Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mysterious messages (1)

Once when I ordered a book online, I received this unhelpful error message:

Server Error in '/' Application.

Object reference not set to an instance of an object.

Description: An unhandled exception occurred during the execution of the current web request. Please review the stack trace for more information about the error and where it originated in the code.

Exception Details: System.NullReferenceException: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.

Source Error:

The source code that generated this unhandled exception can only be shown when compiled in debug mode. To enable this, please follow one of the below steps, then request the URL:

1. Add a "Debug=true" directive at the top of the file that generated the error. Example:

  <%@ Page Language="C#" Debug="true" %>


2) Add the following section to the configuration file of your application:

Note that this second technique will cause all files within a given application to be compiled in debug mode. The first technique will cause only that particular file to be compiled in debug mode.

Important: Running applications in debug mode does incur a memory/performance overhead. You should make sure that an application has debugging disabled before deploying into production scenario.

Stack Trace:

[NullReferenceException: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.]

   _ASP.step2_aspx.__RenderfrmConquer(HtmlTextWriter __output, Control parameterContainer) +68

   System.Web.UI.Control.RenderChildren(HtmlTextWriter writer) +27

   System.Web.UI.HtmlControls.HtmlForm.RenderChildren(HtmlTextWriter writer) +44

   System.Web.UI.HtmlControls.HtmlForm.Render(HtmlTextWriter output) +397

   System.Web.UI.Control.RenderControl(HtmlTextWriter writer) +243

   System.Web.UI.Control.RenderChildren(HtmlTextWriter writer) +72

   System.Web.UI.Control.Render(HtmlTextWriter writer) +7

   System.Web.UI.Control.RenderControl(HtmlTextWriter writer) +243

   System.Web.UI.Page.ProcessRequestMain() +1900

Version Information: Microsoft .NET Framework Version:1.0.3705.209; ASP.NET Version:1.0.3705.0

Analysis: Why was this message sent to me? Clearly, it was not intended for the layman who wishes to order a book online (me).

The Takeaway: If you write copy that will be used online, test your copy before it goes online. Work with your website people and step through the very process a customer will step through. Make sure everything your customer will see is clear, relevant, and layman-readable. If the techies have inserted extraneous copy into the process, tell them to get it out of there; they are impeding the company's revenue. Think of this test as part of your proofreading.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to SJ Cuthbertson for improving the Takeaway.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A light-hearted letter from a Laramie lawyer

Once in a while, it’s OK to have a little fun with writing. Here’s a brief story of a well-written, humorous letter from a Laramie (WY) lawyer to a pompous Los Angeles lawyer. The letter made the Laramie lawyer famous.

An excerpt:

“Steve, I’ve got news – you can’t say you charge a $100,000.00 retainer fee and an additional $1,000.00 an hour without sounding pretentious. It just can’t be done. Especially when you’re writing to someone in Laramie, Wyoming where you’re considered pretentious if you wear socks to Court or drive anything fancier than a Ford Bronco.”

The Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to have a little fun with writing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Grammar errors (2) -- common errors in the workplace

In case you missed it, yesterday The Wall Street Journal ran an article about common grammar errors in the workplace and how various companies try to prevent them. An excerpt:

“I’m shocked at the rampant illiteracy” on Twitter, says Bryan A. Garner, author of “Garner's Modern American Usage” and president of LawProse, a Dallas training and consulting firm. He has compiled a list of 30 examples of “uneducated English,” such as saying “I could care less,” instead of “I couldn't care less,” or, “He expected Helen and I to help him,” instead of “Helen and me.”

The Takeaway: This is a great time to improve your grammar. Grammar proficiency in the workplace is so low that it is easy to make yourself stand out as a diligent writer and speaker.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Straight talk: an example (12) – Gary North

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 author Gary North (pictured) is widely known for his straight talk. Here’s a sample:

“Ben Bernanke has a pet peeve. It has to do with power – specifically, his. He does not like it when common people have the power to tell him and his Ph.D.-holding peers that they don’t know what they are doing. The common man can veto Bernanke and his peers by cashing in dollars for gold. He resents this.

The money supply should be supplied by the free market, under the laws of contract. The government should not be in the money business.

End the FED.

Many disagree with Gary North, but few misunderstand his words.

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, June 14, 2012

Writing for the ear

Three days ago in The New York Times, the American writer and critic Constance Hale published a useful lesson about something we writers often overlook: how our sentences would sound if read aloud.

Some writers, such as playwrights and speechwriters, are keenly aware of sound; unfortunately, most of us pay no attention to it. But our readers pay attention, even if subliminally. And that is why sound can add to the clarity and power of what we write for the page.

The Takeaway: Get into the habit of writing for the ear, not just the eye. Read your copy aloud during your edits and you will be surprised how quickly you improve your clarity and power.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Placement of modifiers (19)

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

Not much has been revealed about one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest projects, the Domestic Communications Assistance Center, and the FBI will probably try to keep it that way. Despite attempting to keep the DCAC largely under wraps, an investigation spearheaded by Cnet’s [sic] Declan McCullagh is quickly collecting details about the agency’s latest endeavor. Source


The second sentence begins with a modifier, the participial phrase “Despite attempting to keep the DCAC largely under wraps.” When a sentence begins with a participial phrase, the reader normally assumes that the participial phrase modifies the next noun or pronoun; in this case, “investigation.”

But when the reader finishes reading this sentence, he recognizes that the sentence is illogical; it suggests that CNET is both hiding and exposing the DCAC.

Here’s one way to fix the sentence:

Despite the FBI’s attempt to hide the DCAC from reporters, CNET’s Declan McCullagh and other reporters have already succeeded in collecting details.

Reading this version, the reader will more easily recognize who is doing what.

The Takeaway: Don’t make your reader work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it. It’s bad manners.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Using commas correctly (3)

In case you missed it, The New York Times ran an excellent article on the use and abuse of commas. Here’s an excerpt:

When an identifier describes a unique person or thing and is preceded by “the” or a possessive, use a comma:

Baseball’s home run leader, Barry Bonds, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.

My son, John, is awesome. (If you have just one son.)

But withhold the comma if not unique:

My son John is awesome. (If you have more than one son.)

The Takeaway: Read the whole article and keep it on file.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (12)

“ ‘Education’ is a word that covers a lot of very different things, from vital, life-saving medical skills to frivolous courses to absolutely counterproductive courses that fill people with a sense of grievance and entitlement, without giving them either the skills to earn a living or a realistic understanding of the world required for a citizen in a free society.”
~Thomas Sowell (pictured)

“Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him.”

“[At the New York Post,] We had Murray Kempton [on staff,] who wrote like an 18th century restoration dramatist. We had Nora Ephron, who was a brilliant writer when she was a kid, walking into the city room. We had William F. Buckley in the paper. These were not people who thought the audience was stupid. They thought the audience was smart and they wrote up to the audience instead of down. I think that's the kind of paper that's rapidly fading.”
~Pete Hamill

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

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for the Pete Hamill quotation.