Monday, December 31, 2012

Learning good English via cartoons

The website The Oatmeal displays some cartoons about good diction and correct punctuation. The cartoons are heavy-handed and often crude, but they do make their points.

For example, here’s how The Oatmeal helps us remember when to use i.e. in a sentence and when to use e.g. in a sentence.

The website also includes non-educational cartoons. One that gave me a laugh was “The evolution of our spines and speech.”

The Takeaway: In spite of their goofiness and bad taste, The Oatmeal’s educational cartoons are effective and memorable. Please note that I have no financial interest in The Oatmeal or in the sale of any product offered on the site.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to my friend Paul Henning for pointing out the The Oatmeal.

Wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (30) – Joan Didion

Here’s another great example of concise, clear writing. It’s from “Why I Write,” an article* by the incomparable Joan Didion (pictured):

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley... because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

As you can see, Ms. Didion is also a master of conversational tone. And, unlike many famous writers of both sexes, she can talk about herself without sounding narcissistic or precious.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Joan Didion. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

*Why I Write by Joan Didion, New York Times (1857-Current file); Dec 5,1976; ProQest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2005) pg. 270 [Source: Wikipedia. Also see Brain Pickings.]

Monday, December 24, 2012

More on statements of fact vs. statements of opinion

In the last post, I discussed statements of fact as opposed to statements of opinion. I showed a famous example of the persuasive power of statements of fact: an ad that David Ogilvy wrote for Rolls-Royce.

Soon after publishing that post, while shopping for a winter hat, I saw a product tag that neatly made the same point from the opposite direction. The tag, attached to a wool hat made by Pugs Gear® Apparel, contained the following eight statements (capitalization as in original): 
Stylish Design

Quality Construction
Pugs Gear® Apparel is manufactured to the highest industry standards.
Attention to every detail...
...means long-lasting comfort and fit.
pugs gear® takes the bite out of the cold!

pugs® driven
Seven and one-half of these eight statements are statements of opinion, not statements of fact.

“POPULAR FAVORITES in WINTER APPAREL” (a verb is implied) is a statement of opinion. The adjective “popular” is not quantified and therefore the statement is unverifiable. If the statement had been, for example, “the most popular winter hats” or “chosen by 64 percent of shoppers” it would have been a statement of fact, verifiable as true or false.

Likewise, “Stylish Design” (a verb is implied) is a statement of opinion, not a statement of fact. The adjective “stylish” is subjective and therefore the statement is unverifiable.

The same goes for “Quality Construction.”

“Pugs Gear® Apparel is manufactured to the highest industry standards” may be a statement of fact. It depends on whether the standards themselves are objectively stated.

“Attention to every detail...” (a verb is implied) is a statement of opinion. Although it is conceivably possible to specify and define every detail, attention is too subjective a word. In contrast, Mr. Ogilvy spoke of “60 miles an hour,” “the loudest noise,” “seven hours,” “full throttle,” “stethoscope,” and “Espresso coffee-making machine.” These are objective, highly specific words and phrases.

Likewise, “...means long-lasting comfort and fit” is a statement of opinion. How long is “long-lasting”? How comfortable is “comfort”?

The claim “pugs gear® takes the bite out of the cold!” is a figurative way of saying “pugs gear® makes the cold tolerable (or painless).” The benefit is subjectively stated and therefore this claim is a statement of opinion, not a statement of fact.

The slogan “pugs® driven” is meaningless rhetoric (as are many slogans), and therefore is no better than a statement of opinion. If the company had said, “This product was made by pugs gear®,” it would have been a clear statement of fact (verifiable). But it would probably have made the reader think, “So what? I guessed that by the company name on the tag.”

The Takeaway: There is nothing inherently wrong with using statements of opinion. However, when you are writing to persuade, you should strive to include a lot of statements of fact. Statements of fact command the reader’s attention.

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

To write persuasive copy, pack it with facts

One way to make your copy persuasive is to pack it with facts. More precisely, pack it with statements of fact. Unlike a statement of opinion, a statement of fact is verifiable: it can be checked against reality and found true or false.

For example, this is a statement of fact: “Meryl Streep has won four Oscars.” It is false. This is a statement of fact: “Meryl Streep has won three Oscars.” It is true.

This is a statement of opinion: “Meryl Streep is more talented than Katharine Hepburn was.” One could take a survey and see what percentage of people agree with that statement, but it cannot be found true or false.

When you make a statement of fact, you command the reader’s attention. He knows that: (1) your statement is true; or (2) you are mistaken or misinformed; or (3) you are lying. Like all sane human beings, the reader is more interested in reality than in opinion.

Therefore – other things being equal – the more statements of fact you can pack into your copy, the more persuasive your copy will be.

The great adman David Ogilvy (pictured) was renowned for his skill with this technique. In one famous advertisement that he wrote for Rolls-Royce, he begins with this statement of fact:
“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
He follows with more than a dozen additional remarkable statements of fact, including these:
“Every Rolls-Royce engine is run for seven hours at full throttle before installation, and each car is test-driven for hundreds of miles over varying road surfaces.”

During final testing, “the engineers use a stethoscope to listen for axle-whine.” (Italics in original.)

“By moving a switch on the steering column, you can adjust the shock-absorbers to suit road conditions.” (That was 50 years ago!)
“You can get such optional extras as an Espresso coffee-making machine, a dictating machine, a bed, hot and cold water for washing, an electric razor or a telephone.”
Mr. Oglilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man contains several additional descriptions of historic ad campaigns.

The Takeaway: If you want to write persuasive copy, pack it with facts that will guide the reader toward agreeing with your main point.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Don’t go out of your way to confuse your readers

One of the greatest sins a writer can commit is to go out of his way to confuse his readers.

It’s bad enough to confuse your readers inadvertently or accidentally. We all do it: While writing, we select a wrong word. While editing, we recast a sentence but forget to delete parts of the old sentence. While proofing, we fail to notice that a few words are missing from the middle of a paragraph.

These are all forgivable sins.

But it is an unforgivable sin to contaminate, without  a very good reason, something that is already clear and already published.

Here’s an almost unbelievable example: A few years ago the technology company Network Solutions decided to rename some of its long-established services. By doing so, the company confused and annoyed an untold number of its loyal customers.

Blogger John Graham-Cumming told the tale better than I ever could, so I refer you to him.

The Takeaway: If you ever notice that you are feeling excited and giddy because you have suddenly seen a way to take an old, humdrum phrase and make it cleverer or cuter, take a cold shower. Then go back to your desk and reconsider the change you are about to make. You need a very good reason to risk confusing readers who are familiar with the old phrase. Make the change only if you are certain it is worth the risk.

P.S.: You probably noticed that the Network Solutions marketing people used the trendy but illogical phrase “focused around.” I do hope the customer service people don’t think and write like that.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How NOT to apologize – an editorial

You’ve probably heard or read about the deceptive telephone call that trespassed the privacy of a hospital patient, whose nurse apparently killed herself for having been deceived by the call.

And you’ve probably seen the video in which the two trespassers (pictured above) apologize for the trespass. Their atrocious apology is a perfect example of how not to apologize.

The male trespasser calls the nurse’s death “the situation.”

Both trespassers insist that the trespass was not a trespass or, if it was a trespass, it was not actually wrong or, if it was wrong, they were just following orders.

The female trespasser gives a conditional apology: “If we played any involvement in her [the nurse’s] death, then we’re very sorry for that.”

The male trespasser says, “...we’re shattered. We’re people, too,” grotesquely implying that he and his accomplice are suffering as much as the dead nurse’s family and friends.

The trespassers did not offer to pay any damages.

This apology is uncouth, narcissistic and infantile.

The Takeaway: How to apologize: Don’t say anything to deny or diminish the injury. Don’t rationalize, make excuses, or try to shift the blame. Don’t make your apology conditional. Don’t imply that you are suffering as much as the persons you injured. Offer to pay damages. If you believe you are not responsible, do not apologize at all.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (16)

“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.”
~Philip Roth

“Some people meet the way the sky meets the earth, inevitably, and there is no stopping or holding back their love. It exists in a finished world, beyond the reach of common sense.”
~Louise Erdrich (pictured), Tales of Burning Love

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
~Thornton Wilder

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”
~Joan Didion

“More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
~Woody Allen

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

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Using commas correctly (4)

On November 28, I saw this notice* in the Lewisboro [NY] Ledger:
Homestead welcomes historians on Dec. 10

The John Jay Homestead State Historic Site will host a pair of historians on Monday, Dec. 10, as part of the Goodhue Lecture Series.

Kenneth T. Jackson, director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History, and Jacques Barzun, professor in history and the social sciences at Columbia University and the leading historian of New York City, will present “The Resilient Metropolis: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of New York City.”

For three reasons, I thought this notice was odd: First, although I had attended dozens of public lectures over the years, I could not recall a lecture delivered by a team of two speakers. Second, I did not recall that the famous historian Jacques Barzun had been an authority on New York City. Third, I knew that he had died in October.

I went to the website of the John Jay Homestead. There, the lecture was described as follows:
Annual Goodhue Lecture
An Evening with Kenneth T. Jackson

Presenting The Resilient Metropolis: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of New York City
Monday, December 10th
6:15 P.M. - Reception
7:00 P.M. - Presentation

Professor Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences at Columbia University, is the pre-eminent historian of New York City; a prolific author, Editor-in-Chief of the renowned Encyclopedia of New York City, and winner of virtually every important history prize in the field.

What a difference a comma can make.

The Takeaway: Even professional journalists make mistakes occasionally; you and I frequently. Always try to have your work edited by a careful reader.

See disclaimer.

*The notice can no longer be accessed online.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fred Reed on language

The quirky, outspoken American journalist Fred Reed (pictured), who calls himself “an equal-opportunity irritant,” recently published a politically incorrect essay on why English has deteriorated so much since the 19th century. If you care about this topic, you may find the essay worth reading.

The cultivated men of the times before 1900, and for that matter the women, wrote well indeed. Read the memoirs of Ulysses Grant, George Armstrong Custer, [and] John Singleton Mosby... Their prose is strong, polished without ostentation, always clear and devoid of grammatical slips. Yet these were not scholars but soldiers of the Civil War.


Why are things that once were the common property of the cultivated now regarded as fossils predating the trilobites? One reason I think is the weakening of the barriers of class. The educated cannot maintain standards of excellence when constantly bathed by television in mangled grammar and illiterate usage.... the vulgar have discovered that it is easier to reject higher standards than to meet them. By sheer numbers they prevail.


In 1850 those deficient in schooling knew their deficiencies, and wanted to learn. Today there is an actual preference for ignorance, which is regarded as authentic or democratic and morally superior to knowing anything, which would be elitist.
The Takeaway: You are likely to disagree with some points in Mr. Reed’s essay (I did, too) but agree with the main point. In any event, I welcome your comments.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Smart people are not fooled by weasel words

You and I may not like to think about it, but we know it’s true: Intelligent readers and listeners are not fooled by weasel words. If we want to get through to intelligent people, we must use clear diction and sound logic.


Three weeks before Election Day in 2012, journalist Jonathan Chait wrote about politicians’ use of weasel words, which he generously called “mushy platitudes” and “vapid, buoyant patter”:
But when you press the candidates to explain just how it is they could escape the muck that has ensnared Obama the past two years, they descend into mushy platitudes. Romney promises “leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat” – at most a mild Republican retreat from Obama’s aggressive reforms, or perhaps even a reprise of Romney’s often liberal tenure in Massachusetts. Obama, for his part, has offered up an even less plausible scenario, which is that, even though Republicans in Congress responded to his 2008 victory by becoming even more radical than they were under George W. Bush, winning a second election will beat the crazy out of them and usher in a new era of legislative compromise and good feelings.

It seems natural to conclude from all this vapid, buoyant patter that neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that, whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four. (Boldface added.)
Presidential candidates’ large staffs of ghostwriters, strategists, psychologists and propagandists create the most persuasive weasel words that money can buy. The candidates aim those weasel words at the most feeble-minded of government employees, government pensioners, government contractors, and miscellaneous government beneficiaries. This is the crowd that usually determines the outcome of an election. But even the slickest politicians with the slickest weasel words cannot convince intelligent readers and listeners like Mr. Chait that they are actually saying anything.

The Takeaway: Compared to a presidential candidate, you and I (a) have less persuasive power and (b) face more-intelligent audiences. We need to aim high, with clear diction and sound logic. Weasel words won’t work.

By the way, I thought the mixed metaphor “the muck that has ensnared,” being picturesque, was especially distracting; it was made even more distracting by the related mixed metaphor “descend into mushy platitudes” a few words later. As we have often discussed on this blog, it is difficult for a writer to spot his own mixed metaphors. Even a pro like Jonathan Chait can miss one or two. The lesson for us ordinary folks: try to have everything edited.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Jacques Barzun’s daughter found on his desk

Jacques Barzun (pictured), who died last month at the age of 104, was known worldwide as a bastion of clear English. Yesterday the Boston Globe published an article about what Mr. Barzun was doing to protect the language during the last days of his life.

The article states:
In 1964, he was named to the usage panel of the newly announced American Heritage Dictionary. This September, the dictionary editors sent a special questionnaire to Barzun, their oldest surviving panelist.

In October, when it was announced that Barzun had died, the American Heritage editors figured they would never get the questionnaire back. But his daughter found it on his desk, in a pile of unfinished business, and sent it in. He had completed all but two questions, with terse responses in a shaky hand. The questionnaire reveals a language curmudgeon fiercely protecting the clarity of English well past becoming a centenarian.
Later, the article states:
The questionnaire is a time capsule of sorts, a reminder of the central role that Barzun played in the 20th-century American conversation about English. But it also speaks to how far that conversation has progressed. In some ways, his death marks the passing of a classically informed view of language as a barometer of human nature, and the last bulwark against its decline. “Words are not simply the casual containers and carriers of thoughts and feeling, but their incarnation,” he once wrote.
The Takeaway: Please read the Boston Globe article. It thoughfully reveals Mr. Barzun’s deep love of English and his persistent efforts to arrest its decline. I also urge you to read Simple & Direct, his concise book on grammar and usage. He said the goal of the book was to “resensitize the mind to words.” That is something that every serious writer must do.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"And the Fair Land"

In 1961, Vermont Royster (pictured), then editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a Thanksgiving editorial titled “And the Fair Land.” The Journal has run this editorial annually ever since.

The prose is manly: It is elevated but not pompous; stirring but not sentimental. It is clear and straightforward.

Today, most journalists cannot write elevated, stirring, clear and straightforward prose. But I am thankful that Vermont Royster and many of his contemporaries could and did.

The editorial begins:
Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country. . .
And continues:
And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. . . .

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. . . .
And ends:
But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere – in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.
The Takeaway: I wish my countrymen a happy Thanksgiving.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vague words making a vague point about a vague topic

If you want a brief but intensive lesson in how not to write, read this web page published by the University of Minnesota. It is full of vague words that make a vague point about a vague topic. The concentration of so much vagueness leads the intelligent reader to suspect either fatuousness or flimflam.

You and I never want our readers to think that way about our writing. So, let’s analyze the web page to see what makes it so vague.

A vague topic

The topic of the page is sustainability. This is an unsettled, confusing and controversial topic. The Wikipedia definition, which attempts (but fails) to include all the disagreements, is a whopping 755 words long.

Nor are all the disagreements trivial; far from it. For example, Jeffrey Tucker, speaking for many free-market scholars, defines sustainability as “rolling back the advances of civilization by force.”

A vague point

So much for the topic of the university’s web page about sustainability. Now let’s consider the point of the page: how the university teaches sustainability.

Apparently the university does not have a department of sustainability and does not offer a major in sustainability. It does offer a minor – not in sustainability but in “Sustainability Studies.” The minor is a kind of scavenger hunt through all the colleges of the university. The university says it offers, via the minor and other programs, “a spectrum of opportunities for students to engage in the challenges of sustainability.”

I would think that prospective students’ first “challenge of sustainability” would be to persuade the university’s sustainability teachers to publish a concise, clear and widely accepted definition of the word sustainability. Failing that, the teachers’ consensus definition. Failing that, each teacher’s definition.

The prospective students’ second challenge would be to convince their parents that spending a year with the teachers who wrote that web page could somehow be worth $24,718, and that the teachers’ atrocious writing habits would not rub off on the students.

A lot of vague words

What about the text of the page? Well, it consists mostly of phrases like this:

•    sustainability studies
•    courses on the core issues of sustainability that effect [sic] all disciplines
•    undergraduate opportunities in sustainability education
•    undergraduate sustainability education offerings
•    graduate sustainability education opportunities
•    issues of sustainability
•    contributions of multiple disciplines and professions
•    sustainability education network
•    opportunities to advance sustainability education

So what was the University of Minnesota trying to achieve with that web page? My guess is that when sustainability became a mania word* the university wanted to publicly declare its infatuation with the word, to avoid looking out of step.

The Takeaway: Read the whole web page. It is a good example of pathological vagueness. Print it out and keep it in your writing reference file. If you ever catch yourself thinking vague language is always harmless, pull out the copy and read it again as a deterrent.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning, who called my attention to this example.

See disclaimer.

*A mania word (my coinage, I believe) is a fad word that writers have begun using prodigally, promiscuously and rashly. Other mania words favored by the University of Minnesota are drive, issue, passion, and self-esteem.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Credit-card companies, women, men, and language -- an editorial

Have you ever noticed this? When you call credit-card companies to report problems, the companies assign women to handle some kinds of problems and men to handle other kinds. (Is that employment discrimination?) And the women and men speak differently. For example:

On many occasions over the last two decades, I have telephoned one or another credit-card company to dispute a charge for a faulty product or to report that I had been charged twice for a purchase. In other words, my money was at stake. In all these cases,

  1. A woman answered my call and handled the problem.
  2. The woman was a Valley-girl imitator, using adolescent speech affectations such as uptalk, baby voice, and vocal fry.

On other occasions, I have called to report that a stranger had used my account number to purchase something (fraud). In other words, the credit-card company’s money was at stake. In all these cases,

  1. A woman answered my call but immediately forwarded it to a man.
  2. The man sounded mature and serious. He used no speech affectations.

The Takeaway: When it is merely your money that is at stake, the credit-card company assigns a woman who talks like a child. But when it is the company’s money that is at stake, the company assigns a man who talks like a grown-up. That is what I have observed (of course, that does not constitute a scientific survey). I leave the interpretation to you; what, if anything, do you think my observations suggest about credit-card companies’ attitudes toward women, men, and language? Please comment.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The power of specificity (2) – Banks' emails to customers

During and after Hurricane Sandy, many banks in the United States sent emails to their customers to offer special assistance. Offering special assistance during the emergency was a considerate thing to do, and the emails were thoughtful and helpful.

After receiving several such emails, I noticed that some emails were more helpful than others; they were more specific. For instructional purposes, I am comparing two of the messages. In making this comparison, I am not questioning any bank’s sincerity. I am commenting only on the writing.

Email from Bank A
The weather events of the last several days have been unprecedented, and we hope that you and your families are safe and secure.

We understand that this may be a difficult time for those living along Hurricane Sandy’s path, and many have suffered damage and loss. At [Bank A], we care about our customers and want to work with those who need help during this stressful time.

Let us know if you have questions or concerns regarding your account. We encourage you to contact us with any concerns you may have. Call the number on your card or statement, or you can reach out to [an address] on Twitter. Our associates are prepared to assist customers who may be experiencing unexpected financial challenges due to the storm.

We’re dedicated to providing immediate and ongoing relief for our customers, and are here to assist in any way we can.

Please check our website to keep updated on temporary branch closures.
Email from Bank B
Recovery efforts are underway and we want to help you with your banking needs. We will be rebating a variety of overdraft, ATM and credit card fees incurred by our customers during Hurricane Sandy in several states.

Upon request, the following types of fees will be rebated for our Consumer Banking and Business Banking customers in states impacted by the storm:

•    Overdraft fees, including sustained overdraft fees

•    Overdraft protection line of credit transfer fees

•    Credit card late fees

•    Foreign ATM fees (charged by [Bank B]; other banks’ fees not included)

The rebates will be offered to [Bank B] customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. They will be applied to fees for transactions posted to the account on October 29 and October 30.

Please stop by your local branch or contact us at the numbers listed below for assistance with a rebate. (Note: for credit card late fee rebates, please contact the consumer number listed below.)

Consumer inquiries: 800-xxx-xxxx
Small Business inquiries: 800-xxx-xxxx

We appreciate your business and please stay safe.

Bank A spent most of its words on general statements of sympathy and general statements of available assistance. That’s good. But Bank B spent most of its words on specific forms of available assistance. That’s better. Keep in mind, Bank A may in fact have been offering more assistance or more forms of assistance than Bank B; but if so, it doesn’t show in the email.

The Takeaway: Once again: I am not questioning any bank’s sincerity. I am using these examples to illustrate the power of specificity.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (13)

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.

Examples of mixed metaphors

Nicholas Carlson, writing in Business Insider about Facebook’s quarterly earnings meeting, says:

“We’ll have live, wall-to-wall coverage on the earnings, breaking out all interesting angles.” (Emphasis added.)

The National Post reports:

“There are lots of reasons for Ford to want to be an MPP, and some for the Tories to wish him to be so, but caution is absolutely warranted – especially since Toronto (and surrounding area) is absolutely must win for the PCs. They lost the last election by bombing out there despite virtually matching the Liberals in overall popular support. A loose cannon firing madly from the hip (mixed metaphor, yes) during the next campaign, especially in the GTA, can’t be something Hudak and his team would approach lightly.” (Emphasis added.)

A Kentucky judge writes:

“Such news of an amicable settlement (has) made this Court happier than a tick on a fat dog because it is otherwise busier than a one legged cat in a sand box and, quite frankly would have rather jumped naked off a twelve foot step ladder into a five gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two week trial of the herein dispute, a trial which, no doubt would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory.” (Emphasis added.)

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, November 5, 2012

Good composition (1) – Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell (pictured) is an American economist, social theorist and political philosopher. Unlike most economists, social theorists and political philosophers, he is a good writer. One thing I especially like about his writing is his straightforward composition.

A good example is Mr. Sowell’s October 30, 2012 article, “ ‘Cooling Out’ the Voters.” He starts with an interesting fact about confidence men:
Confidence men know that their victim – “the mark” as he has been called – is eventually going to realize that he has been cheated. But it makes a big difference whether he realizes it immediately, and goes to the police, or realizes it after the confidence man is long gone.

So part of the confidence racket is creating a period of uncertainty, during which the victim is not yet sure of what is happening. This delaying process has been called “cooling out the mark.”
Then he makes a clear transition:
The same principle applies in politics.
Then he introduces his first example from politics: how Bill Clinton, who was U.S. President from 1993 to 2001, used the “cooling out” process on the voters. The example begins:
When the accusations that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton first surfaced, he flatly denied them all. Then, as the months passed, the truth came out – but slowly, bit by bit.
After he completes this political example, Mr. Sowell introduces his second political example, which features incumbent U.S President Barack Obama.
We are currently seeing another “cooling out” process, growing out of the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11th this year.
Mr. Sowell explains why Mr. Obama is using the “cooling out” process:
The White House had to know that it was only a matter of time before the truth would come out. But time was what mattered, with an election close at hand. The longer they could stretch out the period of distraction and uncertainty – “cooling out” the voters – the better. Once the confidence man in the White House was reelected, it would be politically irrelevant what facts came out.
Then he completes the Barack Obama example with additional detail.

The Takeaway: I’m sure you have noticed that some articles are especially easy to read – almost effortless. Whenever you notice that you have quickly and easily finished reading an article, take a few minutes to look it over again. You will observe that it features not only good diction but also good composition. It flows smoothly from beginning to end. If you keep looking over well-composed articles, your own composition skills will steadily improve, via unconscious imitation. This is an easy way to improve your writing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Avoiding redundancy (5)

Here are three redundancies that you often hear and sometimes read:

MLB baseball

MLB is an acronym for Major League Baseball, the name of the professional baseball league that consists of teams that play in the American League and National League. Therefore, when you say “MLB baseball,” you are actually saying “Major League Baseball baseball.”

PIN number

PIN is an acronym for personal identification number. Therefore, when you say “PIN number,” you are actually saying “personal identification number number.”

And et cetera

Et cetera is Latin for and others. So when you say “And et cetera,” you are actually saying “and and others.”

The Takeaway: Whether you are speaking or writing, be careful to avoid redundancy. If you use a lot of redundancies, your intelligent listeners or readers may conclude that you are ill-educated, stupid or careless.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Safety warnings (4) – Halloween masks

A convenience store posted a Halloween-related safety warning on the front door:
“For the safety of our customers and employees, please remove your masks before entering store.”
The sentence suggests that if a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a Halloween mask, he may harm customers or employees. But the sentence doesn’t say how; it is vague.

Let’s attempt a rewrite.

Our first task is to guess what the writer meant but did not say. Which of the following did he mean?

1.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may be frightened by the mask and have a heart attack.

2.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may fear that the person behind the mask is really an armed robber, and the customer or employee may have a heart attack or may be injured while running or diving for cover.

3.    A customer or employee may be carrying a concealed pistol, may see the masked trick-or-treater enter the store, may think he is an armed robber, may hastily draw his pistol to shoot him, but may shoot a customer or employee standing near the “armed robber.” (Remember, the writer mentioned “the safety of our customers and employees,” not the safety of the visiting trick-or-treater.)

Those are all unlikely occurrences, but #3 is probably the least unlikely of them.

But if the writer meant something like #3, he has made a weak appeal to the trick-or-treater. Most people are more afraid to be shot than to see someone shot. Therefore the writer really meant:
“For your safety, please remove your mask before entering the store. If you wear your mask in the store, someone may think you’re a robber and shoot you.”
I suspect that the writer was unconsciously afraid to be that specific. He may have been afraid to upset hoplophobic customers. Or perhaps there are statutes that prohibit specificity (I am not a lawyer and I do not know).

There is also a question about height: certainly a six-year old trick-or-treater in a mask would not look like a potential armed robber. Was the sign intended for him, too?

And there are more questions, but we need not waste time on them. The point is made: the writer did not think at all, in the sense of conscious, rational thought. Careless writers usually snatch at the first words that come to mind (often clichés). Then, without editing or proofreading, they publish what they have written. And force their readers to guess.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Unless there are prohibitions against specificity, make your warning specific. Here’s a good example of a specific warning.

See disclaimer.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun, R.I.P.

Jacques Barzun (pictured) , who died Thursday night at the age of 104, was an American cultural critic and historian. He spent his long career entirely at Columbia University, holding positions from lecturer to dean of faculties. He wrote numerous essays, reviews and books on history, culture, education, music, and the intellectual life. He published a “surprise bestseller,” From Dawn to Decadence, at the age of 92.

Among working writers, he is also known for Simple & Direct, a concise book of grammar and usage. Mr. Barzun said he wrote the book to “resensitize the mind to words.” He achieved that goal with a great many writers, to our lifelong benefit.

The Takeaway: Farewell to Jacques Barzun, a peerless teacher of writers.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Unintentional hedging (5) – “kind of” and “pretty much”

Unintentional hedging – the unconscious use of kind of, pretty much and other hedges – is a bad habit that is all too easy to fall into. First, you start unwittingly imitating other people’s use of hedging. Second, over time, you hedge more and more frequently. Third, eventually you start hedging in highly inappropriate situations – often damaging your credibility.

Here are three examples of highly inappropriate situations:

Example 1

On a quarterly earnings conference call with analysts and investors, the president of Corus Television says, “So we are kind of launching each new season...” and “We have a third season already kind of in production...” (Boldface added) (Source)

Analysis: The president sounds like he is not sure whether his company is launching something and not sure whether the “third season” of something is in production yet. A president should be sure of these matters, especially during an earnings call.*

Example 2

In a Discovery Channel program about medieval instruments of torture, the male co-host says (00:58) the strappado was “kind of diabolical.” His enunciation is babyish; for example, he pronounces “going to” as “geh.” The female co-host informs us (01:24) that someone hanging from the strappado with his shoulder joints about to be ripped apart would be feeling “pretty much incredible pain.” Boldface added)

Analysis: These two putative adults sound like little children playing with toy models. They trivialize the agony of thousands of innocent people.

Example 3

Simona Suh (pictured), an attorney for the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), suggests that Meaghan Cheung, an SEC branch chief, decided not to investigate Bernie Madoff, the biggest crook in Wall Street history, because the whistleblower was “kind of condescending.” (Boldface added) (Source: No One Would Listen, page 156)

Analysis: Ms. Suh, blithely speculating about her boss’s emotions, sounds like a little girl pretending to be a lawyer. She wittingly or unwittingly suggests that Ms. Cheung actually passed up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity merely for the childish reason that she vaguely disliked the man who was trying to hand her the opportunity.

The Takeaway: If you flippantly use the hedges kind of and sort of while you are discussing a grim, serious or weighty topic, you will sound like you are ignorantly trivializing the topic. You will sound like a child. Take preventive action: Record some of your speeches or conference calls (don’t break any laws). Listen to the audio or have it transcribed. If your hedges seem unconscious, begin trying to consciously catch yourself hedging. If you can catch yourself, you can break the habit.

Thanks to investor relations expert Paul G. Henning for contributing to this post.

Previous posts on this topic: (1), (2), (3), (4).

*For readers unfamiliar with investor relations: Quarterly earnings conference calls are not casual conversations. Normally, executive teams prepare by reviewing the transcript of the last quarterly call, then scripting their opening remarks for the coming call, and then rehearsing the remarks. They also write and rehearse the answers to all likely questions and even some merely possible questions. Preparation takes a week or longer. On the call, analysts and investors ask probing questions and expect straightforward answers. Management expertise is one of the top reasons professional investors buy the stock; ambiguous, evasive or hedged answers can reduce their confidence in management and their view of the stock.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (2) – Joseph Mitchell

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a skilled and diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer was Joseph Mitchell (pictured). Here is an example of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful style:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or spilt sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
In an article about Joseph Mitchell, William Zinsser analyzes that paragraph:
Any Joseph Mitchell fan would recognize that opening paragraph as his and nobody else’s: the plain declarative sentences, the leisurely accretion of detail, the naggings of mortality, and the promise of renewal through the sight and smell and grateful consumption of food brought from the sea by old-fashioned toil and cooked by old-fashioned methods. The title of the piece, “Up in the Old Hotel,” is no less revealing of the author—a man drawn to old places and old people—and it also hints at a mystery. We are about to be taken on a journey.
Even if you are not particularly interested in the life and works of Joseph Mitchell, I recommend you read Mr. Zinsser’s entire article for inspiration: a great non-fiction writer writing about an even greater non-fiction writer. By the way, Mr. Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well, a book that has helped many thousands of writers improve their skills.

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 (sample here) 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.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning for pointing me to the article and for introducing me, years earlier, to the works of Joseph Mitchell.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Straight talk: an example (14) – Sinclair Lewis

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

The American novelist Sinclair Lewis (pictured, AP photo, 1943) was the only person who refused the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a thoughtful letter to the prize committee, he stated the reasons for his refusal. Here is an excerpt:
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
The Takeaway: We are often 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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (15)

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. ~George Orwell

“Today many whose goal once was the discovery of truth are now [2010] paid handsomely to hide it.”
~Paul Craig Roberts

“Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.”
~William S. Burroughs

“The whole purpose of culture is to get you to found your ethics on lies.”
~Stefan Molyneux (pictured)

“...dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race...”
~Donald E. Westlake

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

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (3)

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 (here and here) of this abuse. Here are more examples:

“How is cyberbullying different to [sic for from or than] other forms of bullying?” (Source)

“But development experts say there is a dark side to [sic for of] some ostensibly ‘green’ market initiatives: the appropriation of resources for biofuels production, carbon offsets, ecotourism and so on can have devastating consequences for local people.” (Source)

“Melissa Disney is... a distant relative to [sic for of] Walt Disney.” (Source)

“A 5-star Hotel that complies to [sic for with] all the standards” (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.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writing skills require maintenance

A new study shows that the readability of legal briefs significantly declined between 1969 and 2008. The study suggested that the lawyers believed their writing was not bad enough to affect the results of their cases and that they saw “no benefit to the time-consuming and difficult task of changing their writing styles.”

I would add: The lawyers, having decided not to do anything to improve their writing, wrongly assumed that their writing would not deteriorate because of that decision. They did not realize that all kinds of skills deteriorate unless maintained. This is why, for example, musicians practice every day of their lives.

The Takeaway: Like every American, you hear and read thousands of words of bad English every day. Unless you apply a little conscious effort, you will unconsciously assimilate more and more of that bad English as time goes by. Eventually you will sound indolent, effeminate, semi-literate and childish, like most Americans today. That may be good enough for Boobus Americanus. However, you and I are writers; it is not good enough for us. We have pride of craftsmanship.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for pointing out the article about the study.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

If you write "the equation," state the equation

Most people who like to write about “the equation” never state the equation they’re writing about. Here are a few examples:

This Bloomberg article about bond trading quotes a banker: “Now, at least part of the equation that favored Bush is changing.” But neither the banker nor the reporter states the equation, specifies the part that is changing, or states how that part is changing.

It gets worse: Here’s an organization that devotes a web page to “a major program” for “Changing the Equation.” But the organization does not state the equation that the major program is expected to change – much less the change(s) that the major program is expected to make.

But it gets even worse than that: There’s an organization that calls itself “Change the Equation.”

However, Change the Equation does not state the equation that Change the Equation presumes to change, or how Change the Equation presumes to change the equation.*

And possibly worst of all: ExxonMobil, which employs 14,000 scientists and engineers, all of whom know what an equation is, has joined the poor innumerate souls over at Change the Equation. ExxonMobil may have already picked up some bad habits from the relationship: Like Change the Equation, ExxonMobil states no equations or changes in equations when talking about Change the Equation.

The Takeaway: Writing about an equation without stating the equation is flimflam. If you mean situation, write “situation,” not “equation.” If you mean rules, write “rules,” not “equation.” Whatever you mean, write the word for it; don’t write “equation.” If you don’t know what an equation is, don’t sabotage your credibility by using the word equation.

See disclaimer.

*One full equation does appear on the organization’s web site: “And remember, 10 points roughly equals a grade level’s worth of learning.” However, it does not appear to be the equation. And on the bottom of the home page, a posed photograph shows parts of two equations on a chalkboard.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The backloaded sentence

Andrew McAfee has published an article titled “When Did Yoda Start Writing CEO Speeches?” The article explains why CEOs abuse the backloaded sentence (a sentence in which the writer makes the reader wait for important information until the end of the sentence). Here’s an excerpt:
In standard English the subject usually comes before the verb: the boy ran up the hill. One of the reasons Yoda sounds so otherworldly is that he often inverted this: run up the hill the boy did. A lot of business folk seem to be under his influence these days. Instead of saying “Our costs are rising” they’ll say “Things are not great right now, from a cost perspective.”

What’s going on here, I suspect, is that they know the overall sentiment they want to convey. In this case, it’s not a good one; costs are rising. So on the fly they construct a sentence that leads with the sentiment (things are not great) and backloads with the reason why (from a cost perspective).
The Takeaway: The backloaded sentence is not inherently bad; for example, you can use it occasionally for emphasis. However, it is bad to abuse it, as in the example above. By the way, notice that Andrew McAfee, like Seth Godin and Kyle Wiens, judges people’s character by their language. So do all intelligent readers (although the more sentimental ones deny they do). Always write for the intelligent reader, not the stupid reader. The stupid reader won’t know or care whether your writing is good or bad.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A clear and concise statement of surgery prices

As you probably know, U.S. health care providers make it difficult or impossible for a patient who needs surgery to learn the price of the surgery in advance. (Article)

It is refreshing to see an exception: the Surgery Center of Oklahoma. Here are the Center’s prices and the exceptions to those prices, clearly and concisely stated.


This example proves that clear and concise writing is not an impossible goal, even in medicine. Even in the U.S. You may object that it is easier to write clearly and concisely about the Center’s pricing because the Center’s pricing model is simpler than the pricing model of most American health care providers. True, but that is exactly the point: all concise writing begins with clear thinking. U.S. medical pricing is difficult to describe clearly because U.S. medical pricing is a mess. U.S. medical pricing is a mess because nitwits have allowed it to become a mess.

The Takeaway: If at all possible and practical in your life, avoid writing for nitwits. The longer you are exposed to them, the more your writing skills will deteriorate.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (1) – Dava Sobel

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a highly skilled and highly diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer is Dava Sobel (pictured), author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

Ms. Sobel has a straightforward, slightly understated style that makes you feel that the story is effortlessly telling itself. For example, in the first chapter of Longitude, she summarizes the history of latitude and longitude measurements, from ancient times to the Age of Exploration. She explains that it was relatively easy to determine latitude with adequate precision. All you needed was the sun or stars.

Longitude, however, was nearly impossible. A precise reading of longitude would require a navigator to know both the local time and the time at the home port. In other words, solving the problem of longitude required a clock that kept good time during a voyage:
Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature encountered en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock’s lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure, or the subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain of the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake – they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.
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 (sample here) 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.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A digression: writers, pens and typewriters (1)

Apparently C. S. Lewis did not use a typewriter:

Neither did Albert Einstein:

Roald Dahl did not use a typewriter or computer:

 Martin Amis apparently does not use a typewriter or computer:

But H. L. Mencken used a typewriter:

So did E. B. White:

So did Ernest Hemingway, who said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

P. G. Wodehouse used manual typewriters to write more than 90 books:

Donald E. Westlake used manual typewriters to write more than 100 books. His favorite typewriter was a discontinued model, so he kept several specimens on hand for spare parts (source):

The Takeaway: Keep writing.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Straight talk: an example (13) – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

The American author F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured) received a letter from Frances Turnbull, an eager young writer, seeking his opinion of her work. Mr. Fitzgerald, who was a friend of Miss Turnbull’s family, replied with a “somewhat harsh but admirably honest” letter. It begins: 
November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.
It continues in the same tone. But in the P.S., Mr. Fitzgerald encourages her:
I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent – which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.
Read the full letter and more background here. You may want to keep some Kleenex handy.

The Takeaway: We are often 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, September 13, 2012

Mr. Clarity’s vacation

My wife and I recently took a 5-day trip to Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine. The trip was enjoyable and relaxing. I was off-duty, but I couldn’t help noticing two things:

A rare error at the art museum

At the Portland Museum of Art, the information card next to Winslow Homer’s Artists Sketching in the White Mountains reads in part, “The practice of plein-air painting was a basic tenant [sic for tenet] of [a certain school of art].” Even in this age of careless writing, museum staffs rarely make that kind of mistake.

A company with a pompous tagline

On the Portland waterfront is a fishing company called “North Atlantic, Inc.” The company’s tagline is “Innovative Seafood Solutions.” My first impulse was to telephone the company and say that I had a refrigerated tractor-trailer full of frozen haddock, and the compressor had conked out, and the load was melting – and ask if the company had a solution for my problem. But I figured the company was probably tired of jokes like that.

The Takeaway: Enjoy your day.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The costs of unclear writing

We all know – at least intuitively – that clear writing promotes efficiency and unclear writing impedes it. Here’s an article from Northern Ireland about some clear and unclear government writing samples and a couple of estimates of the costs of unclear writing. The article stars Chrissie Maher (pictured), a famous U.K. advocate of the use of plain English.

Notes for U.S. readers: “Stormont” is shorthand for the government of Northern Ireland. One British Pound (£) equals approximately $1.59 as of this morning.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
In the 1980s Royal Mail postal redirection forms had an 87% error rate and cost £10,000 a week to reprocess. They were rewritten using plain English principles and the postal service estimated that introducing a more clearly worded form saved it £500,000 in the first nine months.
The Takeaway: This is just one example of how the use of clear writing can increase efficiency. When corporations and governments focus on better writing, the gains are typically substantial.

See disclaimer.