Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The subjunctive mood (1)

In our continuous efforts to produce clear writing, we need to pay special attention to the inflection of verbs – also known as verb formation and conjugation.

For most of us, the most difficult area of conjugation is mood – especially the subjunctive mood. The most common mistake we make is using the indicative mood when the meaning calls for the subjunctive mood.

For example, in a recent essay about sentiment against the free market, Robert Higgs writes: “Among other things, we must appreciate that the sky is not falling, even if the news media and the politicians talk and act as if it is.” (Emphasis in original.)

He asserts that a condition is true; that is, he asserts that it is true that the sky is not falling. Then he mentions people who appear to be assuming the opposite condition (that the sky is falling). In grammar, a condition contrary to fact should be expressed in the subjunctive mood; the use of the subjunctive mood tells the reader that the writer is saying that the condition is not true.

So, in the example, the writer should have written as if it were.

What is the effect of this error? When the well-educated reader* encounters “as if,” he expects soon to see the subjunctive form were. When instead he sees the indicative form is, he wonders what the writer means by it. After a few moments, he probably guesses that the writer doesn’t mean anything; he is just using the wrong verb form.

By making this mistake, the writer momentarily distracts and confuses the reader. And possibly he irritates the reader and even loses a little of the reader’s confidence.

In speech – especially informal speech – the rules are more relaxed. Most listeners (including the well-educated) now accept the use of the indicative mood in many constructions that in formal writing would call for the subjunctive mood.

The Takeaway: In writing, be careful to use the subjunctive mood where the meaning calls for it. Refresh your knowledge of the subjunctive forms and of the uses of the subjunctive mood; condition contrary to fact is only one of many. For a reference work, I recommend Writing and Thinking, by Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr.

*If you write exclusively for dudes, airheads, and other ill-educated readers, you needn’t spend much time or effort on these fine points, because your readers wouldn’t notice them even if their lives depended on it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The uninhabited clause (3)

In previous posts (1), (2), I have discussed the uninhabited clause: a main clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

In everyday, non-technical speech or writing, an uninhabited clause is usually more difficult to understand than an inhabited clause. And an uninhabited clause usually sounds more academic and theoretical than an inhabited clause.

Politicians often use uninhabited clauses in a sneaky way: to insinuate rather than state directly.

For example, here is the last paragraph of a recent speech by Barack Obama:

“Now is the time to confront this challenge [‘climate change,’ which Mr. Obama appears to think is a threat to the human race] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious. Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am President, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.”

That paragraph consists of eleven sentences with eleven main clauses. The first seven main clauses are uninhabited; the last four are inhabited. (In the last clause, the implied subject is “I” – “I thank you.”)

The uninhabited clauses command the listener (or reader) via insinuation: they do not state the commands directly. They also conceal the authority for the commands and the evidence (if any) that the commands are based on.

For example, consider the first sentence: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.”

The intelligent reader immediately thinks of several questions: Who says this is a challenge? On what evidence is he saying it? Who says we have to confront it? On what authority? Assuming that we have to confront it, who says we have to confront it now? On what authority? What is the proof that the cost-benefit calculation is more favorable now than it will be later? And who are “we,” anyway? And who says this confrontation will be totally successful, as insinuated by the phrase “once and for all”?

That’s just a start; you can probably think of several additional questions. And each of the next six clauses similarly raises several questions in the mind of an intelligent reader.

To sum up, the uninhabited clause is an ideal construction for insinuation. Politicians love it because it helps them (1) fool unintelligent people into doing what they would refuse to do if they gave the matter a moment’s thought; (2) escape responsibility when the insinuated advice proves wasteful or counterproductive. The politician merely has to say, “Just read my speech again; where did I specifically tell you to do that?”

The Takeaway: If you are not a politician, don’t use a lot of uninhabited clauses: it can make you sound like a politician. If you are a politician, I advise you to stop visiting this blog; it will only continue to infuriate you.

The uninhabited clause (1)
The uninhabited clause (2)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"striving for a kind of Euclidean clarity"

Eleanor Gould Packard (photo) was Grammarian for The New Yorker magazine from 1945 to 1999. Miss Gould, as her colleagues called her, set extraordinarily high standards for clarity and logic, and demonstrated amazing attentiveness and stamina. When she died, in 2005, David Remnick, Editor, wrote a beautiful tribute.

An excerpt: “She shaped the language of the magazine, always striving for a kind of Euclidean clarity – transparent, precise, muscular. It was an ideal that seemed to have not only syntactical but moral dimensions.”

From time to time, I print out the tribute and re-read it, just for the inspiration.

What a woman!

Elegant variation

Another type of mistake in the Somalian immigrants story is elegant variation. Elegant variation is the gratuitous use of synonyms to avoid repetition of a noun or noun phrase. It is a common mistake among poorly educated writers, who tend to think the variation is somehow refined.*

The Associated Press writer fairly consistently refers to the Somalian immigrants as “the Somalis” or “Somalis.” But he slips into elegant variation with “[i]mmigrants” and “newcomers” and “black refugees from the war-torn African country.” Those mistakes reveal the writer’s poor training, but at least they are not too damaging to clarity.

However, the writer does do some damage in a key passage in which he is paraphrasing a Somali spokesman:

“Many had been placed in the Atlanta area, where it was assumed a warm climate and a large black population would ease their adjustment to America. But dismay at high crime, drugs and gangs prompted the community to look elsewhere, Mohamud said.”

“[T]he community” probably means the Somalis. In other words, the Somalis who had settled in Atlanta were dismayed at the crime, drugs and gangs they encountered there and they started looking for another city to move to.

But “the community” could also mean government officials in Atlanta. That is to say, government officials in Atlanta were dismayed by crimes, drugs and gangs that some Somalis introduced to Atlanta, and then the government officials decided to persuade or compel all Somalis to move to another city.

That is a less-probable meaning, but plausible enough to distract the reader. In other words, the elegant variation makes the reader waste his time doubting and then confirming the writer’s probable intent. In addition, the reader may become irritated when he realizes that the writer has distracted him for a frivolous purpose: to use elegant variation in order to purchase refinement on the cheap.

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing poetry, avoid elegant variation. It will confuse and irritate your readers.

*The phrase elegant variation was coined during the 1920s by Henry Watson Fowler, the British philologist and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). At that time, the word elegant connoted over-refinement. That connotation is now forgotten, so elegant variation has become a misnomer. I prefer gratuitous variation to elegant variation. By the way, I strongly recommend Mr. Fowler’s Dictionary.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The uninhabited clause (2)

In a previous post, I discussed the uninhabited clause, a main clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. Here is another good example. In a recent Associated Press story, we see these six consecutive sentences:

“Lewiston’s emergence as the city with the nation’s largest percentage of Somalis happened largely by chance.

“Many had been placed in the Atlanta area, where it was assumed a warm climate and a large black population would ease their adjustment to America. But dismay at high crime, drugs and gangs prompted the community to look elsewhere, Mohamud said.

“The word went out that Maine was a safe place to raise a family. Immigrants had resettled in Portland, 40 miles to the south, but there was a shortage of affordable apartments there. Lewiston had more vacancies because of its population losses.”

Here are the subjects of the seven main clauses: emergence, Many, dismay, word, Immigrants, shortage and Lewiston. Of these seven subjects, only the pronoun “Many” and the noun “Immigrants” refer to persons or groups of persons.

In other words, the writer has used uninhabited clauses five times out of seven. Readers have more difficulty reading copy with frequent uninhabited clauses. (To be fair, I acknowledge that the writer used uninhabited clauses less freqently in the rest of the article.)

The Takeaway: Try to put people in your main clauses. In other words, try to use subjects that refer to persons or groups of persons. It’s difficult in technical writing, of course. But in everyday, non-technical writing, do your best to put in people.

The uninhabited clause (1)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The maniacal use of "issues" (2)

In an earlier post, I warned that the word issues is a mania word that writers and speakers often abuse instead of writing or speaking clearly. Here’s another example of the abuse of issues.

On August 26, 2008, this paragraph appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

“Hundreds of [flight] delays spread throughout U.S. airspace Tuesday as a result of problems with part of the computer system that processes and approves instrument flight plans around the country. An FAA spokeswoman says there are no safety issues and officials are still able to speak to pilots on planes on the ground and in the air. The bulk of the problems were centered around Boston, Chicago and other airports in the East, the FAA said.” (Boldface added.)

What did the FAA spokeswoman (or, if the reporter paraphrased her words, the reporter) mean by the vague phrase “safety issues”?

She may have meant to say:

That part of the computer (with or without problems) does not affect the risk of accidents at all.


That part of the computer can affect the risk of accidents, but the current problems in that part of the computer cannot affect the risk of accidents.


The level of risk of accidents is currently within the range that the FAA and the airlines find acceptable.

Or one of many other possible meanings. But why make the reader (who probably paid to read that paragraph) guess what was meant?

The Takeaway: Before you use issues, or any other vague fad-word, ask yourself, “What is a clear way to make my point?” Don’t be rude to your reader.

The maniacal use of issues (1)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (6)

In an earlier post, I discussed a news item about a serial rapist (pictured) who had escaped from life imprisonment in a psychiatric lockup in King’s College Hospital in South London (UK). Some doctor or nurse there had deliberately understated how dangerous he was. Apparently the hospital staff routinely understates these dangers, out of “sensitivity” for the feelings of the violent lunatics in their charge.

In that post, I briefly discussed two sentences from a hospital management committee report on the escape. In this post, I give you a more detailed analysis of the two sentences, because they exemplify the kind of weasel-wording favored by politicians and shyster lawyers. It is the opposite of clear writing; it is deliberately unclear writing.

“Recent events…”

This choice of words allows the writer of the report to avoid mentioning that a serial rapist escaped, that he had escaped once before from the same hospital, and that the second escape was made possible by the use of Politically Correct Euphemism.

“…have suggested that…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid making a clear, logical connection between the “events” and the cause. There is no human agent in this clause; it is an uninhabited clause. The “[r]ecent events” do not conclude or demonstrate or even indicate – they merely suggest. So, mere events (not the escape of a serial rapist) are merely suggesting something or other that may or may not prevent additional escapes or other unpleasantness.

“…certain language such as ‘medium secure patient’…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying that the “language” is politically correct language. It also allows him to avoid characterizing the “language” as evasive, dishonest or dangerous – all of which it is.

“…is not transferable in the understanding of the level of risk posed.”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying the people (security guards and police) to whom the “language” is “not transferable.” Note that, right after “transferable,” he inserts the awkward phrase “in the understanding of.” The reader, pausing to attempt to decipher “in the understanding of,” can easily overlook the writer’s omission of an indirect object where one is called for (transferable to whom?). Clever.

The writer also avoids stating why the hospital staff’s everyday language is not transferable to these unspecified people (because they work in the real world and speak English, not Politically Correct Euphemism).

“Consideration therefore is required…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid acknowledging how serious the matter at hand really is. Instead of telling the staff what they henceforth must do, he suggests, by using “consideration,” that the staff need not do anything – merely consider what they may do if they are so inclined and it’s not too much bother. By weakly stating the remedy, he implies that the “[r]ecent events” were not really that serious.

“…as to how we portray or use common language whilst remaining sensitive to the patient’s treatment needs.”

This choice of words allows the writer even to avoid telling the staff what it is that they may possibly want to consider doing (but not necessarily do). He avoids telling them that they should immediately stop deliberately misleading security guards and policemen with euphemisms that understate how insane and dangerous a patient is.

He does not warn the staff that their sensitive language may expose them to criminal charges of aiding and abetting violent criminals.

Nor does he warn them that someday a victim of one of their escaped lunatics may discover that he escaped because some soulful nurse sensitively understated how dangerous he was. Upon learning this, the victim may decide to sue the nurse for everything she has.

By using “whilst remaining,” the writer hints that management places a higher priority on sensitivity than on security or public safety – crime victims be damned! However, if confronted he can always deny this.

All in all, a little masterpiece of weasel-wording.

The Takeaway: If you catch yourself habitually writing evasive language, try to break the habit. If you are not sure whether something is evasive, email me a representative sample and (unless I am on deadline) I will give you a free sanity check.

A Good Resource: For more on weasel-wording and bureaucratic writing, see Less Than Words Can Say, by the late Richard Mitchell. It is one of the great essays on English.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The uninhabited clause (1)

On “The Last Ditch” website, we see an article entitled, “The nation we’ve lost: Twilight of Middle America,” by Kevin Lamb. The article contains this paragraph:

“One impediment for Middle America is its failure to recognize how the cultural, ethnic, and social undercurrents of the nation’s political life-stream affect the changes that take place in American society. Demographic displacement as well as the taboo of Middle American whites’ exhibiting any explicit ethnic or racial identity are reinforced by the influence of managerial elites (mass media, government, and corporate entities).” (Emphasis in original.)

The grammar is flawless. However, the paragraph is difficult to understand. There are at least five reasons. Four of them are:

Vague diction: e.g., “impediment” to what? And what is a “political life-stream”?

Odd choice of preposition: namely, “taboo of” as opposed to “taboo against” or “taboo on”

Passive voice: namely, “are reinforced by”

Wordiness: e.g., “changes that take place in American society”

The fifth reason is the use of a construction that I call the uninhabited clause. An uninhabited clause is a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, in the paragraph cited, the subjects of the two main clauses are (1) “impediment”; and (2) “displacement” and “taboo.”

The best way to make an uninhabited clause clearer is to put in some people, if possible. Here’s my attempt to do that:

Middle Americans don’t recognize how the cultural, ethnic, and social undercurrents of the nation’s political life-stream affect changes in American society. By failing to recognize this, they impede their own [what?]. Managerial elites (mass media, government, and corporate entities) encourage minorities to move into white neighborhoods and discourage Middle American whites from exhibiting any explicit ethnic or racial identity.

There are now three main clauses – all inhabited. The subjects are: (1) “Middle Americans”; (2) “they”; and (3) “elites.” This one change helps a lot.

Also, my revision corrects the odd preposition, the one use of passive voice, and the wordiness. To correct the vague diction, I would have to ascertain what Mr. Lamb meant by “political life-stream” and what his “impediment” was impeding. As it is, my interpretation of his “[d]emographic displacement” as minorities’ moving into white neighborhoods is only a guess.

In scientific writing, the uninhabited clause is the norm: planets revolve around suns, water erodes rock, nitrogen feeds plants, and so on. The same holds true for medical, engineering, and other technical writing. That is all well and good. However, you should try to avoid uninhabited clauses in your everyday writing, because most of your readers will find them difficult to understand.

Uninhabited clauses also tend to sound academic, theoretical and remote. If you use a lot of uninhabited clauses, your readers may tune out.

The Takeaway: Try to structure each of your clauses – especially your main clauses – so that the subject of the clause is a person or group of persons as opposed to a physical thing or a concept.

Disclaimer: As I have mentioned before, I select writing samples in order to explain various barriers to clarity – not to focus on any particular writer’s shortcomings. So, I am not trying to pick on Mr. Lamb, who has had a distinguished career as a writer and editor. His writing is often delightful; for example, elsewhere in the essay cited, he writes, “Groping for the right cliché, Tom Brokaw noted that…”

*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mantra overload (1)

Another mannerism that interferes with clear writing is the frequent use of mantras (fad words that have endured). There is nothing wrong with deliberately using an occasional mantra for style or effect. However, many people can’t seem to write two paragraphs in a row (or speak for 30 seconds) without using at least one mantra.

Often you’ll notice someone using two mantras in a single sentence. Sometimes even three – although that’s rare.

Here’s an example of three mantras in one sentence. It is from NWAnews.com, June 3, 2007:

“ ‘At the end of the day, I believe fully the president is doing the right thing, and I think all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001], and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country,’ [Dennis] Milligan said.” (Boldface added.)

Mr. Milligan (shown in photo above) is chairman of the Republican Party in Arkansas. The remark is widely considered deranged.

I chose this example not only because it contained three mantras in a single sentence, but also because those three specific mantras represented all three categories of mantras:

Rhetorical clutter (a phrase that adds no meaning to a sentence)

Vague place-holder (a phrase used by lazy speakers and writers)

Propaganda phrase (a loaded phrase with a hidden agenda)

At the end of the day is rhetorical clutter. It conveys no more meaning than does the phrase well, basically, and it may confuse the reader who wonders why it’s there. And, like most mantras in this category, it irritates many readers. At the end of the day was recently voted the #1 most irritating phrase in the English language.

Do(ing) the right thing is a vague place-holder. In the context of Mr. Milligan’s remark, the adjective right could mean ethical, moral, honorable, brave, traditional, customary, stylish, fashionable, polite, practical, cunning, Machiavellian, or more.

Like Homeland Security and other phrases that U.S. Government employees began popularizing after 9-11, soil as used in this context is a borrowing from Nazi Germany. The National Socialists popularized the traditional German phrase Blut und Boden (blood and soil) into a mantra and used the mantra as nationalist and racist propaganda.

The Takeaway: If you use a lot of mantras, you may confuse and irritate your readers and hearers. You may even appear to be lazy and sneaky. Need I say more?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Readability: declaring war on marketing mush

In several posts (here, here and here), I’ve discussed the importance of readability. Without high readability, you cannot achieve clear writing. Sad to say, most high-tech marketers write copy at the low end of the readability scale. One example for today:

At random, I selected CollabNet. I clicked through to the first product page and tested its readability. It is an abysmal 3.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test. That is far below the readability of a typical tax form.

Here are a few sample ranges of test scores, from higher readability (top of list) to lower readability (bottom of list):

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

In a Flesch Reading Ease test, your copy gets marked down for both long sentences and long words. On the page I tested, the average sentence length is 24.2 words (very long). The average word length is 6.3 characters (long, but not bad for tech copy).

I pasted the first two paragraphs from that page into Word:

“Subversion® is the new standard for version control and Software Configuration Management (SCM) in globally distributed organizations that need to share source code across locations. Ease of use and out-of-the-box support for remote teams make Subversion the best solution for global projects, compared to legacy tools that are inadequate for distributed teams and too expensive to run.

CollabNet Subversion is an enterprise-ready distribution of Subversion that includes certified binaries, platform-specific installers, certified plugins for other tools, and enterprise-ready add-ons.”

Words per sentence: 26.3
Characters per word: 6.3
Flesch Reading Ease score: 7.6 (much harder than a tax form)

Then I spent about four minutes editing the copy: mostly shortening the sentences; pretty much ignoring word length. Here’s the result:

Subversion® runs your version control and Software Configuration Management (SCM). It’s the new standard for globally sharing source code. It is easy to use. It immediately supports your remote teams. Legacy tools deliver none of these benefits and they cost too much to run.

CollabNet Subversion is ready to install and use in your company. It includes certified binaries, platform-specific installers, certified plugins for other tools, and enterprise-ready add-ons.

Words per sentence: 9.8
Characters per word: 5.6
Flesch Reading Ease score: 41.1 (as easy as The Wall Street Journal)

Now, I’m sure you can think of further refinements. For example, maybe the sentences are now a little too short and choppy. Perhaps back off a bit on the abbreviating. And, yes, the folks at CollabNet would probably shriek that I busted up the phrase “globally distributed organizations that need to share source code across locations.” Likely it’s a verbatim lift from the company’s key-message platform.

But I do think I’ve made my point. This is a typical high-tech company, selected at random for a readability test. The company seems to go out of its way to repel people who visit its web site. A stranger in rural New Hampshire edited a few sentences for a few minutes, sharply raising readability. The marketers at CollabNet could (and should) do likewise.

The Takeaway: The quickest way to increase the clarity of tech copy is to increase readability by reducing sentence length. For example, in less than an hour, you probably could transform your home-page copy from barely readable to highly readable.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (3)

Clear writing is orderly and uncluttered. As we have covered previously, rhetorical clutter can confuse your readers and hide your main point.

Rhetorical clutter often involves mixed metaphors. A mixed metaphor is a series of two or more metaphors that become incongruous when combined. An example appears in a recent essay on the mortgage contraction:

“It doesn’t take the most competent forensic expert to put the crime scene squarely at the doorstep of the quasi-government banking institutes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

The phrase “crime scene” makes an easy-to-grasp metaphor. So does the word “doorstep.” But together, the metaphors are incongruous. The reader may imagine the crime scene as a piece of Central Park or an entire ranch house in Tarrytown. Then he imagines a giant crane picking it up, moving it, and placing it at a doorstep.

And the writer, by adding the phrase “forensic expert” and the word “squarely,” increases the likelihood that the reader will take both metaphors literally and thereby recognize the (unintentional) incongruity.

While I’m at it, I may as well point out a related flaw. The word “doorstep” is singular but there are two buildings involved: the headquarters of Fannie Mae and the headquarters of Freddie Mac.

What does all this have to do with clarity? A mixed metaphor confuses your reader, distracts him and wastes his time. It may also irritate him and persuade him that you are a careless writer and therefore a careless thinker.

The Takeaway: Handled well, a metaphor can help you make a point more clearly or more memorably. Handled poorly, a metaphor is a distraction. When in doubt, do not use a metaphor. If you do use a metaphor, make sure it does what you want it to do: no more, no less.

A Good Resource: If you would like more advice about using metaphors, see Simple & Direct by Jacques Barzun.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (5)

Euphemistical, politically correct words and phrases interfere with our ability to write clearly. Often they interfere with our ability to describe real-world dangers.

For example, in a recent post I described a euphemism that disguised the likelihood that automotive airbags will kill children. This time I describe a euphemism that disguised the likelihood that a dangerous criminal would escape.

In February 2008, Terrence O’Keefe (pictured), an imprisoned serial rapist, escaped from custody. He had been serving a life sentence in a locked psychiatric ward in King’s College Hospital in South London (UK). He had already escaped once, in 2005, from the same hospital.

Although he obviously posed a high escape risk, a doctor or nurse described him as a “medium secure patient.” This euphemism apparently was an attempt to show “sensitivity” to the serial rapist, notwithstanding his insensitivity to all the women he had raped.

When the rapist was being transferred to another hospital for treatment, the King’s College Hospital security people saw the word “medium” and assigned only two guards to escort him. The guards omitted the precaution of handcuffing him. Then he escaped.

That is certainly outrageous enough. But the hospital management committee that investigated the escape aggravated the outrage. It set a bad example for the employees by adding more euphemisms. For example:

“Recent events have suggested that certain language such as ‘medium secure patient’ is not transferable in the understanding of the level of risk posed…. Consideration therefore is required as to how we portray or use common language whilst remaining sensitive to the patient’s treatment needs.”

If the committee had really intended to prevent future escapes, it would have used plain, honest language here. For example:

Inside our cozy little world, it is understandable that we like to use politically correct language to bolster patients’ self-esteem. However, we must not use this kind of language in the real world outside. It fails to warn guards and police when a patient is likely to beat them up, escape, and revert to his career of raping or murdering people.

The Takeaway: We hear and read politically correct euphemisms every day. Sometimes we begin to use them without consciously intending to. But keep in mind that these euphemisms are valid only inside the infantile fantasy world of political correctness. Remember to avoid using them when writing anything that can have consequences in the real world.

Further Analysis: December 4, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

The vague antecedent

Another weakness to avoid, if you want to make your writing clear, is the vague antecedent.

That is to say, the antecedent of every pronoun you write should be a noun, and a typical reader should not have to guess which noun you mean. For example:

CLEAR ANTECEDENT: My friend Guy’s father is a gunrunner. Guy wants to be one, too.

VAGUE ANTECEDENT: My friend Louisa is fascinated by everything medical, and wants to be one. (Doctor? Nurse? CEO of a pharmaceutical manufacturer? Hospital administrator? Lab technician? Ambulance driver?)

Here’s an example of an antecedent that is almost clear but not perfectly. On the blog God’s Politics, Chuck Collins writes:

“When wages fall or are stagnant for 70 percent of the population, folks pay the rising costs of food, fuel, and health care by working more hours and borrowing with credit cards and home equity (if they have one).” (Boldface added.)

Most readers would probably guess that Mr. Collins means the pronoun one to refer to home. However, in this case home is not a noun but an adjective. It modifies the noun equity.

Mr. Collins should have written:

and home equity (if they own a home)

A fine point of grammar? Yes. But I am holding Mr. Collins to a high standard because he is writing for a blog that claims to speak for God, from Whom we fallible mortals expect perfection in all things.

The Takeaway: Avoid vague antecedents. Every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun as its antecedent.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (4)

To produce clear writing, always try to say what you mean. Never try not to say what you mean. We have discussed this before; here is our latest example.

On the government roads in New Hampshire, large signs offer the following advice:



The reader immediately senses a fallacy. He wonders: if airbags save lives, why should safety dictate that children be in the rear seat, where there are no airbags?

He probably guesses that the government of New Hampshire is trying not to say something. And he probably guesses what that something is: children in the front seat are often injured or killed by airbags.

So, the New Hampshire signs should have read:



The Takeaway: Try to say what you mean. If you try not to say what you mean, you will not make your point clearly. Also, you will look foolish or even sneaky. Many of your readers will stop trusting you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (2)

Clear writing is orderly and uncluttered. As we have covered previously, rhetorical clutter can confuse your readers and hide your main point. It can also signal to astute readers that you are resorting to clutter because you don’t know what you’re talking about.

In recent days, economically illiterate reporters (i.e., most reporters) have outdone themselves with rhetorical clutter. Let’s look at one story that the Associated Press (AP) ran today.

In the story, Jeannine Aversa, an “AP Economics Writer,” writes that credit is clogged, tight, dried up, in a meltdown, and in a lockup.

She writes that the government is thawing the credit markets, trying to jolt them back to life, and providing a backstop. Apparently the credit markets are frozen (but also melting) and dead – but somehow able to move so forcefully that a backstop, as in baseball, is needed lest they go out of control and maybe even hurt somebody.

Or did she mean a backstop in the sense of a bolster (a cushion or pillow that can prop something up)? If so, what’s the use of propping up something that is frozen, melting and dead?

There is much more clutter in the article, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Please understand: I am not picking on Ms. Aversa or the AP. Almost all reporters who cover economics write fatuous nonsense like this, and almost all news outlets publish it.

If you think I’m overstating, just read the first two paragraphs of Henry Hazlitt’s enlightening book Economics in One Lesson and you’ll immediately perceive, by contrast, how absurd the financial pages of newspapers really are. By the way, those two paragraphs also explain why most economics writers write so poorly. The reasons are interesting.

The Takeaway: If you don’t know much about your topic, you will not produce clear writing. Don’t make matters worse by using metaphors promiscuously. Study your topic and start over.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The maniacal use of "having said that"

As we have discussed before (drive and issues), if you want to achieve clear writing you must break the habit of using fad words and phrases. With rare exceptions, fad words and phrases are lazy substitutes for more-specific words and phrases.

Let’s consider the phrase having said that. It is a conjunctive phrase that can replace another conjunctive phrase or a conjunction. Roughly speaking, the conjunctive phrases and conjunctions that it can replace fall into two groups. For simplicity, I’ll call them the and group and the but group.

The and group includes: and, therefore, so, accordingly, moreover, furthermore, in addition and for example. They introduce phrases or clauses or that add to or extend the statement that came before having said that.

The but group includes: but, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, in spite of that, and although. They introduce phrases or clauses that take away from, limit, soften or otherwise qualify the statement that came before having said that.

It’s OK to use having said that when the reader will immediately grasp your meaning. For example, “I respect and admire Phil as an engineer; having said that, I don’t really like him as a person.” But often, the reader will not immediately grasp your meaning.

Example: In a news story about gas shortages in the South, we read this:

“Jim Tudor, the president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, which represents about 2,600 stores, praised the state for lifting some of the restrictions to allow for quicker delivery of fuel.

“ ‘We are working as fast as possible to try to get as many stations refilled,’ he said. ‘Having said that, we’re still in catch-up mode.’ ” (Boldface added)

The reader must pause and guess the meaning. He may guess that this is an example of the but group and that Mr. Tudor probably means: “nevertheless, the number of empty stations is still increasing.”

Example: In a post on The PHP Zone blog, we read this:

“A good framework is easy to learn, simple to use, intuitive to work with, easy to extend or to modify, rapid to build (maintain) applications with and of course stable.

“Having said that, here is my top 10 PHP MVC Frameworks:” (Boldface added)

The reader must pause and guess the meaning, He may guess that this is an example of the and group and that the writer probably means: “For example, here are my top 10 PHP MVC Frameworks:”

Unfortunately, having said that has graduated from fad to mania over the last five or six years. That means more of us are tending to use it without thinking.

The Takeaway: Think. Respect your readers; don’t make them guess. Use having said that only if the context makes the meaning immediately clear. Otherwise, write therefore if you mean therefore, write nevertheless if you mean nevertheless, and so on. Nothing to it. If you object that you just can’t resist being trendy, this is probably not the right blog for you.

Grammar Note: The phrase having said that must be followed immediately by a noun or pronoun referencing the person(s) who said whatever preceded having said that. Examples: Having said that, I ... is grammatical. Having said that, she… is grammatical. Having said that, there is a chance that the theory might be incorrect is ungrammatical.

Style Note: In informal speech or writing, having said that may seem pompous.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The periodic sentence (1)

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which essential information comes at the end. In other words, the reader has to wait until the end of the sentence to understand the sentence. The opposite of a periodic sentence is a loose sentence. It is what we tend to think of as a normal sentence. In a loose sentence, all essential information comes at the beginning.

Grammatically speaking, the periodic sentence is perfectly acceptable. However, it often detracts from clear writing, because it makes the reader work harder. Here is an example of the damage that a periodic sentence can do.

Mark Logic Corporation, a software company, recently emailed the following advertisement to Publishers Weekly subscribers:

“From task-sensitive online content delivery applications that place your content in user workflows, to digital asset distribution systems that automate content delivery, from custom publishing applications that maximize content re-use and repurposing to content assembly solutions to integrate content, Mark Logic Server helps you create the new products and features that will keep you ahead of the competition.

“Mark Logic offers three Quick Start packages designed to accelerate your digital initiatives. These packages are a combination of software license, maintenance and services. Our customer solution experts will use our specific project methodology and toolset to deliver a fully-functional, turnkey application.”

This ad rates a Flesch Reading Ease score of 12: the average reader will find it unreadable or, at best, readable with great difficulty. It is packed with jargon.

The opening sentence of the ad uses 39 words before the main clause starts. It is an example of a very long periodic sentence.

Poets, novelists and public speakers often use periodic sentences to build suspense. That’s all very fine for them, because their readers/hearers are already engaged.

But the typical reader of an email ad is not engaged. If you don’t get to the point in a few seconds, he presses the Delete key and you communicate nothing. To begin your email ad with a periodic sentence is counterproductive. Reverse the syntax, placing the main clause first, and you will have a better chance of engaging the reader.

The Takeaway: The periodic sentence has its uses – especially in literature and formal speeches. In promotional, instructive or reference materials you should use periodic sentences sparingly, if at all.

Special thanks to Janice Lindsay, a writer and editor whose work I admire, for pointing out this example.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The million-dollar comma

Today is National Punctuation Day in the United States of America. To observe the day, I would like to cite a famous example of the importance of careful punctuation to clear writing.

It happened in 2006, in Canada. Rogers Communications, the large cable television provider, had a contract dispute with Bell Aliant, a telephone company. The dispute was worth 1 million Canadian dollars. A regulator settled the dispute by interpreting the meaning of a comma in the contract.

Here’s the gist of the story, extracted from an October 25, 2006, article in The New York Times.

“The dispute … is over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles. … Citing the ‘rules of punctuation,’ Canada’s telecommunications regulator recently ruled that the comma allowed Bell Aliant to end its five-year agreement with Rogers at any time with notice.

“Rogers argues that pole contracts run for five years and automatically renew for another five years, unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.

“The contract is a standard one for the use of utility poles, negotiated between a cable television trade association and an alliance of telephone companies. French and English versions were approved by a government regulator about six years ago.

“The dispute is over this sentence: ‘This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.’

“The regulator concluded that [the comma before ‘unless and until terminated’] meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year.

“ ‘The meaning of the clause was clear and unambiguous,’ ” the regulator wrote in a ruling in July.”

The Takeaway: Most of the time, your meaning does not hinge on the placement of a single punctuation mark. But sometimes it does. The only safe policy is to make it a habit to be careful with all punctuation.

Correction, November 7, 2008: When I published the above post, I was unaware that the 2006 interpretation of the comma had been reversed. On August 20, 2007, The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a decision that stated that the French-language version of the Bell Aliant-Rogers contract clearly indicated that Bell Aliant could terminate the contract only “upon notice one year prior to the end of the initial term or one year prior to the end of a renewed term.” The 2007 decision also stated that the Commission did not have jurisdiction over access to poles anyway. Thanks to Toronto blogger Ingrid Sapona for her excellent coverage of this case, and thanks to Honolulu attorney Daniel Devaney for pointing me to Ms. Sapona’s blog.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Multiple senses of a word

Clear writing requires diligence in the use of the dictionary - especially when you are using a word that has multiple senses (meanings).

For example, on the economics blog Marginal Revolution, we see these sentences about the bailout of Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp.:

“But let’s say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies.… Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. (Boldface added.)

In one sense of the word insolvent, “insufficient to pay all debts,” the U.S. banking system is already insolvent, and has been for almost a century. The banks deliberately hold only a small fraction of the reserves they would need if an unusually large number of depositors decided to close their accounts.

So the writer probably meant insolvent in the sense of “unable to pay debts as they fall due in the usual course of business.”

By not specifying which sense he was using, the writer showed his disrespect for his readers. He made them pause and guess. The better-educated among his readers will guess correctly; they know that writers who are unfamiliar with economics are usually unaware that insolvent can mean “insufficient to pay all debts.”

The writer not only irritated his readers but also cast doubt on his qualifications.

The Takeaway: As you write, always keep in mind that many words have more than one sense (meaning). Be careful when you use such words. If you are not certain that your readers will know which sense you are using, specify it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Readable economics

In several posts, I’ve discussed the importance of readability. Without high readability, you cannot achieve clear writing. In this post, I want to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to produce readable writing about difficult subjects – for example, economics.

First, an example of low readability: The American Empire is Another Bubble, by Don A. Rich, posted today. This article rates 22.1 in the Flesch Reading Ease test. That means it’s about as difficult to read as a tax form.

Mr. Rich is an instructor of economics, finance and political science at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Rich or the college. Almost all academic writers score in the 20s – or even lower.

Here’s a sample from the article:

“In response to that crisis and to concerns over Y2K, and with especially intense initiation at the time of the LTCM fiasco (an event itself of course made possible by the intrinsic moral hazard of Greenspan and the postwar regulatory mentality), the Fed lowered rates, thereby pushing the tech-stock bubble into a final frenzy.”

Now, from the same web site, an example of high readability: On Appeasing Envy, by Henry Hazlitt, posted on November 3, 2005 (previously published elsewhere in March 1972). The article rates 47.6 in the Flesch Reading Ease test. That means it’s about as easy to read as The Wall Street Journal and almost as easy to read as Time magazine.

But that is not surprising: Mr. Hazlitt wrote for the Journal and for Newsweek magazine. He was a libertarian philosopher and economist as well as a journalist. H. L. Mencken referred to him as “one of the few economists in human history who could really write.”

Here’s a sample from the article:

“We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people’s envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to ‘maldistributed’ plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labour Party leaders after World War II was that ‘Nobody should have what everybody can’t have.’ ”

The Takeaway: It is indeed possible to write readable copy on any subject. Henry Hazlitt’s most famous book, Economics in One Lesson, is a masterly example. If you are serious about improving the clarity of your writing, I strongly recommend that you spend ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who exemplify clear writing. The topic you select doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content.

If you would like a list of suggested writers and works, please type a comment below and ask for my “List of Writers.” I will respond via email.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Sequence of Tenses

If you want to achieve clear writing, you must be careful with the tenses of verbs. A wrong tense can change the meaning of a sentence and confuse your reader. Here is a highly visible example.

In a recent Salon article about the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), David Talbot (photo) mentions a controversy over whether Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd Palin were members of the party. Mr. Talbot writes:

“The Alaskan Independence Party burst into the national spotlight when [AIP Chairman Lynette] Clark released a statement reporting that Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, were both members. After the ensuing uproar, Clark issued an apology and correction, declaring that only Todd was an actual member of the AIP. (He belonged from 1995 to 2002.)” (Boldface added.)

The verbs issued and was are both in the Simple Past tense. Therefore, according to the Sequence of Tenses,* the sentence implies that Ms. Clark’s statement meant that Todd was still a member. But Mr. Talbot's parenthetical statement indicates that Todd is no longer a member.

Assuming that the parenthetical statement is true, Mr. Talbot should have written this or something close to it:

After the ensuing uproar, Clark issued an apology and correction, declaring that Todd had been a member of the AIP but Sarah had never been a member.

The tense of had been is Past Perfect (also called Pluperfect). A Past Perfect verb refers to an action completed before the action referred to by a Simple Past verb (in this case, issued).

The Takeaway: When you are referring to events in the past or future, be careful to follow the Sequence of Tenses to avoid confusing your readers. Whenever you are in doubt, consult a reference. A good one is this concise and handy summary of the Sequence of Tenses on the web site of Purdue University.

*The Sequence of Tenses is the set of grammatical rules that describe how to use verb tenses to indicate the sequence in which events occurred or will occur.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Unintentional hedging (2)

The habit of “unintentional hedging” can undermine clear writing (and clear speaking). In an earlier post, I described how easy it is to slip into the habit. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin slipped into it Wednesday, during a speech apparently intended to argue that she had enough experience to be Vice President of the United States.

The Wall Street Journal reported:

“Where Democrats derided her background as a small-town mayor, she replied that such experience gave her a feel for real Americans. ‘Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown,’ she said.

“ ‘And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organizer,” except that you have actual responsibilities.’ That was not only a retort to the Obama campaign, but a dig at Sen. Obama’s own experience as a community organizer in Chicago.” (Boldface added.)

As a long-time executive speechwriter, I admire the cleverness of that sentence. But she blunted it by including not one, not two, but three hedges: “I guess,” “sort of,” and “like.” Just listen to the same sentence without the hedges:

A small-town mayor is a community organizer with actual responsibilities.

The Takeaway: Even politicians, who get more practice than most of us do at writing and speaking, occasionally slip into unintentional hedging. Be on guard against doing it unconsciously. If you intend to hedge, hedge. Otherwise, don’t hedge. State simply and directly what you did, what you will do, what you believe, or what you recommend. If you say what you mean, you will earn more respect.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Placement of modifiers (2)

Clear writing requires correct placement of all modifiers. A modifier is correctly placed when it is where the reader would expect to see it.

On the Search Engine Optimization page of the Weblink International web site, we see this sentence:

When optimizing, a web site text is to be written to include prominent keyword phrases for title tags, description tags, keyword tags, alt attribute tags on images, headings and much more.” (Boldface added.)

The reader gathers that “When optimizing” does not modify “a web site text.” Web site text does not optimize itself. But what does “When optimizing” modify? The reader looks at every word in the sentence and sees no logical choice.

Then he realizes what happened. The word being modified does not appear in the sentence at all. It is the word you. It is implied – vaguely implied – in “is to be written to include.”

The writer’s meaning is:

When optimizing, you should include ...

This is clear writing because, when a sentence begins with a modifying word or phrase, the reader expects the next word or phrase to be the word or phrase modified. (Recall Robert Browning’s famous line, “Smiling the boy fell dead.”)

However, the writer could also (more naturally) write:

When optimizing, include ...

It would still be clear writing because, when the reader arrives at the verb include and recognizes the imperative mood, he mentally supplies the pronoun you.

The Takeaway: Always try to place a modifier as close as possible to the word (or phrase) that is being modified. If the word (or phrase) that is being modified is not stated but only implied, try to place the modifier as close as possible to the place where the word is implied.

Placement of modifiers (1)

Monday, September 1, 2008

The maniacal use of “issues” (1)

Fad words and phrases will almost always detract from clear writing.

In Yale University’s description of its Hall of Graduate Studies, these three sentences appear:

“The small basement kitchen is available for light food preparation, especially during times when the dining hall is closed. It has a table and four chairs, microwave, electric stove, toaster, refrigerator and sink. Cookware is not provided nor is storage of resident items permissible due to space and cleanliness issues.” (Boldface added.)

The abuse of issues has become a mania. Like almost all fad words, issues is popular because it allows lazy writers and speakers to avoid the effort of deciding and clearly stating what they mean.

In the place of “due to space and cleanliness issues,” the Yale writer probably should have written something like this:

because management estimates that there is not enough space in the kitchen and because management fears that many residents will fail to keep cookware clean and will thereby create unhygienic conditions.

The Takeaway: The word issues, like drive and actually and paradigm, has graduated from fad word to mania word. Before you write or speak this word, ask yourself, “What is a clear way to make my point?”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Placement of modifiers (1)

Clear writing requires correct placement of all modifiers. A modifier is correctly placed when it is where the reader would expect it to be.

In an article entitled “The Never-Ending War on American Freedom,” we see this sentence:

“Woodrow Wilson resumed the totalitarian attacks on free speech that Adams and Lincoln had pioneered with the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.”

After reading the entire sentence, the reader correctly concludes that the phrase, “with the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918” is used adverbially. But what does it modify? Because it immediately follows the verb pioneered, he may (understandably but incorrectly) conclude that it modifies that verb.

Then, backtracking, the reader sees that the subject of that verb is “Adams and Lincoln.” But he knows that both men were long dead by 1917, so he concludes that the modifying phrase must modify a verb, adverb or adjective earlier in the sentence.

The reader continues to work his way back and sees resumed. Its subject is “Woodrow Wilson.” The reader knows that Dr. Wilson was alive – indeed was President of the United States of America, in 1917 and 1918. Therefore the reader concludes that the modifying phrase, by process of elimination, modifies resumed.

To prevent such confusion and wasted time, the author should have written this, or something close to it:

With the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, Woodrow Wilson resumed the totalitarian attacks on free speech that Adams and Lincoln had pioneered.

The Takeaway: Respect your readers’ time and patience: don’t make them backtrack to analyze your sentences. Try to place every modifier as close as possible to the word being modified, to help readers move steadily forward through sentence after sentence. If you make an occasional mistake, as in the example above, readers will not be offended. But if you habitually place your modifiers carelessly, your arrogance and lack of manners will offend all but the most obtuse readers.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Writing can make or break the sale

Clear writing will help you close sales, especially online. Unclear writing can distract your prospective customers just when they are about to press the CHECKOUT button.

Example: When an online customer of Martel Electronics is about to check out, he is shown the names, photos and prices of several products. Above the gallery is this explanation:

“The items Below [sic] are not in your basket they [sic] are suggestions![sic]”

The frivolous exclamation point probably does not distract the typical reader; overuse of exclamation points has become a familiar symptom of the ever-increasing childishness of businessmen today. But the strange capitalization probably does distract the typical reader.

Worst of all is the lack of any punctuation after basket. When the reader takes in the word-combination “your basket they,” he becomes confused. Eventually he may perceive that the sentence contains two independent clauses (or he may just abandon the sale and go to one of Martel’s competitors).

Example: When an online customer of Taaffe Photo is about to check out, he is warned:

“All International orders must fax a copy of their Credit Card and Passport to 718-230-1982 or Order Processing will be delayed.”

The typical reader will be distracted by the thought of orders (not people) faxing copies and the thought of orders (not people) possessing credit cards and passports. Also, the reader will wonder why the writer uses plural forms – after all, the reader is only one person.

This writer lacks empathy. He thinks of his customers as orders, not as people. And he thinks of them in the aggregate (plural) not in the specific (you, the person who is about to place this order). He should have written this, or something close to it:

If you are ordering from outside the United States of America, please fax a copy of your credit card and passport to us at 718-230-1982. If you omit this step, it will delay your order.

The Takeaway: Sloppy writing can distract or irritate your customer. If it is very sloppy, like the two examples here, it may lead your customer to conclude that you are stupid and therefore unreliable. He may abandon the order and go to your competition. But there is one thing he will not do: email or phone you to inform you that your bad writing lost you his business. Therefore, never assume that the lack of complaints about your writing means that your writing is perfectly clear. Remember, arrogance (the opposite of empathy) is the basis of all errors in writing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Avoiding redundancy (2)

We’ve talked before about avoiding redundancy in order to achieve clear writing. Here’s another example. Yesterday, Conviva issued a press release that included this sentence:

“Since its founding in 1978, the firm [New Enterprise Associates, Inc. (NEA), one of Conviva’s investors] … has followed the same core principles: supporting its entrepreneurs, providing an excellent return to its limited partners, and practicing its profession with the highest standards and respect.” (Boldface added.)

The use of core as an adjective is not widely accepted by careful writers. However, in this case, the reader can accurately guess the writer’s meaning: because the noun core refers to the essence of something, the adjective core must mean essential.

But a principle is essential by definition. It is an essential law, rule, policy, truth, assumption or quality. So, by modifying principle with core, the writer absurdly implies that there are such things as non-core (non-essential) principles. This usage confuses the reader.

The Takeaway: As you edit your drafts, be alert for every redundancy that may confuse your readers: core principles is a popular redundancy, as are crisis situation, first introduction, new innovation and many more.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Corporate drivel

If you would like to develop the habit of clear writing, the first logical step is to break the habit of using fad words and phrases. With rare exceptions, all fad words and phrases today are attempts to evade clarity.

For example, consider this piece of corporate drivel from the 2007 annual report of Lehman Brothers:

Sustainability: As a global corporate citizen, Lehman Brothers is committed to addressing the challenges of climate change and other environmental issues which affect our employees, clients, and shareholders alike.” (Boldface added, to show fad words and phrases.)

It is appalling to see grown men write this way. I suspect that, if asked, the senior managers of the bank could not translate this sentence into plain English to save their souls.

The Takeaway: Do your best to stop using fad words and phrases. Learn to recognize them so that you won’t become contaminated. While you are reading, occasionally stop and ask silently, “What could that word (phrase) mean, in plain English?” If you can’t think of an answer, it’s probably a meaningless fad word (phrase). Try not to imitate that writer.

Update, Monday, September 15, 2008: Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. It now appears that, while the chairman was prattling in the 2007 annual report about how to make the whole world “sustainable,” the company was on its way to extinction. Lehman could not even sustain itself. However, the chairman did sustain himself: the board gave him a $22-million-dollar bonus in March.

Updated Takeaway: Drivel can make you sound like a fourflusher.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rhetorical clutter (1)

Metaphors can help you achieve clear writing, but only if you use them carefully. If you use metaphors carelessly, you may distract and even confuse your reader. For example, on the web site Antiwar.com, an article entitled “The Shift” opens with this paragraph:

“The tectonic plates of the geopolitical landscape are shifting, visibly, as the consequences of our crazed foreign policy are being felt at home and abroad. That alarming crunching sound you hear is the impact of the sudden realization that, in Iraq, the government our troops are fighting and dying for is openly demanding that we leave.”

The reader is distracted immediately. In the opening sentence, the author has used two metaphors (“tectonic plates” and “geopolitical landscape”) that appear to be related because they both involve geography. But he has combined the metaphors illogically (in reality, landscapes don’t have tectonic plates).

The reader is also distracted by the use of “visibly,” “felt,” “crunching sound,” and “impact” – each of which suggests one of the five senses. These words convey a feeling of literalness; they imply that the writer really is talking about tectonic plates and landscapes, as opposed to politics.

If the reader persists in deciphering the paragraph, he concludes that the metaphors are not meant literally and are merely rhetorical clutter.

Then he pays full attention to the substance of the paragraph: “the sudden realization that, in Iraq, the government our troops are fighting and dying for is openly demanding that we leave.” He guesses that the essence of the article is the verb realize, which the author has unhelpfully disguised by hiding it inside the noun realization.

But who is doing the realizing? The author uses the pronoun we, so the reader looks at the URL of the web site, notices that it ends in .com and figures that the author is an American. The reader gathers that the author’s we is a sloppy way of saying “The U.S. Government.”

So the long-suffering reader guesses that the author is trying to say something like this: “The U.S. Government has suddenly realized that the Iraqi Government wants it to leave Iraq.”

The Takeaway: Don’t use a metaphor as an ornament. Use it only as a means of clarifying your point. And make sure that it does indeed clarify your point. And if you are ever tempted to use more than one metaphor in a sentence, ask yourself whether it’s worth the risk of confusing your reader. Don’t be sloppy in your use of pronouns. And don’t hide your verbs inside of nouns. If you make your readers work too hard, eventually you will lose all but the most loyal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (3)

It bears repeating: if you really want to produce clear writing, always try to say what you mean. Never try not to say what you mean.

Here’s someone trying not to say what he means:

On May 3, 2007, Admiral William J. Fallon, United States Navy Commander, United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee how his outfit was doing.

He said that his outfit had many strengths and he conceded that it had one or two weaknesses. One weakness was that “Our present inventory of language and intelligence specialists (especially human intelligence) and counterintelligence agents does not support current requirements.”

The awkward composition of the sentence alerts his readers that he is up to something. The subject of the sentence (“inventory”) is a thing and the direct object (“requirements”) is a concept. The sentence boils down to “Inventory does not support requirements.” So, no persons failed to do their jobs; only things did. Therefore, no persons need be demoted or fired.

So, we know what Admiral Fallon said and what he implied. What was he trying not to say?

This translation was offered by Robert Higgs, a fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute:

“[B]ecause we don’t speak or understand Arabic, Pashto, Persian, or any other local language in this part of the world, we haven’t a clue as to what’s going on in the politics and social life of these countries, and therefore we are constantly at the mercy of English-speaking collaborators who will take the risk of feeding us lies and fabricated ‘intelligence’ long enough to get rich and then flee the country before their infuriated countrymen kill them.”

Well now. That’s pretty clearly stated. Five clauses have a person or persons (we, we, we, who, countrymen) as a subject. Only one clause has a thing (what) as a subject.

Of course, this translation may be overstated. We can’t know for sure. But that’s the risk you run when you try not to say what you mean: your readers may overestimate the extent of the stupidity, ignorance, incompetence, immorality or crime you are trying to cover up.

The Takeaway: Say what you mean. If you try not to say what you mean, your readers will say it for you. And they won’t be kind.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Transitions require special care (2)

In the previous post, I discussed why clear transitions are so important to clear writing. In particular, I explained how the sloppy use of the phrase as such can confuse the reader.

Another commentator made the same point, but inadvertently. Writing in the Language Log, Mark Liberman argued that the sloppy use of as such is often acceptable because readers will know what is meant.

He provided this example:

“Attorneys are often in deposition or court and as such they may not call back for two or three days.”

Then he commented:

“In this case, it’s clear that we’re meant to infer something like ‘as people who are often in deposition or court’ or maybe just ‘as busy people’.”

Although he claimed that the reader will know what is meant, he hedged his claim three times in one sentence: first by using “something like,” second by providing two versions of what is meant, and third by using “maybe” before the second version. I argue that Professor Liberman inadvertently proved that the writer’s meaning is not clear.

The Takeaway: Don’t rationalize laziness. Put a little extra effort into making yourself clear so that your readers won’t have to guess. Clear writing expresses not only your meaning but also your respect.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Transitions require special care (1)

Clear transitions are an important part of clear writing. A transition is, of course, a move from one topic to another or from one aspect of a topic to another.

Often the writer will use a transitional word or phrase* such as therefore or on the other hand to mark the transition and make the direction clear. But many transitions are so obvious that they don’t require a transitional word or phrase. For example, the following paragraph is quite clear (although wooden) with no transitional words or phrases at all:

“Siblings can differ a lot in personality. My brother is garrulous. I am laconic.”

The reader easily recognizes the sense: “Siblings can differ a lot in personality; for example, my brother is garrulous whereas I am laconic.”

For the reader, the worst thing the writer can do about a transition is to use an incorrect transitional word or phrase. It’s almost always more confusing than the absence of a transitional word or phrase – just as an incorrect road sign is more confusing than a missing road sign.

Here’s an example:

On the web site of Cornell University, we see these two sentences from Erica L. Wagner, Ph.D.:

“While both my students and I enter the classroom at the beginning of each term with prejudices based on our pre-existing knowledge, it is through dialogue with each other that we adjust our interpretive lens and come to a finer reading of the situation. As such, I adopt a nurturing and motivating pedagogical style (as opposed to acting as a transmitter of content, or an ultimate expert who treats students as apprentices) in an effort to help students expand their view of the world.” (Boldface added.)

As used here, as such is incorrect. When correctly used, the transitional phrase as such is equivalent to in that capacity. The capacity must be clearly stated in the previous clause or sentence. For example, this is correct: “Jane is a professional diction coach. As such, she tends to notice even the slightest accent.”

So, when the reader encounters Dr. Wagner’s “As such,” he looks back into the previous sentence for a statement of the capacity. Finding none, he has to guess what she meant. A good first guess would be “Therefore.” (Currently, it is trendy to misuse as such as if it were synonymous with therefore.) Other guesses might include “Appropriately,” or “This is why” or “Consequently.” But the reader can’t be sure – and Dr. Wagner has wasted his time.

The Takeaway: Don’t let your readers get lost. When editing your drafts, pay special attention to transitional words and phrases. Use a dictionary. Personal tip: when I am editing a long or complex document, I do a special read-through just to check for incorrect or missing transitional words and phrases; you may find this technique useful.

*Somewhat confusingly, we usually refer to transitional words and phrases as “transitions.” Unfortunately, this usage is well established and we’ll have to live with it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

We professionals should display more self-respect than this

As I discussed before, clear writing needs good readability. Good readability needs short words and short sentences.

Here's an example of what not to do. It's the first paragraph of an invitation from the PRSA. That’s the Public Relations Society of America, a professional group.

“The definition and scope of a crisis can be as unique as the organization it affects but the ability to quickly and effectively respond and communicate in a crisis situation is a must for every business or organization. The Public Relations Society of America Yankee Chapter and Plymouth State University presents a panel discussion on the changing landscape of crisis communication designed specifically for communication professionals. You will learn about crisis communication success stories and challenges from a panel of communication veterans representing a variety of areas including education, health care, and non-profit. The panelists will draw on personal experiences as communicators in crisis situations—successes, lessons learned, and best practices—to help attendees be better prepared for future situations. The Q & A format will make for an interactive experience ensuring that the discussion will be relevant to all participants.”

That paragraph gets a Flesch Reading Ease score of 10.4 (much more difficult to read than an IRS form).

Notice also that the PRSA, which fancies itself an expert on handling crises, uses the grating redundancy “crisis situation” twice.

This is disgraceful.

The Takeaway: Always try for a readability score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the topic requires it. But never go below 30. Never. If you are a professional writer, this is a matter of self-respect.