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.