Thursday, March 31, 2011

Affectations (3) - a list from George Carlin

The late comic George Carlin, a keen observer of language, often satirized silly affectations. For example, here’s one of his routines from the late 1980s, containing a long list of examples. Warning: adult language.

Now I’d like to begin tonight with an opening announcement. Because of the FCC, I’m never sure what it is I’m allowed to say. So I now have my own official policy. This is the language you will not be hearing tonight. You will not hear me say bottom line, game plan, role model, scenario, or hopefully.

I will not kick back, mellow out, or be on a roll. I will not go for it and I will not check it out. I don’t even know what it is. And when I leave here, I definitely will not boogie.

I promise not to refer to anyone as a class act, a beautiful person, or a happy camper. I will also not be saying, What a guy!

And you will not hear me refer to anyone’s lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word lifestyle is, all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense Attila the Hun had an active outdoor lifestyle.

I will also not be saying any cute things, like Moi? And I will not use the French adverb tres to modify any English adjectives, such as tres awesome, tres gnarly, tres fabu, tres intense, or tres out of sight.

I will not say concept when I mean idea. I will not say impacted when I mean affected. There will be no hands-on, state-of-the-art networking. We will not maximize, prioritize, or finalize. And we definitely will not interface.

There will also be no New Age lingo spoken here tonight – no support group jargon from the Human Potential Movement. For instance, I will not share anything with you.

I will not relate to you and you will not identify with me. I will give you no input and I will expect no feedback. This will not be a learning experience, nor will it be a growth period. There’ll be no sharing, no caring, no birthing, no bonding, no parenting, no nurturing. We will not establish a relationship, we will not have any meaningful dialog, and we definitely will not spend any quality time.

We will not be supportive of one another so that we can get in touch with our feelings in order to feel good about ourselves. And if you’re one of those people who needs a little space, please, go the f*** outside!

The Takeaway: Affectations may be fine for stand-up comedy. But when you are writing copy intended for serious adults, affectations impair your credibility.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stick to your point

Try to stick to your point throughout whatever you are writing: article, essay, short story, or other organized piece of writing.

It’s very easy to drift away from your point as you write. So, as you edit your work, check to see whether you did in fact stick to your point when you were writing.

Here’s an example of a writer who drifted away from his point while writing and failed to catch himself during the edit. It’s a 1355-word article about the statements of the Japanese government after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

At the beginning of the article, the author writes:

“All governments lie all the time. It is the nature of government to do so.”

In other words, you should never believe anything that any government says.

In the middle of the article, the author writes:

“…it [the behavior of the Japanese government] is also teaching us to have a healthy skepticism of the state and its proclamations.

In other words, when employees of the Japanese government speak you should watch for occasional misstatements.

At the end of the article, the author writes:

“…you must gather all the available information you can – remembering that there are those who have certain motivations for what they pronounce – and judge what’s best for yourself by yourself.”

In other words, you should assume that some (not all) government employees will allow bias to affect what they say.

Summary: The author begins by saying that it is the nature of governments in general (and therefore the Japanese government in particular) to lie continuously. He ends by saying that the pronouncements of the Japanese government are generally true but you must be on the lookout for an occasional honest error or an occasional instance of personal bias. This is a very wide range of opinion, within which the reader is left to guess where the author’s opinion lies.

The Takeaway: When you stick to your point, your writing is more persuasive. As you write, always try to stick to your point. As you edit, check to see whether you did in fact stick to your point.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Affectations (2) - “issues around”

Using the expression “issues around” is a quick way to undermine the credibility of your writing. It combines two silly affectations: (1) the abuse of the noun “issues,” which I have discussed here and here; and (2) the use of the preposition “around” in place of “about” or “concerning” or “on” or “having to do with.”

For some time, I had been planning to write a post on “issues around.” Then yesterday I spotted a trenchant piece on this affectation. It was written by Ian Peacock, a witty and insightful radio and television presenter and writer. I readily yield the floor to Mr. Peacock:

I Have Issues Around ‘Issues Around’

Someone phoned me earlier to ask me to do some media training ‘around issues around teenagers’.

I’m going to make myself unpopular among some of my clients, but what is this ‘around’ business about? And why is ‘around’ so preposterously prevalent among people in charities and in social care?

Why is it so un-PC to use the correct, precise preposition? Is using the correct preposition too strident, too controlling, too presumptuous, too macho?

I don’t have issues around the word ‘around’. I have problems with it and objections to it.

As far as I’m concerned, people who are comfortable around the preposition ‘around’ are clearly profoundly uncomfortable with making decisions and coming down off their fluffy, liberal fence.

I’m not some harrumphing Telegraph reader. I’m all for subtle language and avoiding offence. But I’m deeply unhappy around ‘around’ and hereby declare it a swear word.

The Takeaway: Do not abuse the noun “issues.” Do not abuse the preposition “around.” Especially do not abuse them together, as in the credibility-killing affectation “issues around.” Many intelligent readers will stop reading the moment they encounter “issues around.”

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Straight talk: an example (10) – Omid Malekan

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read, listen to, or view 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. This exercise 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

In this 7-minute animated video, Omid Malekan uses straight talk to demystify “quantitative easing” and the Federal Reserve System. This video has been viewed more than four million times.

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction. I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view 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, March 17, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (3)

“Most people are unable to write because they are unable to think…”
~ Henry Louis (“H.L.”) Mencken

“[T]he use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection.”
~ Edward Gibbon

“It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by then I was too famous.”
~ Robert Charles Benchley (pictured)

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Affectations (1) – “happens to be”

One of the popular affectations today is the abuse of the expression happens to be.* For example, Richard Russell, a venerable American writer and a man who probably knows better, recently wrote:

“I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community.”

Although I can’t read Mr. Russell’s mind, I have induced from 42 years of copy-editing that most people who abuse happens to be are trying to appear humble about their achievements:

“I happen to be a cardiac surgeon.”

Or about their brains:

“At the time the incident occurred, I happened to have been at Princeton.”

Or about their wealth:

“I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community.”

When the intelligent reader encounters “I live in La Jolla, which happens to be a very wealthy community,” he pauses and thinks sarcastic thoughts. For example:

“Oh, I get it. Once, when you were thinking of relocating, you threw a dart at a map of California and the dart happened to stick in La Jolla. Although you had never happened to have heard of La Jolla before, you packed your belongings into a U-Haul van and drove there. You happened to stroll up to the front window of a real-estate broker’s office and every ad in the window happened to be asking for more than $2 million. And you thought, “I guess La Jolla happens to be a very wealthy community. But fortunately I happen to be able to afford these kinds of prices, so Ill just go inside and talk to a broker.”

My rewrite

“I live in La Jolla, a wealthy community.”

The Takeaway: When you express false modesty, you invite your reader to wonder what else may be false about you. Unless he already knows and trusts your reputation, he may stop reading you. At that point, the effective clarity of your copy drops to zero. Richard Russell, with his long-established reputation, can afford the risk; you and I cannot.

See disclaimer.

*Does the expression have legitimate uses? Yes; for example, when describing a chance event: “When I pulled the first raffle ticket out of the hat, I noticed that it happened to be my sister-in-law’s ticket.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Intercept puerile error messages

In a previous post, I analyzed a puerile error message on the web site of a university library. In today’s post, I analyze a puerile error message on the web site of a for-profit company, Ragan Communications: is currently being redesigned. The page you have requested is unavailable.

Please pardon our dust. is currently being redesigned (or is already designed but hiding somewhere). Or there are so many customers buying our awesome products that they have crashed the servers…or something.

Please visit the new and take a look around. If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you can email us at [an address].

If you need customer service, please dial [an 800 number].


I’ll analyze the message by showing a bit of text and then, in brackets, how a prospective customer may (silently) react to that bit; then show the next bit and so on. is currently being redesigned. The page you have requested is unavailable.


Please pardon our dust.

[I appreciate the apology, but I would be more inclined to believe it was sincere if it had referred to my inconvenience instead of to dust, a casually inserted shopworn metaphor that looks to me like someone’s sophomoric attempt to look clever.] is currently being redesigned

[You said that before.]

(or is already designed but hiding somewhere).

[Do you mean to say that (1) Ragan Communications doesn’t know the status of its own site-redesign project; or (2) it does know the status but did not care enough about me (a prospect) to tell me about it; or (3) the fellow who writes the error messages is a narcissistic techie who uses error messages as an outlet for his poetic soul, and no adult employee edits him?]

Or there are so many customers buying our awesome products

[The use of the adjective awesome creates an almost certainly false product claim. It may be that the adolescent who wrote this error message doesn’t know what awesome means but makes up for it by using it promiscuously.]

that they have crashed the servers…or something.

[That flippant or something reminds me of the adolescent whatever. It strengthens my belief that the company is not sincere in this apology.]

Please visit the new and take a look around.

[No, thanks.]

If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you can email us at [an address].

If you need customer service, please dial [an 800 number].

(The prospect didn’t read this part; he went looking for another web site where he could purchase what he had originally intended to purchase from Ragan Communications.)*

A grown-up version

The page you requested is unavailable because is currently being redesigned. We are sorry to have inconvenienced you.

Please visit the new and take a look around. If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, please email us at [an address].

If you need customer service, please dial [an 800 number].

The Takeaway: Every bit of bad copy your company publishes can detract from the effect of its marketing efforts. Even if your marcoms don’t sound like adolescents, other employees who reach the public may sound distinctly adolescent. Find these employees and put a literate adult in charge of editing what they write.

See disclaimer.

*I am not singling out for puerile error messages. One observes this self-destructive behavior on many web sites.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The uninhabited clause (13) – Stewart Brand

When you use a lot of uninhabited clauses* – that is, when your prose contains mostly (or only) non-human subjects – you will sound academic and theoretical, as opposed to concrete and commonsensical.

A famous example

In a speech to the first annual Hackers Conference (1984), Stewart Brand (pictured) said:

Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine – too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, “intellectual property,” the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.

In that passage, there isn’t a single human subject. Who wants what? And how does Mr. Brand know that?

The Takeaway: The more frequently you use uninhabited clauses in your writing or public speaking, the more academic and theoretical you will sound. An audience of academics or environmentalists may trust what you say, but a more hardheaded audience probably won’t.** To be on the safe side, put some people in your prose. It will bring your prose down to earth and make it more accessible to worldly audiences. For more examples, see here and here.

See disclaimer.

*An uninhabited clause (my coinage) is a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

**I say this based on 44 years in business writing, including 35 years in speech writing.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A squabble over passive voice

On the Venture Capital Dispatch blog, Christopher Zinsli had some fun writing about a public squabble over passive voice. The story is amusing; so is the way Mr. Zinsli wrote it up.

The Takeaway: Have a great day.

See disclaimer.