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.