Thursday, January 30, 2014

The uninhabited clause (19)

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 four paragraphs of an article titled “Overuse and Abuse of Adjunct Faculty Members Threaten Core Academic Values,” by Richard Moser:
The increasing exploitation of contingent faculty members is one dimension of an employment strategy sometimes called the “two-tiered” or “multitiered” labor system.
This new labor system is firmly established in higher education and constitutes a threat to the teaching profession. If left unchecked, it will undermine the university's status as an institution of higher learning because the overuse of adjuncts and their lowly status and compensation institutionalize disincentives to quality education, threaten academic freedom and shared governance, and disqualify the campus as an exemplar of democratic values. These developments in academic labor are the most troubling expressions of the so-called corporatization of higher education.
“Corporatization” is the name sometimes given to what has happened to higher education over the last 30 years. Corporatization is the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, in accordance with a shortsighted business model. Three decades of decline in public funding for higher education opened the door for increasing corporate influence, and since then the work of the university has been redirected to suit the corporate vision.
The most striking symptoms of corporatization shift costs and risks downward and direct capital and authority upward. Rising tuition and debt loads for students limit access to education for working-class students. The faculty and many other campus workers suffer lower compensation as the number of managers, and their pay, rises sharply. Campus management concentrates resources on areas where wealth is created, and new ideas and technologies developed at public cost become the entitlement of the corporate sector. The privatization and outsourcing of university functions and jobs from food service to bookstores to instruction enrich a few businessmen and create more low-wage nonunion jobs. Increasingly authoritarian governance practices have become the “new normal.”
Don’t be embarrassed if you nodded off. It is soporific text. The author has heavily used uninhabited clauses:
exploitation is
strategy is (implied) called
system is established
system constitutes
it (implied) is (implied) left
it will undermine
overuse, status and compensation institutionalize
overuse, status and compensation threaten
overuse, status and compensation disqualify
developments are
“corporatization” is
that (implied) is (implied) given
what has happened
corporatization is reorganization
decades opened
work has been redirected
symptoms shift
symptoms direct
tuition and loads limit
faculty and workers suffer
number and pay rises (sic for rise)
management concentrates resources
wealth is created
ideas and technologies become
that were (implied) developed
privatization and outsourcing enrich
privatization and outsourcing create
practices have become
Only two of these clauses are inhabited:
faculty and workers suffer
management concentrates resources
The other 26 clauses are uninhabited; all the subjects are conceptual. The rest of the article is the same: almost every clause has a conceptual subject.

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.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gobbledygook (5)

I’ve discussed gobbledygook in four previous posts (for example, here and here). Today I have another good example of gobbledygook for you.

It’s an article by James Kobielus, who works at IBM. In the article, Mr. Kobielus uses gobbledygook such as “the pivotal concept of a holistic customer journey.” He appears to be fond of trendy, overused and misused words (core, drive, experience, focusissue and parse) and phrases (at the heart of, reality check, and subject matter expert).

Even his job title contains gobbledygook:
IBM Senior Program Director, Product Marketing, Big Data Analytics solutions
Not Big Data Analytics, mind you. Big Data Analytics solutions.

Many other users of gobbledygook do likewise; in an attempt to make topics (and indirectly themselves) sound more important, they add unnecessary nouns after other nouns:
seafood solutions
crisis situation
boarding process
flooding issue
emergency condition
strike action
clearance sale event
audience interactivity elements
You have to keep a close watch on these people; every time you turn your back they debase, dilute and corrupt the language a little more.

The Takeaway: Read the whole article; it’s a good example of how not to write. Don’t use gobbledygook. Shun those who do.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Weasel words online

When you buy a ticket online from American Airlines (AA), the AA computer responds with this:
Note: This is not your receipt. You will be receiving your itinerary confirmation along with your receipt soon. You may print your Itinerary & Receipt directly from once the status is updated from “Ticket Pending” to “Ticketed”.
Except for “,” these are all familiar English words. But as AA has combined them, the words conceal more information than they reveal. They have become weasel words. Here are the words again, interspersed with the unspoken reactions of an intelligent customer:

Note: This is not your receipt.
Not my receipt? Then what is it, and why are you showing it to me? Where’s my receipt?
You will be receiving
On this page? In an email? In the U.S. Mail?
your itinerary confirmation along with your receipt soon.
“Soon.” Does that mean seconds, minutes, hours or days?
 You may print your Itinerary & Receipt directly from
Print them from the email you will send me, from this page which is open right now, or – as “directly from” suggests – by abandoning this page and going to the AA home page? You’re confusing me.
once the status is updated from “Ticket Pending” to “Ticketed”.
And how will I know when or whether that action has been completed? Will I see some notice on this page, in the email you may or may not send me, or on some page I have to go to after I go back to the home page? How long will it take? I just spent more than a week’s pay for an airplane ticket and you won’t even tell me how or where or when I will receive a receipt? Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?
The Takeaway: If you are responsible for the words that your company uses in its online commerce, always keep in mind that you may be insulting thousands of customers every hour. That’s worse than erecting an insulting billboard beside a busy highway. Before you put your words online, have them edited by a careful reader.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A digression: writers, pens and typewriters (2)

Walter Cronkite, a journalist as well as a book writer, of course used a typewriter.

The same is true of William F. Buckley.

Somerset Maugham seems to have used a typewriter in his early years.

But in his later years, he appears with a pen in more than one photo (here’s one).

Emlyn Williams used a typewriter.

So did Erma Bombeck.

Anne Sexton used a typewriter. We tend to think of poets as always writing with pens – even quills! But that’s probably just a silly stereotype.

Mark Twain was probably the first famous writer to use a typewriter. The machine was probably a Remington No. 2 (pictured below right).

During his Hartford years, Twain wrote in his billiard room, the sunniest room in the house. His writing desk is partly visible in the right-hand side of the picture below. If you like tours of historical houses, you will love this house.

As Twain was noted for using an early typewriter, Edith Wharton was noted for using a pen. In bed, that is. As the docent explains at Wharton’s house in Lenox, Massachusetts, Wharton did pose at her desk once or twice for a photo (one below), but she actually wrote in bed, accompanied by her dogs. Reportedly, she tossed finished pages to the floor for her secretary to retrieve and type. Wharton was quirky in many interesting ways, and the house tour is fabulous.

The Takeaway: Keep writing.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Politicians, reporters, and the word “issue”

I’ve discussed the misuse of the word issue in previous posts (example here). Evasive people love the catchall word issue because they can use it to (1) downplay a problem or (2) pretend to be saying something when they are in fact saying nothing.

As you surely know, politicians are big users of evasive language. So are many reporters who mimic the speech patterns of politicians.*

Here, as just one small example, is a recent article in the New Hampshire Union Leader about a temporary local oil shortage. The reporters quote seven people: four are politicians and three are businesspeople. One politician and the reporters call the shortage an issue (instead of a problem, which is what it is).** None of the businesspeople (as quoted) use the word issue.

I’m not citing this one example as proof; it is merely a hot story from my local paper. Every week, the press contains thousands of examples of politicians and their reporters using evasive language.

The Takeaway: The word issue is almost always used evasively. Before you speak or write this word, ask yourself what you mean. Are you using it appropriately (Example: “Don’t dodge the issue.”) or evasively (Example: as a euphemism for problem)?

See disclaimer.

*The main reason many reporters mimic the speech patterns of politicians is that all humans tend to mimic the speech patterns of the group they most want to be accepted by, and many reporters most want to be accepted by politicians. You see, politicians usually supply the bulk of a reporter’s predigested news, making the reporter’s job much easier. This is why most of the articles on the front page of a newspaper are about government.

**And one of the politicians calls the shortage “an emergency situation.” This is another type of evasion popular with politicians: Soften a bold noun such as emergency by changing it into an adjective and using the adjective to modify a wimpy noun such as situation.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (24)

“When we hate our enemies, we are giving them power over us: power over our sleep, our appetites, our blood pressure, our health, and our happiness. Our enemies would dance with joy if only they knew how they were worrying us, lacerating us, and getting even with us!”
~Dale Carnegie

“In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite variety and mystery of it.”
~William Saroyan

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”
~Isaac Asimov*

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
~Richard Feynman

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”
~Ludwig Wittgenstein (pictured)

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

*Because Asimov was not a native speaker of English, we should overlook the comical mixed metaphor of the nurtured thread that is also a strain and a cult. And thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out this bold quotation.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Objectivity and The New York Times – an editorial

Economic historian Gary North (pictured), a tireless champion of clear writing and clear speaking, analyzes some evasive language that The New York Times recently used in order to simultaneously display and obfuscate its position on “gun laws.” Dr. North writes, in part:

The New York Times adds this: “Sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun laws around the country are in the minority, though no statistics exist.” Let me translate: “We’re liberal. We like gun control laws, so we have decided to announce that anti-gun control sheriffs are in the minority. We will hold to this story until statistics exist to the contrary. We may decide to hold to it even after statistics to the contrary are available. It’s our call. It’s our newspaper. We get to do what we want.”

The Takeaway: Every newspaper has a worldview. Every newspaper. So does every writer: columnist, pundit, professor, consultant, blogger or whatever. It cannot be otherwise. But many writers are more honest than The Times on this point. Gary North is. I hope I am, too. For you, as a reader, the takeaway is to beware of writers who pretend to have total objectivity; that’s nothing but a narcissistic delusion. As you read, remember that the writer has a worldview; it may affect his writing heavily or only slightly. But always try to induce it (infer it from particulars) and then factor it into what you read.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Random thoughts (1)

I have heard people call a painting by Rembrandt “a Rembrandt,” but I have never heard anyone call a novel by Hemingway “a Hemingway.” Why?

In an office, there’s never enough work surface or ambient light. And there are never enough red pens. By the way, why do people unconsciously steal more red pens than black? Have you noticed that, too?

Peter Yarrow should have been named “Timothy Yarrow.” Two plants.

Some researchers doctor their evidence; maybe that’s why people sometimes call a Ph.D. “Doctor.”

Many a city boasts about the famous people who were born in that city. But those people had absolutely* no choice about where to be born, so their births imparted no honor to the city at all. Seems to me that a city should instead boast about the famous people who died in that city. After all, those people (1) were born there and decided to stay, or (2) decided to move there, or (3) at least decided to visit there. One example of (3) is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts and died in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He had been lodging in Plymouth during a tour of the White Mountains. His death is commemorated by a plaque (pictured) on the Plymouth common.

When you are having trouble writing a transition, it usually means one of three things: (1) you haven’t clearly thought about the logic and flow of the piece you are writing; or (2) you are bullsh***ing; or (3) you are lying. Never mind how I know this.

Sometimes it seems that a lot of rich Americans want everything immediately – or at the latest, by tomorrow. How do such people obtain highly contested things such as Super Bowl tickets or vacation rentals of Nantucket cottages?

My dry cleaner has a bulletin board covered with tickets for unclaimed orders. One day I joked, “I wonder if any of those are ‘rush’ orders.” In a matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “They all are.” When he noticed my surprise, he explained that some people are always disorganized, and because they are disorganized, they do everything at the last minute. And partly because they do everything at the last minute, they remain disorganized. From this bit of wisdom I inferred that there are also organized people, and because they are organized, they are able to plan well, and so on. It’s better to try to be one of that group.

The Takeaway: Live life. Have a good day.

Due credit: I shamelessly copied the title of this post from my favorite columnist, the incisive Thomas Sowell, who writes a column called “Random Thoughts.”

*I’m not showing off, but I just want to point out that this is an example of a correct use of absolutely. More than 99 percent of the time you hear or read this word, the speaker or writer is using it incorrectly.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (16)

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. Here are a few examples of mixed metaphors:

“...going over the cliff was not off the table...” (Source)

“I saw no ray of hope.  It looked to me as if the blue bird had thrown in the towel and formally ceased to function.” Wodehouse, of course, mixed metaphors for a living.
~P.G. Wodehouse, in Joy in the Morning

“Changing the culture and political landscape is hard; it takes patience, determination and an Army of Davids to gather steam to change the tide of injustice and prejudice against men that has been brewing now for more than forty years.” Gather steam to change a brewing tide? That’s all wet.
~Helen Smith, Ph.D., in Men on Strike

“When people talk about the rise of great TV, they inevitably credit one show, ‘The Sopranos.’ Even before James Gandolfini’s death, the HBO drama’s mystique was secure: novelistic and cinematic, David Chase’s auteurist masterpiece cracked open the gangster genre like a rib cage, releasing the latent ambition of television, and launching us all into a golden age.” (Source)

“Where do you stand on the moral compass?” My left foot is on north-northwest and my right foot is on north-northeast. My nose is pointed due north. Next question. (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.