Monday, July 29, 2013

The maniacal use of “experience”

Many marketers today are trying to portray every mundane and trivial action as AN EXPERIENCE. This trend is becoming ridiculous. Here are four examples:
“To help simplify the login experience at, we are in the process of standardizing account login requirements.”
[L.L. Bean’s advertising used to be famous for a simple, direct style; that was before the company started adding frippery like experience and in the process of. If Mr. Bean were alive today, he probably would write “To help simplify login, we are standardizing the requirements.”]*
Kindle FreeTime... allows parents to create a customized content experience for each of their children.”
[A customized content experience is nothing more than customized content plus two meaningless words.]
“The Philips Norelco NT9110 Precision Nose and Ear Trimmer [pictured]... makes nose and ear hair trimming safe, fast, and easy. The ultra sharp, closed cutting system avoids pulling for a more comfortable trimming experience.”
[I don’t want to have an experience; I just want to trim my nose hair.]
“Scientists based in Boston, Massachusetts recently released Peak Life Prostate, a brand new natural supplement that is in demand by retailers across the country.... all you have to do is take it once a day at breakfast. Many men have reported a positive experience.”
[Does that mean swallowing the pill didn’t make them vomit their orange juice and coffee?]
The Takeaway: Don’t try to glorify every mundane and trivial action by calling it AN EXPERIENCE; the attempt makes you sound histrionic, indiscriminate and callow.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for his assistance.

*Notice that the first version is fully one-half frippery: nine words out of eighteen. Nor is this unusual; writers who are fond of frippery never stop; they use it in paragraph after paragraph. No matter how long their copy gets, it is always 50 percent (or less) substance and 50 percent (or more) frippery (example here).

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The uninhabited clause (16)

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 bore and exhaust our readers.


Recently Abbie Bakan delivered a stultifying speech consisting almost entirely of uninhabited clauses. For example, here are Ms. Bakan’s first five paragraphs:

MARXISM IS, of course, an extremely useful frame for explaining the nature and limits of present-day global capitalism and imperialism. At its best, creative Marxism offers a realistic strategy for envisioning a new world of human freedom.

But there is a strand of Marxism that, in its relationship to feminism, is troubling, and merits close analysis and theorization. I want to suggest a very simple argument--that the theoretical claim that there is grounds for a coherent Marxist approach that is for "women's liberation," while against "feminism," makes no sense. It is unclear and unhelpful.

A strand of Marxism, what could be termed Marxist Anti-Feminism (or MAF), has diminished the contributions of feminism in such a way that distorts, rather than advances, historical materialist analysis. In so doing, MAF hampers our understanding of both women's liberation and Marxism.

Alternatively, as Marxists, we would be better served to start from a position that looks at feminism as a positive--if diverse--contribution to an emancipatory project. From this perspective, we can build a constructive and creative dialogue between and within Marxism (or, more accurately, Marxisms), and feminism (or, again more accurately, feminisms).

At best, a Marxist theoretical starting point that rejects feminism is confusing. The risks of confusion are paralysis and divisiveness, creating an unnecessary chasm among like-minded activists and scholars.


Ms. Bakan selected non-human subjects 18 times:

Marxism is
Marxism offers
strand is
that is
that merits
argument makes
claim makes
grounds is [sic for are]
that is
It is
strand has diminished
that distorts
that advances
MAF hampers
that looks at
point is
that rejects
risks are

And human subjects only 3 times:

I want
we would be served
we can build

A livelier version

By putting in more people, Ms. Bakan could have made her speech more lively and powerful. For example, here is how the first paragraph might read:

I am sure you know that Marxism has been extremely useful to us. We have used it to explain the nature and limits of present-day global capitalism and imperialism. Many of you have done that and are doing that. And you probably also know that we can go even farther. We can use creative Marxism to build a realistic strategy – a strategy for envisioning a new world of human freedom.

This version of the first paragraph contains eight personal pronouns. Ms. Bakan’s version contained none.

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 anyone who writes this way – unless he were hiring me to improve his writing. Even then, I would ask for payment in advance.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Readability: characters per line

We have previously discussed several ways in which poor typography and design (reverse type, weird typefaces, italics, and all caps) can make your text difficult to read. Another way is line length: too few or two many characters per line can cause eye strain. A comfortable range is 50 to 75 characters per line.

To help prevent eye strain while you are writing and editing drafts, make sure that the type size and line width in your normal word-processing template produce an average somewhere between 50 and 75 characters per line. For example, my normal template produces an average of 53.

This may sound like a small matter, but if you do a lot of writing and editing (for example, I average four to six hours per day), the effect on your eye muscles can be significant.

You may or may not be in a position to affect the finished appearance of the words you write. Your company’s designers or your clients’ designers may or may not be amenable to outside advice, and they may or may not be obliged to conform to pre-established templates or other corporate standards anyway. But if you do have some influence, you may wish to advise the designers on line length.

The Takeaway: Too few or two many characters per line can cause eye strain; 50 to 75 characters per line is a comfortable range.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Never try to fool your readers

If you are ever tempted to try to sneak by with a false, misleading, incomplete or illogical assertion, remember this: It takes only one intelligent reader to spot your offense and publicly humiliate you. Here’s a well-known example.

In the early news coverage of the criminal case against security guard George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, a tape recording revealed that a police dispatcher had told Mr. Zimmerman not to continue following Mr. Martin. Many reporters in the mainstream media broadcast that part of the tape recording but deliberately hid Mr. Zimmerman’s reply, which was “O.K.”

One intelligent reader, the economist Thomas Sowell (pictured), commented:

That reply removed the only basis for assuming that Zimmerman did in fact continue to follow Trayvon Martin. At this point, neither I nor the people who assumed that he continued to follow the teenager have any basis in fact for believing that he did or didn’t.

Why was that reply edited out by so many in the media? Because too many people in the media see their role as filtering and slanting the news to fit their own vision of the world.


[Also, many news reports made] references to Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic.” Zimmerman is half-white. So is Barack Obama. But does anyone refer to Obama as a “white African”?

The Takeaway: Yes, you can easily fool the average reader; he’s not very bright. But you cannot easily fool the intelligent reader. So unless you are writing, say, a romance novel or a grant application and can safely assume that all your readers are stupid, be sure to aim your writing at the intelligent reader. Keep your language honest, logical and clear.

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Giddiness is usually a bad sign

You’re in the middle of writing something, and for a few minutes you’ve been stalled. You’re searching for the right word to make a point. Eventually you think of it. You double-check it in the dictionary. Yes, it’s precisely the right word.

When this happens, you normally feel a quiet little satisfaction, as when you balance your checkbook on the first try.

But sometimes it’s different. Sometimes it’s like this:

You’re in the middle of writing something, and you need a word. Within seconds, it comes to you, strong. You don’t check it in the dictionary. You feel that you don’t have to. The word just seems wonderfully right somehow. Here’s an example.

When this happens, you normally feel giddy. Giddiness is usually a sign that you have lunged at the first fad word (massively overused cliche) that came to you. For example, proactive.

We lunge at fad words because we want to conform. We want to conform more than we want to find the right words to make ourselves clear. We want to conform because the cave-man part of our brain is always afraid that the other members of our tribe will throw us out of the cave and leave us to die if we appear to be different from them in any way. So when see an opportunity to publicly display our mindless conformity, we lunge at that opportunity.* We feel giddy because we believe we have escaped death for a little while longer.

Fortunately we are no longer cave men. We don’t need to mindlessly conform any more. We can search for the right words and make ourselves clear. We can be grown-ups. We can be writers.

The Takeaway: Giddiness is usually a sign that you are about to do something embarrassing. If you ever notice that you are feeling giddy because you have suddenly thought of an especially wonderful word to make a point, STOP. Immediately Google the word with “cliche.” Example: “proactive cliche.” You will probably find that the word is a massively overused cliche (also called a fad word or mantra). Look up the word in a dictionary; it is possible that the word does not help make your point at all. It may even undermine your point. Delete it and find the right word.

*For an example of a public display of mindless conformity, see this post. For an example of a sales representative whose cliche revealed his ignorance and risked blowing a big sale, see this post.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yes, you can ignore grammar. However...

Many people wonder why they need to know their grammar: They ask, “Can’t I just write the way I like and not have to worry about a bunch of grammar rules?”

That’s a fair question. Here are my short and long answers:

Short Answer: Of course you have the right to write any way you like. However, your readers have the right to refuse to read what you write.*

Long Answer: Most of your readers – especially the smarter ones – know the rules of grammar. They assume that you know the rules, too, and that you are at least generally following the rules. So, when they notice that you are not following the rules, they conclude that reading your writing will always be more difficult than reading the writing of the millions of writers who do follow the rules. Your readers may even conclude that you routinely treat information as carelessly as you treat grammar, and therefore that you are an unreliable person. And they are likely to decide never to read anything else that has your name on it.**

Grammar is not just a bunch of rules; it is a description of how our readers think and read. Therefore it is a description of how we need to write – if we want to hold their attention and gain their trust.

The Takeaway: Yes, you can “break the rules” of grammar all you want; just don’t expect your readers to trust you. If you want to be taken seriously, write like a serious adult, not like a willful child who refused to learn the structure of his own language.

See disclaimer.


*Unless they are a captive audience; for example, if they are your employees or students.

**For example, I refuse to read the writing of hundreds of grammatically incompetent reporters, novelists, nonfiction writers, academics, consultants and columnists – except when I’m looking for samples of careless writing to analyze on this blog.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Know your audience (1) – the Sokal affair

To meet the objective of whatever you are writing, you must know your audience. It’s a cliche but it’s true. Let’s take a look at an extraordinary example. It involve questionable morals, but it illustrates the point.

This is an excerpt of the Wikipedia entry for the Sokal affair:

“The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. In subsequent publications, Sokal claimed that the submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether ‘a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?’


“The article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,’ published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 ‘Science Wars’ issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct.

“On its date of publication (May 1996), Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense... structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.’ ” (Footnotes and several links omitted.)

I do not condone the perpetration of hoaxes, and I assume that your writing objectives are ethical. However, let us admire Mr. Sokal’s ability to precisely determine the interests and desires of a target audience. His hoax worked because he gave his audience what they wanted: “left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.”

The Takeaway: Whenever you write something for a new audience, study that audience carefully. Don’t just spend a few minutes musing; dig in and do the research. Read things they like; listen to speeches and watch videos that have persuaded them; read what they write, and so on. Diligent research will dramatically increase your chances of achieving your objective.

See disclaimer.

*In the Lingua Franca article, Mr. Sokal wisecracked, “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (15)

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.


“The president finishes speaking. He closes with a doozie of a mixed metaphor: ‘We’ve got more to do around here... than to try to dig ourselves out of these self-inflicted wounds.’ ” (Source)


“That political cover is now thrown into [the] dustbin of history parked outside the archives of prejudice, collecting its rhetorical trash.” (Source) Thanks to Paul G. Henning for spotting this.


“Fortunately, a wise person once told me that when you get your shot in life, you have to pull out all stops and go for it.  The door closes very quickly once you’re out of the limelight.” (Source)


“Let me get this mixed metaphor out of the way first: the team of commentators for the Indian Premier League did a grand job of sweeping the elephant in the room under the carpet.” (Source)

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Gibberish (2)

Learn to recognize gibberish (unintelligible or nonsensical speech or writing) so you won’t fall into the habit of imitating it. Here’s an example of gibberish; it’s the beginning of an essay by an anonymous writer:

How Life Is Prolonged

Did you know that having the awareness of good and evil is a distinguishing characteristic of mankind? Yes, it is a form of awareness that separates humanity from other living creatures: animals, birds, and bugs.
The writer learned about this kind of awareness from Richard W. Wetherill who had identified a created natural law he called the law of absolute right. It specifies people’s behavior to be rational and honest in order to be safe and to succeed.


These two short paragraphs prompt the reader to silently ask several questions:

Why has the writer remained anonymous? Why has the writer not told the reader who Richard W. Wetherill is or was? Is the writer really Mr. Wetherill, secretly pimping for himself?

If “the awareness of good and evil is a distinguishing characteristic of mankind,” why didn’t the writer possess this characteristic since childhood? Why did he have to wait until he met Mr. Wetherill?

How is a “created natural law” different from a natural law? Isn’t “created natural law” an oxymoron?

Is the specific “created natural law” that Mr. Wetherill identified the same as or different from the awareness of good and evil?

Why did Mr. Wetherill call this law “the law of absolute right?” What is absolute right?

What was the writer trying to hide when he made the vague, ungrammatical statement, “It specifies people’s behavior to be rational and honest in order to be safe and to succeed,” instead of making a clear statement of the law? For example, in contrast, Magna Carta contains laws like this: “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband.” That’s eight centuries old, but it is still clear.

The rest of the essay is also gibberish. It does not answer any of my questions; indeed it raises more. I will stop here and spare you more analysis; read the whole essay if you wish.

The Takeaway: Much of the language we see in print or on the Internet is gibberish. Be wary of gibberish; it is seductive and addictive because it requires no effort and appears to say something.

See disclaimer.