Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fallacies (1) – sunk costs

The fallacy of sunk costs is one of dozens of common fallacies. A fallacy is any example of “[p]lausible but invalid reasoning.” Many fallacies have been known since ancient times.

The fallacy of sunk costs is the consideration of spent time or spent money as a factor in a decision.

For example, an investor holds 500 shares of a stock, and is trying to decide whether to sell the shares. The shares have lost 40 percent of their value since he bought them. He would like to sell in order to invest the proceeds elsewhere. He would also like to hold the 500 shares until he regains the value he has lost. So, he is torn.

But the amount he has lost in the past, however painful it may feel to him, is irrelevant. It should not be a factor in the present. He should consider only the likely future performance of the shares as compared to the likely future performance of the other investment he could make if he liquidates the shares.

For more detail on the fallacy of sunk costs, read this easy-to-follow article by business coach Paul Lemberg.

Here’s an excerpt:

Sunk costs are sunk.

They are gone.

They are spent.

The assets you’ve created may have some surplus value, like unused inventory. Or they may have salvage value [like gold in a shipwreck]… But in many cases the value of your sunk costs is a tiny fraction of the original price.

The Takeaway: Remember that clear writing presupposes clear thinking. Try to avoid fallacies such as the fallacy of sunk costs. Best wishes for the New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Clarity is not an ornament

A great many people, when they write prose, think clarity is optional. They believe it is an ornament, and that the essence of writing is “just get it down on paper.”

Frank Rich (pictured), one of the few literate writers left at The New York Times, recently gave us a nicely stated example of the value of clear writing:

“You’d think after Enron’s collapse that financial leaders and government overseers would question the contents of ‘exotic’ investments that could not be explained in plain English. But only a few years after Enron’s very public and extensively dissected crimes, the same bankers, federal regulatory agencies and securities-rating companies were giving toxic ‘assets’ a pass. We were only too eager to go along for the lucrative ride until it crashed like Tiger’s Escalade.”

The Takeaway: Clear writing can be worth a trillion or two. Maybe more.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (5)

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 may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion. Here are* a few amusing mixed metaphors:

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: BBC News (website)

A December 8 article, “Irish Republic faces second tough budget in a year,” mixes a medicine metaphor with a cooking metaphor. But at least the author has mixed the metaphors consciously:

“If you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, administering strong medicine to the sick patient that is the Irish economy is not a recipe for political success in the short term…”

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: live dangerously be a conservative (blog)

A December 8 post, “Through the Window ala Looking Glass,” combines three metaphors in a single sentence:

“The parameters of the Overton Window are shifting in a kaleidoscopic fashion. As a mixed metaphor of sorts, we need to stop the kaleidoscope, throw open the sash and jump through the looking glass.”

Example of a mixed metaphor

Source: (website)

A December 11 article, “The Crystal Meth Economy,” contains one sentence with six metaphors:

“Optimism was given free rein to establish an entire hallucination economy, one based on ever-rising asset values pushed higher by ever-rising credit availability, itself a product of pyramiding values on spiraling government debt, laundered through a public treasury that strip-mined the savings of three generations.”

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors may distract your readers. They may even make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy (mixed metaphors are more easily spotted by the reader than by the writer).

*I selected these samples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they contain. On this blog, I am promoting no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mantras and “The Gray Lady”

Decades ago, most reporters at The New York Times (nicknamed “The Gray Lady”) wrote in clear, often elevated English. By contrast, most of the people they quoted spoke in mantras.*

Today, that contrast is disappearing. Times reporters usually write in mantras; they have lowered themselves to the level of the dullards they interview. Apparently The Gray Lady went slumming and never came back.

Examples of reporters’ use of mantras

A November 7, 2009 article contains many typical examples of reporters’ use of mantras. (Boldface added.)

“Marilyn Wann is an author and weight diversity [vague mantra left undefined throughout the article] speaker in Northern California…”

Heavier [euphemistic mantra] Americans are pushing back [maniacally popular mantra for resisting] now with newfound vigor…”

“Other less-scientific arguments have also gained traction [vague mantra for “obtained a hearing” or “caught on” or “became popular” or something else?] …”

“…that weight diversity is a good thing and that size discrimination [vague mantra left unclarified throughout the article] is as offensive as any other kind.”

“Weight is an incendiary issue [a confusing mantra; if the reporter wants to imply that some people are using their body mass or their words to (metaphorically?) burn things or people, why won’t she identify who’s burning what or whom – and how and why?]…

The Takeaway: If you are more than 50 years old, you probably remember when young writers could pick up good writing habits by emulating the prose in The New York Times. Today, they would probably pick up more bad habits than good. Don’t emulate Times reporters. Emulate good writers, such as the writers in my “List of Writers to Absorb.” If you would like a copy of the list, please email me at the address shown in my profile. I will respond via email.

*Back then, we usually called them bromides or clichés.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On readability, UPS scores higher than average

Good readability (consisting of short sentences, short words, legible typeface, adequate leading, and so on) is a prerequisite to clarity.

Rudolf Flesch based his Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test on sentence length and word length alone. FRE has proved to be a highly reliable test of readability and is now the world’s most widely used test.*

Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) Scores

FRE scores range from approximately 0 (the lowest readability) to approximately 100 (the highest readability). Here are a few typical ranges:

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review
20s tax forms; academic papers
10s High-tech web sites

Readability in the Corporate World

Large companies in the USA score in the 30s, 20s or 10s. Many high-tech companies score lower than 10. There may be a large company that scores above 40, but I have not found it yet.**

Try this: Randomly select a company from the Fortune 500 list, and randomly select one of its press releases, white papers, or web pages. It will probably score in the low 20s. This means, most large companies are trying to sell products or services via marketing copy that is as hard to read as a tax form or an academic paper.

Below I display a passage that has high readability, by the relaxed standards of the corporate world. This is the best you can normally expect when corporate committees try to write. (But you will learn to do better than this – much better. I will help you.)

The sample is a page from the UPS web site. It is the history of the company from 2000 to 2007. This web page scores 25 on the FRE.

From the UPS web site


Global Commerce and Transformation

Over time, UPS has become a leader in global supply chain management. At UPS, global distribution and logistics involves managing not only the movement of goods, but also the information and funds that move with those goods.

UPS customers repeatedly asked to tap into this expertise, which ultimately led to the development of a full-service business. UPS Supply Chain Solutions is a streamlined organization that provides logistics, global freight, financial, and mail services to enhance customers’ business performance and improve their global supply chains.

In 2001, UPS ventured toward retail business by acquiring Mail Boxes Etc., Inc., the world’s largest franchisor of retail shipping, postal and business service centers. Within two years, approximately 3,000 Mail Boxes Etc. locations in the United States re-branded as The UPS Store® and began offering lower UPS-direct shipping rates. The stores remain locally owned and operated, and continue to offer the same variety of postal and business services, with the same convenience and world-class service.

UPS continues to expand service worldwide. In Europe, Asia, and South America, customers enjoy an unmatched portfolio of time-definite and supply chain services. Two major enhancements to international service came with the expansion of Worldport, the air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as the European air hub in Cologne, Germany. With Asia identified as a primary growth target, in 2005 UPS launched the first non-stop delivery service between the U.S. and Guangzhou, China. That same year, UPS acquired the interest held by its joint venture business partner in China, giving it access to 23 cities that cover more than 80% of the country’s international trade.

From using electric vehicles in New York City during the 1930s to developing water conservation techniques while keeping the familiar brown package cars clean, as well as operating the world’s largest fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, UPS has long practiced environmentally-conscious innovations. Although sustainable practices are not new to UPS, the company recognized the need to formally document its focus on responsible business models. In 2003, UPS issued its first Corporate Sustainability report, highlighting the importance of balancing economic, social and environmental objectives. Now an annual report, it tracks the company’s key performance indicators relevant to the business.

UPS continually gains wider access to various markets through acquisitions. The 1999 acquisition of Challenge Air made UPS the largest express and air cargo carrier in Latin America. Purchasing Menlo Worldwide Forwarding in 2004 added heavy air freight shipment capability, while the acquisition of Overnite in 2005 expanded the company’s ground freight services in North America. Other recent acquisitions in the U.K. and Poland present new opportunities for growth in Europe.

Over the past 100 years, UPS has become an expert in transformation, growing from a small messenger company to a leading provider of air, ocean, ground, and electronic services. The most recent public change came in 2003, when the company introduced a new brand mark, representing a new, evolved UPS, and showing the world that its capabilities extend beyond small package delivery. The company went another step further, adopting the acronym UPS as its formal name, another indicator of its broad expanse of services. Ever true to its humble origins, the company maintains its reputation for integrity, reliability, employee ownership, and customer service. For UPS, the future promises even more accomplishments as the next chapter in the company’s history is written.

The Takeaway: Always strive for high readability. As you write, watch word length and sentence length. As you edit, look for long words that should be short words. Try to break up sentences longer than 20 words. Always aim for an FRE score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the topic requires it. But don’t willingly go below 30. For most readers, below 30 is too hard to read.

*FRE is even built into Microsoft Word.

**If you know of a company that consistently scores above 40, please identify the company, in a comment on this post. I would appreciate it very much. I would like to give the company some well-deserved credit.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Politicians are poor role models for writers (1) - Barack Obama in Oslo

If you want to write clearly, accurately and honestly, don’t imitate politicians. With few exceptions, they are the worst possible role models for writers.

For example, Barack Obama (right) said this* as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize last Thursday:

“As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of [Mohandas] Gandhi and King.

“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” (Boldface added.)

In fact, Mr. Obama is not sworn to “protect and defend [his] nation.” The oath of office, as prescribed by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States, reads as follows:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (Boldface added.)

The Takeaway: Don’t imitate politicians. They are the worst possible role models for writers. With few exceptions, politicians are incapable of using words clearly, accurately and honestly.

*I selected this sample for the diction it contains, not the ideas it contains. On this blog, I am promoting no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

If you want to build trust, don’t use jargon

Jargon does have its place. Among members of a craft, profession, specialty or any other in-group, jargon often provides an efficient shorthand.

But as we all know, jargon can also be abused. It can be: (1) overused, (2) directed at people outside the group, (3) used to feign profundity of thought, (4) used to feign novelty of thought, or (5) used to feign clarity of thought.

Mark Ragan (pictured), CEO at Lawrence Ragan Communications, wrote an entertaining story describing abuses (1) and (2) from the victim’s point of view.

Mr. Ragan is a seemingly-inexhaustible source of ideas about writing, public relations and marketing. Follow him on Twitter.

The Takeaway: To avoid abusing jargon, practice empathy. A writer who diligently practices empathy will rarely, if ever, abuse jargon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mantras dull our minds (2) – Thomas Sowell

As I explained a few weeks ago, mantras are enemies of clear writing. They dull our minds and the minds of our readers. I cited an article in which Thomas Sowell lamented the use of the "mindless mantra" making a difference.

In that same article, Dr. Sowell also lamented the use of giving back:

“ ‘Giving back’ is a similarly mindless mantra.

“I have donated money, books and blood for people I have never seen and to whom I owe nothing. Nor is that unusual among Americans, who do more of this than anyone else.

“But we are not ‘giving back’ anything to those people because we never took anything from them in the first place.

“If we are giving back to society at large, in exchange for all that society has made possible for us, then that is a very different ballgame.

“Giving back in that sense means acknowledging an obligation to those who went before us and for the institutions and values that enable us to prosper today.

“But there is very little of this spirit of gratitude and loyalty in many of those who urge us to ‘give back.’

“Indeed, many who repeat the ‘giving back’ mantra would sneer at any such notion as patriotism or any idea that the institutions and values of American society have accomplished worthy things and deserve their support, instead of their undermining.”

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.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Unintentional hedging (4) – “kind of” and “sort of”

Unintentional hedging – the unintentional use of kind of, sort of, pretty much, about, umm, like, and other hedges – is an easy habit to fall into. I’ve discussed this habit in previous posts: (1), (2), (3).

Kind of and sort of appear to be especially addictive. Many people start out as occasional users and end up as heavy users. Heavy usage can hurt your credibility. By “heavy usage,” I mean usage that is frequent, egregious or both.


Here’s an example of “frequent.”

Because I am a speechwriter and speech coach, I can’t sit in an audience without mentally critiquing the speakers. Recently, at a technology conference, I noticed that one speaker (a man with a lot of academic degrees listed after his name) was frequently using kind of. For the remainder of his speech, I clocked him. On average, he used kind of once every nine seconds.

Now that’s just ridiculous, and even obtuse listeners are going to wake up and notice it. When they do, they will receive this unintended message from the speaker: “I’m not really saying anything. I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m not even sure of the thoughts. So, don’t listen to me. Check your email, play Tetris, or sneak out the door.”


Here’s an example of “egregious.”

Many speakers use kind of preceding a noun, adjective or adverb that denotes extremeness; for example, “It was kind of a disaster.” “He was kind of hideous.”

In a November 5 article, reporter Matt Taibbi gave us a great example. Mr. Taibbi is a “tough” reporter: a master of the exposé and a user of strong language. But even he succumbed to the habit of unintentional hedging:

“It’s kind of amazing that with all the uproar over the Galleon business, nobody is making much hay over the recent revelations about the AIG bailouts. . .”

Later in the article, he hedges the word amazing again, this time with sort of:

“That he bought 50,000 shares in Goldman after the AIG bailout and is not in jail right now is sort of amazing. . .”

Well, is it amazing or is it not amazing?

The Takeaway: Heavy use of the hedges kind of and sort of can damage your credibility. Check yourself occasionally. Use your word processing software to search for these phrases in copy you have written; check for egregious uses. Get a tape recording of yourself giving a speech or participating in a meeting or a conference call – don’t break any laws doing this. Listen to the tape, or have it transcribed, and count the hedges. If they are frequent (as a rule of thumb, more than one hedge per minute), you are undermining what you say. Try to become more conscious of this habit.