Monday, July 30, 2012

Placement of modifiers (20)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear or embarrassing writing. Here are two examples of the careless placement of a modifier:


In a customer review of a Spanish course: “...when using certain Spanish phrases from Pimsleur some of my Spanish speaking friends have actually laughed at me...”

Most readers will have to read that passage at least twice before they recognize what the writer was trying to say:

...when I have used certain Spanish phrases from Pimsleur some of my Spanish speaking friends have actually laughed at me...


In a newspaper story: Police on Wednesday arrested a 29-year-old man who allegedly threatened to kill his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her mother via text message.”

At first, the reader wonders how a text message could be lethal, but then looks back in the sentence and figures out that “via text message” was supposed to be modifying not “kill” but “threatened.” The sentence probably should have been:

Police on Wednesday arrested a 29-year-old man who allegedly threatened via text message to kill his soon-to-be ex-wife and her mother.

It’s interesting that the headline over the story had the placement right:

“West Haven cops: New Haven man threatened via text message to kill wife, mother-in-law”

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

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Allegra for pointing out the second example.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don’t write like a jerk

In many posts, I have discussed various ways in which we forget our manners and thereby confuse and irritate our readers. See examples here and here. These are examples of thoughtlessness; every one of us has been thoughtless occasionally.

But there are at least two more levels of bad manners beyond thoughtlessness: showing disrespect for readers and showing hostility to readers. In other words, writing like a jerk.*

Here is an exquisite example of writing like a jerk. It is a paragraph from the article “The Physics of Toilets” by Esther Inglis-Arkell.

A siphon works because it allows water to move like a chain instead of like discrete particles. Grab a pitcher and fill it with water. Stick a length of flexible tube deep in the water and let the tube droop down over the side of the pitcher. Then suck one [sic] the end of the tube until the water comes up over the edge of the pitcher and down the tube a ways. The water in the tube will splash on the floor. (Oops. Did I not tell you to put a container there to catch the water? My bad.) But the water in the length of tube climbing up the side of the pitcher will not fall back down into the pitcher. It’ll keep going, drawing more and more water over the side until the pitcher empties onto the floor. (Really my bad. I mean. Did I have to tell you a whole pitcher? Couldn’t I have just said a glass?) The water will be drawn over the side the same way a length of beads will be drawn over the side of a container if the beginning of the strand is pulled over the side.


The writer describes an educational demonstration that the reader can set up in his own kitchen. Then, in an unmistakable tone of passive-aggressive hostility (“Oops. Did I not tell you…”), the writer reveals that she has played a practical joke by omitting to describe a step.

Then she taunts the reader by saying “My bad,” a flippant, insincere form of apology that is currently popular among the indolent. Using this form of apology after a deliberate offense is clearly hostile.

The writer’s hostility apparently still not sated, she taunts the reader again, by suggesting that she could have made the practical joke less damaging but did not (“Did I have to tell you a whole pitcher?”).

True, the typical reader probably will not even try to set up the demonstration. Or if he does try, he will probably read past the end of the instructions and see the text that reveals the joke. Or he may not read that far but will start setting up the demonstration and recognize that he needs to put a container on the floor to catch the water. But none of these possibilities removes the hostility from the words as written.

And many astute readers will think, “Well, she did reveal her gratuitous and stupid practical joke right after she set it up, but I wonder if she has buried another practical joke elsewhere in this ostensibly practical article and has not revealed it. She sounds like the kind of person who would do that. I should stop reading this article and look for an article by someone else.”

The Takeaway: Don’t write like a jerk. Don’t show hostility to your reader. Don’t even show disrespect for your reader. Once your reader concludes you are a jerk, he will, unless he is a masochist, stop reading and never knowingly read you again. At that point, the effective clarity of your writing drops to zero.

See disclaimer.

*The word jerk is slang for “a foolish, rude, or contemptible person.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mr. Clarity goofs off

I haven’t goofed off since June 30, 2011, and I beg your indulgence while I do so today.

For a few decades, willy-nilly, I’ve been keeping a list of favorite words and phrases (including willy-nilly). They are my favorites because to me they sound onomatopoeic, arcane, archaic or comical. Or just pleasing. Or they have happy memories attached.

If this isn’t your cup of tea, please come back Thursday for more of the usual fare.


Flimsy: Very onomatopoeic, and a very sensuous sound.

Blurt: Somewhat onomatopoeic. Also, to me, suggestive of how one feels after blurting. 

Aleatory: I love this arcane word because it evokes Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. For years I’ve hoped to get a chance to use this word in a non-contrived sentence on this blog. But so far I haven’t been lucky.


Falda: (Skirt.) The English word skirt is such a masculine-sounding name for a woman’s garment that it’s wonderful to encounter the Spanish word falda. I can’t imagine a more feminine sound.

Ferrocarril: (Railroad.) A great word when you’re learning Spanish. It contains not one but two double r’s – which gives you a lot of trilling practice. 

Esperanza: (Hope.) I love this word because it is euphonic, because it approximately rhymes with the happy Italian word abbondanza (abundance), and because my wife and I spent our honeymoon in a place called Esperanza.


Küss die Hand: In college German class (1963), I was led to believe that some men in Austria still greeted women by saying “Küss die Hand, gnädige Frau” (“I kiss your hand, gracious lady”). I thought, “Maybe in Mozart’s day, but not today. We will see.” So, during a stay in Vienna a few years later, I gathered my courage and started saying it. No woman laughed or slapped me; no man who overheard me challenged me to a duel. Apparently the phrase was old-fashioned but still appreciated. I thought it was sublime that men still said things like this and women still liked it.

Hoppelpoppel (pictured): In one of my German-English dictionaries, I saw this impossible-sounding name for a breakfastfood. During a trip from Bavaria to Austria, I looked for it on a menu. I didn’t see it and was nearly convinced that the word Hoppelpoppel was a joke that the locals play on tourists, a culinary Loch Ness Monster. With a straight face, I said to the waiter, “I realize it’s not on the menu today, but I would like Hoppelpoppel.” With an equally straight face, the waiter replied, “Of course, sir” and within minutes the dish was served.

Pempelfort: While I was in Düsseldorf on business, my host said we were going to dine in a part of Düsseldorf called Pempelfort. I said, in German and in a friendly tone (and hoping his ancestors hadn’t founded Pempelfort), that the name sounded comical to an American ear. He smiled and whispered conspiratorially, “It does to us, too.” I didn’t know if he was humoring me or not. Either way, it is a nice memory. And the restaurant served phenomenal asparagus.

The Takeaway: I’m going back to work now. Have a great day, my fellow wordies.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (13)

“The risk of insult is the price of clarity.”
~Roy H. Williams (pictured)

“If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.”
~Kurt Vonnegut

“Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
~Stephen King

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Readers' responses

Last Monday I said that I thought the writing style of the historian and journalist Tom Engelhardt was boring but that I couldn’t specifically say why. I asked readers to volunteer an analysis of any of his articles. Here are the first three responses, in the order received:

Paul G. Henning, analyzing “The Military Solution,” wrote:

The introduction to the thesis is too long, with information and asides that distract and annoy the reader. Can’t the first paragraph say that “With less than 1% of Americans serving in the military today, it is not surprising that US conflicts on foreign soil hold little interest to most Americans.”?

Yet that paragraph has nothing to do with and is not logically connected to the following paragraph. (At which point you throw your hands up in the air; you must go back over what you have just read.)

He uses jargon.

He is in love with parenthetical expressions.

He makes assertions after statements with no facts, evidence or relevance.

And finally: “all enswathed in a penumbra of secrecy.” As Lewis Black would say, “Are you @#%* kidding me?”

Cheryl Stephens wrote:

Well, I lost interest too soon to be able to offer any personal opinions. But I ran [some of Tom Engelhardt’s writing] through’s review where it received 33 out of 100 points meaning it has poor style and needs revising. Reading it just requires too much effort – not because it is intellectually challenging – because it is poorly written and contains non-standard grammar and so on.

Christa Sammons wrote:

I see what you mean about Tom Engelhardt, and how it’s hard to know exactly why the articles seem less than exciting. Maybe it’s a combination of content and style. I frankly didn’t see much that was new in the articles I read, nothing I hadn’t heard before as an NPR listener and a casual reader of The New York Times. Then I got to thinking about the title “TomGram.” It made me expect something with a lot of personal voice, if Tom and I are on a first-name basis. “Gram” made me think of a telegram, so I expected something staccato and elliptical that was transmitting important news, or maybe something more essayistic and edgy. But what I got was good solid expository prose such as I would expect to find in a college textbook.

The Takeaway: Many thanks to readers Paul G. Henning, Cheryl Stephens, and Christa Sammons. It seems to me that a common denominator of the comments is that Mr. Engelhardt is putting too little diligence into his writing and therefore disappointing some readers. Please note that I am not singling out Mr. Engelhardt; we have all erred in similar ways. See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Undictionaried" words

If you love words and you haven’t met Erin McKean (pictured), you are in for a treat. Ms. McKean is a high-powered lexicographer whose career has included the position of editor in chief for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. I suggest you meet her via her recent article “Using Undictionaried Words.”

Here are a few excerpts:

“Writers constantly add to the lexical dark matter of the linguistic universe, either by writing about things so new that the terms used to discuss them are still hot from the mold, or just through pure wordsmithery, the coining of words that need to exist for evocative, rather than technical, reasons.”

“Most of the words you know and love and use every day are not words you learned by looking them up in a dictionary and reading a definition. They’re words you learned by seeing them used by other writers. And that’s how dictionary editors work, too. As the editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary (2e), I searched for new words and abstracted multiple uses of those words in context to create the general catchall explanations we call definitions.”

“For instance, if you wanted to use the word killingry, a fantastic word created by Buckminster Fuller, an inventor, author and philosopher who is most famous for his geodesic dome, a look in a dictionary turns up nothing. However, a quick search of Google Books turns up some great examples, including an interview with the composer John Cage, who quotes “Bucky” and contrasts this word with livingry, another Fullerism. In a few minutes you can understand that killingry, according to Fuller and others, is the whole apparatus of killing, the output of the military-industrial complex, formed by analogy with the word weaponry.” (Link in original.)

The Takeaway: I recommend you read the entire article; unless you are an erudite writer, you will learn something new. As to writing style, Ms. McKean skillfully manages to express her love of lexicography without sounding like a fanatic (the third excerpt above is a good example).

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mr. Clarity is stumped, seeks help

For several years I’ve been trying to read articles by the historian and journalist Tom Engelhardt. I have begun reading more than 20 of his articles but have never gotten past the first three or four paragraphs. His writing bores me almost to sleep.

I fear that if Mr. Engelhardt were to see a fire in a crowded movie theatre and begin shouting, the other moviegoers would ignore him unless they saw the flames with their own eyes.

But I admit that I don’t know why Mr. Engelhardt’s writing is boring. His topics are not boring; indeed, he writes about elevated topics such as good and evil and life and death. But somehow, he makes these topics sound boring. Or maybe feel boring.

I can’t put my finger on what’s so boring about Tom Engelhardt’s writing.

The Takeaway: Will you help me? If you are willing to participate, please read any article by Tom Engelhardt (for example, from here) and analyze the writing. Send your analysis to joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. I will publish any analysis written in good English, whether or not I agree with the conclusion, even if the conclusion is that Tom Engelhardt is not boring. Thanks in advance.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sloppy writing is bad business

Sloppy writing can damage the company that allows it to reach the eyes of customers and prospects. Here’s a recent example:

The URL-shortening company bitly made a major change in its marketing strategy and thereby confused and irritated many of its customers.* The company not only made a confusing change, but also announced the change in sloppy, heavy-handed, arrogant language.

I was making a few notes for a blog post on this rich topic when I noticed that the prolific author Gary North had already published a piece on the topic. Dr. North describes bitly’s self-destructive behavior with his usual directness and thoroughness. Here’s a sample:

“Incoherent? Yes. That’s because a programmer wrote it. Obviously, no one beta-tested it with Ordinary Users.”

You can read the full article here.

The Takeaway: I recommend you read the article, especially if you are a programmer, engineer, or other technical person. You may not have the time to keep improving your writing; you have your own work to do. Of course. But please, at least test your writing on non-technical readers before you publish it.

See disclaimer.

*Disclosure: I am one those confused and irritated customers.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Redundant nouns (2)

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

A website says, “In the modern world, wicker men are used for various events. The figure has been adopted for festivals as part of some neopagan-themed ceremonies, without the human sacrifice element.” (Just say “without human sacrifice.”)

A website promises to bring you “the up-to-date traffic situation.” (Just say “the up-to-date traffic.”)

And surely you’ve heard airline clerks refer to “the boarding process.” (Just say “boarding.”)

And you may have heard a real estate agent speak of “a price point.” (This is a pompous misuse of the term. Just say “a price.”)


Some writers feel that the addition of a generic noun strengthens a specific noun. In fact, it usually weakens the specific noun. The reader wonders why that useless noun was added. He may assume ignorance or stupidity. Worse, he may suspect deception, and with good reason; for example, consider the notorious phrase “cheese food.” Why would a food company call one of its own products “cheese food” instead of “cheese”? Because it’s not cheese. Probably the company cannot legally call it cheese but would like you to think that it really is 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 a good 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 a good reason, delete. Why create doubts about the soundness of your education or morals?

See disclaimer.