Monday, November 30, 2009

Placement of modifiers (9)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. When you place a modifier carelessly, you force your readers to guess what you mean to modify.

If you force them to do that, many readers will conclude that you are inconsiderate, indolent or stupid. Don’t take the risk; do it right.

Here’s a good example of careless placement of a modifier.


When the Telegraph (UK) covered the recent gatecrashing at the White House, the report included this sentence:

“The couple, described as aspiring reality TV stars and polo-playing socialites, were photographed arriving at the White House.”

Almost all readers will conclude that “aspiring” is meant to modify the phrase “reality TV stars,” because the phrase immediately follows the modifier. This conclusion will almost certainly be correct.

However, many readers will be unsure about “polo-playing socialites.” When a modifier precedes two phrases separated by and, the modifier usually is meant to modify both phrases.

But the context here suggests that “aspiring” does not modify “polo-playing socialites.” The context implies that the gatecrashers (pictured) are already “polo-playing socialites” and are aspiring to become “reality TV stars” in addition. In other words, it implies that they have time on their hands, that they pass the time giving lavish parties and riding expensive horses, and that they would like to add a third social-climbing pastime.

If that is true, and if the Telegraph reporter knew it, he should have written this, or something like this:

The couple, described as polo-playing socialites and aspiring reality TV stars, were photographed arriving at the White House.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier so that the reader can easily identify what you intend to modify and what you do not intend to modify. Don’t make your readers work harder to read the sentence than you worked to write it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

And the Fair Land

Yesterday The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled “And the Fair Land.” It was written in 1961 by Vermont Royster (pictured), who was editorial page editor from 1958 to 1971. The Journal has run this editorial annually since 1961.

The prose is elevated but not stuffy. It is stirring but not sentimental. It is forthright and clear.*

Today, the editors of major newspapers cannot write clear, forthright, stirring prose. But I am thankful that Vermont Royster and some of his contemporaries could and did.

The editorial begins:

Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country. . .

And continues:

And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. . . .

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. . . .

And ends:

But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere – in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.


I wish my countrymen a happy Thanksgiving.

*I selected this sample for its diction, not for its content. On this blog, I am promoting no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A handy guide to concise writing

If you are a young writer and you have difficulty writing concisely, allow me to encourage you in two ways.

First, I assure you that you will improve steadily, year by year. Eventually you’ll be able to cut an article or chapter by 10 percent or even 20 percent, omitting no essentials. You’ll be able to do it quickly and without much hesitation.

Second, I recommend this handy guide: The Writer’s Digest Dictionary of Concise Writing, by Robert Hartwell Fiske.*

The dictionary consists of two sections. The first section is a tutorial, with plenty of examples. The second section is the dictionary proper. In alphabetical order, it lists wordy phrases and concise equivalents.

This is a reference book to keep by your elbow whenever you revise or edit.

The Takeaway: To become a more concise writer, be diligent in your revising and editing – and use The Writer’s Digest Dictionary of Concise Writing.

*I have no financial interest in the sales of this book and no financial relationship with Writer’s Digest or Mr. Fiske.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (8)

Today we look again at the overuse of the uninhabited clause, a form of bad diction. “Uninhabited clause” is my phrase for a main clause* with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. It is a main clause that has no people in it.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with uninhabited clauses. But when we use a lot of them we confuse, tire and irritate our readers.

An example of the overuse of the uninhabited clause

Today’s example is an excerpt from an essay by Andy Nowicki titled “The Bright Side of ‘Torture Porn.’ ” (Don’t worry, the excerpt contains no disturbing language. Via uninhabited clauses and other bad diction, Mr. Nowicki has made it as bland as oatmeal.)

Here are Mr. Nowicki’s first three paragraphs, with the subject of each main clause in boldface:

“Moral permissiveness is one symptom of a society in conspicuous decline. However, insofar as moral permissiveness feeds into artistic permissiveness, a wholly negative trend becomes at least potentially positive. ‘Extreme’ art — that is to say, art that is dark, disturbing, and, to use a much overused word, ‘edgy’ — often provokes reflection among its consumers, whether or not the artist intended any such thing. That is especially true of movies, which remain powerful and culturally ubiquitous in their influence.

I hardly need point out that reflectiveness and permissive behavior seldom go hand in hand; the former is, in fact, the determined enemy of the latter, and vice versa. Thus, in an age of decadence, movies that are ‘extreme’ in content and theme have a double-edged function. On the one hand, they tend to feed the increasingly perverse appetite of a jaded and debauched general public. But that problem is sometimes misleadingly magnified by shortsighted right-wing scolds (conservative film critic Michael Medved being the most egregious example), who appear to think that the production of any movie containing profanity, nudity, or violence amounts to another act of naked aggression by liberal Hollywood against decent American values.

“Less often remarked by prominent conservatives is the undeniably chastening effect that an ‘extreme’ movie tends to have on an audience. Watching people do terrible things to other people for two hours on screen may titillate some viewers who are probably already drawn to deviancy, but it usually has the opposite effect on most people. In fact the ‘extreme’ format may be an ideal vehicle for bringing home the point that restraint, found through the embrace of morality, is needed lest we become a society in which ‘anything goes’ — which is just another way of describing a realm where the strong and sadistic have free rein to prey upon the weak and defenseless.”

Critique of the example

I’m sure you can feel it. Whenever a writer piles up a lot of main clauses with non-human subjects, his writing feels academic, theoretical and irrelevant. Overall, the prose conveys to the reader a sense that “nobody’s doing anything.”

In these three paragraphs, Mr. Nowicki has used thirteen main clauses, with thirteen subjects. Twelve subjects are non-human. Only one (“I”) is human:

That [the provoking of reflection]
they [movies]
it [watching]

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your copy is dry, take out a pen and circle the subject of every main clause in two or three paragraphs. Then go back and double-circle the human subjects. Then read aloud all the non-human subjects. You will see, hear and feel the lifelessness of your copy. Where possible, put in some people. It will animate your prose. Of course, when you are dealing with abstract topics such as logic and metaphysics, you won’t be able to add as many people. But adding even a few people here and there – even if only in examples – can make your copy feel more alive to the reader.

*Also called primary clause, independent clause, and sentence.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (4)

Mixed metaphors are often amusing, as these examples illustrate. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors can distract our readers and impede information and persuasion.

Here are a few amusing mixed metaphors:


Apparently the mayor of Nashville, TN, wants Nashville to be a World Cup host. The Tennessean reported November 10 that, after making a presentation to U.S. Soccer officials, Mayor Karl Dean said, “I think we hit a homerun...” (Thanks to Post Politics.)


On “Top Chef Las Vegas”:

“She’s oftentimes been lucky enough to be the lesser of two equals. Hopefully the buck’s about to run out on that one.” (Thanks to the kitchn.)


From What’s Happening to American English? (1978) by Arn Tibbetts and Charlene Tibbetts, page 6:

“ ‘Everything was coming up roses for a young west suburban married couple as long as two pay-checks – his and hers – were rolling in. Then came the first of five children. And the cozy little two-paycheck dream world of Donald B. and his wife, Phyllis, collapsed into a rat race – slowly at first. Then the vicious circle of debt accumulation began to close in. When its grip was total, it embraced the young couple in $5,000 worth of debts.’ It is significant that university English majors preparing to teach usually do not see anything strange in that passage. Nor, apparently, did the writer who shifts through metaphors involving roses, rolling in, dream world, rat race, and a vicious circle that closes, grips, and embraces.”

The Takeaway: When editing your own copy, watch for mixed metaphors. Ideally, get someone to edit your copy. For some reason, others can spot our mixed metaphors much more easily than we can.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mantras dull our minds (1) – George Orwell and Thomas Sowell

Mantras dull our minds and the minds of our readers.

When we writers use mantras, we fool ourselves into thinking that we are thinking as we write. We are not thinking – we are mindlessly grabbing popular phrases just because they are popular. We forget that most mantras are popular because they are stupid.

And we fool our readers into thinking that they are thinking as they read our prose. They are not thinking. They are swallowing our mantras whole – as smoothly as Jell-O.

As we keep doing this, we make ourselves and our readers less and less perceptive.

George Orwell described this pernicious process in his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Here’s an excerpt:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…

“[A] mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose… As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

An example of a stupid and stupefying mantra

Thomas Sowell, a renowned clear thinker, discussed the mantra “make a difference,” which is an outstanding example of what Orwell was talking about:

“I would be scared to death to ‘make a difference’ in the way pilots fly airliners or brain surgeons operate,” wrote Dr. Sowell. “Any difference I might make could be fatal to many people.

“Making a difference makes sense only if you are convinced that you have mastered the subject at hand to the point where any difference you might make would be for the better.

“Very few people have mastered anything that well beyond their own limited circle of knowledge. Even fewer seem to think far enough ahead to consider that question. Yet hardly a day goes by without news of some uninformed busybodies on one crusade or another.”

The Takeaway: Think. Don’t mindlessly imitate people who use a lot of mantras. These people are dull and lazy. You are a professional writer. You are, and should be, perceptive and diligent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

First, second and third person (4)

If clear writing is your goal, be consistent with grammatical person (first, second and third person). When you begin a passage in one person, stay in that person until the end of the passage. If you switch person within a passage, you risk confusing your readers.

An example of the risk of switching person

A good example of the risk recently appeared on the JibberJobber blog:

“If you are not getting value out of LinkedIn, I’d seriously try and figure out what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong.”

The writer starts out in second person (“If you are not getting…”). He then introduces the first person with a subjunctive verb (“I’d seriously try” = “I would seriously try”) and then reverts to second person (“what you are doing right”), all in one sentence. It almost sounds as if the writer were offering to directly help the reader edit his LinkedIn profile.

But I am guessing that the writer means to say this:

If I were you and I were not getting value out of LinkedIn, I would seriously try to figure out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.

That rewrite is logically valid and grammatical; however, it is cumbersome. A smoother and more direct approach would be to eliminate the subjunctive and write something like this:

If you’re not getting value out of LinkedIn, try to figure out what you’re doing right and wrong.

It’s shorter, cleaner and clearer than the original.

The Takeaway: When you begin a passage in one grammatical person (first, second or third person), stay in that person until the end of the passage. If you switch person, you risk confusing your readers. Review the pronoun section in your grammar book; learn first person, second person and third person so thoroughly that you will jar yourself awake whenever you accidentally switch person.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"The Elements of Style" turns 50

If you ask writers about early influences in their careers, a great many will mention The Elements of Style, the brief style guide authored by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the famous guide, which is often referred to affectionately as “Strunk and White” and “the little book.”

Here is a review that ran last Friday in The Wall Street Journal.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Concise writing is usually clear writing (9) – Alex Beam, literate newsman

Here’s another great example of clear, concise writing. It’s from Alex Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe. He is the paper’s resident curmudgeon – and one of the few literate newsmen still working for the mainstream press.

Background: Mr. Beam was recently assigned to the political beat. Many of his long-time readers will be delighted: In Boston, politics equals corruption, and Mr. Beam is a master of irony and sarcasm.

His first piece from the political beat ran October 23, 2009. Even if you aren’t familiar with the weasels he names in this piece, it is worth reading purely for entertainment.

Here are the first 181 words:

“So my maiden assignment is an expense-account-funded pub crawl. Covering politics sounds like fun!

“My first stop of the evening lands me at Jasper White’s Summer Shack on Alewife Parkway in Cambridge, just in time for Senator Anthony Galluccio’s fund-raiser. ‘Free Beer and Wine, Compliments of Senator Galluccio,’ the invitation reads. Understandably, I am psyched for a wing-ding.

“Yes, it does seem like an odd moment for the senator to be popping corks and tapping kegs. It was just a few weeks ago that the former Cambridge mayor left the scene of a hit-and-run traffic accident, prompting the Globe and others to remind readers of his previous encounters with the DUI [driving under the influence] laws.

“Astonishingly, Senator Galluccio didn’t seem happy to see me. After some gettin’-to-know-ya banter, I asked him about the advisability of holding a fund-raiser in a bar so soon after his traffic mishap. As he ushered me to the door – politely, gently, firmly – I heard the words: ‘No comment . . . off the record . . . this isn’t a bar; it’s a restaurant.’ ’’

By the way, the piece rates a very high Flesch Reading Ease score of 60.9.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Alex Beam. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.