There’s always something to howl about

“Appliance” is not a verb!

As a purveyor of Real Estate Search Engines that function best when they have text to work with, and as a guy who holds both a journalism degree and the English language in high regard, I often find myself wincing in pain when I read the descriptions that end up on Property Detail pages.

Lately, I have noticed two new “words” creeping into the bastard child of English that is the Real Estate lexicon: “applianced” and “fireplaced”.

Both of these nouns that have been horribly mutated into past-tense verbs are often accompanied by that harbinger of terrible writing, the adverb, as in “fully applianced” and “newly fireplaced”.

What the Hell does “fully applianced”” mean? If the dishwasher has been stolen out of a REO, does that make it “partly applianced”? If a foreclosure still has the pipes in the walls, is it “fully coppered”?

Not to get all Andy Rooney on you, but at a time when people are questioning both the need for and general quality of Real Estate professionals, you aren’t helping yourselves when your most potent marketing tool — the description of a listing you publish on the Web — sounds like it was written as a late homework assignment in the back seat of the short bus on the way to reform school.

Now I know that many people regard grammar books with the same level of enthusiasm normally reserved for a root canal, but there is one grammar book out there that makes the subject as painless as a nitrous-induced laughing fit. It is called The Elements of Style, also known as “Strunk and White” for the two men responsible for the original version.

William Strunk, who was EB White’s English professor at Cornell, wrote the original “little book” in the 1940’s. It was called the “little book” because the grammar part is just 14 pages, and it is written as a series of easy-to-remember commands, like “Omit Needless Words”.

(To which, if I were writing the Real Estate Description Edition, I would add “Don’t make shit up.”)

EB White was asked to update his old professor’s grammar book, and he added a section on style. If all you know of EB White is Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, then you may not be aware that, as a regular contributor to the New Yorker,  EB White wrote some amazing non-fiction. EB White offering pointers on style is like getting batting tips from Babe Ruth.

So please, for the love of God, do me and your potential buyers a favor: Before we start seeing listings described as “fully floored” or “partially cabineted” get an updated  copy of The Elements of Style and put it to good use.

If you follow the simple rules and pick up a tip or two on style, you will end up with longer, better descriptions because you will be writing in fully formed sentences. Its better for readers, its better for search engines and, I swear, its painless.


23 Comments so far

  1. Doug Quance February 25th, 2009 11:29 am

    How about the talking heads who say “we’re efforting that footage right now.”

    Geez… you have 50,000 words to use – pick one!

  2. Tom Hall February 25th, 2009 11:43 am

    Loved it John! I guess it all started with carpet and went downhill from there – a slippery slope my friend, a slippery slope. Where is the real estate book of superlatives?

  3. Scott Gaertner February 25th, 2009 11:57 am

    Pedantic and self indulgent

  4. Jim Whatley February 25th, 2009 12:49 pm

    I’m speaking as someone who could not write my way out of a paper bag. My wife, comparing something I wrote to a rewrite by someone else said “Yours sounds like cottage cheese and this one sounds like whip cream!” Words have meaning and paint a picture. Criticism has a place and can be good, flaming someone for pointing that out is what’s pathetic and self indulgent.

  5. John Rowles February 25th, 2009 1:07 pm

    @ Doug, Tom: Thanks. Lousy English is not confined to Real Estate, its just celebrated by it.

    @Scott: If I’m pedantic and self-indulgent, what does that make William Safire, who has been pissing up this particular rope for 20 years?

    @ Jim: Thanks, Jim, and I think you just wrote yourself out of that paper bag…

  6. Thomas Johnson February 25th, 2009 3:07 pm

    I thought appliance was what a borrower does to obtain a mortgage. As in, “She took his loan appliance.”

  7. Sean Purcell February 25th, 2009 4:23 pm

    Loved every word of it John.

    RE The Elements of Style
    In school we referred to it simply as “the bible of writing.”

    @Scott – when did raising the bar become pedantic? (I won’t even comment on “self-indulgent.”)

  8. John Rowles February 25th, 2009 5:10 pm

    @Sean: I still have my first battered and highlighted copy from high school Senior English.

    As useful as The Elements of Style would be for agents writing descriptions, it would be an even better resource for bloggers, who have more room for style.

  9. Brian Brady February 25th, 2009 5:36 pm

    How should we explain the verb “blogged” then?

  10. Greg Swann February 25th, 2009 10:02 pm

    > How should we explain the verb “blogged” then?

    Indeed. The process is called verbifaction, and it is probably the source of the greatest — and most useful — growth in the English language — itself by far the richest lexicon in the history of human tongues.

    (If you understand facio, facere, feci, factum in linguam Latinam, you can verbify anything, getting all the inflected and declined forms just right, straight out of the box.)

    I understand the objection John is raising — the first awful use of verbifaction I can recall was a little sign I saw in Fun City in the ’80s: “This car is alarmed!” This passerby was aghast.

    And yet… A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Consider Shakespeare’s Benedick, who all but bellows, “The world must be peopled!” We say of a performer like Bette Midler that she “peoples a stage,” and to have it correctly as “populates a stage” is not just clunky but false to fact, where the image drawn by the verbified noun is exact and perfect.

    Most Realtors are illiterate, completely incapable of writing anything. A solid plurality can’t even spell properly. Commending them to Stunk and White is commendable, but one doesn’t learn to write by reading a book, but only by writing. Every day. In vast bulk. Paying exacting attention to getting as close to perfection as one can, striving constantly to crowd perfection more intimately with every hard-won word.

    You should get out your red pen, because that last paragraph is full of “errors.” But I would go one step further to add that style is the consequence not of learning the rules of writing but of mastering them — and then chucking them out the window. Neologisms are the spice in the polyglot stew of English, and playing games with sound and cadence and scansion and meaning are the things that make reading a raucously silent adventure — when the words are well-wrought.

    Even so, we can hector Realtors all day, but few of them will make the effort to become better writers. As with everything else that is substandard in our business, we need to supplant the bums with better practitioners. And what’s the verbified future-perfect term for that kind of supplantation? Oh, yes: Disintermediated.

    It’s not verbifaction we object to. We do it all the time. It’s verbifying nouns badly and unnecessarily that grates on the ear.

  11. Smithers February 25th, 2009 10:34 pm

    In addition to not making shit up, REALTORS(R) should cut back (way back) on using ALL CAPS and exclamation points!!!! We get it, you’re excited about slab granite and upgraded window treatments….

  12. John Kalinowski February 26th, 2009 4:52 am

    John- Please check your own writing before throwing stones. 🙂 The last paragraph contains “its” three times instead of “it’s”. Also, in the fourth paragraph “a REO” should be “an REO”. Forget Strunk and White, just do a quick Google search:

    I understand your point, but I don’t think grammar and spelling mistakes are only a real estate agent problem. You’ll find them everywhere, from CEOs to school principals, even in the textbooks my children bring home.

    Greg is correct that the best way to improve is to write as often as possible, and to simply review what you write before you click the send button.

    It also wouldn’t hurt to be a little forgiving. No one’s perfect in their writing, even Greg 🙂

  13. John Rowles February 26th, 2009 6:45 am

    @Greg: Both EB White and my high school English teacher did say that a good writer could break the rules to make his point, but only after he mastered them.

    And I agree that verbification is not inherently evil (he said, starting a paragraph with a conjunction..). I google every day, but in most cases when Realtors make up new words it is out of sheer laziness.

    “Fully applianced” is especially grating, because it has become so common. I just searched that term in combined CT and RI MLSs and it appears in 493 descriptions (but only 26 times in Oregon…maybe this is an East Coast cancer) and it is usually the sum total of the description of the kitchen.

    If all you can say about a kitchen is that it has appliances, what you are really saying is that it doesn’t have much of anything going for it.

    Why agents think homebuyers are incapable of seeing these shortcuts for what they are is beyond me.

    As far as writing every day, that’s great for those of us who enjoy it, but I don’t get the feeling that most of the agents I work with are interested in becoming the next Erma Bombeck.

    What they do often say to me, whether its on this subject or SEO is “Just tell me what to do”. Since “think” is not what they generally what they want to hear, I try to point them towards resources that could help if they bother to read them.

    Maybe its a futile gesture, but I hand out copies of Strunk and White when I train agents to use our tools to enhance their listing content. If that book, especially the style section, inspires just one agent in the room to write better descriptions, or maybe even discover that writing well is actually fun, then its worth it.

  14. Steve Hysinger February 26th, 2009 7:24 am

    How true. Laughable how some agents will put in so much time rehearsing script and printing out thirty pages of prefabricated listing presentaion only to spew out meaningless descriptions and horrible pictures on the actual listing.

  15. Scott Gaertner February 26th, 2009 9:57 am

    I’ve got to be missing something. All this discussion of syntax and Strunk & White is posed as if the agents have unlimited blog space that they casually waste. Not one person points out the difficulty of pointing out features and benefits when limited to 800 characters. I agonize if my impact will be minimized if I change GRANITE COUNTER TOPS to grnte cntr tops so that I can also let the consumer know that it has hrdwd flrs!!!!

    If you want to say most agents are idiots – fine. This is my 25th year in this business, I’m all in. But to spend time and paragraphs criticizing people for being more creative in an attempt to tell the consumer more . . . REALLY? Don’t you have prospects to follow up with? WTF!

  16. John Rowles February 26th, 2009 12:03 pm

    @John: I always mess up the contraction versus the possessive with “its” versus “it’s”. That’s why it is always good to have an editor, which is really what agents need. There are great brokers and agents who, as Jim said, can’t “write their way out of a paper bag”, so why not run your descriptions by someone who can?

    As far as “a” versus “an” you may be technically correct, but in the flow of that sentence “a” just sounded better, and that is a good example of knowing when to break the rules.

    @Scott: You have to love language to appreciate a conversation like this. That said, when descriptions find their way to the Web, they are a form of advertising. If you don’t think language is important in advertising, I have another book recommendation for you, Ogilvy on Advertising.

    David Ogilvy believed that advertising was a form of salesmanship, and he was a stickler for good writing. He also believed that the best way to get new clients was to do outstanding work for your existing clients, a lesson that certainly resonates in Real Estate.

    My question is why are you relying on your 800-character MLS description for your Web copy? As was discussed here, the MLS was never intended to be the source of content for consumer-facing Web sites. Sure, it is convenient, but far from ideal.

    That is why Greg recommends the single-listing Web site, and I recommend having a much better, more rich version of your content on your own site. You don’t have to live with “hrdwd flrs” or my all-time favorite “FROG” (Family Room Over Garage) on your own Web site, you could choose to enhance your content beyond the 800 characters your MLS gives you, and there is nothing pedantic or self indulgent about doing so.

    And for the record, I never said, nor do I believe, that all agents are idiots. I would say the 80/20 rule is in effect (and I bet Greg would say that is charitable) , but I have met many smart people in Real Estate including some of the people who write for and/or read BHB.

  17. Sean Purcell February 26th, 2009 5:12 pm

    The last paragraph contains “its” three times instead of “it’s”. Also, in the fourth paragraph “a REO” should be “an REO”

    Now that’s pedantic. 😉

  18. Brian Brady February 26th, 2009 7:41 pm

    Actually, “a REO” is correct.

  19. John Kalinowski February 26th, 2009 8:35 pm

    @Brian- Unfortunately a common mistake, but pedantically speaking it should be “an”.

    From the link I posted above:

    >>Most of the confusion with a or an arises from acronyms and other abbreviations: some people think it’s wrong to use an in front of an abbreviation like “MRI” because “an” can only go before vowels. Not so: the sound, not the letter, is what matters. Because you pronounce it “em ar eye,” it’s “an MRI.”

    So it’s “an REO” but “a DVD”…. 🙂

  20. Greg Swann February 26th, 2009 8:42 pm

    > Not so: the sound, not the letter, is what matters.

    Indeed. It’s the aspirate ‘H’ that catches up the punters: An hour from now we shall be singing a hymn.

  21. Ned Carey February 26th, 2009 11:39 pm

    >Actually, “a REO” is correct.

    It depends on how you pronounce it. My guess is that the disagreement here is because people are pronouncing REO two different ways.

    If you pronounce the letter “R”, the letter “E”, and the letter “O”, Then it should be “an REO”.

    However some might pronounce it like Rio de Janeiro. It should then be “a REO”

    And hence we see how easy it is to be confused and the necessity of clear writing.

  22. John Rowles February 27th, 2009 6:43 am

    For the record, I was thinking REO as in “Rio” not “Speedwagon”.

  23. Susan Zanzonico February 28th, 2009 11:24 pm

    I have never noticed the terms “applianced” or “fireplaced” used in listings in my area. I suppose some realtors are making words up in an effort to be what they view as more cleverly descriptive. I do see plenty of grammatical errors and poor sentence structure. Since we have limited space for our descriptions there is a tendency to abbreviate to a point of no return.

    Oh please, I hope I didn’t make any errors in this post. :O