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.