Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The subjunctive mood (1)

In our continuous efforts to produce clear writing, we need to pay special attention to the inflection of verbs – also known as verb formation and conjugation.

For most of us, the most difficult area of conjugation is mood – especially the subjunctive mood. The most common mistake we make is using the indicative mood when the meaning calls for the subjunctive mood.

For example, in a recent essay about sentiment against the free market, Robert Higgs writes: “Among other things, we must appreciate that the sky is not falling, even if the news media and the politicians talk and act as if it is.” (Emphasis in original.)

He asserts that a condition is true; that is, he asserts that it is true that the sky is not falling. Then he mentions people who appear to be assuming the opposite condition (that the sky is falling). In grammar, a condition contrary to fact should be expressed in the subjunctive mood; the use of the subjunctive mood tells the reader that the writer is saying that the condition is not true.

So, in the example, the writer should have written as if it were.

What is the effect of this error? When the well-educated reader* encounters “as if,” he expects soon to see the subjunctive form were. When instead he sees the indicative form is, he wonders what the writer means by it. After a few moments, he probably guesses that the writer doesn’t mean anything; he is just using the wrong verb form.

By making this mistake, the writer momentarily distracts and confuses the reader. And possibly he irritates the reader and even loses a little of the reader’s confidence.

In speech – especially informal speech – the rules are more relaxed. Most listeners (including the well-educated) now accept the use of the indicative mood in many constructions that in formal writing would call for the subjunctive mood.

The Takeaway: In writing, be careful to use the subjunctive mood where the meaning calls for it. Refresh your knowledge of the subjunctive forms and of the uses of the subjunctive mood; condition contrary to fact is only one of many. For a reference work, I recommend Writing and Thinking, by Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman, Jr.

*If you write exclusively for dudes, airheads, and other ill-educated readers, you needn’t spend much time or effort on these fine points, because your readers wouldn’t notice them even if their lives depended on it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The uninhabited clause (3)

In previous posts (1), (2), I have discussed the uninhabited clause: a main clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

In everyday, non-technical speech or writing, an uninhabited clause is usually more difficult to understand than an inhabited clause. And an uninhabited clause usually sounds more academic and theoretical than an inhabited clause.

Politicians often use uninhabited clauses in a sneaky way: to insinuate rather than state directly.

For example, here is the last paragraph of a recent speech by Barack Obama:

“Now is the time to confront this challenge [‘climate change,’ which Mr. Obama appears to think is a threat to the human race] once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious. Stopping climate change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But I promise you this: When I am President, any governor who’s willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House. Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington. And any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America. Thank you.”

That paragraph consists of eleven sentences with eleven main clauses. The first seven main clauses are uninhabited; the last four are inhabited. (In the last clause, the implied subject is “I” – “I thank you.”)

The uninhabited clauses command the listener (or reader) via insinuation: they do not state the commands directly. They also conceal the authority for the commands and the evidence (if any) that the commands are based on.

For example, consider the first sentence: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.”

The intelligent reader immediately thinks of several questions: Who says this is a challenge? On what evidence is he saying it? Who says we have to confront it? On what authority? Assuming that we have to confront it, who says we have to confront it now? On what authority? What is the proof that the cost-benefit calculation is more favorable now than it will be later? And who are “we,” anyway? And who says this confrontation will be totally successful, as insinuated by the phrase “once and for all”?

That’s just a start; you can probably think of several additional questions. And each of the next six clauses similarly raises several questions in the mind of an intelligent reader.

To sum up, the uninhabited clause is an ideal construction for insinuation. Politicians love it because it helps them (1) fool unintelligent people into doing what they would refuse to do if they gave the matter a moment’s thought; (2) escape responsibility when the insinuated advice proves wasteful or counterproductive. The politician merely has to say, “Just read my speech again; where did I specifically tell you to do that?”

The Takeaway: If you are not a politician, don’t use a lot of uninhabited clauses: it can make you sound like a politician. If you are a politician, I advise you to stop visiting this blog; it will only continue to infuriate you.

The uninhabited clause (1)
The uninhabited clause (2)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"striving for a kind of Euclidean clarity"

Eleanor Gould Packard (photo) was Grammarian for The New Yorker magazine from 1945 to 1999. Miss Gould, as her colleagues called her, set extraordinarily high standards for clarity and logic, and demonstrated amazing attentiveness and stamina. When she died, in 2005, David Remnick, Editor, wrote a beautiful tribute.

An excerpt: “She shaped the language of the magazine, always striving for a kind of Euclidean clarity – transparent, precise, muscular. It was an ideal that seemed to have not only syntactical but moral dimensions.”

From time to time, I print out the tribute and re-read it, just for the inspiration.

What a woman!

Elegant variation

Another type of mistake in the Somalian immigrants story is elegant variation. Elegant variation is the gratuitous use of synonyms to avoid repetition of a noun or noun phrase. It is a common mistake among poorly educated writers, who tend to think the variation is somehow refined.*

The Associated Press writer fairly consistently refers to the Somalian immigrants as “the Somalis” or “Somalis.” But he slips into elegant variation with “[i]mmigrants” and “newcomers” and “black refugees from the war-torn African country.” Those mistakes reveal the writer’s poor training, but at least they are not too damaging to clarity.

However, the writer does do some damage in a key passage in which he is paraphrasing a Somali spokesman:

“Many had been placed in the Atlanta area, where it was assumed a warm climate and a large black population would ease their adjustment to America. But dismay at high crime, drugs and gangs prompted the community to look elsewhere, Mohamud said.”

“[T]he community” probably means the Somalis. In other words, the Somalis who had settled in Atlanta were dismayed at the crime, drugs and gangs they encountered there and they started looking for another city to move to.

But “the community” could also mean government officials in Atlanta. That is to say, government officials in Atlanta were dismayed by crimes, drugs and gangs that some Somalis introduced to Atlanta, and then the government officials decided to persuade or compel all Somalis to move to another city.

That is a less-probable meaning, but plausible enough to distract the reader. In other words, the elegant variation makes the reader waste his time doubting and then confirming the writer’s probable intent. In addition, the reader may become irritated when he realizes that the writer has distracted him for a frivolous purpose: to use elegant variation in order to purchase refinement on the cheap.

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing poetry, avoid elegant variation. It will confuse and irritate your readers.

*The phrase elegant variation was coined during the 1920s by Henry Watson Fowler, the British philologist and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). At that time, the word elegant connoted over-refinement. That connotation is now forgotten, so elegant variation has become a misnomer. I prefer gratuitous variation to elegant variation. By the way, I strongly recommend Mr. Fowler’s Dictionary.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The uninhabited clause (2)

In a previous post, I discussed the uninhabited clause, a main clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. Here is another good example. In a recent Associated Press story, we see these six consecutive sentences:

“Lewiston’s emergence as the city with the nation’s largest percentage of Somalis happened largely by chance.

“Many had been placed in the Atlanta area, where it was assumed a warm climate and a large black population would ease their adjustment to America. But dismay at high crime, drugs and gangs prompted the community to look elsewhere, Mohamud said.

“The word went out that Maine was a safe place to raise a family. Immigrants had resettled in Portland, 40 miles to the south, but there was a shortage of affordable apartments there. Lewiston had more vacancies because of its population losses.”

Here are the subjects of the seven main clauses: emergence, Many, dismay, word, Immigrants, shortage and Lewiston. Of these seven subjects, only the pronoun “Many” and the noun “Immigrants” refer to persons or groups of persons.

In other words, the writer has used uninhabited clauses five times out of seven. Readers have more difficulty reading copy with frequent uninhabited clauses. (To be fair, I acknowledge that the writer used uninhabited clauses less freqently in the rest of the article.)

The Takeaway: Try to put people in your main clauses. In other words, try to use subjects that refer to persons or groups of persons. It’s difficult in technical writing, of course. But in everyday, non-technical writing, do your best to put in people.

The uninhabited clause (1)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The maniacal use of "issues" (2)

In an earlier post, I warned that the word issues is a mania word that writers and speakers often abuse instead of writing or speaking clearly. Here’s another example of the abuse of issues.

On August 26, 2008, this paragraph appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

“Hundreds of [flight] delays spread throughout U.S. airspace Tuesday as a result of problems with part of the computer system that processes and approves instrument flight plans around the country. An FAA spokeswoman says there are no safety issues and officials are still able to speak to pilots on planes on the ground and in the air. The bulk of the problems were centered around Boston, Chicago and other airports in the East, the FAA said.” (Boldface added.)

What did the FAA spokeswoman (or, if the reporter paraphrased her words, the reporter) mean by the vague phrase “safety issues”?

She may have meant to say:

That part of the computer (with or without problems) does not affect the risk of accidents at all.


That part of the computer can affect the risk of accidents, but the current problems in that part of the computer cannot affect the risk of accidents.


The level of risk of accidents is currently within the range that the FAA and the airlines find acceptable.

Or one of many other possible meanings. But why make the reader (who probably paid to read that paragraph) guess what was meant?

The Takeaway: Before you use issues, or any other vague fad-word, ask yourself, “What is a clear way to make my point?” Don’t be rude to your reader.

The maniacal use of issues (1)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (6)

In an earlier post, I discussed a news item about a serial rapist (pictured) who had escaped from life imprisonment in a psychiatric lockup in King’s College Hospital in South London (UK). Some doctor or nurse there had deliberately understated how dangerous he was. Apparently the hospital staff routinely understates these dangers, out of “sensitivity” for the feelings of the violent lunatics in their charge.

In that post, I briefly discussed two sentences from a hospital management committee report on the escape. In this post, I give you a more detailed analysis of the two sentences, because they exemplify the kind of weasel-wording favored by politicians and shyster lawyers. It is the opposite of clear writing; it is deliberately unclear writing.

“Recent events…”

This choice of words allows the writer of the report to avoid mentioning that a serial rapist escaped, that he had escaped once before from the same hospital, and that the second escape was made possible by the use of Politically Correct Euphemism.

“…have suggested that…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid making a clear, logical connection between the “events” and the cause. There is no human agent in this clause; it is an uninhabited clause. The “[r]ecent events” do not conclude or demonstrate or even indicate – they merely suggest. So, mere events (not the escape of a serial rapist) are merely suggesting something or other that may or may not prevent additional escapes or other unpleasantness.

“…certain language such as ‘medium secure patient’…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying that the “language” is politically correct language. It also allows him to avoid characterizing the “language” as evasive, dishonest or dangerous – all of which it is.

“…is not transferable in the understanding of the level of risk posed.”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying the people (security guards and police) to whom the “language” is “not transferable.” Note that, right after “transferable,” he inserts the awkward phrase “in the understanding of.” The reader, pausing to attempt to decipher “in the understanding of,” can easily overlook the writer’s omission of an indirect object where one is called for (transferable to whom?). Clever.

The writer also avoids stating why the hospital staff’s everyday language is not transferable to these unspecified people (because they work in the real world and speak English, not Politically Correct Euphemism).

“Consideration therefore is required…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid acknowledging how serious the matter at hand really is. Instead of telling the staff what they henceforth must do, he suggests, by using “consideration,” that the staff need not do anything – merely consider what they may do if they are so inclined and it’s not too much bother. By weakly stating the remedy, he implies that the “[r]ecent events” were not really that serious.

“…as to how we portray or use common language whilst remaining sensitive to the patient’s treatment needs.”

This choice of words allows the writer even to avoid telling the staff what it is that they may possibly want to consider doing (but not necessarily do). He avoids telling them that they should immediately stop deliberately misleading security guards and policemen with euphemisms that understate how insane and dangerous a patient is.

He does not warn the staff that their sensitive language may expose them to criminal charges of aiding and abetting violent criminals.

Nor does he warn them that someday a victim of one of their escaped lunatics may discover that he escaped because some soulful nurse sensitively understated how dangerous he was. Upon learning this, the victim may decide to sue the nurse for everything she has.

By using “whilst remaining,” the writer hints that management places a higher priority on sensitivity than on security or public safety – crime victims be damned! However, if confronted he can always deny this.

All in all, a little masterpiece of weasel-wording.

The Takeaway: If you catch yourself habitually writing evasive language, try to break the habit. If you are not sure whether something is evasive, email me a representative sample and (unless I am on deadline) I will give you a free sanity check.

A Good Resource: For more on weasel-wording and bureaucratic writing, see Less Than Words Can Say, by the late Richard Mitchell. It is one of the great essays on English.