Thursday, July 29, 2010

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing

Here are a few thought-provoking quotations of general interest to writers.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
~ George Orwell

“It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pictured)

“Simple illiteracy is no basis for linguistic evolution.”
~ Dwight MacDonald

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Straight talk: an example (6) – John Randolph of Roanoke

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read or listen to an example 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 besets us every day.


John Randolph (1773-1833), known as John Randolph of Roanoke, was a United States Senator from Virginia, 1825-1827.

In 1826, Senator Randolph said this of John Quincy Adams, then United States President:

“It is my duty to leave nothing undone that I may lawfully do, to pull down this administration... They who, from indifference, or with their eyes open, persist in hugging the traitor to their bosom, deserve to be insulted... deserve to be slaves, with no other music to soothe them but the clank of the chains which they have put on themselves and given to their offspring.”

Another Example

Here is a better-known example of straight talk from a senator. Thomas Gore, a blind man, was a United States Senator from Oklahoma, 1907-1921 and 1931-1937. He was the maternal grandfather of author Gore Vidal.

In early 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt was secretly planning to repudiate the U.S. Government’s promises to pay its bills in gold. When Senator Gore heard of the plan, he said, “Well, that’s just plain stealing, isn’t it, Mr. President?”

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. 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, July 22, 2010

Your customers want clarity

Clarity – clear and honest communication – can be your secret weapon in business. Why? Because your customers really want it, and your competitors don’t deliver it. Heck, your competitors may never have heard of it.

In other words, you can stand out just by acting a little more human than a bunch of stuffed shirts.

Author Daniel H. Pink (pictured) tells more in a superb opinion piece in last Sunday’s Telegraph (UK), drawing on software entrepreneur Jason Fried. Both men are incisive observers of language.

Mr. Pink writes:

Not too long ago, Fried saw [an accident] in a Chicago cafe. A woman had just purchased a large cup of coffee. On the way to sit down, she tripped, and spilled the entire contents all over another customer.

Here’s what she said: “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“If someone is really, truly sorry,” says Fried, “that’s how they respond.”

But in business we rarely talk like that. Instead, we resort to a weird and inadvertent bilingualism. We speak human at home and “professionalese” at work. And that might be hurting our businesses more than we realise.

[Consider] that all-too-common phrase: “We apologise for any inconvenience this might have caused.” Would you say that to your daughter when you were late picking her up from football practice?

Later in the piece, Mr. Pink quotes Mr. Fried again: “The real winners in business are going to be the clear companies. Clarity is what everybody really wants and appreciates.”

I urge you to read the entire piece. It could inspire you to deliver (or more frequently deliver) what your customers really want.

The Takeaway: Write and talk naturally in business, as you do in your private life. Natural, clear language will surprise and delight your customers. If your corporate lawyers want to convert your language into “professionalese,” ignore them.

See disclaimer.

Update, later the same day: My browser, Mozilla Firefox, crashed. It had never happened before, so I was seeing the error message for the first time. It began, "We're Sorry." Good show, Mozilla!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Concise writing is usually clear writing (14) – Joseph Mitchell

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s a selection from My Ears Are Bent (1938), by the late Joseph Mitchell (pictured). Using only 339 words, he tells us a great deal about the career and personality of a New York pickpocket.

Harry Lewis, an unobtrusive, well-mannered fellow from the Lower East Side, has been one of the country’s most accomplished pickpockets for thirty-five years. Frequenting such places as theatre lobbies, rush-hour subways, and skyscraper elevators at noon, he has slyly pulled wallets from thousands of pockets. He has worked in many Eastern cities and a “yellow slip” at Police Headquarters shows that he has been arrested at least fifty-three times; the slip is by no means complete.

He is forty-eight years old and he looks years younger, despite the fact that he is almost completely bald. The terse slip shows that he has worked under six aliases. The first time he was arrested he called himself Noah Berns. That was in 1901, and he was charged with being an incorrigible child. The last time he was arrested he called himself Harry Lewis. On this occasion he was standing in a hallway of the National Broadcasting Company’s studio on the eight floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. At the time of his arrest, according to the complaint, he “has his left hand in the left trouser pocket of an unknown man.” The charge was jostling.

A court stenographer telephoned me about Lewis. He said he thought Lewis was “unusually bright for a pickpocket.” I went up to talk with the pickpocket in the Seventh District Jail, a grimy structure beneath the Sixth Avenue elevated tracks at 317 West Fifty-third Street. Lewis was in a cell, waiting to be sentenced. When he was taken before Magistrate Michael A. Ford in West Side Court he refused to say anything except, “I guess I’m guilty.” In his cell he had two tattered wild west magazines and four packages of cigarettes. The stenographer said that when the jailer came to take him out of his cell to stand before the judge, he turned down a page in one of the wild west magazines to mark his place. After putting in his guilty plea he went back to his cell and resumed his reading.

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.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (2)

In the last post (July 12), we discussed puerile writing vs. grown-up writing. In particular, we explained that puerile writing is narcissistic and histrionic whereas grown-up writing is empathic and sober.

Puerile writing is also bloated, whereas grown-up writing is streamlined.

An example of bloated, puerile writing

Here’s an example of bloated, puerile writing. It is the beginning of a rambling, narcissistic essay by Richard Daughty (Mogambo Guru), general partner and COO for Smith Consultant Group, serving the financial and medical communities. (Boldface added to show unnecessary words.)

Last week’s winner of the Mogambo Most Stupid Quote Of The Week (MMSQOTW) goes to that arch-idiot, Barack Obama – after the contest judge (me) was found (my wife tracked me down) in a local tavern (low-rent girlie bar), and was hurriedly sobered up (to no avail) with some hot coffee (too weak) and a lot of screaming from my wife (loud), mostly centered about what a lowlife bastard I am (with examples).

After being driven home with her “loud snotty harangue” as musical accompaniment, I ran across this startling AP news item entry, which was so shocking that it sobered me up pretty quick!

The most recent staggering stupidity (our contest winner!) is from the White House, where “President Barack Obama said Thursday he wants to tax banks to recoup the public bailout of foundering firms at the height of the financial crisis.”! Hahaha!

An example of streamlined, grown-up writing

In contrast, here’s a grown-up essay, by Sheila Bair, chairman of the (U.S.) Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). She is writing about Elizabeth Warren, who was named one of the 2010 TIME 100.

You’d think a soft-spoken, straight-shooting woman who grew up in a small town on the Great Plains would not want anything to do with a thankless high-profile government position overseeing the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of the U.S. financial industry. If you were like me and grew up in Independence, Kans., 200 miles from Elizabeth’s Norman, Okla., you’d understand why she did.

It helps to know that someone with Elizabeth’s Midwestern roots is watching the store. When it comes to holding people to account, Elizabeth, 60, takes the prize. She’s unusually polite. But her words can be sharp as a tiger’s tooth, as many a witness has learned coming before her congressional committee.

Elizabeth is at her best when she deploys that razor-sharp eloquence in defense of the American consumer. Some of her ideas are controversial, but we always listen because her powerful intellect and plainspoken articulation prove to be an irresistible combination. Of all the victims of the damage done in the past two years by the financial meltdown and the ensuing economic downturn, consumers have suffered the most. But that may soon come to an end if Elizabeth has her way and Congress establishes a new and independent consumer watchdog for financial products. I say high time.

The Takeaway: If you confuse, distract or irritate your readers, you will probably be unable to deliver your message clearly. Puerile writing is confusing, distracting and irritating. The cure for puerile writing is to imitate grown-up writing until it becomes a habit. Remember, grown-up writing is:

Empathic: It’s written to please the reader, not the author.
Sober: It doesn’t inject false excitement into routine transactions.
Streamlined: It includes the essentials and excludes the extras.
Courteous: It shows consideration for the reader.

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (1)

Puerile writing is narcissistic and histrionic.* In contrast, grown-up writing is empathic and sober.**

A brief example of puerile writing

A few years ago, Lamson Library at Plymouth State University (New Hampshire) upgraded its online catalog software. Recently I typed in a search term, not realizing that I had misspelled it. This is the screen that came back:

Nothing Found
Ack! We couldn’t find anything with those terms.
It’s not the end of the world, but we’re embarrassed about how empty the page looks.

Critique of the example

When an organization can’t fill a patron’s request, the standard grown-up response is “We’re sorry” (or a similar phrase). This sober, empathic response quietly conveys the organization’s regret that the patron has been disappointed.

But the author of the response messages in the Lamson software does nothing of the kind. Instead, he makes a histrionic outburst:


This outburst narcissistically focuses attention on the author, not on the disappointed patron. Then the author explains specifically what happened:

“We couldn’t find anything with those terms.”

Very good; that’s grown-up writing. But immediately the author slides back into puerile writing:

“It’s not the end of the world…”

In other words, “It doesn’t matter that your search was fruitless.” Now, obviously the software cannot possibly know how important a particular search may have been to a particular patron at a particular time. Nevertheless, the author of the programmed response message presumes to tell the patron that his search was not very important. The author continues:

“…but we’re embarrassed...”

Here, finally, the author seems to be getting ready to express some kind of regret. However, he blows it immediately:

“… about how empty the page looks.”

Instead of saying something like “that we could not help you this time,” he makes an inane comment. Once again he has narcissistically turned the attention away from the patron and back to himself.

There is no more to the message. At this point in such a message, most organizations will try to assist the visitor. For example, they may suggest checking the spelling of the search terms or widening the search. Or they may include a link to further information or to human assistance. But the author of the messages in the Lamson software does not bother to offer assistance of any kind.

In summary, this is the message that the library patron receives: "We are fascinated with ourselves; we don’t care about you. And we get bored easily, so we like to add excitement to our work; if that confuses, distracts or irritates you, we don’t care."

A grown-up version of the example

Nothing Found
We're sorry, but we didn't find anything when we used your search terms. Please check the spelling of your search terms, or widen your search. For assistance, go to [link].

The Takeaway:
If you confuse, distract or irritate your readers, you will probably be unable to deliver your message clearly. Puerile writing is confusing, distracting and irritating. The cure for puerile writing is to imitate grown-up writing until it becomes a habit. Remember, grown-up writing is empathic (it’s written to please the reader, not the author) and sober (it doesn’t inject false excitement into routine transactions).

See disclaimer.

*Puerile writing is also bloated and palsy-walsy (thanks to Ken Smith for promoting the latter term). We will discuss these additional characteristics in future posts.

**Grown-up writing is also streamlined and courteous. We will discuss these additional characteristics in future posts.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bad diction: the uninhabited clause (10)

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 a passage from Rule of Law, Misrule of Men, by Elaine Scarry, with the subject of each main clause in boldface:

“[I]t is crucial for the country to recognize that there is one crime with a legal profile so singular that it can — even standing alone — convey the wholesale contempt for the rule of law displayed by the Bush administration. That crime is the act of torture. The absolute prohibition of torture in national and international law, as [legal philosopher] Jeremy Waldron argued… ‘epitomizes’ the ‘spirit and genius of our law,’ the ‘prohibition draw[s] a line between law and savagery,’ it requires a ‘respect for human dignity’ even when ‘law is at its most forceful and its subjects at their most vulnerable.’ The absolute rule against torture is foundational and minimal; it is the bedrock on which the whole structure of law is erected.” (p. 133)

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 this passage, Ms. Scarry has used four sentences, with seven main clauses, with seven subjects. All seven subjects are non-human.

to recognize is
crime is
prohibition epitomizes
prohibition draws
it [prohibition] requires
rule is
it [rule] is

The Takeaway: Whenever you feel that your prose sounds academic, conduct this test. Select a paragraph or two. 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.

Monday, July 5, 2010

General silliness

At a general store in Vermont, the bulletin board displays a poster that advertises a house-cleaner. The third sentence in the ad is: “Good with my hand.”

Oddly enough, a nearby ad also mentions dexterity: A photographer offers “Hand-signed bear family photos.”

And speaking of clever animals, I notice that some chickens in Italy become inspired by their owners: “Tuscan-inspired chicken.”

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Coherence of paragraphs

Grammarians speak of the coherence of paragraphs. They call a paragraph coherent if a typical reader could easily recognize how all parts of the paragraph are connected. When a paragraph has coherence, reading it is like strolling through a park. When a paragraph lacks coherence, reading it is like slogging through ankle-deep mud.

Example of a paragraph that lacks coherence

Here’s an example of ankle-deep mud. It is the opening paragraph of an April 24, 2010 article opposing ObamaCare.*

“The American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association are both enamored of the Obama administration’s quest to socialize medicine. This position would seem curious, given the large majority of clinical physicians is strongly and vocally opposed. As the primarily academic and administrative members of these organizations might explain, it’s that they care primarily for patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ while practicing physicians harbor impure motives. Narcissistic illusions of superior intellect and education are believed to bestow the right to rule others. After all, greedy clinician worker drones cannot be expected to understand the fantastic intricacies of their queen’s beloved policies. But as we subjects know all too well, the opposite is true. Isolation in palaces and ivory towers prevents accurate observation of the realities of the world outside. Instead these ‘leaders’ imagine the world as they wish it to be, scheming ever more elaborate strategies in a futile yet disastrous attempt to shape it to their will. The roots of this pathology can be traced to misguided belief in the good government fairy, insatiable lust for notoriety and power, and economic ignorance. Their most outrageous claim is the pronouncement that ObamaCare is going to be good for physicians and hospitals.” (202 words)

Critique of the paragraph

As I’m sure you noticed long before the end, the paragraph is confusing, tiring and irritating. It contains at least 27 errors of five types: circumlocution, faulty transition, abuse of the passive voice, elegant variation, and non-parallelism. Here is one example of each type:

Circumlocution: To say that people are “enamored of” something is a roundabout way of saying that they love it. Now, one circumlocution per paragraph won’t give readers too much trouble. But there are eleven in the example paragraph. Every few seconds the reader has to stop, decipher a circumlocution, and start reading again. These stops and starts cumulatively tire and irritate the reader.

Faulty transition: When the reader reaches the fourth sentence, “Narcissistic illusions of superior intellect and education are believed to bestow the right to rule others,” he does not easily recognize how this sentence relates to the previous three or the following six. He may eventually guess that the aforementioned academic and administrative members are the same people who have the narcissistic illusions. But non-fiction authors should not force their readers to guess.

Abuse of the passive voice: The passive construction “are believed to bestow” makes the fourth sentence even more confusing.

Elegant variation: Early in the paragraph, the author uses the phrase “clinical physicians.” Later, he uses “practicing physicians,” “clinician worker drones,” and “we subjects,” possibly as synonyms. Every time the reader encounters one of these possible synonyms, he has to stop reading, look back, and guess whether the author is still referring to the same people as before. Many readers resent the frequent use of elegant variation; they infer that the author wants to indulge his whims more than he wants to clarify his meaning.

Non-Parallelism: The author writes, “...they care primarily for patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ while practicing physicians harbor impure motives.” Apparently he is trying to set up a direct contrast; if so, he should express the parts of the contrast in parallel form; for example, "care about patients, society, and the 'greater good' " vs. "care about profits." But he does not.

A clearer version

I rewrote** the example paragraph as two paragraphs and a numbered list:

Most practicing physicians (real doctors) oppose ObamaCare. Most academic and administrative physicians (paper doctors) support ObamaCare. Unfortunately, paper doctors dominate two powerful lobbies: the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.

Paper doctors have five illusions:

1. That they care about patients, society, and the ‘greater good,’ whereas real doctors care about profits.

2. That they are smarter and better-educated than real doctors, who are too stupid to understand ObamaCare.

3. That smarter, better-educated people are entitled to rule.

4. That the federal government is a good fairy.

5. That ObamaCare will benefit physicians and hospitals.

Paper doctors have these illusions because they work in the isolated world of the hospital boardroom and the academic ivory tower. They know nothing about economics or the real world of doctors and patients. Nevertheless, they attempt to force the real world to conform to their illusions, while they feed their lust for power and fame. (153 words)

The Takeaway: Try to make every paragraph coherent. Your readers will notice and appreciate it. And they will be much more likely to understand, accept and remember your message.

See disclaimer.

*The popular nickname “ObamaCare” refers to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

**I did my best to guess the author's meaning.