Monday, October 31, 2011

Mantra overload (9)

Mantra overload – the excessive use of trendy, vague expressions – is a bad habit of many corporate public relations people. The habit is especially noticeable in press releases about executive promotions. For example, an IBM press release issued last week quotes* chairman Samuel J. Palmisano on CEO-elect Virginia M. Rometty:

“She brings to the role of CEO a unique combination of vision, client focus, unrelenting drive, and passion for IBMers and the company’s future.”

In that 24-word sentence, I count five mantras: unique, vision, focus, drive, and passion. If you ever happen to have time on your hands, you can entertain yourself for hours looking for an executive appointment release that does not include at least two of those five mantras.

The Takeaway: If you intend to write clearly, do not mimic corporate public relations people. With few exceptions, they are heavy users of mantras and other evasive terms. Overuse of mantras hampers communication, damages your credibility, and dulls your mind. Use mantras sparingly or not at all. Keep asking yourself, “What do I really mean here?” Over time, this diligent habit will make your writing more precise and more honest.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown and Paul G. Henning for pointing out these instances.

See disclaimer.

*It is unlikely that Mr. Palmisano actually uttered (or wrote) those words; “quotes” are usually crafted by the public relations people.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sloppy logic

Many writers write without thinking. As a result, their writing is sloppy and their logic is sloppy. They make arguments that may appear to be logical but are not.


For example, consider the book Emotional Vampires, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D. An acquaintance of mine mentioned that the writing and logic were sloppy throughout. I bought a copy of the book and opened it at random. I was immediately rewarded with an example of sloppy logic:

“Histrionic personality has for centuries been considered primarily a disorder of women. This misperception arises from the fact that the Histrionic types most often seen in clinics are stereotypically feminine.

“There are plenty of Histrionic men as well. They tend to seek approval and acceptability more than attention. Their roles are masculine stereotypes – fifties dad, avid sports fan, joke-telling raconteur…” (Page 88)


Dr. Bernstein says it is a “misperception” to think that histrionic personality is “primarily a disorder of women.” Now, because there are only two sexes and Dr. Bernstein denies that histrionic personality is primarily a disorder of women, he necessarily claims that it is primarily a disorder of men.

But for proof, he offers only, “There are plenty of Histrionic men as well.” The word “plenty” may or may not mean a majority; therefore it is insufficient proof of his point.*

The Takeaway: If you write non-fiction, you must be diligent in your use of logic. If you are sloppy, your readers are less likely to trust you.

See disclaimer.

*To be fair to Dr. Bernstein, let us admit the possibility that a politically correct, logic-deficient editor wrote and inserted this passage, in an effort to pander to politically correct, logic-deficient readers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Do not abuse the term "access to"

Abusing the term access to has become a mania. The term has its proper uses, of course, as for example in, “I can’t get access to my email right now.” But most of the instances we see today are pompous abuses.

For example, the man who installed my wood stove said, “I don’t just do installations; I can also service your chimney, because I (pause) have access (pause) to brushes.”

Meaning that he had a brush in his truck. Whoop-de-doo. I had access to a brush, too; it was in my barn. Any doofus who has $50 in his pocket and can find his way to a hardware store has access to a brush.

When people habitually abuse access to in this pompous way, and see others abuse it in this way, they eventually begin to think that having access – any kind of access – makes a person more significant.*

Even professional writers make that mistake. For example, in Jeffery Deaver’s novel The Burning Wire, criminologist Lincoln Rhyme places significance on the fact that one suspect is “a former soldier… who might have access to weapons like a nineteen eleven Colt army forty-five.”

In fact, millions of Americans who were never in the army “have access to” such a .45, simply because they own one. And more than two hundred million more Americans “have access to” one because they can buy one by taking a few hundred dollars and a photo ID to the nearest gun shop.

The Takeaway: Don’t use the term access to in a pompous way. It will make you sound ignorant and foolish.

See disclaimer.

*As George Orwell explained, “the English language… becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The periodic sentence (5)

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 where the writer is going.

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

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a periodic sentence. However, it does make your reader work harder than a loose sentence does. In everyday writing, you should use periodic sentences sparingly if at all.

Example of a periodic sentence

Here’s an example of a periodic sentence:

“This government has decreed those who believe in the rule of law; the right to self-determination; the right to defend themselves; veterans who have or might awaken to the tyranny; those who support political candidates who oppose criminal government and those who believe killing a living being to be murder, the enemy.”


It is a 52-word sentence. The reader must read all 52 words, especially the last two words (“the enemy”) before he understands the meaning. That’s too long to make the reader wait.

The sentence is also cumbersome.

Loose version

Here’s my suggested loose version:

This government says you are its enemy if you believe in the rule of law, the right to self-determination, or the right to defend yourself; or if you believe it is murder to kill a living being; or if you support political candidates who oppose criminal government; or if you are a veteran who has awoken – or who may awaken – to the tyranny.

My version is less cumbersome, but still cumbersome.

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. But keep in mind, loose vs. periodic is not a matter of right vs. wrong. It is a matter of context; periodic sentences are good for building suspense, and many writers use them effectively in poetry, drama and oratory.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why I show you so much unclear writing – an editorial

To help writers learn to write more clearly, the writing teacher or coach must not only show and analyze examples of clear writing; he must also show and analyze examples of unclear writing.

Showing and analyzing unclear writing is especially important in times of cultural decadence; in such times, many people deliberately choose to be unclear, because it’s trendy.

The writing teacher Quintilian, who taught in Rome during the late first century A.D. (a time as decadent as our own), put it this way:

“Nor is it without advantage, indeed, that inelegant and faulty speeches, yet such as many, from depravity of taste, would admire, should be read before boys [pupils], and that it should be shown how many expressions in them are inappropriate, obscure, tumid, low, mean, affected, or effeminate; expressions which, however, are not only extolled by many readers, but, what is worse, are extolled for the very reason that they are vicious….”

The Takeaway: If you wish to write clearly, you must work diligently to avoid imitating the average man. The average man is too ignorant and stupid to speak or write clearly and too corrupted to try to learn how. He mindlessly imitates the diction of celebrities, many of whom are only semi-literate. To remind myself of these truths, I occasionally glance at a picture of celebutard Paris Hilton (shown above). Ms. Hilton has inspired millions of Americans to debase their speech and themselves.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (12)

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

Blogger POLITICO writes, "Tax hikes, by any name, are a non-starter for a party that forged its brand on the mantra of lower taxes..."

Example of a mixed metaphor

Columnist David Brooks uses the expression, "the mother of all no-brainers."

Example of a mixed metaphor

Blogger Fred Reed opines, "She [Maureen Dowd] writes as if she were fifty, a tad overweight and, having grossly overestimated her value in the meat market, missed the train. (I have a federal license to mix metaphors like that.)"

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.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Political language (3)

Recently we discussed two types of political language: the pompous euphemism and the deceptive name. Another type of political language is the unexplained slogan; a good example is, “If You See Something, Say Something,” a trademarked slogan discussed in a recent press release issued by Janet Napolitano, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Nowhere in its 500-word press release does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bother to explain what it means by “see something.” In response to this vagueness, a blogger has written a humorous essay about a few suspicious “somethings” that he has noticed about Janet Napolitano, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama, and other politicians.

The Takeaway: If you use a slogan without explaining it, your readers may respond in unexpected ways. To be better understood, explain your slogan in specific language.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Diction and the entrepreneur – an editorial

Many people believe that a businessman doesn’t need good diction in order to succeed. This belief ignores an important fact: most people judge you by your diction. Fairly or unfairly, they assume that if you are indolent in your diction you are indolent in everything.

For example, a journalist asked a venture capitalist what kind of speech or behavior marks an entrepreneur as an amateur. The venture capitalist answered, “Entrepreneurs shouldn’t overly use buzzwords to describe the business. ‘We have a cloud-enabled, big data, social graph platform...’ ”

Keep in mind, the man who gave that answer can make or break an entrepreneur who comes to him seeking funds. And yet, as his answer suggests, many of these seekers do not bother to present themselves as diligent grown-ups.

The Takeaway: People judge you by your diction. They don’t just judge your diction; they also judge your character. Need I say more?

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don’t abuse the adjective “comfortable”

The adjective comfortable has become a mania word. We writers are often tempted to snatch it and use it instead of more precise language. This is a destructive habit. As George Orwell explained,* sloppy thinking leads to sloppy language, which leads to even sloppier thinking. That is why on this blog I object so strongly to the indiscriminate use of mania words such as comfortable, issues and drive.

A recent example of the abuse of comfortable

Recently I received a direct-response email with the subject line, “One Mindset Trap You Must Overcome.” The ad includes an example of a boss who does not delegate effectively:

“He has employees, but he still insists on doing the small tasks – like running errands – because he’s not comfortable asking the college-aged student to do it.”


This is a good example of a writer using the adjective comfortable because he’s too lazy to be specific. Does he mean that the boss:

Is too timid to ask the employee to do anything?

Fears that the employee will say “whatever” or give him some other nihilistic response?

Fears that the employee will agree to do the task and then neglect to complete it?

Fears that the employee will complete the task, but so poorly that boss will have to do it over?

Or something else?

The Takeaway: Don’t hide behind the adjective comfortable. Say what you mean.

See disclaimer.

*In his famous essay on the English language, George Orwell wrote, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”