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March 10th, 2020

Hazel Butters

Security grammar: Are you insecure when writing about unsecure technology?

Security grammar: Are you insecure when writing about unsecure technology?

At Prompt we spend a lot of our days writing about technology – big data, data warehousing, BI, CRM, BPM, ERP, API – you name it, we’re ITK. If it’s got an acronym, or a set of acronyms associated with it, then we’ve written opinion pieces, whitepapers, case studies and news releases about it.

One area that’s always hot – whether the underlying topic is mobile, cloud, BYOD, SQL injections, risk or compliance – is security. Which brings us to a very specific grammar question. Do you ever find yourself pausing and asking yourself, the people around, or the grammar gods: “Is it unsecure or insecure?”

At first, this appears a very easy question. ‘Unsecure’ can surely be eliminated – after all the word doesn’t appear in either Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal in the constantly changing world of tech speak. In the technology sector, words and phrases are coined and adopted at the drop of a Zune –  just consider the use of the words ‘virtualized’, ‘de-duplication’ or ‘phablets’.  At Prompt we have to stay current with the market and all of its constantly ‘evolving’ terms and phrases (but we don’t have to like ‘em).

The problem with this example is that while insecure can be used in both US and UK English to mean something that is not adequately protected – for example an ‘insecure investment’ – it is more typically used to describe a lack of emotional confidence or certainty. Yes, some dictionaries will go as far to state the example of ‘an insecure computer system’ and there’s a whole Wikipedia page on ‘Computer Insecurity’, while ‘Computer Unsecurity’ clearly does not earn a Wikipedia page at all. But for many of us ‘insecure’ just doesn’t sit very, um, securely in a sentence.

We can’t help think that an insecure computer system sounds a little self-conscious about the size of its processors, or needs a reassuring reboot up the backend. So where to go?

Well, we like to use either of the phrases ‘non-secure’ or ‘unsecured’. Both pass dictionary scrutiny, and each can be used quite literally to mean ‘not made secure’, which we think is a good fit for a computer system that hasn’t been protected with security measures.

Unless you are an absolute stickler for academic grammar (and if you are then tech buzzwords are going to destroy your finely balanced sensibilities in about a picosecond anyway), then you could arguably use any of the terms mentioned in this post to get your point across. The most important thing then, as is generally the case with most copywriting best practices, is that you are consistent. So pick a term, add it to your company style-guide, share it with your team, marketing contacts and agency – and then be secure in your decision.

Follow Hazel on Twitter at @HazelButters

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July 24th, 2012

Prompt Grammar Tip: Bronze, silver and gold medal mistakes

Prompt Grammar Tip: Bronze, silver and gold medal mistakes

With only three days left until this year’s Summer Olympics, @PromptBoston and @PromptLondon are eagerly awaiting countries from around the world squaring off in nearly every type of warm-weather sport.

But as a copywriting and public relations firm, our team has decided to hand out medals for another type of activity – grammar mistakes.  Here is our podium for the top three most impressive grammatical errors. Read on, as the most cringe-worthy error takes home the gold:

Bronze: Its versus it’s

Coming in third place, we have the all too familiar confusion of its and it’s.  The error is incredibly common and crops up in places one would never imagine– including many corporate websites and brochures. So how do you avoid a mistake that’s so easy to make? Well, it’s easy:  Use it’s only when it is a contraction, and you mean ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. But always use its to mean belonging to it – the word it doesn’t take on an apostrophe when it gets possessive…

Silver:  Who, which or that?

In second place is a grammatical error we stumble across almost every day – the incorrect use of ‘that’, ‘which’ and ‘who’. But the good news for frequent winners of the silver medal is that there are easy ways to remember which terms to use.  ‘Who’ refers to people, ‘which’ refers to animals and things, while ‘that’, can refer to either persons or things.

Gold: Words that sound the same, but are spelled differently

Bringing home the gold, are frustrating common misuses of similar words, such as ‘hear’ and ‘here’, or ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. Maybe even ‘where’ and ‘wear’, ‘bare’ and ‘bear’, ‘cereal’ and ‘serial’, ‘hole and ‘whole’, ‘right’ and ‘write’ and many, many others. These are just some of the many combinations of words that sound the same but are spelled differently, commonly known as ‘homophones’. Often their correct usages can elude people for many years. Although there is no sure-fire way to catch these errors, a thorough proofread will reveal all such mistakes.  Be sure to pinpoint sound-a-like words that often trip you up on your way to gold, and then train hard to use them in their correct forms!

So there you have it, our awards for the top three medal-worthy grammatical mistakes, just in time for the London 2012 opening ceremony.  Just be sure keep our Prompt Grammar Tips in mind the next time you find yourself long jumping into a writing assignment.

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July 10th, 2012

Prompt Grammar Tip: Is it worse, or the worst?

Prompt Grammar Tip: Is it worse, or the worst?

As a copywriting and public relations firm located in Boston and London, we believe nothing is ‘worse’ than switching up two words that are not interchangeable.

Worse and worst are two of those words that some people use incorrectly. It doesn’t make you the ‘worst’ linguist around if you get these two words mixed up, but grammatically speaking, there are some easy concepts to keep in mind when using these words in everyday language.

Worse is the comparative for ‘bad’. It can be used as an adjective or an adverb, and is usually used to compare one thing unfavorably with another.

For example:
• Maria’s nerves are much worse than Sheldon’s.
• I thought the book was bad, but the movie was worse.

Worst is the superlative of bad, and refers to the most inferior, or the least good. There’s no comparison here; worst is just as bad as it gets. It’s a very dramatic adjective, or sometimes a noun, and should be used when expressing the ‘worst’ case scenario.

For example:
• Data backup is vital because losing those critical files is the worst thing that could happen.
• My typing skills are the worst.

We hope this Prompt Grammar Tip will come in handy the next time you’re torn between using worse or worst.

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June 25th, 2012

Prompt Grammar Tip: affect or effect?

Prompt Grammar Tip: affect or effect?

Affect, effect, what’s the difference? Well, the common grammar mistake could affect (or is that effect?) your entire writing style, or worse, your credibility as an author.

Fortunately, there is a trick you can remember when trying to decide which word to use. The term ‘affect’ is almost always a verb. ‘Affect’ means to impact or influence an action, or simply, that which causes an effect.

Then, there’s ‘effect’, or the outcome of the action. Beware: while ‘effect’ is not often used as a verb, it can still be used as a transitive verb, which means to bring about or make happen. The rule is not foolproof, and so you must always consider the subject and action you are writing about when using either ‘affect’ or ‘effect’.

To guide you, here are some examples or the usage of these two tricky, and sometimes interchangeable words:

– Incorrect grammar affects the quality of a piece of writing
– This Prompt Grammar Tip has had a great effect on my writing skills

For more Prompt Grammar Tips, subscribe to Prompt’s weekly newsletter by email at newsletter@prompt-communications.com, or follow us on Twitter @PromptBoston or @PromptLondon today.

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May 21st, 2012

Prompt Grammar Tip: Active or Passive?

Prompt Grammar Tip: Active or Passive?

Writing in an active voice rather than a passive voice is actually a choice, not a strict grammatical rule. But if you’ve ever worked as a journalist or short form writer, or undergone fast-track media training, you could easily get the impression that passive is simply bad form.

In its most basic sense, an active voice focuses on a subject performing an action. In our industry, this might be: ‘Acme Industries launches product’. In a passive voice, that subject is instead acted upon, resulting in ‘The product is launched by Acme Industries’.

The passive voice is not wrong, and can indeed be preferable in some circumstances. But it does have some downsides that lead many editors, trainers and teachers to frown upon it. The verb structure in a passive sentence is lengthier, and generally lacks the clarity, simplicity and punch of an active construction. Spoken out loud, passive sentences often sound ‘clunkier’ and interrupt the flow and momentum of writing.

Once you’re aware of the distinction though, the passive voice definitely has its uses. Succinct headlines are often written in the passive: ‘Acme CEO Fired’ or ‘Acme Software Infected’, for example. Generally speaking, if you’re consciously using the passive tense to emphasize the action over the subject, then go for it. But if you’re just falling into a passive voice as you get tangled in the subject matter, then get active, and simplify that sentence structure.

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May 9th, 2012

Prompt Grammar Tip: Is it ‘further’ or ‘farther’?

Prompt Grammar Tip: Is it ‘further’ or ‘farther’?

‘Further’ is always used when not referring to physical distance, for example, “He had to investigate further to find the answer.” But ‘farther’ is preferred when describing actual, measurable geographic distance. “He needed to travel farther to find the waterfall in the woods.” A good way to remember this is to note that farther has an ‘a,’ just like the word ‘atlas’, with an atlas representing physical distance.

To subscribe to Prompt’s weekly newsletter, which includes grammar, PR and marketing tips, please complete the form below or email newsletter@prompt-communications.com.


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