Thursday, October 23, 2014

You’re not a retard, so don’t write like one

In a recent post I mentioned a message that some retard at Microsoft had built into Microsoft Word. I didn’t intend that post as a specific criticism of Microsoft; many suppliers of PC software and online services seem to have retards writing their messages.

Here are a few examples:

Hmm, that’s not the right password. [Is that “Hmm” supposed to be the sound the software makes while it’s “thinking”?] 
Whoa there! There’s nothing here. Whatever you were looking for doesn’t currently exist at this address. Unless you were looking for this error page, in which case: Congrats! You totally found it.
Congrats on successfully changing your email address! We really like your new one. It’s totally awesome! [Am I supposed to believe that the software is so sophisticated that it possesses aesthetic sense but simultaneously is so callow that it uses the vocabulary of a skateboarder?] Now you can log in to Your Account Page using the new email address you provided to us! Cool, huh? [No, it’s not cool. It’s just a mundane function.]
Well, this is embarrassing.
He’s dead, Jim!

Analysis of the examples

This kind of diction is not clever; it’s frivolous and puerile. It’s not helpful to your readers; it’s distracting. And it’s not polite to your readers; it’s offensive, because it presumes the reader is an intimate friend and is as ditzy as the writer.

In contrast, here are a few messages that are clear, helpful, polite and dignified:

The information you entered does not match our records. Please check your information and try again.
Your account is loading. This may take a moment.
Please wait while you are logged in...

These messages sound like they were written by intelligent, well-balanced grown-ups. The writers have used no hype, interjections, exclamation points or Star Trek quotations. And they have used no false intimacy or false enthusiasm.

The Takeaway: If you are in charge of writing anything that will be read by customers, don’t write like a frat boy, dude, ingénue, bimbo, scatterbrain or flibbertigibbet. In other words, don’t risk offending the people who allow your employer to pay you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Snirt, whoopensocker and jabble

Snirt, whoopensocker and jabble are three regionalisms. They and 16 more regionalisms are defined in a recent article, “19 Regional Words All Americans Should Adopt Immediately.” The amusing article promotes a dictionary of regionalisms (pictured).*

The Takeaway: If you love words, you’ll probably enjoy the article.
*I have no financial interest in the dictionary.

See general disclaimer.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (31)

On fools and folly

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
~Mark Twain

“One of the reasons it has taken so long for some people to finally see through Barack Obama is that people do not like to admit, even to themselves, that they have been played for fools by a slick-talking politician.”
~Thomas Sowell (pictured)

“You’re so handsome that I can’t speak properly!”
~Gwyneth Paltrow, to Barack Obama (Source)

“In university they don’t tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools.”
~Doris Lessing, in the novel Martha Quest

“We are foolish and sentimental and melodramatic at twenty-five, but if we weren’t perhaps we should be less wise at fifty.”
~W. Somerset Maugham, in the moving short story “Red”

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”
~Benjamin Franklin

“The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;
the fool who thinks that he is wise is called a fool indeed.”

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Steven Pinker on bad writing by good people

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker (pictured), a compelling and entertaining writer, recently published an article, “The Source of Bad Writing,”* in which he says that “the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose” is “the Curse of Knowledge.” The Curse is “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He includes illustrative examples and sound advice on how to lessen or work around that difficulty.

I salute Mr. Pinker for calling attention to the difficulty. During 47 years as a writer and editor, I have seen many knowledgeable people struggle to write clearly for readers who have less knowledge than they do. I struggle, too. Perhaps you do, too.

The Takeaway: I urge you to read Mr. Pinker’s article, “The Source of Bad Writing.” As he says, “Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers.” Read the article, follow the specific advice in it, and you will improve your ability to connect with readers and audiences.
*May require subscription.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Readers judge you by your diction, in order to save time

Recently, as I was researching Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), I saw a third-party (i.e., not from Microsoft) tutorial titled
“SkyDrive at the Core of the Windows 8.1 Experience – What Does it Mean?” (Source)
The writer had used a cliché (at the core), a massively overused cliché (experience), and a vague pronoun (it). Three clarity violations in 13 words; this is childish diction. I clicked elsewhere.

The Takeaway: Remember, intelligent readers judge you by your diction. They do it to avoid wasting time. If they notice that your title or introduction contains bad diction, they (correctly or incorrectly) conclude that the rest of your piece will be long-winded, silly and confusing. Therefore they conclude that you are not a credible source of information and they stop reading right there. So give yourself a chance; build your credibility by using good diction, especially in your title and introduction.

See disclaimer.