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?”