Monday, November 29, 2010

Always ask for an edit (1)

When we write for publication, we should always ask for an edit, because an editor can prevent us from embarrassing ourselves.

Ideally the editor would be a professional. Failing that, the editor should be a friend or colleague who is a perceptive reader and who is willing to be candid.

What an editor can catch

In a recent article titled “Dealing With The Bottom Feeders,” a marketing consultant advises his readers to

“…pay attention to what I call USPs (Unique Selling Positions).”

A reader with a generous temperament may think:

I suppose the kindest interpretation of those words is that this consultant does know that advertisers were applying the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition 50 years ago, and therefore he is not claiming it was his concept. But he has developed some variant of the Unique Selling Proposition, which he calls “Unique Selling Positions.” If so, he’s just being careless when he fails to explain all this to us.

The second-kindest interpretation is that he actually thinks he developed and named what the world knows as “Unique Selling Proposition,” and he thinks he named it “Unique Selling Positions.” In this case, he’s being fatuous.

And the third-kindest interpretation is that he is trying to fool us about who developed what. In which case, as much as I regret to think it, he’s being dishonest.

The Takeaway: Like it or not, when we write for publication our readers judge us by our writing. We should always ask for an edit, to prevent us from looking careless, fatuous or dishonest.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (10)

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.

Example of a mixed metaphor

David Stockman (pictured), former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (U.S.), writes, “…the specious ideological shibboleths of both parties will have poisoned the only policy tools… that can make a difference.”

Example of a mixed metaphor

Wallyhood, a blogger, expresses his thanks to his 1,000th Facebook Friend: “As a small token of our appreciation for ushering over the threshold of this milestone…” In a footnote, he thanks his readers for indulging the mixed metaphor.

Example of a mixed metaphor

Paul Kenney, on his “Saturday Football” blog, writes, “The Falcons fly on the legs (I know; mixed metaphor) of the nation’s top ranked rushing attack, which is averaging 326 yards a game.”

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors often distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy. (For some reason, it is often difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors. If a man as brainy as David Stockman can miss his own slips, so can we all.)

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Elegant variation (2)

Elegant variation is the gratuitous use of synonyms to avoid repetition of a noun or noun phrase. It is common practice among poorly educated writers, who think it is somehow refined.* It is not refined, but it can be confusing, distracting and irritating.

Example of elegant variation

In a wikiHow article titled “How to Solve a Problem,” the authors use obstacle, challenge and issue as synonyms for problem.

As a sample, here are the first 131 words of the article (boldface added):

Problem solving is one of the most essential [sic] skills in life. Regardless of who you are or what you do, you will face obstacles. How you deal with such challenges will often be a determining factor [sic] in how successful you are at life. While problems come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, this article can give you a rough idea of how to solve one in a general sense.


1. Approach the issue with clarity. This is the first and most important component to [sic] problem solving. While action and energy can often assist you in overcoming challenges, this effort is a waste if misguided or misplaced. The first step is always to approach any issue in a clear and logical manner, even if under time constraints or pressure.

Analysis of the example

When an intelligent reader encounters “obstacles,” he has to stop reading for a moment, look back, and guess whether the authors intend it as a synonym for “problems.” From the context, he guesses that it could be a synonym for “problems.” Or, the authors might be suggesting that an obstacle could be the occasion of a problem. He continues reading.

When he encounters “challenges,” he stops reading again. The word “such” preceding “challenges” helps him guess that the authors mean “challenges” as a synonym for “obstacles,” which in turn may or may not be a synonym for “problems.” He is becoming distracted, but he continues reading.

In the next sentence, he encounters “problems,” and feels a little better.

Then, in the next paragraph (Step 1), he reads, “Approach the issue with clarity.” His distraction is becoming irritation. He silently asks, “Are they using issue as yet another synonym for problem? “Why are these people fooling around like this? They promised to explain how to solve a problem, and now they’re playing games with me.” He continues reading.

During the remainder of Step 1, he encounters “problem,” “challenges” and “issue.” His irritation is becoming resentment. He silently thinks, “They’re not going to stop this. I’ll just look somewhere else.” He returns to Google to look for another article on how to solve problems.

The Takeaway: Try to avoid elegant variation. If you persistently use elegant variation, you will repel your intelligent readers.

See disclaimer.

*The phrase elegant variation was coined during the 1920s by Henry Watson Fowler, the British philologist and author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). At that time, the word elegant connoted over-refinement. That connotation of elegant is now forgotten, so elegant variation has become a confusing misnomer. Today, gratuitous variation would be more accurate; however, elegant variation remains in wide use.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Avoid using multiple hedges (2)

Multiple hedges undermine your credibility. I gave an example of multiple hedges in a previous post. Here’s another example, from a November 11 news story.

An example of multiple hedges in one sentence

A public school superintendent explains why he forced a student to remove a U.S. flag from his bicycle:

“Our Hispanic, you know, kids will, you know, bring their Mexican flags and they’ll display it, and then of course the kids would do the American flag situation, and it does cause kind of a racial tension which we don’t really want.” (Boldface added.)


The sentence contains seven hedges.*

First hedge: you know (One of the all-time favorite hedges, along with sorta, like, and I’m just saying.)

Second hedge: “you know” (Second instance.)

Third hedge: “the kids” (He calls the students who will display Mexican flags “[o]ur Hispanic… kids.” He calls the students who will display the American flag “the kids”; which kids are they?)

Fourth hedge: “the American flag situation” (He calls Mexican flags “Mexican flags” and calls the American flag “the American flag situation.”)

Fifth hedge: “it” in “it does cause” (The antecedent of this pronoun is crucial to the meaning of the sentence, but he does not specify it. He forces us to guess the antecedent; my guess is “the simultaneous display of flags of more than one nation.”)

Sixth hedge: “kind of a” (Not racial tension, but “kind of a racial tension.”)

Seventh hedge: “don’t really want” (Here, at the end of the sentence, he has an opportunity to make a straightforward statement: We do not want racial tension. But he hedges again.)

My restatement of the sentence

When flags of more than one nation are simultaneously displayed, they cause racial tension, and we do not want racial tension.**

The Takeaway: When listeners hear multiple hedges per sentence, they stop taking you seriously. If you must use hedges, use them sparingly.

See disclaimer.

*I have considered only the hedges; I have not enumerated the superintendent’s grammar errors (for example, a singular pronoun with a plural antecedent) or logic errors (for example, the assertion that pieces of cloth can cause people to think hostile thoughts).

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Double negative (2)

Whenever you use a double negative or multiple negative, you risk confusing your reader. Here’s an extreme example:

On October 20, Arsène Wenger (pictured), manager of the Arsenal Football Club (UK), commented on whether Jack Wilshere, a club player, was ready to start for the national team. Reuters said that Mr. Wenger said:

“If you asked me the reverse question, is he not ready to start for England, then it would be difficult to not say no.” (I added the boldface.)

Critique of the example

That sentence contains four negatives and the word difficult. That’s a lot for the reader to sort out.*

But that’s only the first layer of the confusion. If you’re interested in reading about additional layers, read “Difficulty over not saying no on not being ready,” by linguistics scholar Geoffrey K. Pullum.**

The Takeaway: Although they do have legitimate uses, double negatives and multiple negatives often confuse readers. Generally avoid them.

See disclaimer.

*Mr. Wenger is French. Out of courtesy, I usually don’t critique non-native speakers of English. I made an exception in Mr. Wenger’s case because he is fluent and because he may have used the multiple negative deliberately, as a media-relations tactic (see the comments on Mr. Pullum’s article).

**Unlike most academics, Mr. Pullum can write clearly and entertainingly. He is delightful.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Clear out the verbal clutter (3) – a 64-percent reduction

You should always clear out verbal clutter, because verbal clutter confuses and irritates your readers. It is the main reason why people stop reading something you have written. If you become good at clearing out clutter, you will hold readers’ attention longer.

An Example of Verbal Clutter

Clearing out verbal clutter takes less time than most people think. But it does require some patience. The best way is to proceed methodically and slowly. Here’s an example:

I saw a wordy article about how to clear a jam in a paper shredder. The article was loaded with redundancies, circumlocutions, unnecessary information, and excessive ornamentation.* I thought it would provide an instructive example.

The original article is 528 words long. I proceeded word by word and phrase by phrase, at a slow-to-moderate pace. After 15 minutes, in one pass, I had cut the length of the text by 64 percent, to 191 words.**

My Rewrite, Clearing Out the Verbal Clutter

Even if you own a high-quality shredder, and you oil and maintain it regularly, eventually you will have to clear a jam. Jams are usually easy to clear, provided you follow these steps.

Unplug the shredder and let it cool.

Plug it in and press the “reverse” button for a few seconds; the shredder may eject the jammed paper. (Don’t hold the button for longer than a few seconds; you could burn out the motor.)

If the paper does not eject, pull out the plug and use a pair of tweezers to try to gently remove the jammed paper. (Be careful: metal objects can damage the shredder blades.)

If you can’t remove the jammed paper, soak it with oil. Allow the oil to saturate the paper for about 15 minutes. Then repeat the two previous steps.

If you are still unsuccessful, refer to your owner’s manual or call for professional help.

To prevent jams, regularly oil the shredder blades, put the machine in reverse for about 15 seconds, and feed it a few sheets of paper to absorb excess oil. Remember to keep oil handy, for maintenance and for clearing jams.

The Takeaway: To hold readers’ attention, clear out the verbal clutter.

See disclaimer.

*Here’s an example of excessive ornamentation: adding “on your hands” to “you might have a more serious problem.” Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this ornament, and I do not intend to hamper the author’s style; however, ornaments should be used in moderation. In instructional text, ornamentation should be minimal or nonexistent – especially in a case like this one, in which the length is triple what it should be.

**A reduction this large is not unusual. Wordy writers always use at least twice as many words as they need; therefore a capable editor can always cut at least 50 percent on the first pass, without even working hard.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Politicians are poor role models for writers (2) – Robert M. Gates

If you want to write clearly, accurately and honestly, don’t imitate politicians. They are poor role models for writers.

For example, on September 29, 2010, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates (pictured) delivered a lecture at Duke University. During the lecture he twice referred to the oath sworn by U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines:

“...the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.”


“…a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.”

But those people have not sworn to protect “the wider society” or to defend “the people.” They have sworn to

“support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Mr. Gates’s supervisor, U.S. President Barack Obama, made the same mistake when he spoke in Oslo on December 10, 2009:

“…as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation…”

But Mr. Obama is not sworn to “protect and defend [his] nation.” He is sworn to

“preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The Takeaway: Don’t imitate politicians. They are poor role models for writers. With few exceptions, politicians are incapable of using words clearly, accurately and honestly.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A fine simile

Here’s a fine simile from James Delingpole, a literate newsman who writes for the Telegraph (UK). Mr. Delingpole uses the simile to open his October 21 blog post:

“And so it begins. With all the shamelessness of a Goldman Sachser trading in his middle-aged wife for a hot, pouting twentysomething called Ivanka, the green movement is ditching ‘Climate Change.’ The newer, younger, sexier model’s name? Biodiversity.”

The Takeaway: A well-crafted simile or metaphor can help you clarify your point.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Get to the point

Clear writing helps you make your point, but only if you get to the point before your readers flee or fall asleep.

In your first paragraph, don’t lower your credibility with puerile language, grammar errors, or poor sentence construction.

Then, try not to use too many words before you get to the point.


For example, “Cassandra” wrote a 796-word article about how to stop executives from implementing dumb communication ideas. She spent 406 words, more than half the article, describing the problem and teasing her readers with claims that her solution was magic and powerful.

Finally, at word 407, she got to her point, with “Here’s how to do it: Start by…”

I wondered how many readers were still paying attention. (I was; but of course I was not seeking content, but evaluating the article as a “how not to write” example.)

The Takeaway: If you have a point to make, make it early in the copy. Get to the point before your readers flee or fall asleep.

See disclaimer.