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.