Thursday, March 29, 2012

Negligent writing

If you’re like me, you have often received emails that you had difficulty deciphering. Usually, the cause of the difficulty is that the writing is negligent (“characterized by careless ease or informality”). The writer cobbled together a first draft, with little or no empathy for his readers, and hit “SEND.”

For example, I received an email that began with these two sentences:

“Due to the package compromise of 1.4.11,1.4.12 and 1.4.13, we are forced to release 1.4.15 to ensure no confusions. While initial review didn’t uncover a need for concern, several proof of concepts show that the package alterations introduce a high risk security issue, allowing remote inclusion of files.


In an adverbial phrase, “Due to the package compromise of 1.4.11,1.4.12 and 1.4.13,” the writer refers to an event, “the package compromise.” The syntax indicates that he presumes I have already heard of the event (I have not). By the way, this kind of writing error is known as indirection.

The writer further presumes that I know what a “package compromise” is. I do not.

He continues his indirection in “we are forced to release 1.4.15.” From the context I can guess that “1.4.15” is a software release. But his indirection suggests that he presumes I have been aware that such a release was coming. I have not been.

Then he adds the adverbial phrase “to ensure no confusions.” He assumes that I know, or can guess, what kinds of confusions he means, where these kinds of confusions occur, to whom, why, and under what conditions. I do not.

I’ll analyze the second sentence telegraphically, interspersing my reactions.

“While initial review”

Of what?

“didn’t uncover a need for concern,”

Concern about what?

“several proof of concepts”

What are “proof of concepts”?

“show that the package alterations”

What alterations? To what package?

“introduce a high risk security issue,”

Are you one of those effete writers who call problems “issues,” or do you really mean issues?

“allowing remote inclusion of files.”

Inclusion in what? By whom? That tears it! I’m switching to another vendor.

The Takeaway: When you see writing as bad as this, make a copy of it. Later, when you have some time, study the writing and draw lessons from it. Notice the phrases that were most confusing or annoying to you, and vow not to make the same kinds of mistakes.

Update, Thursday, March 29, 2012, 10:01 AM: Someone asked me if I really did switch vendors. Yes, I did.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (27) – Erasmus

Concise, clear writing holds up for centuries, through translations and edits. For example, here’s a passage from the great sixteenth-century scholar Erasmus:

“Peace is, indeed, at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man; war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is happy and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals. Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun. The fields are cultivated, the gardens bloom, the cattle are fed upon a thousand hills, new buildings arise, riches flow, pleasures smile, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufactures feel the genial warmth of encouragement, and the gains of the poor are more plentiful.

“But no sooner does the storm of war begin to lower, than what a deluge of miseries and misfortune seizes, inundates, and overwhelms all things within the sphere of its action! The flocks are scattered, the harvest trampled, the husbandman butchered, villas and villages burnt, cities and states that have been ages rising to their flourishing state subverted by the fury of one tempest, the storm of war. (169 words)

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.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Redundant nouns

One popular kind of redundancy is to unnecessarily add a generic noun after a specific noun. Here are three examples I’ve recently seen or heard:

An advertisement mentioned a “cruise experience.”
(A cruise is an experience; just say “cruise.”)

A retail store advertised a “clearance event.”
(A clearance is an event; just say “clearance.”)

A professor referred to a colleague’s “Ph.D. degree.”
(A Ph.D. is a degree; just say “Ph.D.”)

Some writers feel that the addition of a generic noun strengthens a specific noun; in fact, it usually weakens the specific noun. The reader (or hearer) may become suspicious of why the generic noun is there at all. And he has reason to be suspicious; for example, consider the notorious phrase “cheese food.” Why would a food company call one of its products “cheese food” instead of “cheese”? Because it’s not cheese.

The Takeaway: If you notice that you have added a generic noun after a specific noun, ask yourself why you did it. If you can articulate your reason – for example, you added “helicopter” after “an Apache” because in the context the reader might incorrectly assume “an Apache” refers to a person, not a helicopter – keep the generic noun. If you cannot articulate your reason, delete.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 19, 2012


As you know, the verb to be is the most frequently used verb and the weakest (least-expressive) verb in English. Writing coaches usually urge beginning writers to form the habit of using stronger verbs most of the time. For example:

The clause “her father was instrumental in the writing of the Navajo Code Talkers codebook” is weak. (Source)

The clause “her father co-authored the Navajo Code Talkers codebook” is stronger.

But we live in licentious times; you will notice that many writers today use weak verbs deliberately, in order to insinuate. To insinuate is to convey something sneakily – usually because it would sound improbable, dubious or absurd if it were stated straightforwardly.

For example, in a recent issue of The New York Times we see this sentence:

“But as word of the project [hiring homeless people to carry mobile Wi-Fi gear] spread on the ground and online, it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers was exploitative and discomfiting.”


In her summary of what the critics said, the writer used the weak verb was and followed it with two expressive adjectives (exploitative and discomfiting).

Watch what happens when we strengthen the sentence structure. We replace the weak verb was with the strong verbs exploited and discomfited. We get it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers exploited and discomfited [direct object].”

I’m sure you can see why the writer wanted to avoid this structure: Changing the adjectives into transitive verbs would have forced her to use a direct object, thereby identifying the exploited and discomfited. She probably sensed that if she wrote, “exploited and discomfited the down-and-out people” or “exploited and discomfited them,” readers would have snickered.

By the way, the article did not quote a single “down-and-out” person who said that the people who had hired him to carry the Wi-Fi gear had thereby exploited or discomfited him.

The Takeaway: In most non-fiction, you should avoid insinuation. Make straightforwardness your default style and insinuation the exception.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Check the dictionary to avoid embarrassing yourself

Clear writing requires diligence in the use of the dictionary. Before you use a word that you are unsure of, look it up. And don’t say you’re beyond all that; even writers and editors at major newspapers embarrass themselves by ignoring this rule.


For example, consider the following paragraph, which appeared in a recent Wall Street Journal article about how CEOs use their time:

“The more direct reports a CEO had correlated with more, and longer, internal meetings, the researchers found. Rather than foisting off responsibilities to other managers, CEOs with more direct reports may be more hands-on and involved in internal operations, they said.”

Apparently the writer of the article thought delegating was too ordinary a word; she preferred foisting. But she neglected to look it up and, as a result, made two mistakes:

She used the word incorrectly, by adding off. Many people who don’t use dictionaries add off to foist because they confuse foist with fob off.

And she applied the word incorrectly. If she had known that foisting is delegating deceitfully or coercively, she would have realized that, in any company, the CEO is the one person who never has to resort to foisting. Every single person in the company is subordinate to him! Whenever he wants to delegate a responsibility, all he has to do is say so.

The Takeaway: Before you use a word or phrase that you are not sure of, look it up in a dictionary. This advice is especially important when you think you are about to be very clever; the more you think that, the more likely you are to embarrass yourself.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Placement of modifiers (17)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear or embarrassing writing. Here’s an example of the careless placement of a modifier:

“He was later charged with indecent assault on a child under 14 and posing a child in a state of nudity in West Roxbury Court.”

The reader abruptly stops there. He can’t believe that the writer wanted the phrase “in West Roxbury Court” to modify “posing” or “assault.” The reader assumes that the writer wanted the phrase to modify “charged,” even though he has placed the phrase closer to “posing” and “assault” than to “charged.”

The sentence probably should have been:

“He was later charged in West Roxbury Court with indecent assault on a child under 14 and posing a child in a state of nudity.”

The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Don’t make your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul Henning for spotting this news item.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Think before you pick a name

In a recent post I mentioned that a woman in Texas had thoughtlessly named her PR firm “Blabbermouth.” The dictionary says that a blabbermouth is a person who talks indiscreetly. I would be willing to bet that a poll of CEOs would rank “talking indiscreetly” as the #1 worst trait a PR firm could have.

Here’s another example of a thoughtless choice of a name. An article in Forbes explains how an organization can set up a “talent firewall” to retain talented employees.


In the real world, a firewall does not keep good things in.

A computer firewall (example depicted above) keeps bad things out: it keeps trespassers out of a computer network.

An architectural firewall keeps bad things in: it contains fires and prevents them from spreading to other parts of the building.

So, when the reader sees the phrase talent firewall, he conjures either of these two images. Because neither image is consistent with the phrase talent firewall, he concludes that the writer (or editor) was being thoughtless.

The Takeaway: When choosing a name, think. Imagine all the ways the reader may think about the name when he sees it in your copy. Remember, you can’t force words to do what you want them to do (see the eloquent Jacques Barzun on this point).

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Before you publish, check for foolishness

APMEX, an online dealer in precious metals, warns its customers to “take the time up front to make sure what you want is exactly what you order.”

The automated online dealer explains why such fastidious diligence is necessary:

“Our system is automated which makes it EXTREMELY DIFFICULT and time consuming to modify an order after it has been confirmed.” (Emphasis in original.)

In other words, the system would be more flexible and user-friendly if it were manual.

The Takeaway: Edit everything you write before you publish it. As the example above demonstrates, it is all too easy to make yourself look foolish.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Insinuating “You”

The Insinuating You* is the abuse of the Universal You in order to describe one’s actions while slyly asserting that everyone agrees with one’s thoughts, feelings or actions. Usually the abuse takes the form of a single sentence, such as:

The reason I quit my job at Harmonious Arbitration after only two weeks is because you can’t stand the constant bickering of your colleagues.

But occasionally an especially sly person pushes the Insinuating You one step further; he delivers an entire narrative – including his thoughts, conclusions and feelings – in the present tense and the second person.

The purpose is to trick the listener into “reliving” the speaker’s experience. Of course, the narrative is actually the speaker’s self-edited and self-censored recollection of the experience; the thoughts, conclusions and feelings tend to be of the self-justifying sort.

For example, I overheard a man saying this in a country store:

You’re going along, just under the speed limit. You round a turn, and suddenly there he (a deer) is, smack in the middle of the lane. You hit the brakes as fast as you can. But it’s too late – there’s nothing you can do. You feel terrible, but you know it’s not your fault…

The speaker’s listeners looked embarrassed for him. After all, if a grown man honestly wanted someone’s candid opinion, he wouldn’t play silly word games like this. He’d just tell the story straight, and then ask listeners for their opinions.

The Takeaway: Don’t use the Insinuating You when describing a first-person experience. It can make you appear desperate for approval but afraid to ask for it for fear of rejection.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.