Monday, December 30, 2013

Doris Lessing, a writer with humility

Novelist Doris Lessing (pictured), who died recently at age 94, had won many awards and prizes for her work, but hadn’t cared much about them.

For example, one day she was returning home from grocery shopping when a Reuters reporter standing in front of her house informed her that she had been awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. Her reaction is worth watching – from her first words (“Oh, Christ.”) to her asking the reporter what he thought she should say. (Can you imagine, say, Donald Trump asking that?) See the video here (2 minutes and 23 seconds).

It was not her first show of disdain for honors. In 1992 she was offered the chance to become a Dame; she declined the offer with a letter to then-Prime Minister John Major’s Principal Private Secretary, Alex Allan. Here’s a sample:
“Dame of what? Dame of Britain? Dame of the British Islands? Dame of the British Commonwealth? Dame of ....? Never mind.” (Spacing modified from the original)
The Takeaway: What a woman! May she rest in peace.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ten steps to becoming a better writer

In my long career as a writer and editor, I’ve trained and encouraged hundreds of writers. I’ve never seen a better piece of advice than “10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer,” by Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger.

The Takeaway: Follow Mr. Clark’s advice and you will succeed.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Another Maugham nugget

Recently I quoted a beautiful  example of concise, clear writing from the short story “The Alien Corn,” by W. Somerset Maugham (pictured). In a later passage in the same work, a professional pianist is playing for the guests at a British country house party. The narrator says:

“She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space.”

This brief passage (only 103 words) gives the reader a description of Germany during Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750). It is fiction, so it may or may not be historically accurate; however, it clearly is compelling. It is loaded with specifics. It appeals to multiple senses.

Although the sentences are long, the passage still rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 60.2 – approximately as easy to read as Reader’s Digest. Maugham makes clear, concise writing look easy, but of course it isn’t.

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 diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Don't be trendy – be considerate

Don’t abuse the preposition around

A corporate writer recently wrote “The company wanted to improve its processes around managing change.” The preposition of, or the preposition for, would have been more precise than the preposition around.

A political writer wrote “centering assessment around common work.” It should have been “centering assessment on common work.”

Very likely, these writers abused around simply because they wanted to follow the cutesy trend of promiscuously abusing around. The writers indulged their desire to be cutesy at the expense of their readers, who must pause for a few moments and decode the sentences. In other words, the writers were being fatuous, lazy and inconsiderate.

Other cutesy, semi-literate fads include the abuse of comfortabledriveexcitedissuepassionself-esteem and sustainability. Such abuse not only confuses your readers but also dulls your mind.

The Takeaway: Be considerate of your readers; don’t follow semi-literate fads. Following semi-literate fads may cause your semi-literate readers to admire you, but it will almost certainly cause your literate readers to disdain you.

See disclaimer.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (4)

Kaiser Wilhelm II (left, saluting) and Tsar Nicholas II (right)
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) of this abuse. Here are more examples:

“The Limbic System is a part of the brain that developed with the caveman. In caveman days the world was a very different place to [sic for from] what it is now.” (Source)

“While there have always been self-described feminists who genuinely believe in the whole ‘equality’ thing, they have repeatedly been demonstrated to be dupes to [sic for of] the hatemongers who control the money and the public policy decisions.” (Source)

“Therefore, with regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to [sic for at] a satisfactory understanding with you.” (Source: a July 28, 1914, telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to his cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia)

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions.

See disclaimer.

Peter O'Toole, R.I.P.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughtful writing

We have previously discussed examples of thoughtless writing; for example, here and here. Today I present a delightful example of thoughtful writing. It is the web site of Nashoba Valley Winery, which also runs a restaurant (pictured).

On the restaurant page of the web site, these two lines caught my eye:

Please note that reservations are strongly recommended.
Click Here for our definition of Strongly Recommended.

It is worth clicking through and reading that definition.

Another thing that caught my eye was the FAQ, which includes a detailed Dog Policy. The dog policy is really worth a read.

Analysis: The writer’s diction and punctuation are a little rough around the edges, but it is obvious that he wanted to communicate clearly. The policies use clear phrases such as “you must take responsibility” and “have any dog removed without cause at any time.” The writer doesn’t slop around with euphemisms or evasions.

Very few companies do a good job of defining their terms. This company does. Click through and take a look. The site is full of good examples of clear, deep communication.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing for publication, be thoughtful. Don’t just slap together a bunch of jargon and cliches and send it out. Instead, quietly and deliberately ask yourself what it is that you really want to convey. Think of examples. Get your thoughts clear and your words will be clear; it will help you produce a good first draft. Then conscientiously work through another draft or two and you should have something you can publish and be proud of.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the winery; I don’t even like wine particularly. Also see my general disclaimer.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (36) – H. L. Mencken

In 1931, Will Durant asked some well-known people to write down what meaning life has for them. H. L. Mencken (pictured) replied with a concise, straightforward 1128-word letter.

Here are two samples, totaling 125 words:
“I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived.”
. . .
“I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do – what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Not many men, I believe, are so fortunate. Millions of them have to make their livings at tasks which really do not interest them. As for me, I have had an extraordinarily pleasant life, despite the fact that I have had the usual share of woes.”

For the record, the samples jointly rate a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 73.6 – easier to read than Reader’s Digest.

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 diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

An editorial comment: The second sample above contains a quick test of whether you really are a writer: Would you write for nothing?

See disclaimer.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Foot in Mouth" award for an MEP

A Member of the European Parliament (MEP) has received the “Foot in Mouth” gobbledygook award for 2013. Godfrey Bloom (pictured), Independent MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber (UK), was described as a “wince-inducing gaffe machine” by a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign, which sponsors the award.

The Takeaway: Take a look at the original news article. What this fellow says in public is far removed from what we know (recall?) as polite British speech.

See disclaimer.

Happy Birthday, Joan Didion.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (35) – W. Somerset Maugham

Here’s another outstanding example of concise, clear writing.

In his short story “The Alien Corn,” W. Somerset Maugham (pictured) describes the guests at a British country house party. Most of them are members of the social elite. To make the mix of guests more varied and interesting, the hostess has also invited a Jewish businessman and a novelist (the narrator of the short story). The novelist feels awkward and the cosmopolitan, charming businessman comes to his rescue:
“...I felt shy and alone among these Cabinet Ministers, great ladies, and peers of the realm who talked of people of which I knew nothing. They were civil to me, but indifferent, and I was conscious that I was somewhat of a burden to my hostess. Ferdy saved me. He sat with me, walked with me, and talked with me. He discovered that I was a writer and we discussed the drama and the novel; he learnt that I had lived much on the Continent and he talked to me pleasantly of France, Germany, and Spain. He seemed really to seek my society. He gave me the flattering impression that he and I stood apart from the other members of the company and by our conversation upon affairs of the spirit made that of the rest of them, the political situation, the scandal of somebody’s divorce, and the growing disinclination of pheasants to be killed, seem a little ridiculous.”
The situation is probably autobiographical; Maugham received such invitations from artistically pretentious hostesses, and he did his best to endure the events. He probably did not usually have a Ferdy to save him. From the last sentence in the quotation above, we get a sense of the typical conversation. The phrase about pheasants nicely sums up the British elite in eight words, and more subtly than Monty Python would have.

For the record: The passage is 159 words long. It rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 65.3 – approximately as easy to read as Reader’s Digest.

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 diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Bits and pieces (1)

Today we present examples of miscellaneous errors.

Poor composition

“The Black Rock Desert is a semi-arid region (in the Great Basin shrub steppe eco-region), of lava beds and playa, or alkali flats, situated in the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, a silt playa 100 miles north of Reno that encompasses more than 300,000 acres of land and contains more than 120 miles of historic trails. It is in the northern Nevada section of the Great Basin...” (Source) (Several links omitted.)

The reader has to read 39 words before being told where the desert is located (100 miles north of Reno).

Silly use of hedging

“We [hairdressers] are kind of like the fabric of people’s lives.” (Source)

The hairdresser makes a grand claim but hedges it twice. The reader is left to guess what she really meant to say.

Vague antecedent

“Take Camden, New Jersey, for example, a place that tops the list of most dangerous cities in America year after year. Residents of the city have been told when the criminals are at the door, calling the police wont be able to help them.” (Source)

Does “them” refer to “Residents” or “the criminals”?

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing something for publication – even if it’s “just” a blog – try to have an experienced editor read your copy.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"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 elevated but not pompous; it is 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.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The absence of a comma

Yesterday, while passing through the picturesque lakeside town of Center Harbor, New Hampshire, I stopped to read an historical marker (pictured). The marker commemorates Belknap College, a local institution.

Because of limited space, many historical markers raise questions that they don’t answer. For example, the Belknap College marker’s headline is
which raises the awkward question of why the college lasted only 11 years. The text doesn’t answer it. Indeed, the text raises and fails to answer an additional question: How did the students and the locals get along?
While Degrees were earned, all who attended gained lifelong skills, enduring friendships and a fondness for Center Harbor and its residents who welcomed them.
Don’t you feel that a comma is missing after the word “residents”? You’re right. A comma in that place would mean the residents in general welcomed the students and the students in turn gained a fondness for the residents in general. The absence of that comma, if interpreted literally, means few residents welcomed the students, and the students in turn gained a fondness for those few residents only.

We may never learn the truth about who was fond of whom. But we can probably safely assume that the committee that composed the text did not consciously omit that comma; they omitted it unconsciously. For, if the committee had openly discussed that comma, they would have recognized that to omit it would be uncharitable. Everyone understands that the solemnity of a historical marker requires especially tactful and gracious language.

So when the literate visitor to Center Harbor stops to read that marker, he considers the committee members careless but not uncharitable.

The Takeaway: Be careful with your punctuation. A single mistake can embarrass you. And if you are ever responsible for text that will remain in the public eye for centuries, be especially alert – and ask a careful editor for help.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

More on fallacies

When debating a topic, we often make the mistake of resorting to fallacies. We are especially prone to making this mistake when the topic is controversial. Here’s an example.

The Denver Post reported that Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado, had said that blacks and Latinos lack the drive and ambition of Asians and Jews. Six people spoke to the Post about Mr. Lamm’s assertion, but none of them (insofar as they were quoted by the Post) directly stated whether the assertion was true or false. Instead, they used fallacies:
“Dick Lamm is out of control. [Argumentum ad Hominem] We are not victims [Straw Man], and to take our culture and our way of living and our whole being and try to turn us into something else devalues who we are as Latinos and as blacks. [Straw Man] He goes around wanting to make people think he is Mary Poppins [Straw Man], when the reality is that he is a hard-core racist.” [Argumentum ad Hominem]

“I can’t account for statements that seem to condone sophisticated kinds of racial profiling and racial characterization.” [Red Herring]

“To say that in the face of César Chávez and Martin Luther King [Red Herring] and some of the other pioneers from the minority community is appalling.” [Appeal to Emotion]

The type of generalizations Lamm made “are not constructive to finding solutions.” [Appeal to Consequences]

“To me, cultural criticism is the opposite of racism. Racial characterizations are not chosen, but culture is. If the data suggests that some cultural attitudes are working more than others, why not make the change? [Appeal to Consequences] For there to be this thought police crackdown against a Dick Lamm to punish him for raising this issue, it’s a disservice [Red Herring] to people who find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in America. They need all the encouragement and the tough love to help them climb that ladder.” [Appeal to Pity]

“I reject those sentiments [Appeal to Emotion], I do not share them [Appeal to Emotion], and I think to make that suggestion is flat-out wrong.” [Appeal to Emotion]
The Takeaway: Be careful to avoid fallacies in your writing and speech; instead, use direct, clear and rational language. In situations where you are afraid to use direct, clear and rational language, don’t write or say anything – resorting to fallacies makes you sound shifty and evasive.

Disclaimer: I do not know or care whether Mr. Lamm’s assertion is true or false. My purpose in this post is to point out examples of invalid argument: six people who presumably do care a lot about whether the assertion is true or false avoided that question as if it were poison. Please remember, I do not choose examples for the ideas they express. I choose examples for their value as illustrations of especially bad (sometimes especially good) writing and speaking. Also see my general disclaimer.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The value of logic – an editorial

In 2002, Steven Yates, a former professor of logic, wrote an interesting article (“Can Logic Be Taught on Campus?”) on the place of logic courses in college curricula. He wondered whether logic was “at odds with the major campus tendencies.” For example:
Once we take [logic] seriously, we have to throw out a lot of what passes for scholarship today – and very possibly, a lot of teaching as well, to the extent that it has come to express the teacher’s feelings or attempt to elicit feelings from students instead of address facts of reality. (Italics in original.)
And from the conclusion of the article:
Carried out properly, a course in logic can greatly improve a college students ability to think independently, as an individual and not simply a herd-member, and not be taken to the cleaners by every fashion to come along. It can be used to show that many beliefs currently held dear on campuses simply dont make any sense when held up to the light of close, logical scrutiny. It is thus a highly politically incorrect subject. It probably belongs in the core of any good college or university curriculum, but definitely doesnt fit into an arena where emotions reign, where intimidation is the preferred method of enforcing conformity, or where truth and right are determined by the collective will (or sexual fetishes) of agitators-in-training – which is why the pronouncements of the latter offer such a gold mine of examples of horrid reasoning.
The Takeaway: Especially if you have never studied logic, I recommend you read the article. It will introduce you to powerful ideas that can help you think and write more clearly. You may be inspired to read a book on logic or take a course in logic. At the college I attended, logic was a required course. It was difficult for me, but it has paid off year after year, over my four-decade writing career. Have a go at logic.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Mr. Clarity goofs off (4)

Did you ever notice that not all disease names sound bad?

Many disease names do sound really bad, but others don’t sound too bad at all. And a few actually sound good – they don’t even sound like the names of diseases. Here are some examples, off the top of my head. Warning: some links point to disturbing images.

Sound really bad: rickets,* carbuncle, pellagra, and twisted bowel.

Don’t sound too bad: abasia and spondylolisthesis.

Actually sound good: enuresis and echolalia. To me, enuresis sounds like a kind of cell division. And Echolalia sounds like a girlfriend of the poet Catullus.

And the really strange thing is, the seriousness of a disease does not always correspond to the awfulness of its name. For example, given a choice I would rather have awful-sounding pellagra than not-too-bad-sounding spondylolisthesis, because I read on Wikipedia that pellagra can be cured by vitamins.

Those are my (highly subjective) thoughts. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you have your own examples to discuss. I welcome your comments.

The Takeaway: Have a great day, my fellow wordies.

*Generally speaking, plural names sound bad: for example, rickets, mumps, measles, shingles, and chilblains. I don’t know why.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this post is not medical advice. This post is merely about the sounds of words; it is not intended to disrespect the sufferers of any disease. See also my general disclaimer.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (23)

“Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”
~Thomas Hobbes (pictured)

“Paranoid is well informed.”
~Henry Kissinger

Only the Paranoid Survive (book title)
~Andrew Grove

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
~W.H. Auden

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
~John C. Maxwell

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed... brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
~Charles Bukowski

“You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last.
~Marcus Aurelius

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
~Philip K. Dick

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A fallacy festival

Here’s a video that shows a speaker (U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, pictured) using ten fallacies in a row while answering a question. The video is ten minutes long, but it is worth watching; it will improve your ability to spot fallacies in others’ (or your) speech and writing.

According to the narrator of the video, the speaker uses these fallacies in her answer:

Straw Man
Appeal to Authority
Appeal to Accomplishment
Appeal to Emotion
Straw Man (also an Appeal to Pity)
Red Herring
Straw Man
Mind Control
False Analogy
False Analogy

The Takeaway: Don’t talk or write like a politician. Talking or writing like a politician makes you sound shifty.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this post is not a legal opinion. It is not an argument for or against restrictions on gun ownership; it is a commentary on diction and logic. Also see my general disclaimer.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The language of evasion"

Economic historian Gary North, for decades a champion of clear writing and clear speaking, analyzes the evasive language used by Kathleen Sebelius (pictured), a politician who spent $70 million to build a non-functional web site.

The Takeaway: Read the article by Dr. North. And remember, whenever you write or talk like a politician, intelligent readers or listeners will suspect that you are hiding something, even if you are not. If you are an honest person and are working in the free market (politicians call it “the private sector”), do not write or talk like a politician; use clear, straightforward language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

An embarrassing promo from Grammarly

I received a promotional email from a fellow at Grammarly. Here it is, with my reactions interspersed.

Hi Joe,

You know better than most that putting your writing “out there”

[Instead of “putting your writing ‘out there,’ ” why not use the more natural “publishing your writing”? Also, the cliche “out there” distracts the reader by introducing a tone of paranoia.]

takes a tremendous amount of courage; readers will find and comment on even the simplest mistakes. At Grammarly we know the feeling - and we’ve made it our mission to improve writers’ confidence.

[Not to tell you how to run your business, but wouldn’t it be better to make it your mission to improve writers’ writing? Excessive confidence is a major reason why one-third of Americans are illiterate; instead of teaching grammar, the grammar schools instill self-esteem (unwarranted, delusional confidence). It seems to me that a company called Grammarly should be the last entity in the world pandering to the delusion.]

Putting our money where our mouth is, we’d be honored to sponsor your next blog post with a $100 Amazon gift card.

[I don’t understand the logic of that sentence.]

In case you haven’t heard of us, Grammarly is an automated online proofreader that finds and explains those pesky

[I have never seen a grown man actually write the childish word pesky, except in jest.]

grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes that are bound to find their way into your first draft.

[Mistakes do not “find their way into” my first drafts; I make the mistakes. Your “find their way into” has the same tone of paranoia as your “out there,” as in “Ohhh, those mistakes are swarming out there like mosquitoes, just waiting for a chance to find their way into my office and my first draft.”]

Think of us as a second pair of digital eyes

[Where was the first pair of digital eyes? My eyes are human.]

that can spare you the cost of hiring a proofreader. If you'd like to join our 3 million users and try the premium version of our proofreader for free, let me know and I’ll make it happen!

[“Make it happen” is an annoying cliche. And please spare me the gratuitous exclamation point.]

Please send me the expected publishing date and topic of your next appropriate blog post (ideally something about writing) so I can give you all the details you need in time.

[No, thank you. I was already thinking of buying a subscription to Grammarly, which appears to be a useful tool. Even this embarrassing email won’t deter me; I’ll give the company the benefit of the doubt and assume that the employees who designed the product are more diligent than you.]

The Takeaway: Edit and proofread everything you intend to publish. Everything.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in Grammarly. Also see my general disclaimer.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Straight talk: an example (21) – Joseph Sobran

We writers need to read a little straight talk now and then. By contrast, it makes us more aware of the evasive diction (sample here) that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

An example of straight talk

The late American columnist Joseph Sobran (pictured) was widely known as a man who wrote what he believed and believed what he wrote. Here, from a column titled “Language in Rubble,” is a representative sample of Mr. Sobran’s incisive-but-gentlemanly style:
At times like this, we need clear, spare, specific language that acknowledges what we are really talking about, the kind of prose that made writers like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, both unsentimental war correspondents as well as novelists, so useful, invigorating, and even in a way consoling to read. Even today, when you read them, you know you aren’t reading dated propaganda. Good reporters still, as ever, avoid the false, loaded language of politicians. This always irritates partisans, who suspect objectivity of being disloyal and treasonous. The more we kill, the more we seem to demand euphemism.

You don’t have to be neutral in order to be honest. You merely have to describe what you see and stick to what you really know. You must ruthlessly suppress anything that smacks of wishful thinking, letting the details do the talking even when they hurt your own side. Good writing should be calm, even cold, something the reader can trust amid all the shooting and shouting.
The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting, sniveling diction (more samples here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with the statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. A little dose of straight talk helps you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

To be taken seriously, write clearly

Even if your job title does not contain the word writer, good writing is important to your career. In fact, it is crucial. Dave Kerpen wrote an excellent article that explains why. His key points are:

Your writing is a reflection of your thinking.... Clear, succinct, convincing writing will differentiate you as a great thinker and a valuable asset to your team.... If you want to be taken seriously by your manager, colleagues, potential employers, clients and prospects, you must become a better writer.

After explaining why, he explains how. He describes five ways – ways he has successfully used himself – to become that better writer:

Practice, practice, practice....

Say it out loud....

Make it more concise....

Work on your headlines....


He details each of the five ways in clear, simple language with the ring of truth. You really should read his article, especially if you are early in your career.

I will add my own word of encouragement here: If you keep working on your writing, you will, over time, become a far better writer. This is one of the few reliable guarantees that life offers us.

The Takeaway: Read Mr. Kerpen’s article right now. Review it once per quarter, to remind yourself of the key points. You’ll never be sorry that you took the time to become a better writer.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in Mr. Kerpen’s books or services. Also see my general disclaimer.

Pictured: The late author William F. Buckley, Jr.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The vague cliche “all set” (2)

Like other professionals, police officers under pressure sometimes resort to vague cliches instead of clear, specific language.

During the first minute of this video, an officer detains and disarms a citizen and asks for the citizen’s papers. The citizen persistently cites court decisions, questions the officer, refuses to identify himself, and asks to have his gun returned.

The officer, while explaining why he is detaining the citizen, keeping the citizen’s gun, and asking for the citizen’s papers, resorts twice (at 1:00 and 1:02) to the vague cliche “all set.” He sounds unsure and unprofessional.

In contrast, this officer, in a similar situation, uses (at 2:14) the more-specific word “safe” and sounds much more professional. He is also immensely patient under pressure.

The Takeaway: If your job requires you to inform laymen, try not to use “all set” or other vague cliches. When laymen hear vague cliches, they tend to doubt that you know what you are talking about.* To avoid damaging your credibility, learn how to inform laymen in clear, specific language. Then train until you can use that language fluently, even when under pressure.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this post is not a legal opinion; it is a commentary on how a professional’s diction can affect his professional credibility. Also see my general disclaimer.

*Here’s another example of a professional (in this case, a technical sales representative) who damaged his credibility by resorting to a vague cliche (in this case, “bring it to its knees”) to convey information.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (22)

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
~Max Planck (pictured)

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”
~Arthur Schopenhauer

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~Jiddu Krishnamurti

“There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men.”
~Edmund Burke

“To delve into history entails, besides the grievance of hard work, the danger that in the depths one may lose one’s scapegoats.”
~Jacques Barzun (an historian with a good sense of humor)

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The vague cliche "all set" – an editorial

The vague cliche “all set” is the worst cliche in use today. As background for this assertion, I’m going to distinguish between “not-so-bad” cliches and “bad” cliches.

Not-so-bad cliches

The typical cliche begins as a new expression that conveys an idea cleverly and precisely. Because the expression is fresh and clever and precise, people like using it. It becomes commonly used and then overused: in other words, it becomes a cliche. For example, “like a kid in a candy store.”

So, when you use a cliche, you are using a stale expression. That’s bad, I guess, but at least people know what you mean (unless the cliche is very old). So the cliche has some value. I prefer to say that this kind of cliche is “not-so-bad,” when compared with a truly bad cliche.

Bad cliches

The bad cliche begins not as a precise expression but as a vague one. It becomes a cliche because evasive people* recognize that it can help them get away with deliberately conveying an idea vaguely as opposed to precisely. These people popularize the expression and it eventually becomes a cliche in their crowd.

Although you and I try to be careful writers and speakers, we occasionally resort to using a bad cliche when we unwittingly imitate the evasive people. And that is really bad: We are impeding our own communication. And we are sanctioning evasiveness, when we should be trying to eliminate it.

Today, the worst of the bad cliches is “all set.” Every year, it seems that more people rely on it. Some people use it hundreds of times per day.

Among the worst offenders:
Indolent shop clerks who ask customers “All set?” instead of asking “Can I help you find something?” or “Can I get you anything else?” or “Do you have any questions?”

Indolent waiters who ask guests “All set?” instead of asking “May I take your order?” or “May I clear your place?” or “I’ll bring you your change.”
The Takeaway: Try not to rely on the vague cliche “all set.” It is almost always a vague substitute for a more precise expression. It’s bad manners. In some situations it may even be unethical or immoral, because it is evasive. Join me in the effort to eliminate evasive diction, our own and others’.

*Besides favoring vague expressions, these people usually mumble, slur their words (e.g., “Ha-wuh goo-wuh” for “Have a good one”), and refuse to look you in the eye. For more examples of slurred words, see my list in progress here.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The uninhabited clause (18)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause with a physical or conceptual subject, as opposed to a human subject. For example, “New York” is a physical subject, “assertiveness” is a conceptual subject, and “Donald Trump” is a human subject. There is nothing inherently wrong with using Uninhabited Clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers. They want to read about people.


Here are the first three paragraphs of an article titled “Keep the scourge of scientism out of schools,” by sociologist, commentator and author Frank Furedi, who published the article on his website:
At a time when society finds it hard to provide compelling answers to the problems that people face, the realm of science is being plundered in search of moral authority. The exhaustion of the old taken-for-granted ideals, values and ideologies has led to a search for new ways for validating views and opinions. Instead of trying to give meaning to the problems we face through reflection and debate, governments now embrace science as the unique source of truth.

This is giving rise to ‘policy-led science’ - that is, science that has a tendency to mould itself around the needs of policymakers. This strengthens the dogma of scientism, which aims to spread scientific discourse into our personal, cultural and social experiences, where actually other modes of non-scientific reflection are really needed. This is why, today, we have everything from the ‘science of parenting’ to the ‘science of happiness’ and the ‘science of the spiritual life’.

Scientism is now used to legitimate various policies and claims made by all sorts of institutions. Consequently, evidence, or rather evidence-based policy, which enjoys the authority of science, dominates the modern political landscape. Today, policies are judged not on the grounds of whether they are good or bad, but on the question of whether they are evidence-based.

The three paragraphs contain 15 Uninhabited Clauses:
realm is being plundered
exhaustion has led
This is giving
that has
This strengthens
which aims
modes are needed
This is
Scientism is used
evidence dominates
policy dominates
which enjoys
policies are judged
they are
they are
And only five Inhabited Clauses:
society finds
people face
we face
governments embrace
we have
That’s 75 percent Uninhabited Clauses in the first three paragraphs. Later in the article, it gets worse: it rises to 88 percent.

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing about abstract topics such as metaphysics or mathematics, you should strive to include persons in most of your clauses. Otherwise, you may sound academic and boring.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (4)

In previous posts (1, 2, 3)* I’ve described puerile writing as narcissistic, histrionic and bloated. Today I describe puerile writing with one more adjective: palsy-walsy: “friendly in a way that is not proper or sincere.” Here are three examples, with my reactions:

Example 1

Recently when I tried to sign in to my LinkedIn account, I received this message:
Hmm, that’s not the right password. Please try again or request a new one.
I assume “Hmm” is intended to make me think that this automated response was typed, in real time, by a real human being – a human being who is my pal and writes to me in a conversational style, even using conversational interjections like “Hmm.” This is an insult to my intelligence.

Example 2

Recently I changed my password on Twitter. I received this email:
Woo hoo! Your password has been changed!
What is “Woo hoo!” doing in a business email? I have never seen a grown-up use this expression in writing, and the only people I’ve heard say it aloud were ditzy teenage girls. And why are there two exclamation points in this routine message?

Example 3

Almost every new vendor who writes to me – via email, post card, or letter – tells me that he/she/it is “excited” to have me as a new client. I’m glad to know they’re pleased, but I don’t want them excited. I don’t want their hands to be trembling – especially surgeons and dentists.

The Takeaway: Whenever you write to clients, customers or prospects, show some respect. Use courteous, dignified language. You don’t have to be stuffy. You can be appropriately informal in most situations; for example, the contraction in “We’ve updated your password as you requested” is perfectly fine. Just don’t slobber all over the reader. For more on palsy-walsy offenses, see Ken Smith’s incisive book Junk English.


Summary of the characteristics of
puerile writing and grown-up writing

Puerile writing is:

Narcissistic:  Entertains the author and indulges his whims.
Histrionic:  Injects false excitement into routine transactions.
Bloated:  Indulges in redundancy, circumlocution and tangents.
Palsy-Walsy:  Insinuates a depth of friendship that does not exist.

Grown-up writing is:

Empathic:  Informs, assists and pleases the reader.
Sober:  Maintains an appropriate tone for each message.
Streamlined:  Includes only the essentials and important details.
Courteous:  Shows respect for the reader.

*I apologize for taking more than three years to complete the series.

Update, Thursday, October 10, 2013: When I changed my Netflix plan today, the company’s automated response was, “You have successfully changed your plan to 2 DVDs out at-a-time.” See? No interjections, exclamation points or histrionics. This is how grown-up companies write; it takes no more energy or time than the childish drivel from Twitter.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Extreme gobbledygook

I thought you might enjoy seeing these two award-winning examples of extreme gobbledygook:

A British government bureaucracy that calls itself the “NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation” wrote the worst gobbledygook* in 2012:

A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation... Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation

The service is inclusive of full engagement with Clinical Commissioning Groups who direct at decision-making points how they wish the proposal to be deployed (re-commmisson, de-commission or changes to current services/providers), and lastly an implementation team who see the service redesign through to evaluation and benefits realisation.

Mitt Romney, an American politician, spoke the worst gobbledygook** in 2012:

I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.

The Takeaway: If you fear that you may unwittingly publish gobbledygook, protect yourself as follows: Download and read The Gobbledygook Manifesto, by David Meerman Scott. And occasionally read award-winning gobbledygook on the website of the Plain English Campaign. These actions will re-sensitize you to gobbledygook and help prevent you from unconsciously imitating the written or spoken gobbledygook of the oblivious people around you.)


*According to the Plain English Campaign, which bestowed its 2012 annual “Golden Bull” award for written gobbledygook (pictured) on the the “NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation” and on nine other organizations.

**According to the Plain English Campaign, which bestowed its 2012 annual “Foot in Mouth” award for spoken gobbledygook on Mr. Romney. The Campaign explained that this sample was merely one of “literally dozens” of Mr. Romney’s comments during 2012 that were worthy of the award.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Straight talk: an example (20) – Oliver Wendell Holmes

We writers need to read a little straight talk now and then. By contrast, it makes us more aware of the evasive diction (sample here) that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

An example of straight talk

From the Wikipedia article on Buck v. Bell:
Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927), is a decision of the United States Supreme Court ... in which the Court ruled that a state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the mentally retarded, “for the protection and health of the state” did not violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.


The ruling was written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. In support of his argument that the interest of the states in a “pure” gene pool outweighed the interest of individuals in their bodily integrity, he argued:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. (Links in original article have been omitted here.)
The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting, sniveling diction (more samples here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with the statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. A little dose of straight talk helps you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

An historical oddity: Even though Buck v. Bell sounds grotesque today, the Supreme Court has never expressly overruled it.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (34) – Louise Erdrich

Here’s another outstanding example of concise, clear writing. It’s from The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich (pictured):
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
The writing is lean, even austere. And yet it’s also intimate. You could easily imagine Louise Erdrich sitting with you and speaking to you. Her voice is steady and compelling. You know, even as the words reach your ears, that you will never forget them.

Now read the passage aloud. Notice that she repeats some words: She says “You have to love. You have to feel.” More rhythmic and powerful than “You have to love and feel.” She drastically varies the sentence length, from four words to 39. She puts her longest sentence second-to-last, at the climax of the passage. And so on.

For the record: The passage is 103 words long. It averages only 4.0 characters per word and only 11.4 words per sentence. As a result of short words and short sentences, it rates a Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 88.4 – easily readable by high schoolers.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Placement of modifiers (24)

Careless placement of a modifier can make a sentence unclear or unintentionally comical.


“Monthly electricity bills in Panama City are left at the entry to apartment buildings which can be lost or misplaced forcing most customers to use their online billing and payment services.” (Source)
[The modifier “which can be lost or misplaced” immediately follows “apartment buildings,” implying that apartment buildings can be lost or misplaced.] 

“He was thought to be mentally retarded until the age of seven. However, after six weeks of schooling his father overheard him repeating his multiplication tables.” (Source) (Link and footnote omitted)
[The modifier “after six weeks of schooling” appears to modify the nearby verb “overheard,” implying that the father had only six weeks of schooling.]

“I’m going to do my best to explain why objectification can’t be a valid theory and doesn’t in any way establish the need for any social and political movement pitting the genders against each other at as purely practical a level as I can manage.” (Source)
[The modifier “at as purely practical a level as I can manage” begins 27 words after the verb it modifies, “explain.” Most readers will have to re-read the sentence in order to recognize what the modifier is modifying.]

Inside Job is a 2010 documentary film about the late-2000s financial crisis directed by Charles H. Ferguson.” (Source) (Links omitted)
[The modifier “directed by Charles H. Ferguson” immediately follows “financial crisis,” implying that Mr. Ferguson somehow directed that financial crisis.]
The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Forcing your readers to mentally correct your grammar is unprofessional and inconsiderate.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The cumulative effect of errors (3)

There is a legal concept called the cumulative effect of errors. One description is: “In some cases, the cumulation [sic] of minor errors may amount to error requiring [a decision by a judge], even if individual errors, alone, would not.” (Via LexisNexis. Subscription required.)

You have probably noticed an analogous effect in your reading. If an author keeps making errors (or keeps using awkward diction or syntax), eventually you will conclude that he is careless and probably unreliable, even if none of his errors reduces clarity by much.

Example of cumulative effect

My example consists of the title and first five paragraphs of a blog post by Kris Dunn, Chief Human Resources Officer at Kinetix, a recruiting firm.

I’m going to use Dale Carnegie’s method of analysis: A portion of Mr. Dunn’s text, the reader’s reaction, the next portion of Mr. Dunn’s text, the reader’s reaction, and so on.
The 5 Managerial Responses to Sabotage At Work…

[Does that ellipsis mean there’s more to come? I hope so; this is only the title.]

Human behavior is so… well… human.

[More ellipses.]

How many times have you seen it?  The pressure’s on at work, and maybe even layoffs look like they might be around corner –
[Around the corner.]
or another round of layoffs, depending on your company’s situation. And when the pressure’s on, you can bet that questionable human behavior is right around the corner.

Self-Preservation 101.  I’m good, he’s bad.  Pick me, pick me!…

[Why would someone ask to be picked for a layoff? To get a fat severance package?]

[Will you stop with the ellipses?]

What type of human behavior?

[I thought you just answered that.]

How about the type who will cheat

[You just asked “what type of human behavior” and now you’re answering with a type of person.]

to ensure an edge is gained

[To gain an edge.]

against a co-worker you

[You alluded to a type of employee; now you refer to the employee as “you” (second person).]

are directly or indirectly competing against?  The type of behavior you see

[Now you’re using “you” to refer not to that employee but to me. You’re making this article more confusing with every line.]

when someone’s trying to keep his job

[Is this “someone” different from the employee who asked to be laid off?]

and will apparently DO WHAT IT TAKES TO CLOSE THE DEAL

[Please don’t shout, Mr. Dunn.]

vs. his competitor, who also happens to be a teammate.

How do you deal with that when it involves actions that are labeled as “sabotage”?

[Your title promised this article was about sabotage; and now, like a shifty lawyer, you’re squirming out of that promise by embedding the word sabotage in a sneaky, passive-voice circumlocution.]

You know the type of internal cheating I’m talking about – email tips, gossip about someone’s performance, misinformation and yes, even stealing the ideas of others and presenting them as your own.

[In one sentence, you’re using “you” in two different ways.]
The Takeaway: As you edit your copy, watch out for the cumulative effect of errors. The more errors you make, the worse you look, even if none of your errors reduces clarity by much. Eventually your reader stops reading – and may even vow never to read anything else with your name on it. Or your company’s name. Think about that.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Simple, clear, memorable

In 1966, I attended a one-day Smith System course in defensive driving. The course taught five important behaviors, which are now called The Smith 5 Keys to Space Cushion Driving:
Aim high in steering.
Get the big picture.
Keep your eyes moving.
Leave yourself an out.
Make sure they see you.
I have been able to recall The Smith 5 Keys – word for word – for 47 years. The main reason* they are memorable is that they consist of short words (17 one-syllable words and 4 two-syllable words) and short sentences (average 4.2 words per sentence).

That is about as simple as language gets, except in primary school.

The Takeaway: Whenever you need to write or present information of high importance, try to follow the example of The Smith 5 Keys: Use mostly short words and short sentences. Your writing and speaking will be clearer and more memorable than ever before. You will stand out from other writers and presenters.

See disclaimer.
*Here are three other reasons: (1) They use parallel structure, which adds power and aids memorization; (2) they use active voice, which is easier to understand than passive voice; and (3) they use imperative mood, which is the natural mood for teaching.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Straight talk: an example (19) – Allen Frances

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 make us more aware of the evasive diction (sample here) that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate it.

An example of straight talk

Allen J. Frances, MD (pictured) is an American psychiatrist best known for having edited the fourth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The DSM “provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders.”

In a press interview, Dr. Frances reportedly said “there is no definition of a mental disorder. It’s bullshit. I mean, you just can’t define it.”

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting, sniveling diction (more samples here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It will help you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Order (2)

When readers encounter a series, they expect it to be in order, usually in a specific order. For example, if you’ve just taken your seat in a concert hall, and you’re looking at the evening’s program, you expect it be in chronological order, the order in which the pieces will be performed.

A careful writer tries to put every series in proper order. In contrast, a careless writer will often present a series in a jumble; for example, I recently saw this jumbled series while trying to log on to a web site:

“We need to send you an Identification Code Your information is securely transmitted via https (S S L) 128-bit Encryption — We need to confirm your identity to ensure your accounts are secure. We do this by sending a temporary Identification Code to one of the telephone numbers or email addresses you provided us in the past.”


1.    The sequence of the message is jumbled.

2.    There’s a missing period after the first sentence.

3.    The tenses are confusing.

4.    The voices are confusing.

My rewrite

In order to ensure your accounts are secure, we need to confirm your identity. To confirm your identity, we need to transmit a temporary Identification Code (via https (S S L) 128-bit Encryption for security) to one of the telephone numbers or email addresses you provided us in the past.
The rewrite took me two minutes and five seconds; I spent most of that time on guesswork.

The Takeaway: When you are presenting a series, put it in order, usually in the order that readers expect. And when the order is not what readers expect, state the order.

See disclaimer.