Friday, October 30, 2009

Mr. Clarity's favorite Steven Wright jokes

Here are my top ten favorite Steven Wright jokes:

What’s another word for “thesaurus”?

I went to a general store but they wouldn’t let me buy anything

My neighbor has a circular driveway. He can’t get out.

Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.

I went down the street to the 24-hour grocery. When I got there, the guy was locking the front door. I said, “Hey, the sign says you’re open 24 hours.” He said, “Yes, but not in a row.”

I went to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time.” So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.

You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?

It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Omitting verbs usually reduces clarity (1)

At the general store in the small town where I live, there is a bulletin board for advertisements. Today I noticed that the local sawmill had posted an ad seeking an employee to cut and split firewood.

The ad had been neatly desktop-published. The creator of the ad had written this in the right-hand margin with a thick black marker: “Woman Included.”

The owner of this sawmill is widely known and respected for offering generous benefits packages. But I think he has gone too far this time, offering to supply a woman as a benefit.

Although I am not a lawyer, I suspect that it would be involuntary servitude and therefore a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Perhaps the advertisement should have read like this:

We will consider both male and female candidates for this position.

The Takeaway: It’s nice to be concise. But it’s risky to omit all verbs from your sentences.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Placement of modifiers (8)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. A misplaced modifier, also called a dangling modifier, forces the reader to guess what the modifier is intended to modify.

Example of a dangling modifier

A recent article contained this dangling modifier:

Financially crippled due to our continued wars for empire and the printing of billions of new dollars to repay political cronies in the financial world has left us in a precarious position in Afghanistan.” (Boldface added.)

When the reader begins reading this sentence, he sees the adverb “[f]inancially,” which clearly modifies the next word, the past participle “crippled.” So far, so good.

Next, the reader naturally expects to encounter the word or phrase that the participle “crippled” modifies. Who or what has been crippled?

A word or phrase modified by a participle usually appears immediately after the participle, as in Robert Browning’s classic line, “Smiling the boy fell dead.”

Or if not immediately, soon.

But in our example, the modified word or phrase does not appear immediately or soon.

After the modifier “crippled,” the reader has to slog through 23 words that modify the modifier:

“…due to our continued wars for empire and the printing of billions of new dollars to repay political cronies in the financial world…”

The reader now has read a total of 25 words (enough to create an overly long sentence) and is still waiting to find out who or what has been crippled.

But he will not learn it from the author, who immediately introduces the main verb: “has left.”

Apparently, the author has forgotten that he began the sentence with the modifier “crippled.” As a result, he has forgotten to specify the word or phrase modified by that modifier.

He has also forgotten to specify a subject for the main verb: Who or what “has left us in a precarious position in Afghanistan”? And to whom does the direct object “us” refer?

Well, I know that:

• In this article, the author frequently uses the pronoun “we,” often in connection with wars waged by the U.S. Government.

• According to the bio at the end of the article, the author is a retired soldier of the U.S. Government and participated in one of the wars mentioned in the article.

But it is highly probable that many of his readers have never been soldiers of the U.S. Government and did not participate in any of the wars mentioned. The author surely knows this.

Therefore, I will guess that, by “we,” the author does not mean “my fellow soldiers and I” or “you readers and I.”

He probably means “the U.S. Government.” The U.S. Government is an “it,” but many people mistakenly call it “we,” just as they mistakenly call the nearest Major League Baseball franchise “we.”

So, here’s my suggested rewrite:

Financially crippled by its continued inflating and war making, the U.S. Government has left itself in a precarious position in Afghanistan.

The Takeaway: Avoid dangling modifiers. Place every modifier close to the word or phrase it modifies. If that isn’t possible, recast the sentence. Don’t make your readers work harder to read the sentence than you worked to write it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The vague antecedent (3): “as such”

A frequent error that hampers clear writing is the vague antecedent. An antecedent is a noun (a word, phrase or clause) that a pronoun refers to. The antecedent should precede the pronoun.* The antecedent should be clear, not vague. In summary: every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun as its antecedent.

For some reason, we are especially prone to using vague antecedents in connection with the pronoun such as used in the phrase as such. Here’s a typical example.

Example of a Vague Antecedent

The Daily Mail (UK) recently ran an article (Warning: Article includes a disturbing drawing) about the infamous murderer nicknamed “Jack the Ripper.” The article discusses a suspect in the case, a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann.

“After the killing of Polly Nichols, the Ripper’s first official victim, Mann unlocked the mortuary for the police so they could examine the body and as such, was called as a witness in her inquest to help establish the cause of death.”

The pronoun such has no clear antecedent. It apparently refers to the clause, “Mann unlocked the mortuary...” If that was the writer’s intention, he should have written something like this:

Mann was the attendant who unlocked the mortuary…

This gives the pronoun such a clearly stated noun (attendant) as an antecedent.

The Takeaway: Avoid vague antecedents. Every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun (a word, phrase or clause) as its antecedent. Don’t make your readers guess which noun you mean. It’s bad manners.

*The English word antecedent comes from Latin for going before.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Straight talk: an example (2) – H.L. Mencken

We writers should take a daily dose of straight talk. The diction we read and hear around us every day is often evasive: indirect, insinuating and euphemistic. Reading or hearing a bit of straight talk can help counteract the seduction of evasive diction.

A few samples from a famous straight-talker: H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the reporter, columnist, editor and lexicographer, was widely known for straight talk – often acerbic as well as straight. Here a few samples.*

On reformers

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

On intelligence

“No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” [This is probably Mencken’s most famous quotation.]

On the military draft

“If it is the duty of a young man to serve his country under all circumstances then it is equally the duty of an enemy young man to serve his. Thus we come to a moral contradiction and absurdity so obvious that even clergymen and editorial writers sometimes notice it.” [The adverb sometimes tells us a lot about Mencken's opinion of his fellow editorial writers, don't you think?]

On the sincerity of politicians

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and thus clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” [In all the public discussions of swine flu, trans fats, and global warming, how often have we heard a statement (from any political quarter) delivered in language as straight as that?]

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to evasive, soft, insincere diction. I advise you to read or listen to a sample of straight talk from time to time. We should always remain consciously aware of evasive diction, lest we absorb it and unconsciously imitate it.

*I selected these samples because of the diction (not content) they contain. On this blog, I am promoting no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position. I often select samples from politics because, as Mr. Orwell so famously warned us, politics is the human activity most characterized by evasiveness.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chrissie Maher and the Plain English Campaign

Today The Wall Street Journal published a delightful and inspiring article about Chrissie Maher (71), founder of the Plain English Campaign (UK). Ms. Maher (pictured) has made millions of people aware of inexcusably bad English.

The late Rudolf Flesch achieved similar results in the USA.

As we have discussed on this blog many times, consciousness of bad English is the first step toward writing good English.

Thank you, Ms. Maher!