Monday, March 29, 2010

A few pet peeves (1)

Today I am listing a few pet peeves.

They’re not my pet peeves; they’re pet peeves of Joseph Sobran (pictured), a veteran columnist and a careful writer. In a September 4, 2008 column titled, “Annoying Words,” Mr. Sobran wrote, in part:

How many times have you heard someone say “prior to” instead of “before”? “Prior to” has its proper place, as when we say that something is logically prior to something else, but as a rule “before” is better to indicate temporal order. “It happened a week prior to my birthday” is sluggish and pretentious.

. . .

Some words are not exactly wrong but are terribly overused: “reinvent” is one, “resonate” another. Celebrities who try to change their public appearances or “images” are said to be reinventing themselves. It also seems that “resonate” has no useful synonyms.

. . .

It’s amazing how many people say “on a daily (or monthly, or annual, or regular) basis,” when they could simply say “daily,” or “monthly,” or “yearly,” or “often.”

Many of these gaffes arise from the desire to sound “official” or vaguely authoritative by inserting needless and supposedly impressive verbiage. Some result from obvious confusions, such as “perimeter” and “parameter.” But most result from a simple failure to think.

The Takeaway:
Think. Use a dictionary. Frequently ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say?”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The vague antecedent (4): “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. Generally, 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 an example.

Example of a vague antecedent

Reportedly, The Huffington Post had asked Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler and former state governor, to be a contributing editor. But someone at the paper deleted Mr. Ventura’s second contribution (March 9), because the contribution discussed the destruction of the World Trade Center.

In place of Mr. Ventura’s contribution, someone posted this note: “The Huffington Post’s editorial policy, laid out in our blogger guidelines, prohibits the promotion and promulgation of conspiracy theories – including those about 9/11. As such, we have removed this post.”

As used here, the phrase as such is ungrammatical, because the pronoun such does not have a clear antecedent.

When correctly used, as such is equivalent to in that capacity. The capacity should be clearly stated in the previous clause or sentence. For example, this is grammatically correct: “Jane is a professional diction coach. As such, she tends to notice even the slightest accent.”

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. If the context makes the antecedent unmistakable, you can safely reverse the sequence: “When he read my term paper, the teacher fell asleep.”

Monday, March 22, 2010

What am I trying not to say? (7)

Sometimes, writers are trying not to say something, instead of trying to say something. That is, they are being evasive. Here’s a recent example.

Example of trying not to say something

On March 9, 2010, a news item titled “Seabrook voters go to polls today” appeared in Seacoastonline [New Hampshire]. The news item included this:

“Perhaps the most important article, Article 9, once again asks voters to approve the proposed town budget, which this year is $17,932,392. The proposed budget approved by the Budget Committee was reduced from the $18,102,972 proposed by the Board of Selectmen. The town has been operating for the past year on a default budget since voters failed to pass the amount proposed last year.” (Boldface added.)

To restate the obvious: Voters, by majority rule, either approve (pass) or reject (turn down) a proposed budget. So, why would a reporter use an awkward phrase (“voters failed to pass”) as opposed to the straightforward phrase (“voters rejected”)?

I do not know what is in the Seacoastonline reporter’s heart, but I will make an educated* guess: he favored the proposed budget. So, if my guess is accurate, the reporter was trying not to say this:

“I thought the voters should have approved that proposed budget last year. But I don’t want to write that, because it would reveal that I’m not an objective reporter. And I don’t want to write that the voters rejected the budget, because that sounds too deliberate; it implies that what I (secretly) favored was not a good idea.

“I can solve both of those writing problems by using the alternate phrase ‘failed to pass.’ It will allow me to imply that the voters were stupid and negligent last year, and at the same time, it will allow me to preserve my appearance of objectivity.

“And, best of all, it will allow me to deny all this if I’m ever challenged by some smartass reader. I can say, ‘How dare you imply that?! I certainly did not mean it that way. I just happened to use ‘failed to pass’ instead of ‘rejected.’ It’s just a style thing.”

The Takeaway: To produce clear writing, always try to say what you mean. Never try not to say what you mean. Many of your readers will see through you.

*I have been editing professionally for 43 years.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Avoid using multiple hedges

I’ve covered the drawbacks of unintentional hedging: (1), (2), (3), (4). Using multiple hedges is even worse.

Example of a multiple hedge

In a recent interview, economist Doug Casey was asked if he thinks the United States is “headed” for “blood in the streets.” Mr. Casey, who is typically an exemplar of straight talk, uncharacteristically used multiple hedges in his answer:

“I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself coming to the conclusion that we may well be reaching such a point.”

Let’s take a closer look at that sentence. It consists of only 22 words, but it actually contains seven hedges. This may be a record.*

First hedge: “I’m sorry to say it” (he apologizes in advance for giving a pessimistic view).

Second hedge: “I find myself” (he distances himself from his own conclusion; he implies that the “I” who is sorry to be expressing these pessimistic thoughts is not the “myself” who has been thinking them).

Third hedge: “coming to the conclusion” (not “have concluded”).

Fourth hedge: “we may well be” (not “we are”).

Fifth hedge: “reaching” (not “at”).

Sixth hedge: “such a” (not “that”; “such a” has a skeptical connotation, as in, “Is there really such a thing as cow tipping?”).

Seventh hedge: “point” (implies that it will not be a period of bloodshed but only a point).

To give proper credit, I hasten to point out that Mr. Casey’s next sentence is more definite:

“I don’t see any way out, not without a lot of pain and turmoil, at this point.” (Only two hedges: “not without a lot of pain and turmoil” and “at this point.”)

The Takeaway: In your speech and writing, try to avoid using multiple hedges – unless you are using them deliberately for comic or satiric effect. Usually, multiple hedges will make you sound like you are temporizing. If you are uncertain, just say, “I don’t know,” or “I am not certain, but my best guess is [x],” or a similar expression.

*If the topic had been a scientific one, seven hedges would have been a record. See this passage from an interesting book on scientific language.

Monday, March 15, 2010

When dealing with the general public: diction and enunciation

We should always try to use good diction and enunciation – especially when we deal with the general public. Here’s an example of bad diction and enunciation:

I was down to my last seven blood-pressure pills. I took the bottle to the local supermarket and walked to the pharmacy window. I handed the bottle to the clerk and asked for a refill. She looked up my account, handed me back the almost-empty bottle, and said the refill would be ready in 20 minutes.

I took a seat and opened my paperback. A minute later, the clerk politely called me back to the window. Clearly, something was wrong. I walked over.

CLERK: “We can’t refill it.”

ME: “Why not?”

CLERK: “It’s feature fill day.”

ME: “Excuse me, would you please repeat that?”

CLERK: “It’s feature fill day.”

ME: “What is that? Something like April Fools’ Day?”

CLERK: “It means we can’t refill it until Thizzday.”

ME: “So, what’s the feature?”

CLERK: “The first day we can refill it is in the feature.”

ME: “Do you mean the future?”

CLERK: “Yeth.”

ME: “So, by ‘feature,’ you mean ‘future’ – in this case Thursday?”

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “OK. I just want to make sure that I understand this. (Lowering my voice to a confidential level) Are you saying that there are some rules about the dates or days on which this pharmacy may refill prescriptions?

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “And are you saying that, in the case of this bottle (Holding up my bottle), the rules say that the next permissible day is Thursday?

CLERK: “Assuhlooly.”

ME: “Mary (not her real name), when I hear you say ‘assuhlooly,’ I get distracted. Just for me, could you say ‘yes’ instead?”

CLERK: “Yeth.”

ME: (Sighing) “All right. What are the rules?”

CLERK: “I’ll ask the pharmacist* to come over.”

ME: “OK. Thanks.”

The clerk whispered to the PHARMACIST, who then came to the window.

PHARMACIST: Your insurance company will pay for a refill only if at least 80 percent of the prescription time has elapsed; for example, 24 days of a 30-day prescription. (Unlike Mary, he didn’t slur any consonants or mispronounce any vowels. He’s from India.)

ME: “Thank you. That was helpful.”

PHARMACIST: “What else can I do for you?”

ME: “Please ask Mary not to use pharmacy jargon or Valley Girl pronunciation. They are confusing and they waste time.”

PHARMACIST: (Nods a few times, indicating that these are not new topics to him. Then a brave smile.) “I will try.”

That was encouraging. But still, I could feel that my blood pressure was up. As I left the store, I dry-swallowed one of my pills.

The Takeaway: When dealing with the general public (as opposed to our own insider groups), we must be careful to do the opposite of what Mary did. We must use plain language as opposed to insider jargon. We must say things directly as opposed to indirectly. And we must enunciate clearly and drop any speech affectations we may have picked up. Customers will cheerfully tolerate speech disorders, if not self-inflicted.

*Mary perfectly pronounced “pharmacist,” a difficult word for anyone who has a lisp. Therefore, Mary’s use of “yeth” for “yes” was not a real lisp; it was just a Valspeak affectation. Other Valspeak affectations were “feature” for “future,” “Thizzday” for “Thursday,” and “assuhlooly” for “absolutely.” HUMOR: Here’s a satirical treatment of similar self-inflicted speech disorders (warning: adult language).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When your boss meddles with your writing

Does your boss meddle with your writing? Or, if not your boss, maybe the General Counsel or CEO?

Like you, I’ve seen it all. They change your actives to passives. They insert vague words and the latest mantras. They make your sentences longer and more complex. They incorrectly change “imply” to “infer,” because they think “infer” means the same as “imply” but sounds classier.

And they hedge. Oh my, how they hedge. They hedge, dodge, sidestep, pussyfoot, twist and slide. They convert your direct, honest copy to indirect, evasive copy.

Sometimes they remind you of the Pointy-Haired Boss in the Dilbert comic strip – a spouter of trendy expressions and misleading bromides.

If this sounds like your workplace, you may want to read Mark Ragan’s advice on how to educate your boss. I don’t guarantee that this advice will be effective, but it’s certainly practical and clever.*

The Takeaway: If your boss meddles with your writing, you don’t have to be passive. Try some education. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, you can just stop – and you’ll be no worse off than you are now.

*I disagree with Mr. Ragan on one major point: I believe he has overrated The Wall Street Journal; the paper’s editorial standards have seriously eroded during the last decade.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mantra overload (6) – David Brooks

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a widespread habit among writers. For some reason, newspaper columnists are especially susceptible.

David Brooks is a typical example. Here are the first two paragraphs of a column of his (subscription required), titled “The Cognitive Age.” (Boldface added, to highlight mantras.)

“If you go into a good library, you will find thousands of books on globalization. Some will laud it. Some will warn about its dangers. But they’ll agree that globalization is the chief process driving our age. Our lives are being transformed by the increasing movement of goods, people and capital across borders.

“The globalization paradigm has led, in the political arena, to a certain historical narrative: There were once nation-states like the U.S. and the European powers, whose economies could be secured within borders. But now capital flows freely. Technology has leveled the playing field. Competition is global and fierce.”

The Takeaway: In writing, and especially in formal writing, use mantras sparingly or not at all. Mantra overload can make you look too stupid to know what you mean or too lazy to express it precisely. Mantra overload can even make you look slippery, because readers will mentally associate you with politicians. 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 more precise and more honest.

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.

Update, Sunday, March 14, 2010: I deleted an irrelevant ad hominem reference from The Takeaway.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Happy National Grammar Day!

Today is National Grammar Day in the United States of America.

I’m taking this opportunity to comment on the relationship between grammar and clarity.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of grammar errors: (1) those that probably will reduce the clarity of your writing or speech and (2) those that probably will not. Let me demonstrate the difference by means of examples.

1. Ungrammatical and probably unclear

If you gratuitously switch grammatical person while referring to the same entity, you are using incorrect grammar and you will probably be unclear.

For example, a book publisher, referring to a bestseller his house had published, said:

“It was not a book where a whole house runs out and pushes like crazy, and you have to have success right away, because you spent all this money.”

Unless the listeners guessed that the third-person “house” and the second-person “you” referred to the same entity, the listeners were probably confused by this ungrammatical sentence. (For more detail on this example, go here.)

2. Ungrammatical but probably clear

If you say “he don't” instead of “he doesn't,” you are using incorrect grammar. But your meaning is clear; that is to say, any fluent speaker of English probably would recognize your meaning immediately.

If you use fun as an adjective (as in “a fun day”), you are using informal Standard English. It would be incorrect in a keynote address, but correct in a conversation with your family. In either situation, your meaning probably would be clear.

The Takeaway: On this blog, we generally discuss only those grammar errors that reduce clarity. However, even grammar errors that don’t reduce clarity can have other unwanted effects; for example, they may lead your readers to wonder if you are ill-educated or irresponsible. Unfortunately, people often judge us (sometimes unfairly) by our grammar; fortunately, there are hundreds of websites and blogs to help you improve your grammar. Just Google “grammar” or “grammatically correct” and select one that suits you.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (11) – Michael Crichton

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s from The Lost World*, a novel by Michael Crichton (pictured).

On page 7, Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, is discussing the human mind:

“Human beings never think for themselves, they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told – and become upset if they are exposed to any different view. The characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity, and the characteristic result is religious warfare.”

That’s only 52 words long. We may or may not agree with what the fictional Ian Malcolm says about the human mind, but we have little difficulty understanding what he says.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. 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.

*Michael Crichton. The Lost World. Paperback. Ballantine Books, 1996.