Monday, January 30, 2012

George Carlin on euphemisms (4)

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. (Warning: profanity.)

And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn’t that a typically American twentieth-century phrase? Bloodless, lifeless. No pulse in one of them. A senior citizen.

But I’ve accepted that one, I’ve come to terms with it, I know it’s here to stay, we’ll never get rid of it, that’s what they’re gonna be called so I’ll relax on that, but the one I do resist, the one I keep resisting is when they look at an old guy and they’ll say, “Look at him, Dan, he’s 90 years young.”

Imagine the fear of aging that reveals. To not even be able to use the word old to describe someone, to have to use an antonym. And fear of aging is natural, it’s universal, isn’t it? We all have that, no one wants to get old, no one wants to die, but we do. So, we bullshit ourselves.

I started bullshittin’ myself when I got to my forties. Soon as I was in my forties, I’d look in the mirror and I’d say, “Well, I, I guess I’m getting older. Older sounds a little better than old, doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer.

Bullshit. I’m gettin’ old. And it’s OK, because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won’t have to die. I’ll pass away (ovation) or I’ll expire, like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they’ll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient care outcome. And if it’s the result of malpractice, they’ll say it was a therapeutic misadventure.

I’m telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill. (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, January 26, 2012

Grammatical shysterism (2)

Here’s another example of grammatical shysterism, the deceptive use of grammar:

When the U.S. Department of Justice “admitted it knew its central contention was false” in its prosecution of a businessman, an employee of the department commented, “Defendants aren’t entitled to a perfect trial. . . . Misstatements happen.”


The Department of Justice employee chose a grammatical structure that avoids any mention of human beings. She avoided saying “we lied” or “Justice lied” or “the prosecutor lied” – or even “we misstated” or “Justice misstated” or “the prosecutor misstated.”

In effect the employee said, “They were not lies at all; they were misstatements. And those misstatements made themselves; nobody at Justice made them.”

Of course, grown-ups easily see through such childish deceptions.

The Takeaway: If you resort to grammatical shysterism, you will sound like a pathetic child.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Don’t use “issues” foolishly

Abusing the word issues can make you look foolish. For example, a recent CNN Money article titled “Doctors going broke” quotes Marc Lion, a CPA who “advises independent doctor practices about their finances,” as follows:

“A lot of independent practices are starting to see serious financial issues.”

This language is general and euphemistic. For example, it uses see as a euphemism for confront, experience or suffer. It also uses issues as a euphemism for difficulties, problems or setbacks.

The quotation sounds weak by itself; it sounds even weaker in the context of the article, which includes these strong words from doctors:

“…I will have no choice but to close my doors.”

“...we still barely made payroll last paycheck…. I might seriously consider leaving medicine…. If [a Medicare pay cut] goes through, it will put us under.”

And these strong words from an executive of a hospital cancer center:

“Many [doctors] are too proud to admit that they are on the verge of bankruptcy…. [they] see no way out of the downward spiral… [one oncologist] hasn’t taken a salary from his private practice in over a year. He owes drug companies $1.6 million…”

Every one of these quotations is more specific and more direct than the financially advising CPA’s quotation. In this company, he sounds non-committal at best.

The Takeaway: Millions of your fellow Americans make themselves look foolish by abusing the word issues. But you don’t have to imitate them. Preserve your dignity and probity.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (25) – H.L. Mencken

Here are two examples of clear, concise writing. Both passages are from In Defense of Women, by H.L. Mencken (pictured).

The first passage is from Mr. Mencken’s about-the-author paragraph:

I am wholly devoid of public spirit or moral purpose. This is incomprehensible to many men, and they seek to remedy the defect by crediting me with purposes of their own. The only thing I respect is intellectual honesty, of which, of course, intellectual courage is a necessary part. A Socialist who goes to jail for his opinions seems to me a much finer man than the judge who sends him there, though I disagree with all the ideas of the Socialist and agree with some of those of the judge. But though he is fine, the Socialist is nevertheless foolish, for he suffers for what is untrue. If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.

The second passage explains why politicians spend most of their time suppressing free speech:

For democracy is grounded upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces. Its first concern must thus be to penalize the free play of ideas. In the United States this is not only its first concern, but also its last concern. No other enterprise, not even the trade in public offices and contracts, occupies the rulers of the land so steadily, or makes heavier demands upon their ingenuity and their patriotic passion.

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.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Placement of modifiers (16)

Recently I reserved a hotel room; I received an email confirmation that included this sentence:

As a hotel guest of the xxx Hotel, we would like to offer you discounts to [local attractions].

I thought:

The phrase “As a hotel guest of the xxx Hotel” appears to be a modifier, and therefore probably modifies something that soon follows it. But what soon follows it, “we would like,” does not seem to be or contain the thing modified; for one thing, “we” is plural while “a hotel guest” is singular.

The phrase “a hotel guest”
probably refers to “you” (which means me, the recipient of the email). The phrase “As a hotel guest of the xxx Hotel” probably refers to something I do or will do in my capacity as a guest.

Now I can guess what the writer of the email probably meant to write:

As a guest of the xxx Hotel, you are entitled to discounts at [local attractions].

The Takeaway: Place every modifier carefully. It is bad manners to make your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How to write a white paper from an interview

Here’s a method I use when a client wants me to write a white paper from an interview. This method is like sculpting; it consists mostly of removing unnecessary words from the interview transcript. The method produces a strong first draft; typically a client will say the draft is 90 percent of the way to the final draft.


Record the interview. Have the audio professionally transcribed. Then make these seven passes through the transcript:

First pass: Chisel away the irrelevant discussions: introductions, small talk, tangents, next steps, deadlines, exchanges of email addresses, and so on.

Second pass: Chisel your interview questions into short headlines. For example, chisel “Just to get started, my first question is, can you give us a brief overview of the topic without a lot of detail?” into “Overview.”

Third pass: Chisel away the repetitions, false starts, and circumlocutions that the interviewee indulges in as he gathers his thoughts to make a point. For example, chisel “Well, I was talking to a number of financial advisors – this was actually last month at a financial advisors conference in Chicago. The hot topic that came up – one of my company’s partner companies had a representative at the meeting, too, and he asked – in fact, he was a speaker there. So, offline he asked a question around commodities trading and it sort of touched off a kind of passionate discussion in that venue” into “Commodities trading is a hot topic.”

Fourth pass: Using the find-and-replace function in your word processor, delete all these filler words and phrases: kind of, kinda, sort of, sorta, pretty much, actually, totally, absolutely, out there, OK, so, I mean, I think, you know, just a thought, my two cents, well, basically, frankly, to be honest.

Fifth pass: From the top of the transcript to the bottom, chisel away all unnecessary words, phrases and sentences. This pass is usually the most time-consuming pass.

Sixth pass: Do a normal, line-by-line copy edit.

Seventh pass: You now have a strong Draft 1 of the white paper. Proof it and send it to your client.

The Takeaway: Don’t write; edit. When you have to turn an interview transcript into a white paper, don’t think of it as a writing project. Remind yourself that the white paper is already there, inside the interview transcript. Reveal the white paper via editing; chisel away the unnecessary words.

By the way, if you would like some great tips on interviewing, go here, here and here.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (8)

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
~C.S. Lewis (pictured)

“If you can’t write your strategy or idea on the back of your business card, it’s too complex to execute. Keep it simple.”
~Dawn Hudson

“It’s [seducing female writing students is] not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”
~Christopher Hitchens

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

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sending the wrong message

A few years ago, while driving around in Vermont, I saw an electrician’s shingle: “Sure-Fire Electric.” The electrician probably meant something like the dictionary definition of sure-fire (adj. Informal. Bound to be successful or perform as expected). However, he overlooked an important fact: one reason why the typical homeowner hires a professional electrician is that he is afraid that if he does his own wiring he may burn down his house. In an electrician’s company name, fire is probably the worst possible word besides electrocution.

More recently, I noticed a tax preparation service called “Taxing Matters.” The tax preparer behind this frivolous name is probably competent, but her business name doesn’t do her justice. A sober name could inspire more confidence.

And speaking of frivolous company names, in 2006 a woman in Texas actually named her PR firm “Blabbermouth” (n. Informal. One who talks indiscreetly).* When I saw that name, my first thought was to imagine how strange it would look at the bottom of a non-disclosure agreement. My second thought was to imagine a pharmaceutical company inadvertently disclosing a few thousand patients’ names via email and then asking its PR firm, Blabbermouth, to prepare a press release to explain the indiscretion.

The Takeaway: If you are considering a certain word or phrase as the name of your product, service or company, be sure to study all the denotations and connotations of the word or phrase. Put yourself in your prospective customer’s place and imagine all the ways in which he may react – both positively and negatively – to the proposed name. This is not to say that you should skip over an otherwise good name because it has one unfortunate connotation; it is only to say that you should make an informed decision.

See disclaimer.

*In 2009, the firm was renamed “Penman.”

Monday, January 2, 2012

Just for fun

Just for fun: Download and listen to “Fry’s English Delight: The Complete Series,” an audiobook of a four-part series on BBC Radio 4 hosted by Stephen Fry (pictured). The audiobook is available on iTunes.*

In this series, the erudite and amusing Mr. Fry interviews experts on puns, metaphors, quotations, and clichés. These experts are also erudite and amusing.

We learn why we like bad puns; we meet metaphors with disputed histories; we hear a compiler admitting that he inserts his own quotations among the famous ones; and we are told the story of “the world's first self-cancelling cliché.”

The Takeaway: If you like discussions of language for the sake of language, you will enjoy this audiobook.

Happy New Year!

*I have no financial interest in the sales of this product.