Monday, June 28, 2010

Straight talk: an example (5) – Stefan Molyneux

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read or listen to a sample of straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with the content – what matters is the expression. Reading or hearing straight talk can help make us more aware of the evasive diction that constantly besets us.

Here are a few examples of straight talk from the philosopher and author Stefan Molyneux (pictured). The podcasts referenced are available on his web site.

On the hypocrisy of the masses

“Forget about what people say; 99.999 percent of what anybody ever says is just self-serving, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical nonsense designed to obscure their own motives from themselves and others.” From “Helping the Poor” (podcast), January 25, 2006.

On culture

“What we call ‘culture’ is just the scar tissue that’s inflicted on children through propaganda by the ruling classes so that we’ll continue to be slaves.” From “Culture and State Power” (podcast), June 19, 2006.

On hope

“No matter how long we are propagandized, we still have a human nature that appeals to us, which we can listen to or not.” From “Slaves, Statists and Children – Compliance Part 2” (podcast), August 15, 2006.

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (sample here). I advise you to occasionally read or listen to some straight talk. By contrast, it will help you remain consciously aware of evasiveness – and therefore less likely to unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (13) – E. B. White

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s the opening paragraph of Here Is New York (1949), by E. B. White. The late Mr. White is of course the author of the famous children’s books Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, and co-author of the popular guide The Elements of Style.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

Using only 118 words, he conveys a great deal of the wonderful strangeness of New York City. I love his wry advice at the end.

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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Double negative

When you use a double negative (or, worse, a multiple negative), you force your readers to work hard to understand your meaning. The strict definition of double negative is the use of two negatives in one clause; however, two negatives can be confusing even if they are in separate clauses in the same sentence.

Generally speaking, you should avoid double negatives and multiple negatives. Convey your meaning with positive declarations whenever possible.

Example of the multiple negative

“Defenders of liberty and a free society should not be intimidated by enemies of liberty and a free society – liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, and even some libertarians – who label them as racists, bigots, or Neanderthals for objecting to certain provisions of the Civil Rights Act.

“This is not to say that no congressmen who voted against the Civil Rights Act were racists, bigots, or Neanderthals. But the fact that some or all of them were doesn’t mean that the Civil Rights Act – like most legislation passed by Congress for the past 100 years – wasn’t an unconstitutional expansion of federal power that destroyed the rights of private property, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, free enterprise, and freedom of contract.” (Boldface added.) (Full article here.)

Critique of the example

In the second paragraph, each of the two sentences contains three negatives. To make matters worse, the first sentence of the paragraph begins with a pronoun that has a vague antecedent that may consist of the entire preceding paragraph. Worse still, the author has confusingly placed two unrelated verbs together (were and doesn't) in the second sentence of the second paragraph.

Here is an easier-to-understand version* of the two paragraphs:

Ignore anyone who calls you a racist, bigot or Neanderthal for objecting to certain provisions of the Civil Rights Act.

Some of the congressmen who voted against the Civil Rights Act may have been racists, bigots or Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Act – like most legislation passed by Congress for the past 100 years – was still an unconstitutional expansion of federal power. It destroyed the rights of private property, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, free enterprise, and freedom of contract.

The Takeaway: Generally speaking, you should use positive declarations and avoid double negatives and multiple negatives. Remember, it is rude to compose your sentences carelessly and expect your readers to finish your work for you.

See disclaimer.

*I am assuming – but cannot be certain – that I have correctly guessed the author’s meaning.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What our clichés reveal about us

We all know we should try to avoid relying on clichés. We know that relying on clichés makes us lazy and deprives our readers of clearer expressions of our ideas.

But we may not be aware of another undesirable effect of relying on clichés: it can create the impression that we are not capable of independent thought.

Jacques Barzun stated* it well: “The man who cannot speak of a dim light without calling it a ‘dim, religious light,’** offends both by the pointlessness of the second adjective and by the conviction he creates in the listener that the remark has become a pure reflex.”

Most occupations don’t require independent thought; for example, bricklayers, short-order cooks and surgeons do just fine without it. But we writers need it.

The Takeaway: Don’t make your readers doubt that you can think independently. Use clichés sparingly, or not at all.

See disclaimer.

*The House of Intellect, Page 40, footnote.

**The phrase appears in John Milton’s poem “Il Penseroso,” published in the early 17th century.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A sampler of evasive terms in English

For a quick and sometimes humorous overview of evasive terms, take a look at the vintage essay “Evasive Language Results for Suboptimal Outcomes,” by John Leo (pictured), an incisive observer of the English language.

Here are two paragraphs from the essay:

“Leaking closely held government or corporate information is a terrible offense, a gross violation of duty and maybe even treason. Unless, of course, you agree with the leaker. In that case, he is a ‘whistleblower.’ ”

“On our madcap campuses, PC folk keep inventing terms that make speech sound like action, so if they want to punish someone, they can do so while strongly (and hypocritically) defending free speech. ‘Expressive behavior,’ ‘verbal conduct’ and ‘verbal action’ all mean ‘speech.’ ”

The Takeaway: We live in hypocritical times. We read and hear evasive language every day. As writers, we must remain consciously aware of evasiveness – lest we unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (8)

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

According to, Tom Ridge, head of the U.S. Government’s Homeland Security Department in the Bush administration, said, “If we discover later that it’s really just a facade to delve into a fishing expedition, I would find that just unacceptable, outrageous and a further distortion of the system.” (Boldface added.)

Example of a mixed metaphor

According to a post on The Risk Factor, “That Microsoft, which seems to have a toe dipped into every information technology lake in the world, would both insist on dogfooding and fail spectacularly at it requires no great stretch of the imagination.” (Boldface added.)

Example of a mixed metaphor

According to Michael S. Rozeff, “Swiss banking secrecy has been going down the tubes for years now. It’s now a dead letter.” (Boldface added.)

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).

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Placement of modifiers (11)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Place your modifiers as close as possible to what they modify. Don’t make your readers rely on interpretation or guesswork.

Example of the careless placement of a modifier

A recent essay discusses the career of talk-show host Glenn Beck. The essay contains this sentence:

“Much like the Founding Fathers, I believe Beck has committed himself to using his fame, his fortune and his enormous talents to help defeat the poisonous progressive movement that is fundamentally transforming the United States into a destitute socialist nation.”

Critique of the example

The reader immediately becomes confused when he sees that the adverbial phrase “Much like the Founding Fathers” does not modify the nearest verb: believe. For if it did modify believe, it would imply that the author is saying that what he believes about Glenn Beck is what the Founding Fathers believed about Glenn Beck. But Mr. Beck was born after the Founding Fathers had died.

So the reader tries the next verb: has committed. This interpretation would imply that the author is saying that the Founding Fathers tried to help defeat the progressive movement. But the progressive movement began in the early 20th century, after the Founding Fathers had died. Another anachronism.

Anachronism also eliminates the third, fourth and fifth verbs: using (gerund), to help defeat, and is … transforming, respectively, which are all subordinate to has committed.

Nor does the adverbial phrase modify the
adverb (fundamentally) or any of the adjectives (enormous, poisonous, progressive, united, destitute, and socialist).

At this point, the reader tries some psychology and intuition; he asks himself, Why is this author comparing the Founding Fathers with Glenn Beck? What did he seize on, as a point of comparison, however tenuous, that prompted him to write this dopey sentence?

The reader pauses on the word fortune. It is the second noun in a three-noun series: fame, fortune, talents. Dum-de-dum, fortune, dum-de-dum. Ah, there it is! The author is alluding to the Declaration of Independence, in which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and honor to each other in support of their cause.* Mr. Beck is committing his fame, fortune and talents to his cause.

And so, after having spent a lot more time deciphering the sentence than the author probably spent writing it, the reader guesses that the author meant to say something like this:

The Founding Fathers seceded from the British monarchy and formed a new government; Glenn Beck is trying to help defeat the progressive movement. The Founding Fathers used rifles; Glenn Beck is using his mouth. They pledged their lives, fortunes and honor; he’s committing his fortune (not his life or honor).

The Takeaway:
Place every modifier so that readers can easily identify what you intend to modify and what you do not intend to modify. Making your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it is bad manners; your readers will judge you on it.

See disclaimer.

*“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010

New software deletes “Justin Bieber,” but can it delete adverbs?

Apparently, Justin Bieber fatigue is really setting in right now. Some folks at MIT reportedly developed a PC software application that automatically deletes Justin Bieber mentions. But will the developers soon offer an adverb deleter? Stephen King once advised writers, presumably only semi-jocularly, to delete all adverbs. I whole-heartedly agree.

You probably noticed that every word and phrase that I displayed in red is an adverb. Here is the same paragraph with the adverbs deleted:

Justin Bieber fatigue is setting in. Some folks at MIT developed a PC software application that deletes Justin Bieber mentions. But will the developers offer an adverb deleter? Stephen King advised writers to delete all adverbs. I agree.

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.