentence be rewritten to make it clear what object the ‘overhead protection and kick plates’ relate to?

There are two objects in this sentence that these ‘including…’ items may relate to – ‘physical barriers (around the Acme Plant)’ and ‘dropped and falling objects’. As the ‘including…’ items are measures to prevent dropped and falling objects, they can’t be examples of dropped and falling objects! That leaves ‘physical barriers’, which fits.

Knowing that ‘overhead protection and kick plates’ relate to ‘physical barriers’, here are some ways of rewording this sentence:

Physical barriers, including overhead protection and kick plates, around the Acme Plant help prevent damage or injury from dropped or falling objects.


Physical barriers around the Acme Plant help prevent damage or injury from dropped or falling objects; such barriers include overhead protection and kick plates.


Physical barriers around the Acme Plant, such as overhead protection and kick plates, help prevent damage or injury from dropped or falling objects.

Bottom line: Keep your relatives close! Make sure related items stay near each other in a sentence.

See also:

[Links last checked November 2011; based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues]


Word: Remove a stubborn watermark

November 16, 2011

Here’s one I solved for a work colleague…


Word 2007 document with a stubborn ‘DRAFT’ watermark that won’t budge, despite going to the section and trying to remove it the usual way (Page Layout tab > Watermark > Remove Watermark).


Watermarks have always been stored as part of the header in Word, so:

  1. Turn off track changes.
  2. Double-click inside the section’s header to open it.
  3. Move your cursor over some of the letters in the watermark until it turns into a 4-way arrow.
  4. Click to select the watermark (you’ll see colored selection handles around the watermark text when it’s selected).
  5. Press the Delete key to remove the watermark.
  6. Repeat for all other sections that have a stubborn watermark that you can’t remove.

Update February 2013: If the watermark still won’t delete, trying saving the document as XML — see Amy’s instructions in the Comments (14 Oct 2012), and the following update immediately below.

Update March 2019: See below for the steps for saving as XML and deleting it that way. NOTE: Make a copy of your document and work on the copy. (Always work on a copy to test something you’ve never tried before or aren’t confident doing.)

  1. Open your document in Word.
  2. Save the document as an XML document: File > Save As and choose XML Document from the list of file types.
  3. Close Word. You’ll now have two docs listed in your folder—one with a DOCX file extension, and one with an XML extension.
  4. Open a text editor (e.g. Notepad, EditPlus etc.).
  5. Open the XML document you created in Step 2. Don’t panic when you see all the code!
  6. Place your cursor at the beginning of the file.
  7. Search (Ctrl+F in most cases) for your watermark word(s) surrounded by double quote marks and prefaced by string=. For example: string=”draft” or string=”confidential”.
  8. Delete the watermark word(s) inside the quote marks. There’s no need to delete anything else. You’ll end up with string=”” once you’ve deleted the watermark word(s).
  9. Save the XML document, then close the text editor.
  10. Find the XML document in your folder and open it using Word (NOT a text editor). The watermark should be gone. However, the document is still an XML file.
  11. Save the document as a DOCX file using File > Save As.
  12. Open the DOCX document—the watermark should be gone.