Thursday, November 29, 2012

Smart people are not fooled by weasel words

You and I may not like to think about it, but we know it’s true: Intelligent readers and listeners are not fooled by weasel words. If we want to get through to intelligent people, we must use clear diction and sound logic.


Three weeks before Election Day in 2012, journalist Jonathan Chait wrote about politicians’ use of weasel words, which he generously called “mushy platitudes” and “vapid, buoyant patter”:
But when you press the candidates to explain just how it is they could escape the muck that has ensnared Obama the past two years, they descend into mushy platitudes. Romney promises “leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done, and could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat” – at most a mild Republican retreat from Obama’s aggressive reforms, or perhaps even a reprise of Romney’s often liberal tenure in Massachusetts. Obama, for his part, has offered up an even less plausible scenario, which is that, even though Republicans in Congress responded to his 2008 victory by becoming even more radical than they were under George W. Bush, winning a second election will beat the crazy out of them and usher in a new era of legislative compromise and good feelings.

It seems natural to conclude from all this vapid, buoyant patter that neither candidate has a plausible blueprint to avoid political gridlock, and that, whoever wins, the stalemate of the past two years will grind on into the next four. (Boldface added.)
Presidential candidates’ large staffs of ghostwriters, strategists, psychologists and propagandists create the most persuasive weasel words that money can buy. The candidates aim those weasel words at the most feeble-minded of government employees, government pensioners, government contractors, and miscellaneous government beneficiaries. This is the crowd that usually determines the outcome of an election. But even the slickest politicians with the slickest weasel words cannot convince intelligent readers and listeners like Mr. Chait that they are actually saying anything.

The Takeaway: Compared to a presidential candidate, you and I (a) have less persuasive power and (b) face more-intelligent audiences. We need to aim high, with clear diction and sound logic. Weasel words won’t work.

By the way, I thought the mixed metaphor “the muck that has ensnared,” being picturesque, was especially distracting; it was made even more distracting by the related mixed metaphor “descend into mushy platitudes” a few words later. As we have often discussed on this blog, it is difficult for a writer to spot his own mixed metaphors. Even a pro like Jonathan Chait can miss one or two. The lesson for us ordinary folks: try to have everything edited.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What Jacques Barzun’s daughter found on his desk

Jacques Barzun (pictured), who died last month at the age of 104, was known worldwide as a bastion of clear English. Yesterday the Boston Globe published an article about what Mr. Barzun was doing to protect the language during the last days of his life.

The article states:
In 1964, he was named to the usage panel of the newly announced American Heritage Dictionary. This September, the dictionary editors sent a special questionnaire to Barzun, their oldest surviving panelist.

In October, when it was announced that Barzun had died, the American Heritage editors figured they would never get the questionnaire back. But his daughter found it on his desk, in a pile of unfinished business, and sent it in. He had completed all but two questions, with terse responses in a shaky hand. The questionnaire reveals a language curmudgeon fiercely protecting the clarity of English well past becoming a centenarian.
Later, the article states:
The questionnaire is a time capsule of sorts, a reminder of the central role that Barzun played in the 20th-century American conversation about English. But it also speaks to how far that conversation has progressed. In some ways, his death marks the passing of a classically informed view of language as a barometer of human nature, and the last bulwark against its decline. “Words are not simply the casual containers and carriers of thoughts and feeling, but their incarnation,” he once wrote.
The Takeaway: Please read the Boston Globe article. It thoughfully reveals Mr. Barzun’s deep love of English and his persistent efforts to arrest its decline. I also urge you to read Simple & Direct, his concise book on grammar and usage. He said the goal of the book was to “resensitize the mind to words.” That is something that every serious writer must do.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"And the Fair Land"

In 1961, Vermont Royster (pictured), then editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a Thanksgiving editorial titled “And the Fair Land.” The Journal has run this editorial annually ever since.

The prose is manly: It is elevated but not pompous; stirring but not sentimental. It is clear and straightforward.

Today, most journalists cannot write elevated, stirring, clear and straightforward prose. But I am thankful that Vermont Royster and many of his contemporaries could and did.

The editorial begins:
Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country. . .
And continues:
And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. . . .

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. . . .
And ends:
But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere – in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.
The Takeaway: I wish my countrymen a happy Thanksgiving.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vague words making a vague point about a vague topic

If you want a brief but intensive lesson in how not to write, read this web page published by the University of Minnesota. It is full of vague words that make a vague point about a vague topic. The concentration of so much vagueness leads the intelligent reader to suspect either fatuousness or flimflam.

You and I never want our readers to think that way about our writing. So, let’s analyze the web page to see what makes it so vague.

A vague topic

The topic of the page is sustainability. This is an unsettled, confusing and controversial topic. The Wikipedia definition, which attempts (but fails) to include all the disagreements, is a whopping 755 words long.

Nor are all the disagreements trivial; far from it. For example, Jeffrey Tucker, speaking for many free-market scholars, defines sustainability as “rolling back the advances of civilization by force.”

A vague point

So much for the topic of the university’s web page about sustainability. Now let’s consider the point of the page: how the university teaches sustainability.

Apparently the university does not have a department of sustainability and does not offer a major in sustainability. It does offer a minor – not in sustainability but in “Sustainability Studies.” The minor is a kind of scavenger hunt through all the colleges of the university. The university says it offers, via the minor and other programs, “a spectrum of opportunities for students to engage in the challenges of sustainability.”

I would think that prospective students’ first “challenge of sustainability” would be to persuade the university’s sustainability teachers to publish a concise, clear and widely accepted definition of the word sustainability. Failing that, the teachers’ consensus definition. Failing that, each teacher’s definition.

The prospective students’ second challenge would be to convince their parents that spending a year with the teachers who wrote that web page could somehow be worth $24,718, and that the teachers’ atrocious writing habits would not rub off on the students.

A lot of vague words

What about the text of the page? Well, it consists mostly of phrases like this:

•    sustainability studies
•    courses on the core issues of sustainability that effect [sic] all disciplines
•    undergraduate opportunities in sustainability education
•    undergraduate sustainability education offerings
•    graduate sustainability education opportunities
•    issues of sustainability
•    contributions of multiple disciplines and professions
•    sustainability education network
•    opportunities to advance sustainability education

So what was the University of Minnesota trying to achieve with that web page? My guess is that when sustainability became a mania word* the university wanted to publicly declare its infatuation with the word, to avoid looking out of step.

The Takeaway: Read the whole web page. It is a good example of pathological vagueness. Print it out and keep it in your writing reference file. If you ever catch yourself thinking vague language is always harmless, pull out the copy and read it again as a deterrent.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning, who called my attention to this example.

See disclaimer.

*A mania word (my coinage, I believe) is a fad word that writers have begun using prodigally, promiscuously and rashly. Other mania words favored by the University of Minnesota are drive, issue, passion, and self-esteem.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Credit-card companies, women, men, and language -- an editorial

Have you ever noticed this? When you call credit-card companies to report problems, the companies assign women to handle some kinds of problems and men to handle other kinds. (Is that employment discrimination?) And the women and men speak differently. For example:

On many occasions over the last two decades, I have telephoned one or another credit-card company to dispute a charge for a faulty product or to report that I had been charged twice for a purchase. In other words, my money was at stake. In all these cases,

  1. A woman answered my call and handled the problem.
  2. The woman was a Valley-girl imitator, using adolescent speech affectations such as uptalk, baby voice, and vocal fry.

On other occasions, I have called to report that a stranger had used my account number to purchase something (fraud). In other words, the credit-card company’s money was at stake. In all these cases,

  1. A woman answered my call but immediately forwarded it to a man.
  2. The man sounded mature and serious. He used no speech affectations.

The Takeaway: When it is merely your money that is at stake, the credit-card company assigns a woman who talks like a child. But when it is the company’s money that is at stake, the company assigns a man who talks like a grown-up. That is what I have observed (of course, that does not constitute a scientific survey). I leave the interpretation to you; what, if anything, do you think my observations suggest about credit-card companies’ attitudes toward women, men, and language? Please comment.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The power of specificity (2) – Banks' emails to customers

During and after Hurricane Sandy, many banks in the United States sent emails to their customers to offer special assistance. Offering special assistance during the emergency was a considerate thing to do, and the emails were thoughtful and helpful.

After receiving several such emails, I noticed that some emails were more helpful than others; they were more specific. For instructional purposes, I am comparing two of the messages. In making this comparison, I am not questioning any bank’s sincerity. I am commenting only on the writing.

Email from Bank A
The weather events of the last several days have been unprecedented, and we hope that you and your families are safe and secure.

We understand that this may be a difficult time for those living along Hurricane Sandy’s path, and many have suffered damage and loss. At [Bank A], we care about our customers and want to work with those who need help during this stressful time.

Let us know if you have questions or concerns regarding your account. We encourage you to contact us with any concerns you may have. Call the number on your card or statement, or you can reach out to [an address] on Twitter. Our associates are prepared to assist customers who may be experiencing unexpected financial challenges due to the storm.

We’re dedicated to providing immediate and ongoing relief for our customers, and are here to assist in any way we can.

Please check our website to keep updated on temporary branch closures.
Email from Bank B
Recovery efforts are underway and we want to help you with your banking needs. We will be rebating a variety of overdraft, ATM and credit card fees incurred by our customers during Hurricane Sandy in several states.

Upon request, the following types of fees will be rebated for our Consumer Banking and Business Banking customers in states impacted by the storm:

•    Overdraft fees, including sustained overdraft fees

•    Overdraft protection line of credit transfer fees

•    Credit card late fees

•    Foreign ATM fees (charged by [Bank B]; other banks’ fees not included)

The rebates will be offered to [Bank B] customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. They will be applied to fees for transactions posted to the account on October 29 and October 30.

Please stop by your local branch or contact us at the numbers listed below for assistance with a rebate. (Note: for credit card late fee rebates, please contact the consumer number listed below.)

Consumer inquiries: 800-xxx-xxxx
Small Business inquiries: 800-xxx-xxxx

We appreciate your business and please stay safe.

Bank A spent most of its words on general statements of sympathy and general statements of available assistance. That’s good. But Bank B spent most of its words on specific forms of available assistance. That’s better. Keep in mind, Bank A may in fact have been offering more assistance or more forms of assistance than Bank B; but if so, it doesn’t show in the email.

The Takeaway: Once again: I am not questioning any bank’s sincerity. I am using these examples to illustrate the power of specificity.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (13)

Mixed metaphors can be amusing. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion.

Examples of mixed metaphors

Nicholas Carlson, writing in Business Insider about Facebook’s quarterly earnings meeting, says:

“We’ll have live, wall-to-wall coverage on the earnings, breaking out all interesting angles.” (Emphasis added.)

The National Post reports:

“There are lots of reasons for Ford to want to be an MPP, and some for the Tories to wish him to be so, but caution is absolutely warranted – especially since Toronto (and surrounding area) is absolutely must win for the PCs. They lost the last election by bombing out there despite virtually matching the Liberals in overall popular support. A loose cannon firing madly from the hip (mixed metaphor, yes) during the next campaign, especially in the GTA, can’t be something Hudak and his team would approach lightly.” (Emphasis added.)

A Kentucky judge writes:

“Such news of an amicable settlement (has) made this Court happier than a tick on a fat dog because it is otherwise busier than a one legged cat in a sand box and, quite frankly would have rather jumped naked off a twelve foot step ladder into a five gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two week trial of the herein dispute, a trial which, no doubt would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory.” (Emphasis added.)

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Good composition (1) – Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell (pictured) is an American economist, social theorist and political philosopher. Unlike most economists, social theorists and political philosophers, he is a good writer. One thing I especially like about his writing is his straightforward composition.

A good example is Mr. Sowell’s October 30, 2012 article, “ ‘Cooling Out’ the Voters.” He starts with an interesting fact about confidence men:
Confidence men know that their victim – “the mark” as he has been called – is eventually going to realize that he has been cheated. But it makes a big difference whether he realizes it immediately, and goes to the police, or realizes it after the confidence man is long gone.

So part of the confidence racket is creating a period of uncertainty, during which the victim is not yet sure of what is happening. This delaying process has been called “cooling out the mark.”
Then he makes a clear transition:
The same principle applies in politics.
Then he introduces his first example from politics: how Bill Clinton, who was U.S. President from 1993 to 2001, used the “cooling out” process on the voters. The example begins:
When the accusations that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton first surfaced, he flatly denied them all. Then, as the months passed, the truth came out – but slowly, bit by bit.
After he completes this political example, Mr. Sowell introduces his second political example, which features incumbent U.S President Barack Obama.
We are currently seeing another “cooling out” process, growing out of the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11th this year.
Mr. Sowell explains why Mr. Obama is using the “cooling out” process:
The White House had to know that it was only a matter of time before the truth would come out. But time was what mattered, with an election close at hand. The longer they could stretch out the period of distraction and uncertainty – “cooling out” the voters – the better. Once the confidence man in the White House was reelected, it would be politically irrelevant what facts came out.
Then he completes the Barack Obama example with additional detail.

The Takeaway: I’m sure you have noticed that some articles are especially easy to read – almost effortless. Whenever you notice that you have quickly and easily finished reading an article, take a few minutes to look it over again. You will observe that it features not only good diction but also good composition. It flows smoothly from beginning to end. If you keep looking over well-composed articles, your own composition skills will steadily improve, via unconscious imitation. This is an easy way to improve your writing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Avoiding redundancy (5)

Here are three redundancies that you often hear and sometimes read:

MLB baseball

MLB is an acronym for Major League Baseball, the name of the professional baseball league that consists of teams that play in the American League and National League. Therefore, when you say “MLB baseball,” you are actually saying “Major League Baseball baseball.”

PIN number

PIN is an acronym for personal identification number. Therefore, when you say “PIN number,” you are actually saying “personal identification number number.”

And et cetera

Et cetera is Latin for and others. So when you say “And et cetera,” you are actually saying “and and others.”

The Takeaway: Whether you are speaking or writing, be careful to avoid redundancy. If you use a lot of redundancies, your intelligent listeners or readers may conclude that you are ill-educated, stupid or careless.

See disclaimer.