Monday, October 29, 2012

Safety warnings (4) – Halloween masks

A convenience store posted a Halloween-related safety warning on the front door:
“For the safety of our customers and employees, please remove your masks before entering store.”
The sentence suggests that if a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a Halloween mask, he may harm customers or employees. But the sentence doesn’t say how; it is vague.

Let’s attempt a rewrite.

Our first task is to guess what the writer meant but did not say. Which of the following did he mean?

1.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may be frightened by the mask and have a heart attack.

2.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may fear that the person behind the mask is really an armed robber, and the customer or employee may have a heart attack or may be injured while running or diving for cover.

3.    A customer or employee may be carrying a concealed pistol, may see the masked trick-or-treater enter the store, may think he is an armed robber, may hastily draw his pistol to shoot him, but may shoot a customer or employee standing near the “armed robber.” (Remember, the writer mentioned “the safety of our customers and employees,” not the safety of the visiting trick-or-treater.)

Those are all unlikely occurrences, but #3 is probably the least unlikely of them.

But if the writer meant something like #3, he has made a weak appeal to the trick-or-treater. Most people are more afraid to be shot than to see someone shot. Therefore the writer really meant:
“For your safety, please remove your mask before entering the store. If you wear your mask in the store, someone may think you’re a robber and shoot you.”
I suspect that the writer was unconsciously afraid to be that specific. He may have been afraid to upset hoplophobic customers. Or perhaps there are statutes that prohibit specificity (I am not a lawyer and I do not know).

There is also a question about height: certainly a six-year old trick-or-treater in a mask would not look like a potential armed robber. Was the sign intended for him, too?

And there are more questions, but we need not waste time on them. The point is made: the writer did not think at all, in the sense of conscious, rational thought. Careless writers usually snatch at the first words that come to mind (often clichés). Then, without editing or proofreading, they publish what they have written. And force their readers to guess.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Unless there are prohibitions against specificity, make your warning specific. Here’s a good example of a specific warning.

See disclaimer.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jacques Barzun, R.I.P.

Jacques Barzun (pictured) , who died Thursday night at the age of 104, was an American cultural critic and historian. He spent his long career entirely at Columbia University, holding positions from lecturer to dean of faculties. He wrote numerous essays, reviews and books on history, culture, education, music, and the intellectual life. He published a “surprise bestseller,” From Dawn to Decadence, at the age of 92.

Among working writers, he is also known for Simple & Direct, a concise book of grammar and usage. Mr. Barzun said he wrote the book to “resensitize the mind to words.” He achieved that goal with a great many writers, to our lifelong benefit.

The Takeaway: Farewell to Jacques Barzun, a peerless teacher of writers.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Unintentional hedging (5) – “kind of” and “pretty much”

Unintentional hedging – the unconscious use of kind of, pretty much and other hedges – is a bad habit that is all too easy to fall into. First, you start unwittingly imitating other people’s use of hedging. Second, over time, you hedge more and more frequently. Third, eventually you start hedging in highly inappropriate situations – often damaging your credibility.

Here are three examples of highly inappropriate situations:

Example 1

On a quarterly earnings conference call with analysts and investors, the president of Corus Television says, “So we are kind of launching each new season...” and “We have a third season already kind of in production...” (Boldface added) (Source)

Analysis: The president sounds like he is not sure whether his company is launching something and not sure whether the “third season” of something is in production yet. A president should be sure of these matters, especially during an earnings call.*

Example 2

In a Discovery Channel program about medieval instruments of torture, the male co-host says (00:58) the strappado was “kind of diabolical.” His enunciation is babyish; for example, he pronounces “going to” as “geh.” The female co-host informs us (01:24) that someone hanging from the strappado with his shoulder joints about to be ripped apart would be feeling “pretty much incredible pain.” Boldface added)

Analysis: These two putative adults sound like little children playing with toy models. They trivialize the agony of thousands of innocent people.

Example 3

Simona Suh (pictured), an attorney for the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), suggests that Meaghan Cheung, an SEC branch chief, decided not to investigate Bernie Madoff, the biggest crook in Wall Street history, because the whistleblower was “kind of condescending.” (Boldface added) (Source: No One Would Listen, page 156)

Analysis: Ms. Suh, blithely speculating about her boss’s emotions, sounds like a little girl pretending to be a lawyer. She wittingly or unwittingly suggests that Ms. Cheung actually passed up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity merely for the childish reason that she vaguely disliked the man who was trying to hand her the opportunity.

The Takeaway: If you flippantly use the hedges kind of and sort of while you are discussing a grim, serious or weighty topic, you will sound like you are ignorantly trivializing the topic. You will sound like a child. Take preventive action: Record some of your speeches or conference calls (don’t break any laws). Listen to the audio or have it transcribed. If your hedges seem unconscious, begin trying to consciously catch yourself hedging. If you can catch yourself, you can break the habit.

Thanks to investor relations expert Paul G. Henning for contributing to this post.

Previous posts on this topic: (1), (2), (3), (4).

*For readers unfamiliar with investor relations: Quarterly earnings conference calls are not casual conversations. Normally, executive teams prepare by reviewing the transcript of the last quarterly call, then scripting their opening remarks for the coming call, and then rehearsing the remarks. They also write and rehearse the answers to all likely questions and even some merely possible questions. Preparation takes a week or longer. On the call, analysts and investors ask probing questions and expect straightforward answers. Management expertise is one of the top reasons professional investors buy the stock; ambiguous, evasive or hedged answers can reduce their confidence in management and their view of the stock.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (2) – Joseph Mitchell

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a skilled and diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer was Joseph Mitchell (pictured). Here is an example of Mr. Mitchell’s wonderful style:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or spilt sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
In an article about Joseph Mitchell, William Zinsser analyzes that paragraph:
Any Joseph Mitchell fan would recognize that opening paragraph as his and nobody else’s: the plain declarative sentences, the leisurely accretion of detail, the naggings of mortality, and the promise of renewal through the sight and smell and grateful consumption of food brought from the sea by old-fashioned toil and cooked by old-fashioned methods. The title of the piece, “Up in the Old Hotel,” is no less revealing of the author—a man drawn to old places and old people—and it also hints at a mystery. We are about to be taken on a journey.
Even if you are not particularly interested in the life and works of Joseph Mitchell, I recommend you read Mr. Zinsser’s entire article for inspiration: a great non-fiction writer writing about an even greater non-fiction writer. By the way, Mr. Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well, a book that has helped many thousands of writers improve their skills.

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 (sample here) 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.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning for pointing me to the article and for introducing me, years earlier, to the works of Joseph Mitchell.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Straight talk: an example (14) – Sinclair Lewis

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 American novelist Sinclair Lewis (pictured, AP photo, 1943) was the only person who refused the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a thoughtful letter to the prize committee, he stated the reasons for his refusal. Here is an excerpt:
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (15)

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. ~George Orwell

“Today many whose goal once was the discovery of truth are now [2010] paid handsomely to hide it.”
~Paul Craig Roberts

“Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.”
~William S. Burroughs

“The whole purpose of culture is to get you to found your ethics on lies.”
~Stefan Molyneux (pictured)

“...dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race...”
~Donald E. Westlake

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

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (3)

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions. Previously, I posted examples (here and here) of this abuse. Here are more examples:

“How is cyberbullying different to [sic for from or than] other forms of bullying?” (Source)

“But development experts say there is a dark side to [sic for of] some ostensibly ‘green’ market initiatives: the appropriation of resources for biofuels production, carbon offsets, ecotourism and so on can have devastating consequences for local people.” (Source)

“Melissa Disney is... a distant relative to [sic for of] Walt Disney.” (Source)

“A 5-star Hotel that complies to [sic for with] all the standards” (Source)

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. It is a mark of a well-educated, well-read, careful writer. Need I say more?

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writing skills require maintenance

A new study shows that the readability of legal briefs significantly declined between 1969 and 2008. The study suggested that the lawyers believed their writing was not bad enough to affect the results of their cases and that they saw “no benefit to the time-consuming and difficult task of changing their writing styles.”

I would add: The lawyers, having decided not to do anything to improve their writing, wrongly assumed that their writing would not deteriorate because of that decision. They did not realize that all kinds of skills deteriorate unless maintained. This is why, for example, musicians practice every day of their lives.

The Takeaway: Like every American, you hear and read thousands of words of bad English every day. Unless you apply a little conscious effort, you will unconsciously assimilate more and more of that bad English as time goes by. Eventually you will sound indolent, effeminate, semi-literate and childish, like most Americans today. That may be good enough for Boobus Americanus. However, you and I are writers; it is not good enough for us. We have pride of craftsmanship.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for pointing out the article about the study.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

If you write "the equation," state the equation

Most people who like to write about “the equation” never state the equation they’re writing about. Here are a few examples:

This Bloomberg article about bond trading quotes a banker: “Now, at least part of the equation that favored Bush is changing.” But neither the banker nor the reporter states the equation, specifies the part that is changing, or states how that part is changing.

It gets worse: Here’s an organization that devotes a web page to “a major program” for “Changing the Equation.” But the organization does not state the equation that the major program is expected to change – much less the change(s) that the major program is expected to make.

But it gets even worse than that: There’s an organization that calls itself “Change the Equation.”

However, Change the Equation does not state the equation that Change the Equation presumes to change, or how Change the Equation presumes to change the equation.*

And possibly worst of all: ExxonMobil, which employs 14,000 scientists and engineers, all of whom know what an equation is, has joined the poor innumerate souls over at Change the Equation. ExxonMobil may have already picked up some bad habits from the relationship: Like Change the Equation, ExxonMobil states no equations or changes in equations when talking about Change the Equation.

The Takeaway: Writing about an equation without stating the equation is flimflam. If you mean situation, write “situation,” not “equation.” If you mean rules, write “rules,” not “equation.” Whatever you mean, write the word for it; don’t write “equation.” If you don’t know what an equation is, don’t sabotage your credibility by using the word equation.

See disclaimer.

*One full equation does appear on the organization’s web site: “And remember, 10 points roughly equals a grade level’s worth of learning.” However, it does not appear to be the equation. And on the bottom of the home page, a posed photograph shows parts of two equations on a chalkboard.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The backloaded sentence

Andrew McAfee has published an article titled “When Did Yoda Start Writing CEO Speeches?” The article explains why CEOs abuse the backloaded sentence (a sentence in which the writer makes the reader wait for important information until the end of the sentence). Here’s an excerpt:
In standard English the subject usually comes before the verb: the boy ran up the hill. One of the reasons Yoda sounds so otherworldly is that he often inverted this: run up the hill the boy did. A lot of business folk seem to be under his influence these days. Instead of saying “Our costs are rising” they’ll say “Things are not great right now, from a cost perspective.”

What’s going on here, I suspect, is that they know the overall sentiment they want to convey. In this case, it’s not a good one; costs are rising. So on the fly they construct a sentence that leads with the sentiment (things are not great) and backloads with the reason why (from a cost perspective).
The Takeaway: The backloaded sentence is not inherently bad; for example, you can use it occasionally for emphasis. However, it is bad to abuse it, as in the example above. By the way, notice that Andrew McAfee, like Seth Godin and Kyle Wiens, judges people’s character by their language. So do all intelligent readers (although the more sentimental ones deny they do). Always write for the intelligent reader, not the stupid reader. The stupid reader won’t know or care whether your writing is good or bad.

See disclaimer.