Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gibberish (1)

Learn to recognize gibberish (unintelligible or nonsensical speech or writing) so you won’t fall into the habit of imitating it. Here are two examples from Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers, by Rita Kramer.

Examples of gibberish

Peabody College: A supervisor of student teachers says, “The issue in like teacher education today is that the real world is fragmented but we have a skill-based curriculum. That imposes constraints on your chances for eliciting creativity.” (Page 65)

Michigan State University: The head of the Department of Teacher Education says the aim of the department’s curriculum is to foster personal and social responsibility, to learn to work with others in egalitarian ways, respecting diversity and integrating everyone for the future of our country. (Page 75)


On this blog, I usually translate examples of unclear writing and speaking into plain English, even if the process requires me to do some educated guesswork. But I can’t even guess what these people are trying to say.

The Takeaway: Don’t imitate speech or writing just because the speaker or writer has an advanced academic degree. Many people with advanced academic degrees speak and write gibberish all day long.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Intercept puerile error messages (2)

In a previous post, I analyzed a puerile error message on the web site of a company that sells information services to people in corporate communications and public relations – presumably serious adults.

Here’s another example of a puerile error message. This one is on the web site of a company that advises investors on financial privacy – again, presumably serious adults. Why would serious adults want to read something like this?

You 404’d it. Gnarly, dude.

Surfin’ ain’t easy, and right now, you’re lost at sea. But don’t worry; simply pick an option from the list below, and you’ll be back out riding the waves of the Internet in no time.

• Hit the “back” button on your browser. It’s perfect for situations like this!

• Head on over to the home page.

• Punt.

A grown-up version

We’re sorry, but the page you requested does not exist on this server.

Please check the address you entered, or visit the home page of our web site.

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

The Takeaway:
The “Gnarly” error message would be appropriate on a web site dedicated to recreational activities for children. The person who wrote it has no empathy for a sober, adult audience. Check your companys web site for puerile copy. If you see any, find the employees who wrote it and put a literate adult in charge of editing what they write.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (11)

Mixed metaphors can be amusing. 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

Ian O’Doherty asks, “Are you one of those busy little worker ants who spends their day beavering away (now there's a mixed metaphor for you to savour) at their desk…?”

Example of a mixed metaphor

Robyne Young tweets, “Love a mixed metaphor. Heard today. Silly as a two bob idiot. Maybe watches are out of fashion.”

Note: “As silly as a two-bob watch” is an Australian slang expression.

Example of a mixed metaphor

Tim Case writes, “If not, the quagmire of self destruction in which societies have placed themselves will run its course until nothing of the former civilization is left, but a rotting shell of its former self. This is another natural law which will not be denied.”

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors. To understand why it is difficult, read this insightful piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Talking around a definition (2)

Many writers today, unable or unwilling to clearly state a definition, resort to talking around a definition.* If you want to write clearly and persuasively, try to avoid falling into this habit of talking around a definition.

Example of talking around a definition

A government web site about bullying went to the trouble of devoting a separate web page (“What is Bullying?”) to the definition of bullying. But the web page does not define bullying. Judge for yourself; here’s the entire text from that page:

What is Bullying?

Bullying is a widespread and serious problem that can happen anywhere. It is not a phase children have to go through, it is not "just messing around", and it is not something to grow out of. Bullying can cause serious and lasting harm.

Although definitions of bullying vary, most agree that bullying involves:

Imbalance of Power: people who bully use their power to control or harm and the people being bullied may have a hard time defending themselves

Intent to Cause Harm: actions done by accident are not bullying; the person bullying has a goal to cause harm

Repetition: incidents of bullying happen to the same the [sic] person over and over by the same person or group

Types of Bullying

Bullying can take many forms. Examples include:

Verbal: name-calling, teasing

Social: spreading rumors, leaving people out on purpose, breaking up friendships

Physical: hitting, punching, shoving

Cyberbullying: using the Internet, mobile phones or other digital technologies to harm others

An act of bullying may fit into more than one of these groups.

Those 174 words describe bullying. They provide many details about bullying. But they do not do what the title of the web page promises: define bullying.

Take another look at the footnote below. A proper definition includes (1) the name of the thing to be defined [“ewe”]; (2) the verb to be, stated or implied [“is”]; (3) a category the reader will recognize [“sheep”]; and (4) one or more modifiers [“female”] that distinguish the thing being defined from other things in the same category [e.g., a ram].

Here’s a dictionary definition of the transitive verb bully:

“Bully: To treat in an overbearing or intimidating manner.”

The Takeaway: When you have promised your readers a definition, don’t talk around a definition. Write and deliver a clear definition, or cite a dictionary definition.

See disclaimer.

*Here’s a definition of definition. “Lexical definition specifies the meaning of an expression by stating it in terms of other expressions whose meaning is assumed to be known (e.g., a ewe is a female sheep).” Source: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (4)

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
~ Blaise Pascal (pictured)

“A word about 'plain English.' The phrase certainly shouldn’t connote drab and dreary language. Actually, plain English is typically quite interesting to read. It’s robust and direct – the opposite of gaudy, pretentious language. You achieve plain English when you use the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea. You can still choose interesting words. But you’ll avoid fancy ones that have everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing.”
~ Bryan A. Garner

“Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”
~ Graham Greene

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Safety warnings

Clear writing is crucial in a safety warning. People who write safety warnings should be especially diligent. But often they are sloppy.

Here’s an example of sloppy work:


On March 31, 2011, The Weather Channel published a government “Winter Storm Warning” for the part of New Hampshire where I live. Here’s one paragraph:


In only 51 words, the author manages to commit six errors or irregularities.

First: He uses all capitals, which is rude.

Second: “Winter Storm Warning” is a misnomer – March 31 was the 12th day of astronomical spring and the 31st day of climatological spring.

Third: The author says “heavy snow” in the first sentence and “significant amounts of snow” in the second sentence. The reader wonders, “Are these two different terms for the same thing or two different terms for two different things? Does the government define these terms? Where?”

Fourth: The author says “Only travel in an emergency” when he probably means “Travel only in an emergency.”

Fifth: The author uses ellipses in a list of survival gear. The reader wonders, “Did he use ellipses deliberately and correctly, to indicate omissions from the list? If so, what survival gear did he omit, and why? Or, did he use ellipses in place of commas, just to be cute? If so, why did the government put such a frivolous person in charge of writing safety warnings?”

Sixth: The author uses the word “emergency” twice: First he tells you to “[o]nly travel in an emergency.” Then he tells you to keep an extra flashlight, food and water in your vehicle “in case of an emergency.” Is this emergency different from the emergency that had caused you to drive in spite of the storm?

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Readers depend on you.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Inverse weasel words (2)

A weasel word appears to say something but says nothing. An inverse weasel word (my coinage) appears to say nothing but says something. As you saw in a previous post on this subject, politicians use inverse weasel words to sneak things past the attention of voters. Here’s another example:

An inverse weasel word about bullying

New Hampshire statute RSA 193-F (“Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention”) begins with this definition:

“ ‘Bullying’ means a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving a written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil...”

The inverse weasel word here is “another.” This adjective insinuates that only a pupil (not a teacher, principal, or other employee of a school) can be guilty of bullying.*

Later, the language of the definition goes beyond insinuation by directly stating:

“ ‘Perpetrator’ means a pupil who engages in bullying...”

An intelligent reader may (justly or unjustly) suspect that the primary purpose of RSA 193-F was not to protect pupils from bullying, but to protect teachers, principals, and other school employees from charges of bullying.

Thanks to Brett Veinotte for pointing out the “another pupil” reference in the statute.

The Takeaway: Never use weasel words or inverse weasel words; when intelligent readers spot weasel words or inverse weasel words, they usually suspect that the author is devious.

*I am not a lawyer and this is not a legal opinion.

See general disclaimer.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Circumlocution (1)

A circumlocution is a roundabout expression. Circumlocution is the use of such expressions.

Circumlocution hurts both the writer and the reader. It hurts the writer by allowing him to write vaguely and evasively instead of precisely and directly. It hurts the reader by making it more difficult for him to determine what the writer is trying to say – or is trying not to say.

Some popular circumlocutions

I am enamored of (or with) – for I love or I cherish

I am supportive of – for I support or I advocate

I am comfortable with – for I accept or I tolerate

I am uncomfortable with – for I dislike or I disdain

The Takeaway: The more you rely on circumlocution, the flabbier your brain gets. Use circumlocutions sparingly if at all.

See disclaimer.