Thursday, March 28, 2013

A well-wrought simile from Garrison Keillor

In a New Yorker piece, Garrison Keillor (pictured) described a number of Manhattanites trying to jump over a large puddle:

One tall man in a brown coat didn’t notice the water and stepped off the curb into fast-flowing Hydrant Creek and made a painful hop, like a wounded heron: a brown heron with a limp wing attached to a briefcase bulging as if full of dead fish.

Now that’s a simile.

The Takeaway: When you’re creating a figure of speech, strive to go beyond the obvious.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Constance Hale and Daphne Gray-Grant for pointing out this passage.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Politically correct diction is dangerous – an editorial

In a recent editorial, I discussed a tragic story in which a politically correct euphemism led office workers to ignore a death threat against one of their co-workers. I pointed out that political correctness is inherently dangerous: it is a childish belief that the whole world is safe and comfy and cozy. When people use politically correct euphemisms, they are concealing danger – and thereby making the world more dangerous. Below are summaries of five other posts that illustrate the point.

Serial rapist escapes

A serial rapist (pictured) was serving a life sentence in a locked psychiatric ward. Even though the rapist had already escaped once and was therefore high risk, some nurse or doctor lowered the rapist’s risk level to “medium.” Apparently the nurse or doctor wanted to show “sensitivity” to the serial rapist, notwithstanding the rapist’s insensitivity to the women he raped.

When the rapist was being transferred to another location for medical treatment, the security people saw the word “medium” and didn’t bother to handcuff him. The rapist took advantage and escaped again. (Source)

Hospital will encourage more criminals to escape

After the rapist’s escape, hospital management published a report filled with politically correct euphemisms and weasel-words. The report slyly encouraged the staff to continue their “sensitive” behavior. (Source)

FAA spokeswoman muddles the safety of Boeing aircraft

A German reporter wrote an article for Spiegel Online about the reasons for the crash of Air France Flight 447, which killed all 228 people aboard. He interviewed a spokeswoman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who abused the word issues in order to muddle the ways in which Boeing parts could cause a crash. Politically correct people constantly use the handy, shifty word issue as a euphemism for problem, threat, risk, danger, difficulty, logic, reality, deception, lie, hypocrisy, and many other words that politically correct people (chiefly women) feel are too “icky” to be said out loud or written down. (Source)

“Health issue” means everything and nothing

And speaking of issue, if you type health issue into Google, Google will report more than 2 billion hits – that alone tells you something is wrong. What precisely is a “health issue”? Is it a disease, a condition, a syndrome, a disorder, or a malaise? A symptom or an indication? A pathogen or an allergen? An epidemic, a pandemic, or a lack of money to purchase medicines?

Or is it poor health in general, sickliness, inability to remember to take medicines as directed, or ignorance that a disease may be preventable? Or is it a localized shortage of doctors or nurses or medicines, or an error in prescribing a medicine? Or is it smoking, indolence, sexual promiscuity, addiction to heroin, or the use of dirty needles? Or something else? (Source)

NH puts positive spin on kids’ deaths
On the government highways in New Hampshire, large signs offer the following advice:



What the government of New Hampshire meant, but was too politically correct to say honestly, is:




The Takeaway: We hear and read so many politically correct euphemisms every day that we frequently imitate them unconsciously. Please, try to break this habit. Remember that these euphemisms are valid only inside the fantasy world of political correctness. In the real world, they are invalid and dangerous. Avoid using them when you are writing or saying anything that could have real consequences in the real world.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Placement of modifiers (21)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Here is an example from, surprisingly, The New York Times:

In a story on the resignation of Florida’s Lieutenant Governor, Jennifer Carroll, one sentence stated:

She filmed an advertisement promoting Allied Veterans as a Florida House member.

A better version would have been:

While serving as a Florida House member, she filmed an advertisement promoting Allied Veterans.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Don’t make your reader work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out this example.

Monday, March 18, 2013

“Political correctness gone suicidal” – an editorial

This is a tragic story in which the inadvertent use of a politically correct euphemism led office workers to ignore a death threat against one of their co-workers:

“In early April this year [2007] a man walked into an office of the University of Washington and killed his ex-girlfriend and then shot himself. She had been stalked by the guy for over a year. She filed one report to the police for a restraining order which was useless because nobody could find him. She wrote an email to her office coworkers, ‘I have a stalking issue,’ she wrote. A stalking issue? The young woman could only describe in the gentlest terms that she was probably going to be murdered. This is political correctness gone suicidal. What prevented her from writing, ‘Dear Coworkers, some guy is trying to kill me, and I won’t let him and you’re going to help me because I don’t want to die.’ We know the reason. The same one that made people tip-toe around the killer at Virginia Tech. Everything must remain normal until the slaughter.” (Source)

In a later article:

“Later that year, the State Department of Labor and Industries issued the University of Washington a $2,100 fine, saying employees at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning were put in danger due to the university’s failure to follow its own workplace safety rules.” (Source)

The Takeaway: If you ever need to ask for help to protect or defend yourself, do not use any politically correct words or phrases. People are likely to interpret them as meaningless filler, fail to understand that you really need help, and fail to help you. Political correctness is a childish fantasy that the whole world is safe and comfy and cozy. Taken at face value, this fantasy can get you raped, maimed or killed. Please be careful: When you really need help, say what you mean.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (18)

“We live our whole lives one step away from clarity.”
~Pat Barker (pictured), in Double Vision

“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”
~Christopher Morley

“Women as ‘sex objects’? Of course they are sex objects, and praise the Lord they always will be. (Just as men, of course, are sex objects to women.) ... When deeper relationships are established between men and women, they each become more than sex objects to each other; they each hopefully become love objects as well. It would seem banal even to bother mentioning this, but in today’s increasingly degenerate intellectual climate [1970] no simple truths can any longer be taken for granted.”
~Murray Rothbard

“You need massive recruitment to tell the poorest of the poor what is possible.”
~Jonathan Kozol

“We strive to soothe our madness by intoning more and more vacuous cliches. And at such times, far from being as innocuous as they are absurd, empty slogans take on a dreadful power.”
~Thomas Merton, on the Cold War cliche “Red or dead.”

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don’t bury an action request

In an email, letter, or memo, there is a wrong place and a right place to request action.

The wrong place to request action

A few weeks ago, somebody in my doctor’s office mailed me a form letter that described some change in the way Medicare does something or other. The letter didn’t sound like my doctor; he is smart and highly efficient. No, the letter sounded more like a government bureaucrat; Medicare probably wrote the letter and then made my doctor send it to his patients.

As Joe Roy, confident medical patient, I was inclined to drop the letter into my wastebasket, figuring that my doctor knows how to deal with Medicare without any amateur assistance from me. But as Mr. Clarity, I’m always on the prowl for illustrative examples of bad writing, so I read the whole letter.

Compared to most government writing, the letter wasn’t too bad. But halfway down Page 2 was an unpardonable sin. An action request was buried in the text. It seems that unless I called a certain 800 number by a certain date, Medicare was going to do something to my medical records.

I’ll bet you not one patient in ten read that far.

The right place to request action

To make sure your reader sees your action request, type it above the main text.

The Takeaway: Readers do not expect to have to slog through 500 or 1,000 words of circumlocution to find out what the blazes you want from them. Type your action request above the main text.

A point about politeness: When I was chief editor at Honeywell Information Systems, I learned that many managers, with the good intention of not wanting to seem “abrupt” or “pushy,” bury their action requests intentionally. They sincerely believe that’s the polite way. Unfortunately, it ends up being impolite; in our fast-paced world, most readers would rather read a directly (but not rudely) stated request at the beginning than risk overlooking a request buried in the text.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The uninhabited clause (15)

On this blog, I have often discussed the uninhabited clause* – a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause. There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we exhaust and irritate our readers.


Here are the first three paragraphs of an essay titled, “Sweden: empire of governance feminism,” which appeared on the web site “A Voice for Men.” I have put the subjects of clauses in boldface.

For many of us the extremist brand of gender feminism that has permeated Swedish culture and politics came acutely into focus last year. The [fictional] YouTube video of a group of female students murdering a man reading a newspaper and their ecstatic post murder dance celebrations, revealing that exposure to and advocacy of male genderocide, [sic comma] is an accepted part of the Swedish education systems [sic for system’s] indoctrination of their [sic for its] youth, [missing copy?] “do your part.”

Letters to Australian [sic] parliamentarians including the then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd asking for our government to expresses [sic for express] diplomatic alarm at such vilification on the basis of sex, [sic comma] fell on deaf ears [sic comical mixed metaphor]. An AVFM commentator provided a link to the Swedish documentary (with English subtitles) “The Gender War” (Könskriget) by journalist Evin Rubar, which is highly recommended viewing for anyone who has not yet seen it and interested in the truth about Swedish feminism.

The most disturbing aspect of this documentary is the confirmation that the central tenants [sic for tenets] of radical feminism have been accepted in Sweden as core political orthodoxy and all aspects of legislation and government services must adhere to it’s [sic for its] “gender correct” understanding of male dominance and oppression. (I have deleted the footnotes from this passage.)


I’m sure you can feel it. For some reason, the writer has gone out of his way to make a highly controversial topic (advocacy of murder) sound boring. He selected non-human subjects 9 out of 13 times:

brand came
that has permeated
video [the author omitted the verb]
exposure is
advocacy is
you [the pronoun is implied by the imperative mood of the verb] do

Letters fell
commentator provided
which is
who has not yet seen; is [the verb is implied] interested

aspect is
tenants have been accepted
aspects must adhere

A livelier version

By putting in more people, the writer could easily have done justice to his topic and made his essay more lively and powerful. For example, here is how the first paragraph might read:

Last year, in a fictional video, a Swedish woman murdered a man in cold blood and her friends celebrated the murder by dancing in ecstasy – illustrating how feminist women have corrupted Swedish culture and politics with their violent “gender feminism.” Even Swedish schoolteachers are advocating the murder of men.

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 will sound academic and boring. Intelligent readers will notice that you have worked hard to undermine your own points. At best, they will ignore you. At worst, they will distrust you.**

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

**I would be afraid to do business with a man who writes this way – unless he were hiring me to improve his writing. Even then, I would ask for payment in advance.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Unintentional hedging (6)

Here’s a quick and easy way to write and speak more clearly: Don’t hedge unintentionally.

Unintentional hedging diminishes, undermines or negates your message. For example, this recent headline in Mother Jones:

NRA’s Armed Security Guard Proposal Kind Of Popular

Normally I avoid critiquing headlines, because headline writers often must sacrifice grammar and good diction in order to keep headlines short. But this headline writer deliberately made his headline longer in order to use the trendy hedge kind of. 

Kind of and like have become mania expressions in recent years. Often you see people quoted in the press who seem unable to use a predicate adjective without putting kind of or like in front of it: He looked kind of horrible. I was kind of terrified. It was like catastrophic. He seemed kind of psychotic. It was kind of apocalyptic.

Many people use more than one kind of or like per minute. If you hedge that frequently, even obtuse listeners are going to wake up and notice it. When they do, they will receive this unintended message from you: “I’m not really saying anything. I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m not even sure of the thoughts. So, don’t listen to me.”

The Takeaway: Say what you mean. If you intend to hedge, hedge: “I’ll be there about four o’clock.” Otherwise, don’t hedge. If you say what you mean, you will earn more respect.

See this timely story about
grammar and professional success.

Update, March 7, 2013: Rand Paul, a U.S. politician, apparently has scored a political point against Eric Holder, another U.S. politician. Yesterday, Mr. Paul told the Washington Post, “I’ve kind of won my battle.” (Source)

See disclaimer.