Thursday, September 29, 2011

Political language (2)

Political language is language that is deliberately unclear. Politicians often use political language to hide inconvenient facts. For example, as Mike Holmes points out, when Afghan soldiers or civilians shoot down a U.S. military helicopter, many U.S. politicians (and reporters who ape them) refer to the event as a “helicopter crash.”

The term “helicopter crash” deceptively suggests an accident. The accurate term is a “shoot down” or a “kill”; both terms suggest that soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan are willing and able to kill airborne members of the occupying U.S. military.

The Takeaway: If you write or talk like a politician, intelligent readers or listeners will suspect you are hiding something, even if you are not. To be taken seriously, use straightforward language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Addressing issues"

In several posts (e.g., here), I have discussed the abuse of the word issues. Today I discuss the abuse of the transitive verb address., which is often abused with issues.

For example, on September 18, 2011, I received this notice from Adobe Systems:

Update is ready to install

This update addresses customer issues and security vulnerabilities. Adobe recommends that you always install the latest updates


I will set aside the question of what a “customer issue” may be; the term is as vague as the term “health issue,” which I discussed here.

To say a software update “addresses issues” is almost certainly an understatement. During my career as a technical writer, I worked with a great many programmers; I never saw any of them write an update that merely addressed (paid attention to or dealt with) something. Their updates did more than address something; for example, they fixed a problem, improved a function, or simplified an process.

So, when Adobe Systems says it has addressed something, the company is understating what it actually did.

The Takeaway: If you write for a company, give the company credit for what it achieves. For example, if the company has fixed a problem, say so. Don’t undersell the company by using effete affectations such as saying “addressed the issue.”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Subject and predicate

One rule of grammar is that subject and predicate must agree in number; a singular subject takes a singular predicate and a plural subject takes a plural predicate.

Incorrect example

“Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues … ” The writer has used a plural subject (merits) and a singular verb (has). You can tell just from the sound that merits has is incorrect.


“Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy have been the subject of commentary for the last three issues … ” Plural subject and plural verb.

Incorrect example

“Approximately half of this first batch is chosen ... the other half are selected ... ” The writer has used a plural subject (half) and a singular verb (is) and a plural verb (are). Again, you know something is wrong just by the sound: half is and half are.


“Approximately half of this first batch are chosen ... the other half are selected ... ” Plural subject, plural verb, plural verb.

The two grammatically incorrect sentences were written by Barack Obama, when he was president of the Harvard Law Review. He made these two errors, and others, in a letter about affirmative action.

The Takeaway: Yes, your readers may be able to guess what you mean even if you use incorrect grammar. However, they will resent you for forcing them to guess and they will wonder if you are ill-educated. Learn (or re-learn) your grammar; it takes only 100 hours, less time than the average American spends watching television in three weeks.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Point of view

Many writers confuse their readers by mishandling point of view. For example, they state an opinion without clearly indicating who holds that opinion.

For example, Anonymous commented on my post, “A waiter who speaks English.” Here is his comment, with my analysis after each sentence:

Apparently, wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive.

[Without the word “Apparently,” the sentence would be a statement of the writer’s opinion (the world as seen from the writer’s point of view). With the the word “Apparently,” the sentence suggests that the writer is sarcastically expressing his disagreement with someone else’s opinion. The writer has not yet named this person or these persons.]

Linguist Steven Pinker has explained that language is used as a means to convey status.

[Does Steven Pinker hold the opinion in the first sentence; i.e., that “wishing people to express themselves in standard dialect is terribly offensive”? The writer does not make this clear.]

The paradigm nowadays is not to show you’re educated or that you have good manners but that you are “cool”.

[Is this “paradigm” Mr. Pinker’s point of view? Or is it a shift to someone else’s point of view? By using the word “nowadays,” the writer may be suggesting that Mr. Pinker’s opinion (whatever it may have been) was once valid but is now out of date.]

So people sometimes overact, which can be annoying – you do not need to impress everybody.

[The word “So” suggests that the people who use non-standard dialect in order to sound cool are the people who “sometimes overact.” However, it is not clear. Nor is it clear who is being annoyed: it is all the hearers of the cool peoples’ non-standard dialect, or only those hearers who prefer standard dialect? The writer further confuses the reader by switching into second person with “you do not need to impress everybody.” Is “you” the overacting non-standard-dialect speaker? If so, is the writer saying that it’s OK for him to annoy his standard-dialect-preferring hearers or that it’s OK for him to sound less than totally cool and thereby fail “to impress everybody” who is cooler than he is?]

My guess as to what Anonymous meant to say

People use language not only to convey information but also to declare their status. A century ago, “status” generally meant education and manners; today it generally means ignorance and uncouthness. In order to sound ignorant and uncouth, many speakers affect a non-standard dialect. Many overdo it, annoying hearers who prefer to hear standard dialect. However, these hearers must silently suffer the annoyance, because society now considers it offensive to criticize people for being (or pretending to be) ignorant and uncouth.

The Takeaway: If your copy includes more than one point of view, let the reader know when you are switching from one point of view to another. Don’t make you reader keep wondering, “Who’s saying this?” “Who’s saying that?”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (20) – Joseph Conrad

Here’s another nugget of clear, concise writing. It’s from the world-famous novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (pictured). The narrator, a steamboat pilot on the Congo River, fears that his crew of cannibals may get hungry enough to kill and eat the passengers. As he pilots the boat upriver, he reflects on the terrible power of hunger:

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps [the cannibals] too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.”

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, September 12, 2011

How Steve Jobs resigned

To resign the CEO position at Apple, Steve Jobs wrote this letter to the board of directors:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.

I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you.


This letter is wonderfully concise. In only 142 words, Mr. Jobs:

Resigns his position
Explains why
Says what he would like to do next
Recommends a successor
Predicts increased success for the company
Says he will be pleased to take part in that success
Expresses his feelings about his many years with the company

The letter also is very easy to read; it scores an amazing 72.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test (a 12-year-old could easily understand it). The typical CEO has never, in his entire career, written anything this readable.

The Takeaway: Take inspiration from Steve Jobs. Always strive to write concisely and simply. And keep getting better.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grammatical shysterism

If you are striving to write clearly, you should carefully avoid grammatical shysterism, the deceptive use of grammar. Here’s a classic example of grammatical shysterism:

WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate, interviewed a four-year-old boy on camera and then edited the interview to distort the meaning of his words. When other journalists exposed this offense, WBBM-TV issued the following statement:

“We accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made, both in the reporting and editing of the story. The video of the child should not have aired. As soon as news management identified the problem, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts. In addition, we have followed up with our employees to make sure that we all have learned from the mistakes that were made.”


When referring to the making, editing and broadcasting of the offensive video, the statement uses either passive voice:

mistakes that were made

or reflexive voice:

The video… should not have aired

When referring to what the station did after it got caught broadcasting the offensive video, the statement uses active voice every time:

We accept

news management identified

they took

we have followed up

we all have learned

The grammar suggests that a mischievous video aired itself on WBBM-TV but diligent managers at WBBM-TV immediately took steps to prevent that sneaky little video from airing itself again.

The Takeaway: Don’t slip into the habit of using grammatical shysterism; it will make you sound like a shyster.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown, a colleague and clear writer, for coining the term grammatical shysterism.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (2)

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions. Previously, I posted examples of this abuse: here are some recent examples:

“Studies have shown that every $1 investment in sanitation results in a benefit of anywhere between five to [sic for and] ten times that amount.” (Source)

“Climbing is different to [sic for from] other gravity assisted sports like snow boarding or skydiving.” (Source)

“Now obviously there are some basic ‘rules to [sic for of] the road’ that determine how people should interact in a functional civil society.” (Source)

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. It is a mark of a well-educated, well-read, careful writer. Need I say more?

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Political language (1)

Political language is language that is deliberately unclear. Politicians often use political language to hide inconvenient facts.

For example, during the U.S. military’s occupation of Iraq, U.S. citizens became accustomed to hearing and reading the political term improvised explosive device, a pompous euphemism for homemade bomb.

Most U.S. politicians (and reporters who ape them) avoid using the straightforward term homemade bomb because it reveals an inconvenient fact: Iraqi civilians are killing U.S. soldiers occupying Iraq. In other words, Iraqi civilians are doing what U.S. civilians would do to Iraqi soldiers occupying the U.S.

The Takeaway: If you write or talk like a politician, intelligent readers or listeners will suspect you are hiding something, even if you are not. To be taken seriously, use straightforward language.

See disclaimer.