Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Wall Street Journal goes cutesy

Not many years ago, it was a rare event to spot an example of cutesy diction in The Wall Street Journal. The paper was a bastion of maturity and seriousness.

But cutesy diction is becoming more frequent in The Wall Street Journal. The trend is deliberate, as indicated by the diction in a recent letter from the managing editor (boldface added):

Dear Reader,

The Wall Street Journal [sic – no italics] has a crucial role each weekday to inform readers about the world and the world of business, but our personality has always been a tad different on weekends. From this Saturday, that personality will be distinctly different, with a refurbished front page and two new sections that will provide you with an entire weekend’s worth of compelling and amusing reading.

A features section will offer a combination of great reportage, original writing and unpredictable wit, and include a book review lift-out that will carry comprehensive critiques of the books you should read and warn you about those tomes better left on the shelf.


An even better indicator of the paper’s eagerness to become cutesy is its cutesy, bromidic tagline, “live in the know” [sic – no caps or punctuation].

The Takeaway: Don’t let careless diction distract your readers. For example, don’t use cutesy language to describe your company or yourself, unless you’re in a cute business such as baby clothes. If you distract your readers with precious language, they may infer that you are not a serious grown-up.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The sequence of tenses (2)

If you want to achieve clear writing, you must be careful with the tenses of verbs. In particular, you must follow the Sequence of Tenses.* A wrong tense can change the meaning of a sentence and confuse your reader. There are two wrong tenses in this paragraph:

“I inspected the ruins of the [sic] New York’s Twin Towers, atop which I often dined, right after the attack. Downtown Manhattan was enveloped by a hideous, stinking miasma from the attack. I have never smelled anything so awful. It took me days to scrub the foul odor off my body. As a native New Yorker, I was shaken to the core by 9/11 – but hardly surprised, as I had predicted a major attack on the US nine days earlier.”


Fortunately for the reader, the two tense errors in the paragraph do not cause much confusion; the reader will probably guess the author’s meaning in each case.

In the first sentence, the verbs “inspected” and “dined” are both in the Simple Past tense; according to the Sequence of Tenses, these verbs imply that the author inspected the ruins of the Twin Towers in the same time period in which he often dined atop the Twin Towers.

But the reader sees that this is absurd, so he infers that “dined” should have been in the Past Perfect. The sentence should have read something like this:

Right after the attack, I inspected the ruins of New York’s Twin Towers, atop which I had often dined.

In the third sentence, “I have never smelled” is in the Present Perfect tense, which implies up to the time of writing the article. The reader quickly sees that the author probably means up to the time of inspecting the ruins, which calls for the Past Perfect:

I had never smelled anything so awful.

The Takeaway: When you are referring to events in the past or future, be careful to follow the Sequence of Tenses. Yes, your reader can often guess your meaning when you get a tense wrong. But don’t make him guess. Whenever you are in doubt as to the correct tense, consult a reference. I recommend this concise and handy summary of the Sequence of Tenses, on the web site of Purdue University.

See disclaimer.

*The Sequence of Tenses is the set of grammatical rules that describe how to use verb tenses to indicate the sequence in which events occurred or will occur.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Readers can’t help judging you by your writing (2)

Readers can’t help judging you by your writing: your diction and grammar.

This is especially true of readers who have never read your work before. When they first see your work, they are in a hurry to decide whether to keep reading you. Diction and grammar mistakes tend to be conspicuous; if you make a lot of these mistakes, you help readers decide against you.*

Here’s a real-world example. To analyze it, I will use what I call “The Dale Carnegie Method.” I’ll show you a bit of what the author wrote; then, in brackets, my reaction to that bit; and so on.


The other day, I was looking for an online glossary of typesetting terms. I opened Google and typed “typesetting terminology.” I chose the first of the search results and was forwarded to a glossary published by K International, a language translation service.

In the opening line, the author of the glossary addresses her readers as “you guys.”

[She uses childish diction and apparently doesn’t realize that it is out of place in a grown-up endeavor such as publishing a glossary or running an international company.]

The author calls her glossary a “list.”

[This is another childish mannerism. Because the “list” is a list of specialized terms and each listed term is followed by a definition, it is a glossary by definition.]

The author says her glossary is “Only for you guys.”

[She implies exclusivity, but everyone with a Web browser -- about one billion people -- could look at her glossary.]

The author states that the glossary includes “all the Typesetting Terms.”

[Why does she use those initial caps? And I notice that she’s claiming comprehensiveness with that “all.” This is another sign of childishness; no grown-up compiler of a glossary would make such a foolish claim. I’m only on the first line of this glossary, and already I doubt whether the author knows what she is doing. Well, let’s look up a word or two. I’ll start with A and look up agate.]

As I begin to scroll down, I cannot help noticing that the first term in her glossary is “Authors Alteration.”

[She has omitted the apostrophe. Is this just a case of careless spelling and proofreading, or has she actually never seen anyone spell that term correctly? I doubt she has spent any time in or near a typesetting operation.]

The glossary does not include agate.

[That’s enough for me; a purportedly comprehensive glossary that does not include the first word I look up. With all due respect to the author as a person, I have to judge her on what evidence I see here. She appears to be immature, careless and ignorant. I’m going back to Google and look at the next glossary.]

The Takeaway: Your readers can’t help judging you by your writing. This is especially true of readers who have never seen your work before. They are in a hurry; they will judge you by your first few lines or (at most) first few paragraphs. That’s where you should be on your best writing behavior. That’s the place to show that you are a diligent and well-educated grown-up.

See disclaimer.

*Bestselling author Seth Godin pointed this out in a thoughtful blog post last year.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The fastest way to improve the clarity of your writing

The fastest way to improve the clarity of your writing is to improve the readability of your writing. Fortunately, there’s an easy and convenient way to keep track of how much you’re improving readability: it’s Flesch Reading Ease (FRE), the world’s favorite readability test, and it’s built into Microsoft Word. FRE measures readability by word length and sentence length.

Some real-world FRE scores

FRE scores range from approximately 0 (the lowest readability) to approximately 100 (the highest readability). Here are a few sample ranges of test scores:

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers
10s Many high-tech web sites

How to set up the readability test

FRE is part of the grammar-checking function of Microsoft Word. To set up FRE, open a Word document and click the Options tab (its location is different on different versions of Word). Then check (turn on) “Check grammar with spelling” and check (turn on) “Show readability statistics.”

FRE is now ready to test any Word document. Whenever you spell-check a document, Word will show you the document’s FRE score.

How to keep improving

Get into the habit of checking the FRE score of every draft of every document. Aim for an FRE score above 50. If you fall far below 50, look for sentences that you can shorten or break up, and look for words that you can replace with shorter words. Then check again to see how much more readability you have achieved. As you do this, week by week, your readers will notice a steady improvement in your writing.

The Takeaway: Measuring the readability of your drafts is the fastest way to improve your readability, which in turn is the fastest way to improve your clarity. Test every draft with Flesch Reading Ease (FRE), which is built into Microsoft Word. The mere act of running FRE every day will help you get into the habit of using shorter words and sentences. In 43 years of writing, editing and teaching, I have seen only a few techniques as powerful as this. You will be delighted to see how much you improve.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What am I trying not to say? (8)

Usually, we writers are busy trying to say something. But sometimes we are busy trying not to say something. That is, we are being evasive. Here are two quick examples.

Example of trying not to say something

We all know what cheese is: A food made from milk curd.

So, what is “processed cheese”?

Processed cheese, process cheese, cheese slice (UK), prepared cheese, or cheese food is a food product made from normal cheese and sometimes other unfermented dairy ingredients, plus emulsifiers, extra salt, food colorings, or whey. Many flavors, colors, and textures of processed cheese exist.” (Source: Wikipedia.) (Boldface in original.)

My analysis

The purveyors of “processed cheese” use that term in order to insinuate that their product is almost the same thing as cheese. And they use a lot of words in the definition in order to avoid clearly stating that their product may contain as little as 51 percent cheese and a lot of chemically treated swill.*

Example of trying not to say something

We all know what justice is: Fairness. You keep what you earn; you pay if you harm someone.

So, what is “social justice”?

“The requirements of justice applied to the framework of social existence. The term has been attacked as involving redundancy, since justice is necessarily a social or interpersonal concern. Indeed, John Rawls’s magnum opus is entitled A Theory of Justice. What is usually intended by the term is a consideration of the requirements of justice applied to the benefits and burdens of a common existence, and in this sense social justice is necessarily a matter of distribution (see distributive justice). But the particular emphasis in ‘social justice’ is on the foundational character of justice in social life: we are invited to move from a conception of justice to the design of constitutions, to critical perspectives on economic organization, to theories of civil disobedience. In this way, social justice defines the framework within which particular applications of distributive justice arise. A concern with justification, with the appeal to just conditions of social co-operation, has been a marked feature of contemporary liberalism.” (Source: Political Dictionary.)

My analysis

The promoters of “social justice” use that term in order to insinuate that social justice is almost the same thing as justice. And they use a lot of words in the definition in order to avoid clearly stating that social justice is socialism.

The Takeaway: If you need more than, say, 25 words to define your topic, you’re probably trying not to say something. Stop writing for a moment. Ask yourself: “What am I trying not to say?” You will know the answer. I won’t presume to tell you what to do next, but I will say this: Whenever I actually went into print trying not to say something, I noticed that intelligent readers usually saw through my euphemisms and evasions.

See disclaimer.

*For example, the usual emulsifier is sodium phosphate, a chemical that is also used for cleaning sidewalks; the extra salt is often 40 percent extra.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Straight talk: an example (7) – Paul Craig Roberts

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 statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. Reading or hearing straight talk can help make us more aware of the evasive diction that besets us every day.

An example of straight talk

Paul Craig Roberts, a former editor of The Wall Street Journal and a former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, recently published an article titled “The True Cost of the War.” Here is a sample (emphasis in original):

As it is impossible for the U.S. government to any longer pretend that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to save America from weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda terrorists, the U.S. government’s justification for its massive war crime has come down to removing Saddam Hussein, who, like the Americans, tortured his opponents.

Does anyone on earth, even among the most moronic of the flag-waving American super-patriots, believe that the bankrupt United States government spent three trillion borrowed dollars to remove one man, Saddam Hussein, in order to free Iraq from tyranny? Anyone who believes this is insane.

Saddam Hussein would have resigned for far less money had it been offered to him.

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, September 9, 2010

Inverse weasel words

A weasel word appears to say something but says nothing. An inverse weasel word* appears to say nothing but says something – usually something false.

For example, on July 21, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama said “the American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes,” as he signed a bill into law. The inverse weasel word here is “asked.”

The press, in its usual stupor, missed it. Jeff Snyder, an alert writer, spotted it and pointed it out; he wrote:

“We will never be asked again to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes? Again? Hey Congress and President, here’s a dose of truth for you! We weren’t asked to bail out Wall Street the first time! There was absolutely nothing voluntary about it…. You and the private banking cartel known as the Federal Reserve just bailed it out.… the American public, which wasn’t asked but which freely volunteered its opinions anyway, disapproved of the bailouts about 99 to 1.”

The Takeaway: If you intend to write clearly, do not mimic politicians. In particular, do not use weasel words or inverse weasel words.

See disclaimer.

*A phrase I hereby coin.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The readability of long paragraphs

Long paragraphs will have low readability and short paragraphs will have high readability, all other things being equal. But all other things do not have to be equal; if you need to write a very long paragraph in order to develop a topic, you can still make the paragraph comfortably readable.

For some time, I’ve been watching for a good example for you. I found this one:

Example of a very long but fairly readable paragraph

By making economic rules dependent on discretion, our bipartisan ruling class teaches that prosperity is to be bought with the coin of political support. Thus in the 1990s and 2000s, as Democrats and Republicans forced banks to make loans for houses to people and at rates they would not otherwise have considered, builders and investors had every reason to make as much money as they could from the ensuing inflation of housing prices. When the bubble burst, only those connected with the ruling class at the bottom and at the top were bailed out. Similarly, by taxing the use of carbon fuels and subsidizing “alternative energy,” our ruling class created arguably the world’s biggest opportunity for making money out of things that few if any would buy absent its intervention. The ethanol industry and its ensuing diversions of wealth exist exclusively because of subsidies. The prospect of legislation that would put a price on carbon emissions and allot certain amounts to certain companies set off a feeding frenzy among large companies to show support for a “green agenda,” because such allotments would be worth tens of billions of dollars. That is why companies hired some 2,500 lobbyists in 2009 to deepen their involvement in “climate change.” At the very least, such involvement profits them by making them into privileged collectors of carbon taxes. Any “green jobs” thus created are by definition creatures of subsidies -- that is, of privilege. What effect creating such privileges may have on “global warming” is debatable. But it surely increases the number of people dependent on the ruling class, and teaches Americans that satisfying that class is a surer way of making a living than producing goods and services that people want to buy.

That’s a 289-word paragraph, but it is fairly readable. On the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test, it scores a good 38.9. FRE measures readability by the lengths of words and sentences. The shorter the words and sentences, the higher (better) the score.

Besides short words and short sentences, there are two other major reasons for the good readability of this paragraph:

The first major reason is that the paragraph has the three fundamentals of a good paragraph: unity, coherence, and a topic sentence.

It has unity; that is, it sticks to one topic.

It has coherence; that is, it helps the reader follow the development. For example, it includes transition words such as thus and similarly.

It has a topic sentence; that is, it has one sentence that tells the reader what the paragraph is about: “By making economic rules dependent on discretion, our bipartisan ruling class teaches that prosperity is to be bought with the coin of political support.”

The second major reason is that the author has avoided overusing pronouns, passive voice, and periodic sentences. Overusing these makes a paragraph harder to read.

The Takeaway: If you want your writing to be highly readable: Try to use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Strive for unity and coherence in every paragraph. Try to include a topic sentence in every paragraph. Try to avoid overusing pronouns, passive voice, and periodic sentences. That sounds like a lot to do, but you can do it. If you pay attention to your writing, you will eventually learn how to write almost effortlessly.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writing, logic and numbers (4)

Part of clear writing is the clear use of logic and numbers. Whenever we include numbers in our copy, we should clearly and logically define the context of the numbers. If we don’t provide enough context, our readers won’t understand what the numbers mean.


For example, the author of an August 13 article about a revamp of an employee intranet provides insufficient context.

The first mention of numbers is in Paragraph 2:

“Within the first week of its launch in April last year, more than half of all public service employees in British Columbia flocked to their new, souped-up social intranet, @Work, logging 16,000 unique visits.”

We readers silently ask, “More than half of how many employees?”

To answer this question, we have to look ahead three paragraphs, to Paragraph 5, in which the author tells us that “[t]he intranet @Work serves 30,000 public service employees…”

With this information, we return to Paragraph 2, notice that 16,000 is indeed “more than half” of 30,000, and guess that, by “more than half,” the author means 16,000 of 30,000. If that guess is correct, then the author should have written something like this:

“Within the first week of its launch in April last year, 16,000 employees, more than half of the Province’s 30,000 employees, flocked…”

We readers wonder: Did the author assume that 16,000 unique visits represent 16,000 unique visitors? This assumption may be incorrect.

Later in Paragraph 2, the author writes:

“By month’s end, double the number of staff had entered the online fray…”

This is an implied comparison; during one period, the number of staff who “had entered the online fray” was double the number who had entered during an earlier period. But the author has not clearly defined either period.

She defines the more-recent period ambiguously: “by month’s end.” Does she mean the period from the day the new intranet was launched through the end of that calendar month (this period would equal one full month in duration only if the launch was on April 1)? Or does she mean one month’s duration, starting on the day of the launch (for example, starting on April 19 and ending on May 19)?

She does not define the earlier of the two periods. Does she mean the first week of the new intranet, as mentioned earlier in the paragraph? Or does she mean the last month of the old intranet? Or the entire life of the old intranet? Or something else?

Then we receive a clue:

“…leaving twice as many comments than [sic] they had [left] on the previous site.”

This implies that the earlier period was the entire life of the old intranet. But we readers cannot know that for sure without clearer language from the author.

The Takeaway: When your copy includes numbers, make sure you clearly and logically define the context of the numbers. For example, when comparing performance results, make sure you carefully define the periods you are comparing. If you don’t provide enough context, your readers won’t understand what the numbers mean. Your argument may seem sloppy or specious – undermining your credibility.

See disclaimer.