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.