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, 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