Thursday, February 27, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (25)

“For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
~Ecclesiastes 1:18

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.”
~Richard Feynman [This quotation is an exquisite example of concision.]

“Only incompetent people love the team, and they love it because it makes it harder to discover their incompetence.”
~Gavin McInnes

“I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up.”
~James Gould Cozzens (pictured)

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” [He knew his grammar: “on his” not “on him.”]
~Upton Sinclair

“A serene wisdom founded on truth is, the Ancients all agreed, the only true source of happiness, which is not to be confused with the merriment of fools.”
~John Derbyshire

“No young person on earth is so excellent in all respects as to need no uncritical love. Good Lord – as youngsters play their parts in political tragedies with casts of billions, uncritical love is the only real treasure they can look for.”
~Kurt Vonnegut, in Mother Night

“I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.”
~Dorothy Parker [Her intentionally vague antecedent makes the line even funnier.]

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (37) – John Derbyshire

The controversial mathematician, author and essayist John Derbyshire (pictured) provides a good example of concision and clarity in this response to a reader’s point:

• Reader’s point: Seems you really don’t want to associate with NAMs.  [I.e. Non-Asian Minorities, 32.9 — JD]
• Author’s reply:     Let me tell you who I want to associate with: people like me.
What’s the criterion for “people like me”? Obviously it isn’t race, or I would have made a different choice of marriage partner [Mr. Derbyshire’s wife is Chinese — Mr. C.]. Obviously it isn’t nationality, or I would never have left my home country [He moved from the United Kingdom to the USA — Mr. C.]. It’s not religion, either: my friends run the gamut from High Church Anglican to Falun Gong. It isn’t even politics: my wife, most of our neighbors, and several of my friends, are political liberals.
The criterion, as nearly as I can pin it down, is: I want to associate with bourgeois people — people whose have bourgeois attitudes and behaviors.
It would, it seems to me, be absurd to avoid association with any individual person because of some accidental quality like race (or nationality, or height, or education, or religious confession, or political affiliation). On the other hand, I would prefer to live my life as far away as possible from people who take illegal drugs, or practice promiscuous sexual behavior, or use bad language in ordinary speech, or don’t consider industrious support of self and family to be an important value, or are uninterested in the glories of Western Civilization, or break the law often enough to make themselves interesting to the police.
Plenty of NAMs are bourgeois, and plenty of non-NAMs are non-bourgeois. The regrettable fact is, though, that the proportion of bourgeois among NAMs is way lower than among non-NAMs — look at the crime statistics. If I practice generalized NAM avoidance, that is the reason. For example, I want my kids to grow up with bourgeois values. My judgment is, that they are more likely to do so if educated in schools with not too many NAM students. (My local high school is actually 35 percent NAM, which is a tad more than I’d like, but the best I can do on my income. Low-NAM school districts, like other much-desired goods of limited supply, are expensive [32.8].)
To judge from the data in my education chapter [122.9 etc.], my preferences in this regard are shared by most Americans. I certainly don’t see anything wrong with such preferences. If you think there’s something wrong with them, tell me what it is. Then, go tell the couple of hundred million Americans who, to judge by patterns of voluntary residential and educational segregation noted in by book, share my preferences.

Analysis: The reader misstated Mr. Derbyshire’s preferences and insinuated his disagreement with the misstated preferences, so Mr. Derbyshire took pains to restate his preferences. His preferences are complex but he stated them clearly and concisely. Then he politely challenged the reader to state (as opposed to insinuate) his disagreement:

If you think there’s something wrong with [my preferences], tell me what it is.

Please keep in mind that this is a blog about clear writing. When I select samples for this blog, it is because the writing is especially clear (or especially unclear). Any opinions expressed in samples are irrelevant to my purpose here. I’m not pushing opinions; I’m pushing clear writing.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the scatterbrain diction (sample here) that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Placement of modifiers (25)

Careless placement of a modifier can make a sentence unclear.


“A truly unfortunate development is the compulsion to shop among young boys.” (Boldface added.) (Source)
At first the reader thinks that the phrase “among young boys” is an adverbial phrase modifying the nearest verb, “to shop” – meaning that someone (a pedophile?) wants to go shopping in a crowd of young-boy shoppers.
But then the reader sees a more likely interpretation: “among young boys” is an adjectival phrase modifying “compulsion.” The writer has written a confusing sentence. She should have written this:
A truly unfortunate development is the compulsion among young boys to shop.
Or, less awkwardly,
A truly unfortunate development is that young boys are becoming addicted to shopping.

“Daniel Silva delivers another spectacular thriller starring Gabriel Allon, The English Girl.” (Boldface added.) (Source)*
At first the reader thinks that “The English Girl” is in apposition to “Gabriel Allon” – implying that Gabriel Allon is also known as “The English Girl.” This strikes the reader as unlikely.
But then the reader notices the italics and realizes that “The English Girl” is the title of the thriller. The writer should have written:
Daniel Silva delivers another spectacular thriller, The English Girl, starring Gabriel Allon.

“May we include literature that helps guide our business in your shipment?” (Boldface added.) (Source: an on-line order form.)
At first the reader assumes that “in your shipment” is an adverbial phrase modifying the nearest verb, “guide.”
But then the reader sees that the phrase more likely modifies the verb “include.” The writer meant to write:
May we include in your shipment literature that helps guide our business?
The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Sloppy placement of modifiers forces your readers to guess what you mean. Yes, it’s true that the guessing usually takes only a second or two and usually is successful. However, you should not be forcing your readers to guess at all. If you force them to guess more than a few times, they may become irritated. They may assume you are inconsiderate or stupid or both. They may even become less willing to read anything with your name on it.**

*Thanks to Paul. G. Henning for spotting this example.

**For example, when a writer keeps forcing me to guess, I never read him again unless he’s a paying client.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A plague of “issues”

In several posts I’ve called attention to the widespread misuse of the word issues; for example, here. Many people seem determined to misuse the word hundreds of times per day. That’s why I was pleased to see the misuse discussed by Dorothy Rabinowitz (pictured):
“David Chase’s ‘Sopranos’ was, happily, written before the ludicrous ‘issues’ plague (‘My doctor tells me I have issues with my liver’) had fully infested the nation’s speech. In the world of ‘The Sopranos’ nobody talks about having issues – they have problems.”
The Takeaway: Don’t use issues as a catchall; it’s lazy and inconsiderate.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Journalist Rob Reinalda (pictured) has published a fine essay on redundancies. As you can guess from the title, “Purge These Redundancies and Needless Phrases,” the tone of the essay is humorous. I think you would enjoy reading it.

The Takeaway: Like mixed metaphors, redundancies are difficult to spot in your own copy. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy.

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Don’t describe yourself in clichés (1)

Don’t describe yourself, your work, or your organization with a lot of clichés. Clichés work against you by making you sound like everyone else, instead of sounding distinctive. Clichés may even prompt your readers to wonder if you are a vacuous trend-follower like the cliché-loving writers you are unconsciously imitating.

Here’s a typical example of a writer who describes her work in clichés.

Jennifer A. Moss Breen, Ph.D., runs the Ph.D. Program in Human Capital Management at Bellevue University. On the university’s web site she describes the program in these words (I have highlighted several clichés):

“This program is perfect for leaders who want to leverage the latest knowledge and practice in aligning human capital investments with business and organizational outcomes. The learning is based on real-world results coming out of Bellevue University’s Human Capital Lab put into practice in the workplace. The most exciting part of the program is how what is learned and what is practiced will evolve with how the marketplace evolves to recognize human capital’s role in the global competition.”

Analysis: My intent is not to single out or pick on Ms. Moss Breen. Millions of academics and businessmen use these same clichés every day. They are infatuated with leverage (a very old business cliché), align (once the trendiest idea and hottest cliché in business), human capital (probably the current favorite, with 535 million hits on Google), outcomes (an Orwellian replacement for results), exciting (used so often in corporate press releases these days that reporters snicker at it), and evolve (there’s even a condom named “Evolve”).

The Takeaway: Try not to use a lot of clichés. You want to sound distinctive, not common. By definition, clichés makes you sound common. But don’t take my word for it; look up cliché in a dictionary.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

As opposed to what?

Often a writer will use a phrase that prompts his reader to wonder, “As opposed to what?”

For example:
Fee-for-service.” Your reader knows that a fee is an amount of money he has to pay for a service, so when he encounters the adjectival phrase “for service,” it sounds redundant. He wonders, “As opposed to what? A fee for something other than service? A fee that entitles me to no service?” A service with no fee? A service offered in barter?
Sugar diabetes.” Are there types of diabetes that have nothing to do with blood sugar?
Core fundamentals. What other kinds of fundamentals are there? Extraneous fundamentals? Tangential fundamentals?
A Freshwater Rinsebutton on a washing machine. As opposed to what? A salt-water rinse?
The Takeaway: Remember, your reader can’t read your mind. If you combine a familiar noun with a redundant-sounding modifier, tell your reader what you are talking about. If you don’t, he may become distracted. Anticipating and preventing his distraction is part of the job of writing.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mr. Clarity goofs off (5)

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus recently published an amusing list of 10 sophisticated insults.

My favorite is #2: twee (sweet or cute in a way that is silly or sentimental). I was introduced to this chiefly British expression by a British client who complained that a speech I had written for him contained a “twee” paragraph. I was young and callow then; I hope I’ve become more observant during the four decades since that embarrassing oversight.

The Takeaway: Enjoy the list. And remember Oscar Wilde’s words: “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.”

See disclaimer.