Thursday, January 31, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (17)

“Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.”
~William Zinsser

“There has been a great decline in civility in this country [the USA]. We have lost the perception that reasonable persons of good will may hold opposing views. Simultaneously, we have lost the ability to address reasoned arguments – to forsake ad hominem characterization, and instead address a different person’s arguments.”
~Michael Crichton

“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
~Jon Krakauer (Pictured)

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
~T.S. Eliot

“Love grants in a moment what toil can hardly achieve in an age.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

The cumulative effect of errors (2)

There is a legal concept called the cumulative effect of errors. One description of this concept 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.


A recent article provides a good example of cumulative effect. Here are the first 200 words of the article, with my questions and comments interspersed:

On Friday, news broke that CNET had been forced by its parent company CBS to remove the Dish Network's Hopper set-top box from its “Best of CES” awards due to ongoing litigation between the two companies.

[Does “the two companies” refer to CNET and Dish Network? Or CBS and Dish Network? Spell it out so I don’t have to ask.]

CBS has been battling the Dish Network in court

[Thank you.]

over the Hopper's ability to skip past commercials automatically (NBC, ABC, and Fox are also taking action).

[Legal action?]

CBS Interactive

[Wait – what’s this? And what is its relationship with CBS and with CNET?]

representatives told The Verge that the Hopper with Sling

[How is that different from the Hopper you mentioned earlier? Is it different?]

had been withdrawn from consideration from the “Best of CES” awards due to CBS's lawsuit with Dish; that the ban on coverage is limited only to specific products implicated in ongoing litigation with CNET's parent company;

[Instead of “CNET’s parent company,” just say “CBS,” for clarity.]

and that the ban only applied to product reviews and that news coverage would be exempt. That policy appears to have been hastily put in place. Prior to the move Friday, CNET had reviewed the Hopper and written extensively about the device.

But the problems may go deeper than that. The Verge has now learned that the facts of the case are somewhat different than the story CNET and CBS had previously shared

[I’m still waiting for you to tell me who “CBS Interactive” is.]

with the public. According to sources familiar with the matter, the Hopper was not simply an entrant in... (200 words)

[Is that the Hopper with Sling or the plain old Hopper?]

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, at which point the effective clarity of your text drops to zero.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Don’t make your readers work too hard (2)

Recently I received from an email that began like this:

“As someone who has recently made a purchase on, we have applied a $1.00 credit to your account, good towards any eligible Amazon Instant Video purchase, including rentals and new release titles in HD.”

When a typical educated reader sees the phrase “As someone who has recently made a purchase on,” he expects it to be followed immediately by the subject of the main clause. And he expects that that subject will be the same person as the “someone.”

But when that subject turns out to be “we,” the reader is confused for a moment. He wonders, “Does ‘we’ mean” He re-reads the phrase and thinks, “No, because has not ‘recently made a purchase on’ ”

So he guesses that the “someone” was he, the reader, and therefore “we” should have been “you.”

Now the reader guesses what the paragraph was trying to say:

As someone who has recently made a purchase on, you have been given a $1.00 credit in your account. It’s good towards any eligible Amazon Instant Video purchase, including rentals and new release titles in HD.

Or more naturally:

Because you have recently made a purchase on, we have applied a $1.00 credit to your account, good towards any eligible Amazon Instant Video purchase, including rentals and new release titles in HD.

The typical reader will take only a few seconds to go through this thought process. And, yes, he will probably guess what was trying to say. But he will wonder why the company made him work hard to decipher that sentence. He will be mildly annoyed and will conclude that the company hires semi-literate or lazy writers.

The Takeaway: Don’t lower your credibility by sending sloppy writing to your customers. Ignorance of grammar is a reliable indicator of weak character.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Long sentences are OK, if...

In general, long sentences are harder to read than short sentences. However, it’s OK to use long sentences if you do it carefully. Here’s a good example:

In the novel Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (pictured), a sociology professor is wondering aloud why some men become sex offenders. His wife, Gloria, suggests that maybe they’re programmed or hardwired to be sex offenders. Here is part of the professor’s reply:

“These men are human beings, not chimpanzees or gorillas. They belong to the same species as we do. And we’re not hardwired to commit these acts. If, as it appears, the proportion of the male population who commit these acts has increased exponentially in recent years, and it’s not simply because of the criminalization of the behavior and a consequent increase in the reportage of these crimes, then there’s something in the wider culture itself that has changed in recent years, and these men are like the canary in the mine shaft, the first among us to respond to that change, as if their social and ethical immune systems, the controls over their behavior, have been somehow damaged or compromised. And if we don’t identify the specific changes in our culture that are attacking our social and ethical immune systems, which we usually refer to as taboos, then before long we’ll all succumb. We’ll all become sex offenders, Gloria. Perhaps in a sense we already are.”


I tested the readability of this 166-word paragraph by using the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) test. The FRE score was 51.2 (highly readable). This is in spite of a very long sentence, the fourth (“If, as it appears...”), with 94 words; and a long sentence, the fifth (“And if we don’t identify...”), with 33 words.

There are three things that compensate for those two long sentences:

One. The two long sentences are preceded by three very short sentences (nine, nine and eight words respectively) and followed by two very short sentences (six and seven words respectively). The reader experiences an easy warm-up before the long jog through the two long sentences and enjoys a rest after the jog.

Two. The average word length is 4.7 characters: short. That helps readability.

Three. Unlike novelists such as Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer, Russell Banks is a craftsman. Although the two long sentences are about a fairly technical topic, most readers will not hesitate or stumble. Read those two sentences again and you’ll notice how logically and smoothly they flow. You’ll also notice how the author’s repetition of the heavy phrase “social and ethical immune systems” actually helps rather than hurts the clarity.

We as readers may agree or disagree with the fictional professor’s argument. But either way, we understand his argument. He stated it clearly.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly, such as Russell Banks. 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 the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to write for the Internet

If you’re looking for guidance on how to write for the Internet, the place to start is this 756-word article. It’s from the incomparable writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant and it contains crucial information that is known by fewer than one-tenth of one percent of writers.

For example:

“Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye. (When I worked in the newspaper biz, I was always told that you should multiply the point size you used by two to determine what should be the maximum column width in picas. Thus, anything in 9 pt type should be no more than 18 picas wide, or about three inches.) Many Internet sites have columns far wider than three inches!” (Boldface in original. Italics in original. Link in original.)

Like everything Daphne Gray-Grant writes, the article will help you save time and avoid frustration.

The Takeaway: Read Daphne Gray-Grant’s brief guide to writing for the Internet. Then follow it and make it a part of you.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Childish language

In previous posts, I’ve pointed out that companies often allow their programmers’ childish language to be glimpsed by customers. These glimpses can distract, confuse and irritate the customers.

For example, when a user of Google’s Gmail has no messages in his Inbox, he sees this message:

No new mail! See what people are talking about on Google+.

When there are no messages in his Sent Mail box, he sees this message:

No sent messages! Send one now!

When there are no messages on file anywhere in his account, he sees this message:

You don’t have any mail! Our servers are feeling unloved.


These messages contrive excitement: although all three messages are routine, there is at least one exclamation point in each message.

The messages also express a childish anthropomorphism: the “servers are feeling unloved.”

And the messages demonstrate a childish narcissism: they imply that Google thinks the non-existent emotions of its non-sentient servers are somehow more important than the real emotions of irritation and disdain felt by real sentient beings: the customers reading those messages.

Grown-up versions

Here are grown-up, sober versions of the three messages.

There is no new mail.

There are no sent messages.

There is no mail on file anywhere in your account.

The Takeaway: Don’t risk distracting, confusing and irritating your readers – and damaging your credibility – by inserting childish language into routine communications. Google, with its colossal market position, can afford the risk; you and I cannot.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mr. Clarity goofs off (2)

I got a kick out of the 2012 results of the Lyttle Lytton Contest. In this contest, which is run by Adam Cadre, each entrant tries to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

As you may imagine, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. For example, Mr. Cadre warns entrants that “wacky situations and intentional jokes are more suited to the beginnings of good comedic novels, not bad serious ones, and are therefore not really what this contest is about. On the flip side, significant butchering of the language (as opposed to subtle butchering) isn’t all that funny either.”

The winning entry for 2012 was:

Agent Jeffrey’s trained eyes rolled carefully around the room, taking in the sights and sounds.

And here’s one of the runners-up:

She had the kind of face that made you want to say hey, look at your face.

And one more:

“I’m a winner,” thought Seabiscuit, galloping across the finish line.

There’s also a portion of the contest for non-original entries: quotations from news copy or advertising copy that could make hilariously bad openings of serious novels. For example:

It was August 2009. On this sunny morning, Lake Como was a picture of tranquility, a striking contrast to the turbulence of the global apparel industry.

Mr. Cadre said many people enter “sentences from actual novels and other fictional works that they found particularly atrocious. This year I had almost the entirety of Twilight quoted to me by various entrants.”

The Takeaway: If you enjoy this sort of thing, read the 2012 results. They include not only the best entries but also Mr. Cadre’s witty comments.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Safety warnings (5)

In four previous posts (1, 2, 3, 4) we've discussed the clarity of various safety warnings. Today we discuss a brief safety warning about fire and upholstered furniture. The warning is not very clear but it could have been made clear if the writer had spent only a few minutes more.


• Keep upholstery away from flames or lit cigarettes.

• Upholstery may burn rapidly, with toxic gas & thick smoke.

• Keep children away from matches and lighters.

• Fires from candles, lighters, matches, or other smoking materials are still possible.

• Be careful when smoking.

• Smoke detectors properly installed and maintained save lives.

The manufacturer certifies this furniture is made in accordance with UFAC methods designed to reduce the likelihood of upholstery fires from cigarettes.


The main problem with this warning is poor composition; specifically, poor parallelism. In the bulleted listing, the first, third and fifth sentences are in the second person and the second, fourth and sixth sentences are in the third person. In other words, the grammatical person changes from sentence to sentence. These changes confuse readers, because readers consciously or unconsciously expect good parallelism in a listing.

Another problem is that the important word “still” in the fourth bullet is unclear. This problem was caused by the poor parallelism.

A suggested revision

We change the sixth sentence in the listing from third person to second person. Then we remove the second and fourth sentences from the listing and combine them with the sentence that follows the listing (it is also in third person). We form these three sentences into a background paragraph and place it before the listing. In other words, first we give the reader the background and then we tell him what to do. Thus:


The manufacturer certifies this furniture is made in accordance with UFAC methods designed to reduce the likelihood of upholstery fires from cigarettes. However, fires from candles, lighters, matches, or other smoking materials are still possible. And any upholstery may burn rapidly and produce toxic gas and thick smoke.

• Keep flames and lit cigarettes away from upholstery.

• Be careful when smoking.

• Keep matches and lighters away from children.

• Be sure that your smoke detectors are in working order.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (14)

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.


In an email alert from The Wall Street Journal, we see: “Contours of McConnell/Biden Budget Deal Emerging.”


Here’s a really messy mixed metaphor, from the song “Women’s Rights vs. Harmony” by Russell Lindquist:

There is a poisonous pendulum,
swinging by myths of dichotomy and zero-sum.
It will swing forever,unless those favored – WHILE favored –
choose to end the pendulum.


The British humorist P.G. Wodehouse (pictured, at his Monarch typewriter) was a master of the intentionally mixed metaphor. My favorite: In Hot Water, a viscountess who was evasive about the condition of her chateau “kept a leaky cistern under her hat.” See also here.

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.