Monday, May 31, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (9)

Today we look again at the overuse of the uninhabited clause, a form of bad diction. I use the phrase “uninhabited clause” to describe 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 an uninhabited clause. But when we use a lot of them, we tire and irritate our readers.

An example of the overuse of the uninhabited clause

Today’s example is an excerpt from an essay titled “Wind Power,” in which the author discusses public statements of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Here are two consecutive paragraphs from the essay, with the subject of each main clause in boldface:

“In his own way, Geithner – along with his predecessor, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, et al. – has been generating his own form of wind power in an effort to disguise the corporate-state self-serving ends that have, for decades, underlain government economic policies. There is an increased public consciousness of the realpolitik at work in the halls of state that makes it difficult for intelligent minds to any longer indulge the establishment-serving media’s explanations of governmental behavior. Hollywood film studios would, today, be unable to produce a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a straight face.

“The giggling must have commenced even in the congressional hearing room when Mr. Geithner began his public catechisms about how the conferral of hundreds of billions of dollars on AIG was undertaken for the benefit of American taxpayers. Nor was his self-contradiction more evident than when he first declared that trust in the financial system required disclosure and transparency, but later warned that it would be a grave mistake to make public the machinations of the Federal Reserve Board. Such actions (i.e., exposure to the American people about how the Fed actually operates) would destroy this agency’s ‘independence.’ There was even some suggestion that the cause of ‘national security’ had been invoked early on when the AIG bailout was being considered! Such are the consequences whenever hot air is disguised as cool reasoning.”

Critique of the example

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

In these two paragraphs, the author has used eight sentences, with eight main clauses, with eight subjects. Six subjects are non-human. Two are human: Geithner is a person and film studios are groups of persons.

Geithner has been generating
consciousness is
studios would be unable
giggling must have commenced
self-contradiction was
actions would destroy
suggestion was
Such are

The author has done other things that further increase the academic feel of the text: he has used 2.8 clauses per sentence (high), and he has used 28.3 words per sentence (high). All else being equal, the higher we make those numbers go, the more we risk tiring and irritating our readers.

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose is bloodless, conduct this test. Select a paragraph or two. Then take out a pen and circle every non-human subject of every main clause. Then read aloud all those non-human subjects and their verbs, as in the list above. You will see, hear and feel the lifelessness of your copy. Where possible, put in some people. It will make your prose feel more alive to the reader.

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

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to avoid writing “awful” business copy

If you write business copy for an employer or for yourself, I have a brief reading assignment for you. I hope you will accept it.

It’s a 1400-word article titled, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?,” by a software entrepreneur named Jason Fried (pictured). It is one of the best pieces I have ever read on this topic.

Mr. Fried says, “If you could taste words, most corporate websites, brochures, and sales materials would remind you of stale, soggy rice cakes: nearly calorie free, devoid of nutrition, and completely unsatisfying.”

He warns, “When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you’re saying, ‘Our products are like everyone else’s, too.’ ”

Then he does something very helpful; he describes three companies that unmistakably stand out, and he shows you why they stand out.

The Takeaway: Read “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?,” by Jason Fried. If the ideas in it are thoroughly familiar to you, be proud and walk tall. You are one of the champions. If they are not, read the piece a few times and assimilate the ideas. It will be the best thing you do for yourself this year.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Writers, check your facts

To strengthen the credibility of your writing, check your facts. Make sure you are accurately stating and accurately citing the facts you’re using. A significant error in your use of facts can detract from your credibility.


U.S. President Barack Obama, who once taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, apparently confused the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence while publicly reading his scripted State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010 (photo).

Mr. Obama read, in part, “We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we’re all created equal; that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.” (Boldface added.)

In fact, “the notion that we’re all created equal” is not even mentioned in the Constitution.

The notion is prominently stated in the Declaration. The second sentence in the Declaration begins: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal...”

What makes this error so significant is that these facts are common knowledge, even among school children.

Seven weeks earlier (December 10, 2009), Mr. Obama publicly misrepresented the president’s oath of office. The exact words of the oath are prescribed in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.

The Takeaway: Don’t embarrass yourself. After you write and edit something, take the time to check your facts.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don’t write like a lawyer (2)

In my April 29 post I explained why you generally should not write like a lawyer. I mentioned the writing of contracts; we pay lawyers to write contracts because lawyers are good at anticipating and describing every possible event that may affect a contract. That’s why contracts sound tedious. They are not really prose.

A similar example is the writing of government regulations. Lawyers who write regulations try to anticipate every possible misinterpretation by every possible reader: smart, dumb or in between. Here’s a great example from Richard Mitchell, “The Underground Grammarian.” This is from the second and third paragraphs of Chapter 12 of his 1979 book, Less Than Words Can Say:


“It’s hard to decide whether the people at OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] are simply ineffectual bumblers or supremely talented satirists boring from within. Here, for instance, is how they define an exit: ‘That portion of a means of egress which is separated from all other spaces of the building or structure by construction or equipment as required in this subpart to provide a protected way of travel to the exit discharge.’ That’s not all. Now they elaborate on ‘means of egress’: ‘A continuous and unobstructed way of exit travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way [which] consists of three separate and distinct parts: the way of exit access, the exit, and the way of exit discharge.’

“That’s certainly ugly, and it makes us wonder whether an exit has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it just be called a way to get out. Then we wonder why a ‘means of egress’ has to be defined at all, and, if it does, why couldn’t it be called a way to get to the exit. If these reservations seem reasonable to you, it’s because you’re just not thinking. You are assuming that any ghastly mess of verbiage that comes from a bureaucracy needs to be simplified because it is needlessly complicated to begin with. Wrong. As it happens, that horrid prose serves its aims perfectly. Regulations of this nature have one clear purpose, and that is to answer, before the fact, any imaginable questions that might be asked in a court of law. For that purpose it’s not enough to assume that everyone knows what an exit is. Is a door an exit? Maybe, but maybe not, if a drill press just happens to be standing in front of it. Is a hole in the wall acceptable as an exit? Do you really get out of the building (let’s say it’s ready to blow up) if you go through a door and find yourself in an enclosed courtyard instead of a ‘public way’? You don’t have to be very clever to think of lots of other such questions, and the writer of this regulation is thinking about your questions. He has done a good job, although he has written something very ugly. But it’s only ugly; it’s not wrong, it’s not more complicated than it has to be.” (Boldface added.)

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a lawyer. Lawyers write for purposes different from yours. Most of what they write is intended to be exhaustive, plausible or intimidating. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. But it does mean it’s not prose as you and I think of prose.

See disclaimer.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Practical tips for writers (2) – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Here’s another list of practical tips for writers. It’s an essay by the great satirist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (pictured). The essay is titled “How to Write with Style.”* Not surprisingly, it is both practical and entertaining. A sample:

5. Sound like yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench…. [However,] I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.

The Takeaway: Read and internalize Mr. Vonnegut’s essay, “How to Write with Style.”

*This essay has appeared many places during the last three decades. This appearance, in a 1980 advertisement for International Paper Company, is the earliest I have found.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Clear out the verbal clutter (2)

The last post was about verbal clutter in print. This post is about verbal clutter in speaking.

Here’s a brief description (289 words) of the what, why and how of verbal clutter in speaking: what the most common words and phrases are, why you should not use them, and how to stop using them. It’s an excerpt from Karen Cortell Reisman’s book,* The Naked Truth about Giving Great Speeches:

“… join the conversation by the water cooler, listen to a reality talk show, or talk to someone on the phone. In these various places, listen for the ‘you knows’, ‘likes’, ‘ums’, ‘ughs’, and the ‘and ums’. We are experiencing a verbal clutter epidemic. You may be saying ‘you know’ at the beginning and end of every phrase and you don’t even realize it! All of this clutter is diminishing your strength as a communicator.

“To decrease your ever-present clutter, you must first become aware of the problem. Listen to yourself talk. Put on your ‘demolish verbal clutter’ hat every time you open your mouth. Think verbal clarity, and then begin to talk. Make this an active, rather than a passive activity.

FIX-IT IDEA: In place of verbal clutter, try adding a pause. Pauses are powerful. Your listeners will listen with keener ears when you’ve added some oral white space.

“Once you’ve succeeded in eradicating this clutter, you can promote yourself to my ‘advanced verbal clutter reduction’ program, which involves getting rid of overused words and phrases. How often do you say ‘basically’, ‘clearly’, ‘honestly’, ‘truly’, ‘I think’, ‘do you know what I mean?’, ‘the bottom line’, ‘am I making sense?’, and ‘at the end of the day’? Again, listen to yourself and monitor these words and other repetitive words/phrases/clichés.

“Why do you say ‘honestly’ and ‘truly’? These words don’t accentuate your point. In fact using these words may cause your listener to wonder if everything else you say is not honest and not truthful. Another huge pitfall is beginning each sentence with ‘I think’. Since the words are flowing out of your mouth we know they are your thoughts. Get rid of the ‘I thinks’, and you’ll gain credibility.” (Emphasis in original.)

The Takeaway: Verbal clutter distracts your listeners. It reduces clarity. It also reduces your persuasiveness and even your credibility. Take the advice of Karen Cortell Reisman: Listen to yourself talk and eradicate the verbal clutter.

*Via the Fall 2005 issue of her E-Zine, “Relatively Speaking.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Clear out the verbal clutter

Verbal clutter confuses and irritates your readers. It is the main reason why people stop reading something you have written. If you become skillful at clearing out clutter, you will attract more readers and hold their attention longer.

Below I show you the title and first three paragraphs of a February 11 blog post about social media metrics. This example is loaded with three types of clutter: unnecessary information, redundancies and circumlocutions. In the example, I have color-coded the clutter: unnecessary, redundant and circumlocutory.

An Example of Verbal Clutter

“I hate to say this but PR people just don’t get metrics

“Well, that’s what I thought before I joined a PR firm and yes, I admit that I was wrong. My analytics background stems from managing multimillion dollar search campaigns; where one tenth of a percentage point made a difference in the performance of a campaign. Every dollar invested was tracked, measured and easily backed by a strong ROI. Transitioning into social media several years ago has brought an entirely new set of metrics to the table that I am still learning to this day.

In the past, I have always reported into some sort of web marketing organization and due to the nature of my job, I have worked closely with internal PR teams on various projects. To be completely honest, I’ve always had this particular perception that PR metrics were soft. Although I never said anything out loud, I would consistently chuckle under my breath when I saw something like the following on a “what we are measuring” slide:

* Media Coverage
* Sentiment
* Impressions

“And now a new chapter emerges in my career and I find myself working for a PR firm, Edelman Digital. From a metrics perspective, I honestly thought that I would bring to the table significant metrics experience due to my “direct marketing” background. Boy was I wrong. I am probably the dumbest person in the room when it comes to measuring social media. I am surrounded by colleagues that not only understand metrics but are pristine in the way they can communicate those metrics to others and correlate them back to business value. I guess the key takeaways for me are – assuming is bad (very bad), stereotyping is bad (very bad) and I work for a pretty kick a$$ team and learn something new every day (yay for me).”

My Rewrite, Reducing the Verbal Clutter

I hate to say this but PR people just don’t get metrics

At least, that’s what I had thought before I joined a PR firm. Previously, I had managed multimillion-dollar search campaigns, where one tenth of a percentage point made a difference in performance. Every dollar invested was tracked and measured.

I had worked with internal PR teams and had thought PR metrics were soft. I would chuckle when I saw something like the following on a “what we are measuring” slide:

* Media Coverage
* Sentiment
* Impressions

Now I work for a PR firm: Edelman Digital. I thought I would bring to the table significant metrics experience from my “direct marketing” background. Boy was I wrong. I am probably the dumbest person in the room when it comes to measuring social media. I am surrounded by colleagues who not only understand metrics but communicate them to others and correlate them to business value. The takeaways for me are: assuming is bad; stereotyping is bad; I work for a pretty kick a$$ team and learn something new every day.

Original: 308 words
My Rewrite: 180 words
Reduction: 42 percent

The Takeaway: To attract readers and hold their attention longer, clear out the verbal clutter.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Grammar errors (1) – eight grammar errors in 104 words

Grammar errors seem to be more frequent every year – even in England, once a bastion of good grammar.


For example, a March 19 article in the Mail Online quoted a statement from Assistant Chief Constable Gary Beautridge of the Kent Police. In only 104 words, Mr. Beautridge made eight grammar errors – plus three (possibly four) logic errors and one minor usage error.

The statement, which responded to officers’ complaints that “annoying PC-related nonsense” was being “shoved down [their] throats,” said:

“It is important that Kent Police recognises and values fundamental human rights and provides services that meet the changing and diverse needs of Kent's communities, visitors and our workforce.

“One of our core values is that we will treat everyone with fairness, respect and dignity.

As such we need to ensure officers and staff have an understanding and awareness of some of the faiths and ethnicities found in Kent so that they can engage more sensitively with, and have more confidence in, the various cultural and faith backgrounds.

“In doing so it will help provide the most appropriate and professional services to those people.” (Boldface added to highlight errors.)

My Analysis

Grammar Errors #1, #2 and #3: “It is important that” should be followed by the subjunctive. Therefore, “recognises” should be “recognise,” “values” should be “value,” and “provides” should be “provide.”

Grammar Error #4: The pronoun “our” makes the series “communities, visitors and our workforce” a nonparallel construction. “[O]ur workforce” should be “police force.”

Minor Usage Error #1: “[T]hat we will treat everyone” is awkward. Normally we state core values by using infinitives without “to” (“Treat everyone”) or gerunds (“Treating everyone”).

Grammar Error #5: “As such” should not be used as a synonym for “therefore,” as it is here. See this post for the proper use of “as such.”

Logic Error #1: Mr. Beautridge states that “One of our core values is that we will treat everyone with fairness, respect and dignity,” but later states that the police force is going to “ensure officers and staff have an understanding and awareness of [only] some of the faiths and ethnicities…” (Boldface added.)

Logic Errors #2 and #3: One can engage with people, but not with backgrounds. One can have confidence in people, but not in backgrounds

Grammar Errors #6 and #7: The expression “doing so” is supposed to refer to a previously mentioned verb. The pronoun “it” is supposed to refer to a singular noun. But the verb and noun referred to here are unclear.

Grammar Error #8: ‘[T]hose people” has no clear antecedent. Mr. Beautridge probably meant “faiths” or “ethnicities” or “cultural and faith backgrounds.” If so, he has made one more logic error.

The Takeaway: When readers see frequent grammar or logic errors (in this example, more than one error per ten words), they assume that the speaker or writer is ill-educated, stupid, or irresponsible. Like it or not, people judge us by our grammar; our only protection is to try to get it right.

Monday, May 3, 2010

As you write, picture your reader

This is a simple, powerful technique: Picture your reader.

Before writing any important document, mentally review what you know about your target reader: age, sex, occupation, experience, title, knowledge, interests.

Then try to picture this person in your mind, as opposed to merely thinking, for example, “A single, male software developer, between 21 and 35, living in a metropolitan area in the United States; moving up in his profession; enjoys reading science fiction.” Go further and imagine how this man would look and dress. Give him a name.

Even better

Instead of imagining a person, acquire an actual picture of an actual person. The person can be someone you know or someone you merely know of; for example, if you are marketing a product, get a picture of a software developer who bought the product.

Look at this picture before you start writing, and say to yourself. “I am writing this to Jim.”

Even better

Tape the picture above your monitor. Or paste it into Outlook or set it up as wallpaper. As you write, occasionally glance at the picture. When in doubt about diction, tone, or level of detail, ask yourself, “What would Jim think of this (word, sentence, paragraph or idea)?”

If this technique is new to you, it may sound contrived. But be aware that many experienced writers use this technique to increase their empathy and focus their attention. Try it.

The Takeaway: It’s good to describe your target reader in words. It’s even better to imagine what he or she looks like. It’s best to get a real picture of a real person; keep this picture handy and glance at it occasionally as you write.