Thursday, January 28, 2010

Using only 40 words, Thomas Sowell squelches three mantras

Unlike most academics, Dr. Thomas Sowell is a champion of clear thinking and writing. He has little patience (1, 2) for what he calls “mindless mantras.” In the brief quotation below, he cleverly exposes the vagueness of three mantras: “radical,” “liberal” and “racist.”*

“If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.”

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.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they express. I promote no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

*Dr. Sowell has written extensively on racism.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The maniacal use of “issues” (3)

In an earlier post, I discussed the maniacal use of “issues.” I explained how people often use the vague, general word “issues” instead of saying precisely what they mean. I gave an example from Yale University’s web site: “cleanliness issues,” apparently used as a euphemism for, “We think the graduate students are too lazy to clean up after themselves.”

In another post, I pointed out a confusing and possibly dangerous use of “safety issues.”

Here’s another good example of the abuse of “issues.”


If you type “health issues” into Google, Google will report more than 15 million hits. But what precisely is a “health issue”?

When someone says “a health issue,” does he mean a disease, a condition, a syndrome, a disorder, or a malaise? Or does he mean a symptom or an indication? Or a pathogen or allergen? How about an epidemic, a pandemic, or a lack of money to purchase medicines?

Or what about poor health in general, sickliness, inability to remember to take medicines as directed, or ignorance that a certain disease (such as diabetes) may actually be preventable? Or a localized shortage of doctors or nurses or medicines, or an error in prescribing a medicine?

And let us not forget smoking, sexual promiscuity, lack of exercise, addiction to heroin, and the use of dirty needles.

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

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The much-abused adverb “literally”

The careless writer habitually abuses the adverb “literally.” In an attempt to intensify a figurative expression, he confusingly adds “literally” – unaware that “literally” in this case means “I don’t mean this figurative expression figuratively.”

Here, from recent news and opinion articles, are a few examples of this abuse of “literally.” (Boldface added.)


Source: JewishIndy (blog)

A December 31 post, “Betrayal by DM Barak Leads to Rabbi’s Murder,” said “Bibi was always an acceptable candidate for higher office by the Washington crowd, especially the ‘Shadow Government’ that really runs America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and is literally joined at the hip with the Saudis and Arab nations.”


Source: Examiner (website)

A December 31 article, “Will Georgia Elect Its First Black Libertarian Governor?”, begins, “With 2010 right around the corner (literally)…”


Source: Examiner (website)

A January 1 article, “Miley Cyrus’ prank backfires,” said “Miley Cyrus ended her concert in Manchester, England smothered in whipped cream after her prank on one of her dancers blew up in her face, literally.”

Reportedly, Ms. Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”) handed one of her dancers a hat full of whipped cream; he put the hat on his head and the cream dripped out messily. But then he retaliated by throwing the hat at Ms. Cyrus, “covering her backside in cream, and then placing the hat on her head.” (Fortunately, the hat contained no explosives, only whipped cream.)

The Takeaway: When we combine the adverb “literally” with a figurative expression, we are stating that we don’t mean the figurative expression figuratively. The usual result is an absurd sentence.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they express. I promote no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Corporate spokesmen are not always good role models for writers

Unfortunately, corporate spokesmen are sometimes good sources of bad examples. Especially when they are hurried or under pressure, they may say or write things in ways that we writers should avoid.* For example, when a corporation makes a mistake or faces a problem, the spokesman may intentionally or unintentionally use vague language.


A Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Norwegian Dawn, was temporarily disabled at sea by a power failure. USA Today reported, “The spokesperson says the line still is ‘working toward the cause’ for the power outage.”

That’s a strange choice of words.** What does “working toward the cause” mean in this context? Does it mean the crew is trying to determine the cause of the power failure?

Or does it mean the crew has determined the cause of the power failure and is now trying to physically reach (“work toward”) the component that caused the failure? For example, perhaps the faulty component is hidden behind a thick steel bulkhead, and workers are cutting their way through the bulkhead with a computer-controlled plasma torch. Or perhaps the faulty component is hidden under a thick steel deck, under a 7-ton generator, which the crew is now disassembling and moving.

Or does it mean the crew is now actually repairing the problem? Or trying to prevent the recurrence of the problem?

Or does it mean that executives are trying to figure out how to publicly explain the cause in a non-embarrassing way (having determined that an engineer accidentally turned off the power and nobody on board knew how to turn it back on) and work up their courage before issuing their statement to the press?

You see, that’s what our listeners or readers do when we use vague language: they start guessing. And often, what they guess is much worse than what we were trying not to say.

That is also why we should generally avoid using vague mantras such as drive, issues, and comfortable. These mantras are maniacally popular among immature writers and speakers; they are counterproductive in serious adult prose. They can make you sound infantile, sloppy or evasive.

The Takeaway: Say what you mean – in clear, direct diction. It will make you more credible.

*I say this as a former corporate spokesman. In my time, I said a few things that were even stupider than the example here.

**Typically, when a writer uses the phrase “working toward the cause,” the context is a humanitarian project; for example “working toward the cause of freedom” and “working toward the cause of justice.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hedging in academic writing

In several posts I have discussed hedging – especially unintentional hedging (1), (2), (3), (4). There’s nothing inherently wrong with hedging; the point is to do it intentionally or not at all.

But many of us make the mistake of hedging unintentionally. And we persist in it, because we are unaware of doing it. Therefore, we can make our writing clearer by learning to recognize the hedges we tend to use.

(Did you notice the hedge in that last sentence? That’s right: “tend to.”)

Here is an interesting web page about hedges frequently used in academe. The writing is clumsy but the web page includes a useful list for building or refreshing your awareness of various words and phrases used as hedges.

The web page is part of an instructional web site called “Using English for Academic Purposes: A Guide for Students in Higher Education.”

The Takeaway: Be aware of the various ways we hedge. Be especially aware of your favorite hedges, so that you won’t use them when you don’t intend to. Don’t feel awkward about this topic; many of the mistakes we make in writing and speaking are mistakes we make through lack of awareness – as opposed to lack of skills. Good ways to become more aware: (1) Read articles like the one I cited here. (2) Watch for unintentional hedges as you edit your own writing. (3) Spend ten minutes every day reading the work of good writers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

George Carlin on silly mantras (1) - "happens to be"

The great comedian George Carlin (pictured) often ridiculed silly mantras. For example, he made fun of “guilty white liberals” who speak in silly mantras when referring to minorities.

In one of Mr. Carlin’s routines, he has a conversation with an imaginary liberal:

LIBERAL: “I have a friend who happens to be Black.”

CARLIN (aside): “Like it’s a f***ing accident, you know?”

CARLIN (to the liberal): “Happens to be Black?”

LIBERAL: “Yes, he happens to be Black.”

CARLIN: “Ahhh, yes yes yes yes yes. He had two Black parents?”

LIBERAL: “Oh, yes, that’s right. Two Black parents, yes.”

CARLIN: “And they f***ed?”

LIBERAL: “Oh, indeed they did. Yes.”

CARLIN: “So, where does the surprise part come in? I should think it would be more unusual if he just happened to be Scandinavian.”

The Takeaway: Silly mantras are good raw material for comedy. But they are useless – even counterproductive – when we are trying to communicate seriously and clearly.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mantra overload (5)

David J. Brailer, chairman of Health Evolution Partners, is a former politician. Like most politicians, he speaks in mantras. Here are a few examples from an interview that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 23, 2009.

(Boldface added.)

“The reason we avoided federal spending on this is once the federal government weighs in…”

What does he mean by “weigh in”? We assume he means it metaphorically, not literally, because the federal government is not a boxer, a jockey, or a greyhound. By the metaphorical “weigh in,” does Mr. Brailer mean “to announce an intention”? Or “to enter a contest”? Or something else? Why doesn’t he just say what he means, instead of forcing his listeners and readers to guess?

“… make it almost impossible for investors to make money in the long run in this space.”

What does he mean by “space”? For example, does he mean a market, a market segment, an industry, or an industry segment? Or something else?

“I think it completely changes the health IT market to much more of a government-driven marketplace…. We’re investing in an alternative economy in health care… and the financial crisis, the stimulus bill and the health reform language are incredibly powerful drivers of that alternative health care economy, just like high oil prices drove wind and solar… I think health care cost pressure is so bad that it only goes one way, which is really towards driving new solutions.”

What does he mean by “drive?” For example, does he mean attract, control, create, cue, decrease, determine, elicit, enable, encourage, engender, expand, generate, govern, guide, incite, increase, limit, manage, occasion, operate, produce, promote, prompt, run, steer or stimulate? Or something else? Other mantra-fanciers have used “drive” in all these senses. They chose the vague “drive” because they were too lazy, ignorant or evasive to say precisely what they meant.

Mr. Brailer is also fond of the mantra “kind of” – a hedging phrase that can make a senior manager sound uncertain, flippant or evasive:

“We kind of set the overall price tag as $100 billion…”

Using the phrase “kind of” while talking about 100 billion dollars sounds childishly flippant. It has an adolescent tone of “whatever” about it.

A senior manager should be deliberate. If he intends to hedge, he should hedge. And he should do it conspicuously, like a grown-up: “We set the overall price at, approximately, $100 billion…”

And if a senior manager doesn’t intend to hedge, he should avoid using childish, timid hedges such as “kind of,” “sort of” and “pretty much.”

Am I being too critical?

If you think I am being too critical of Mr. Brailer, consider this: Mr. Brailer earned an M.D. and a Wharton Ph.D. – he’s not an uneducated laborer or a used-car salesman.*

Also consider this: Senior managers of prominent companies usually undergo intensive “media training” to cure them of sloppy diction. Why do senior managers endure this tedious (and sometimes humiliating) training? Because they know, or at least suspect, that the world outside the company’s walls is more judgmental than the cozy inside world of callow underlings.

Senior managers know that the dreaded outside world is populated by serious adults: investors, bankers, analysts, reporters and customers. These people want information, and they want it straight. Many of these people are astute and skeptical; they will ruthlessly dissect a senior manager’s diction, word by word, looking for exaggerations, evasions and lies.

In other words, senior managers who need to venture outside the company walls and speak to serious adults need to learn how to speak like serious adults. That’s why they endure the tedium of media training.

And I can tell you this, having been both a media trainer and a reporter: Reporters generally assume that senior managers have been media-trained. So, when an intelligent reporter hears sloppy diction, he does not assume that the speaker is ill-trained or careless. He assumes that the speaker is being (at best) intentionally rude or (at worst) evasive or dishonest. That’s when – and why – the reporter begins to dig deeper.

When it comes to diction, every senior manager is free to choose: He can present himself as a child or as a serious adult. But he can’t do both at once.

The Takeaway: Think consciously about the words you utter and write. Especially when editing, keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing increasingly precise and accurate. It never fails to do so.

*I am not picking on Mr. Brailer; I am merely using his interview as an illustrative example of a widespread behavior. Mr. Brailer is one among hundreds of senior executives who are acquiring similar sloppy habits. The purpose of this educational blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (10) – Lewis Thomas, “Biology Watcher”

Here’s another great example of clear, concise writing. It’s from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by the physician and professor Lewis Thomas (1913-1993).*

The book is a collection of 29 essays. The author’s style is clear, remarkably concise, and surprisingly entertaining.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the first essay:

“We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

“But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature.”

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 Lewis Thomas. 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.

*Thanks to Robyn Elfie Olson for introducing me to the works of Dr. Thomas.