Monday, May 30, 2011

The perversion of “judgment” and “judgmental”

In the last decade or two, we have witnessed the widespread perversion of the words judgment and judgmental.

The late American columnist Joseph Sobran once said that the word judgmental sums up the age we live in:

“Everything [is getting] exponentially worse. Worse cubed. It’s all summed up in the word judgmental. This idiotic word says it all: the final censure of a relativist age. It’s wrong to say anything is wrong…. Can it be an accident that back when people were more judgmental, they didn’t shoot each other quite so often? It may seem paradoxical, but it’s quite natural. Simple, even. When you have commonly accepted moral standards, you don’t usually need to resort to force.”

For a memorable example of the perversion of judgment and judgmental, see this blog post by Karen De Coster, a businesswoman of high intelligence and good judgment. She describes how Planet Fitness, an American chain of fitness centers, uses the word judgment in a deceptive advertising campaign – deceptive because it makes a promise that cannot be kept.

The Takeaway: Don’t embarrass yourself by perverting judgment or judgmental. Your intelligent readers may judge you on it. They may – fairly or unfairly – conclude that you are idiotic or immoral.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don’t be coy

Don’t be coy; if you want to say something, say it. And include enough detail to satisfy your readers.

Here’s an example of coy writing.


The website of UPS contains a page titled “Photo ID Requirement at Retail Shipping Locations.” The first three paragraphs are:

The safety and security of our customers, business partners, and employees is of utmost concern. Our approach is a multi-layered approach to security, implementing additional security precautions to protect people, shipments, or our facilities.

As a result, UPS is enhancing security measures around shipments that originate at retail shipping locations worldwide.

Effective December 7, 2010, consumers who originate and tender a shipment to any retail shipping location will be required to show a government-issued photo ID as a form of identification. The photo must match the person tendering the shipment.


UPS does not say why it is demanding to see “government-issued photo ID.” In the first paragraph, the company coyly alludes to “safety and security,” with no explanatory detail. In the second paragraph, it makes an illogical transition (“As a result”). And in the third paragraph, it finally gets to the point and reveals (but in coy passive voice) that it is demanding to see “government-issued photo ID.”

Nowhere on the page, which contains 225 words of text, does the company explain what perils (if any) the ID will protect us from, and how the ID will protect us from those perils. Readers have good reason to be skeptical; for example, they remember that the 9-11 hijackers showed “government-issued photo ID.” And they showed it to professional ID-checkers at airports – not counter clerks at UPS Stores.

So the intelligent readers wonder:

Precisely what is UPS trying to protect us from – or pretending to try to protect us from?

The Takeaway: When you are writing for a business or other organization, don’t be coy. Remember that words such as safety, security, quality, service, value, dependability and sustainability mean nothing by themselves. Your readers need to see further detail to understand what you are doing with these words. Give them that detail. If you are demanding something from your customers, tell them precisely why you are demanding it. If you don’t, they may go to your competition. And if the government forced your organization to demand it, just say so. Write like a serious adult, not a coy schoolgirl.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Think about the words you use (1)

We writers, like most of our neighbors and friends, often use words without thinking about them. But we are writers; therefore we should think about the words we use. We should pay closer attention than most people do.


For pedagogical purposes, I chose an example that comes at you from an unexpected direction.

Eric Peters, a columnist, writes:

“The question isn’t whether you’re a liberal or conservative.

“Who can say what either of those labels means anymore? Like ‘Christian,’ a liberal (or a conservative) can be anything he wants to be and still claim the label.

“The question, I think, is whether you’re an authoritarian.

“It is a question that neatly cleaves one group of people from another. There’s no hedging, no getting around the central thing – which is: Do you – or don’t you – support using force to compel other people to do what you want them to do? If you do, then you are an authoritarian. It does not matter whether your desire to control others is based on ‘liberal’ goals or ‘conservative’ ones.

“To your victims, the defining thing is force.” (Emphasis in original.) (Full essay here.)

This blog is about writing, not politics, so I don’t wish to comment on the politics of the example. I do wish to point out that Mr. Peters has written a thought-provoking essay about two words we use too casually.

I believe we writers should be constantly challenging ourselves. One technique I use, several times per day, is to ask myself:

“How clear will this be to my reader? How can I make it clearer?”

The Takeaway: Think about the words you use. Jacques Barzun suggests you “resensitize (your) mind to words” and always “have a point and make it by means of the best word.”

While writing this post, I looked up these words: likely, clear, pedagogical and direction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (18) – Rita Kramer

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s a passage from the last chapter of Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers, by Rita Kramer (pictured).

The most prestigious of [the ed schools] are largely concerned with academic reputation within the university setting, competing for funds with the professional schools of law and medicine, and cranking out enormous amounts of research, much of it trivial, with much faculty time and energy going into writing grant proposals and designing model projects. Little of this helps the classroom teacher.

The worst of the ed schools are certification mills where the minimally qualified instruct the barely literate in a parody of learning. Prospective teachers leave no more prepared to impart knowledge or inspire learning than when they entered.

In between these extremes there stretches a wide range of programs, most of which have in common a set of required courses on methods of teaching and theories of learning that are deadly dull. (Pages 220-221)

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Definition: a good example

In previous posts, I have discussed using definitions to help our readers understand what we write. Here’s an example of how to write a definition.


From “The Silence of Institutions,” a column by Butler Shaffer (pictured), a teacher and author:

In short, an institution is a system that has become its own reason for being, with people becoming fungible resources to be exploited for the accomplishment of collective ends.

Mr. Shaffer’s definition fits the classical form of a lexical definition (source: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia). The form includes:

(1) the name of the thing to be defined [“institution”];

(2) the verb to be, stated or implied [“is”];

(3) a category the reader will recognize [“system”]; and

(4) one or more modifiers [“that has become its own reason for being, with people becoming fungible resources to be exploited for the accomplishment of collective ends”] that distinguish the thing being defined from other things in the same category [e.g., a railroad].

The Takeaway: When you owe your readers a definition (either because you have promised one, or because your readers will need one in order to understand your point), write and deliver a clear definition, or cite a dictionary definition.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Say what you mean and mean what you say (1)

Years ago, my doctor (I’ll call her Carol) told me my blood pressure was too high. She suggested a better diet and more exercise.

I asked, “What blood pressure should I aim for?”

“The lower the better,” she said.

I asked, “Do you mean that literally?”

She said, “Yes. The lower the better.”

“But isn’t it true that blood pressure can become too low?”

“No,” she lied.

Analysis: Carol’s first answer to my question was too casual for the context (a doctor advising her patient). When I challenged the casual answer, she should have explained herself; for example: “I was using shorthand. What I meant is that you want your blood pressure to be as low as you can get it, unless you start experiencing dizziness. However, you are unlikely to get your blood pressure that low.” But instead of doing that, she retreated into a lie. Casual answers were part of Carol’s operating style. She appeared to be unwilling to behave professionally; for example, she wore sandals to work and took personal phone calls while examining patients.

Epilogue: Shortly after the blood-pressure discussion, I switched to another doctor. A year or two later, I heard Carol had been fired. I didn’t know if it was true, but it would not have surprised me.

The Takeaway: In casual conversation, we sometimes speak before we think. When we do that, what comes out of our mouths is usually nonsense. The nonsense is usually harmless, because the goal of casual conversation is entertainment, not communication. But in a formal discussion, we should think before we speak. We should say what we mean and mean what we say. People depend on us.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 9, 2011

George Carlin on euphemisms (1)

The late comic George Carlin (pictured), a keen observer of language, had a lot to say about euphemisms. For example, here’s a transcript of a portion of one of his routines from the late 1980s.

I don’t like words that hide the truth; I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms, because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it.

And it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that. There’s a condition in combat – most people know about it – it’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum – can’t take any more input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap.

In the first World War, that condition was called shell shock.

Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables: shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was 70 years ago.

Then a whole generation went by, and the second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now; takes a little longer to say; doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock.

Shell shock. Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now.

Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about 16 or 17 years. And thanks to the lies and deceit surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen, and the pain is completely buried under jargon.

Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ll betcha if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam Veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. (Ovation.)

The Takeaway: Every euphemism falls somewhere in the spectrum between polite forbearance and malicious deceit. As a writer, you need to know, at all times, where you are in that spectrum. I won’t presume to tell you never to deceive, but as a writing coach I have a duty to tell you not to deceive unintentionally. As Oscar Wilde quipped in an analogous context, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (17) – Theodore Dalrymple

Here’s another good example of clear, concise writing. It’s from an essay titled “The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris,” by Anthony (A.M.) Daniels (pictured), a retired British medical doctor who writes as Theodore Dalrymple:

It was just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in a neighborhood where a tolerably spacious apartment would cost $1 million. Three youths – Romanians – were attempting quite openly to break into a parking meter with large screwdrivers to steal the coins. It was four o’clock in the afternoon; the sidewalks were crowded, and the nearby cafés were full. The youths behaved as if they were simply pursuing a normal and legitimate activity, with nothing to fear.

Eventually two women in their sixties told them to stop. The youths, laughing until then, turned murderously angry, insulted the women, and brandished their screwdrivers. The women retreated, and the youths resumed their “work.”

A man of about seventy then told them to stop. They berated him still more threateningly, one of them holding a screwdriver as if to stab him in the stomach. I moved forward to help the man, but the youths, still shouting abuse and genuinely outraged at being interrupted in the pursuit of their livelihood, decided to run off. But it all could have ended very differently.

Several things struck me about the incident: the youths’ sense of invulnerability in broad daylight; the indifference to their behavior of large numbers of people who would never dream of behaving in the same way; that only the elderly tried to do anything about the situation, though physically least suited to do so. Could it be that only they had a view of right and wrong clear enough to wish to intervene?

In 247 words, Mr. Dalrymple explains why crime has grown so fast in Paris (and throughout the Western world) and why it will continue to grow as the older generation dies off.

The Takeaway: A relevant anecdote, clearly and concisely told, can make your point.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Safety warnings (2)

Clear writing is crucial in a safety warning. People who write safety warnings should be especially diligent.

For example, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal discusses the clarity of medicine labels. Many patients don’t understand them, and the results of their misunderstanding are sometimes life-threatening.

The Takeaway: Read the article; it demonstrates how easy it is for a writer of safety warnings to incorrectly assume that what he wrote will be clear to all readers.

See disclaimer.