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, 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.