Monday, January 31, 2011

The vague antecedent (5)

A frequent error that hampers clear writing is the vague antecedent. An antecedent is a noun (a word, phrase or clause) that a pronoun refers to. Generally, the antecedent should precede the pronoun.* The antecedent should be clear, not vague.

In summary: every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun as its antecedent.


Here’s part of the setup instructions for a JVC television receiver:

When you turn your television on for the first time the interactive plug-in menu will appear. The plug-in menu helps you to get your TV ready to use by letting you set your preferences for:

• The language in which you want the onscreen menus to appear.

• Setting the TV’s clock to the correct time so your timer functions will work properly. You can choose “Auto” or “Manual” for setting the clock.

• The auto tuner setup of which channels you wish to receive.

We recommend you complete the interactive plug-in items before you start using your television.


• If you press the MENU button while setting up the interactive plug-in menu, it will skip over it.


When the reader reads that Note, he sees that the pronoun it appears twice. He assumes that the two pronouns do not refer to the same antecedent.

Having made that assumption, the reader then wonders, “what are the two antecedents, and therefore how can I restate the sentence?”

Two plausible restatements are:

• If you press the MENU button while setting up the interactive plug-in menu, the regular (everyday) menu will skip over the interactive plug-in (one-time) menu.

• If you press the MENU button while setting up the interactive plug-in menu, the interactive plug-in (one-time) menu will skip over the regular (everyday) menu.

There are many additional plausible restatements; most of them depend on what the JVC writer means by “skip over.” Does he mean interrupt or pause or abort or overwrite or something else?

The answer is more than a matter of semantics. For example, “If you press the MENU button while setting up the interactive plug-in menu, the action will pause the interactive plug-in menu” would mean that the reader could immediately resume the interactive plug-in menu.

In contrast, abort would mean that he could not immediately resume the interactive plug-in menu. And he would not know how to restart the interactive plug-in menu, or even whether it would be possible to do so.

Our poor reader is now stuck; he has no additional context to help him guess. If he wants to know what the JVC writer means, he must press the MENU button while setting up the interactive plug-in menu and see what happens – notwithstanding that the ostensible purpose of written instructions is to allow the customer to set up the equipment without having to rely on guesswork, telepathy, experimentation or divine intervention.

The Takeaway: Avoid vague antecedents. Every pronoun should have an easily identifiable noun (a word, phrase or clause) as its antecedent. Don’t make your readers guess which noun you mean. It’s bad manners and bad business.

See disclaimer.

*The English word antecedent comes from Latin for going before.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An award for conspicuously unclear English

The BBC reports “The Northern Ireland Civil Service has been given the dubious honour of a prize in the Plain English Campaign’s annual ‘Golden Bull’ awards.” In other words, the Campaign cited the Civil Service for conspicuously unclear English.

Read the full story here.

If you would like to read further about the Plain English Campaign, see this 2009 Wall Street Journal profile of Chrissie Maher, the charming founder of the campaign.

The Takeaway: Clear writing doesn’t just happen; it takes attention, empathy and diligence. Readers appreciate clear writing – at least the intelligent readers do, and they are the only readers who matter.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A cluster of dark euphemisms

We all use euphemisms occasionally. Most of us, most of the time, use them out of squeamishness. For example, a writer or speaker may say that his great uncle “passed away,” or in the currently trendy version, “passed.” Readers or listeners usually recognize that the writer or speaker means “died.”

That kind of euphemism, although silly, is usually harmless.

But many writers and speakers calculatedly use euphemisms to manipulate other people. For several examples of this darker kind of euphemism, see “The Many Euphemisms for Money Creation,” by Thorsten Polleit, Honorary Professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management.

He discusses the sustained use of manipulative euphemisms by the governors of the European Central Bank (headquarters pictured) and other “monetary-policy experts.” His analysis is interesting and instructive.

The Takeaway: It is all too easy to unconsciously use euphemisms, and even easier to unconsciously absorb the euphemisms of others – whose motives may by far from pure.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Straight talk: an example (9) – Matt Taibbi

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, by contrast, make us more aware of the evasive diction that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate it.

An example of straight talk

The American journalist Matthew C. “Matt” Taibbi (pictured) is known for his straight talk. Below is a sample from his latest book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America. In this sample he’s explaining why the governor of Pennsylvania tried to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and to whom:

Here’s yet another diabolic cycle for ordinary Americans, engineered by the grifter class. A Pennsylvanian like Robert Lukens sees his business decline thanks to soaring oil prices that have been jacked up by a handful of banks that paid off a few politicians to hand them the right to manipulate the market. Lukens has no say in this; he pays what he has to pay. Some of that money of his goes into the pockets of the banks that disenfranchise him politically, and the rest of it goes increasingly into the pockets of Middle Eastern oil companies. And since he’s making less money now, Lukens is paying less in taxes to the state of Pennsylvania, leaving the state in a budget shortfall. Next thing you know, Governor Ed Rendell is traveling to the Middle East, trying to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the same oil states who’ve been pocketing Bob Lukens’s gas dollars. It’s an almost frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country, one that perfectly encapsulates where we are as a nation.

When you’re trying to sell a highway that was once considered one of your nation’s great engineering marvels — 532 miles of hard-built road that required tons of dynamite, wood, and steel and the labor of thousands to bore seven mighty tunnels through the Allegheny Mountains — when you’re offering that up to petro-despots just so you can fight off a single-year budget shortfall, just so you can keep the lights on in the state house into the next fiscal year, you’ve entered a new stage in your societal development.

Rarely will you encounter a hedge or a euphemism in Matt Taibbi’s writing.

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.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The maniacal use of “issues” (5)

Journalists persist in their maniacal use of “issues.” A Reuters headline writer provides this especially silly example:

“One in 7 households hit by hunger issues in 2009”

Normally I avoid critiquing headlines, because headline writers often must sacrifice grammar and good diction in order to keep headlines short. But I am breaking my rule here, because the Reuters headline writer, in order to use the trendy issues, made his headline longer. I can imagine this fellow writing

One in 50 households hit by burglary issues in 2009


One in 3 college grads hit by functional illiteracy issues

The Takeaway: Don’t clutter your copy with meaningless trendy words. Your reader is unlikely to be impressed by your conformity to fashions and fads. He is more likely to conclude you are a flibbertigibbet.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Describe your topic

Even if you are writing primarily for insiders, don’t just mention your topic; describe your topic. When you describe your topic, you help non-insiders and new insiders understand the context of what you are writing about.

Example 1 – how NOT to do it

Here are the first 150 words of an insider article (a post on an insider blog):

The impact of a Federally regulated Do Not Track registry has search engines and other online advertising vendors scurrying to self regulate. What steps are these online players implementing and why is the question.

As ClickZ has reported throughout this year, the IAB – Interactive Advertising Bureau – has set up a [sic] industry group to address this situation. They have even promoted Mike Zaneis to SVP and general counsel for the IAB initiative and he has presented their case internationally.

Adwords has added retargeting options earlier this year, which was seen as a solid new service that can only be done with tracking.

The FTC has released a report which should be read by all in our space. The initial decision is coming soon, possibly before Christmas and advertisers are hoping they are perceived as nice.

“By educating industry and presenting its case in regions including Asia and South America, the IAB…”

Example 2 – better

Here are the first 150 words of a Fortune magazine editorial:

The Internet is an awesome free-for-all of services and content. It’s also a terrifying space, one where bits of information about who you are and what you’re doing continually float around like cyber flotsam and jetsam, only to be picked apart by outside parties for their own devices. As a result, privacy is an issue. But would the Internet be a better place if a national registry existed to shield users from prying advertisers?

Late last month, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz announced to a Senate panel that the commission would explore the idea of a Do Not Track list for online marketers. In theory, it would work similarly to the Do Not Call registry pushed through in 2004: users register for a list governed by the FTC or a private entity that prevents web marketers from collecting user information like say, user ISPs providers, screen size, browser version, and so…

Example 1 only mentions the idea of a Do Not Track list. It first hints but does not state that the list has already been set up, and later hints but does not state that the list has not been set up. It hints but does not state that the FTC is the federal agency involved in whatever has happened, is happening, or will happen.

Example 2 describes the idea of a Do Not Track list and states what the FTC has done so far. The example also includes historical background and some details.

The Takeaway: Even if you are writing primarily for insiders, spend a few words describing your topic. (Use direct statements; do not allude, imply, hint, skirt or pussyfoot.) Non-insiders and new insiders will understand the context. Your existing insiders will skip over the description while feeling superior. Everybody wins.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Alfred E. Kahn and plain English

If you missed it, see the inspiring New York Times op-ed piece about the late economist Alfred E. Kahn (pictured), a man who tirelessly and successfully campaigned for plain English.

The column contains pithy quotations about diction and overuse of the passive voice.

The Takeaway: Mr. Kahn famously wrote, “If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The periodic sentence (4)

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which essential information comes late. In other words, the reader has to wait a long time before he can understand the sentence.

The opposite of a periodic sentence is a loose sentence, a sentence in which all essential information comes early. A loose sentence is what we tend to think of as a normal sentence.

Grammatically speaking, a periodic sentence is perfectly acceptable; however, it makes the reader work harder.

Example of a periodic sentence

Here’s an example of a periodic sentence:

“Because whether it’s fueled by economic privilege or simply a matter of choice, the rate at which Bay Area parents, regardless of ethnicity, send their children to private schools has historically been higher than most other places in the country, say researchers who have studied the issue.”


The reader must read 40 words (up to the word “country”) before he understands the sentence.

The dependent clause “whether it’s fueled by economic privilege or simply a matter of choice” is gratuitous. Readers will assume that (unless otherwise specified) the study includes all Bay Area parents who chose private schools, regardless of their motives.

Similarly, the phrase “regardless of ethnicity” is gratuitous. Readers will assume that (unless otherwise specified) “Bay Area parents” includes all Bay Area parents of school-age children, regardless of the parents’ ethnicity.

Loose version

Here’s my suggested loose version:

Historically, a higher percentage of Bay Area parents have sent their children to private schools than have parents in most other places in the country, say researchers who have studied the issue.

In this version, the reader understands the sentence after only 25 words (up to the word “country”).

The Takeaway: Use periodic sentences sparingly, if at all, in business writing, technical writing and most other non-fiction writing. The more words the reader has to take in before understanding the sentence, the more likely he is to become confused.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (15) – Donald E. Westlake

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s a paragraph from The Road to Ruin, a comic crime novel by the late Donald E. Westlake.

He is describing a university attended by Henry, a lazy son of a rich father:

“At this time, Henry was enrolled in a huge Midwestern land grant university, thousands upon thousands of enrolled students, hundreds in every lecture hall, and all of it to cover for the school’s football team, which was the actual product being manufactured there. The football team won games, the alumni therefore gave to the university endowment, and the school sailed sunnily on.”

Mr. Westlake, a prolific author, was an able craftsman.

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.