Monday, March 31, 2014

The dehumanizing language of medicine

Last week I discussed an example of the dehumanizing language of medicine. Here are three more examples of dehumanizing language* and how you can help cure it:
“How are we doing?” Many doctors replace the pronoun you with the pronoun we, as in the condescending greeting, “How are we doing?” When I hear this, I help retrain them by responding, “So far as I have observed, you and your staff are doing fine, but I’ve only been here for a few minutes.” (If you try this, make sure to do it with a straight face.)  
“Gender.” On office forms, many doctors ask whether the patient’s “gender” is male or female. When I see this, I check the box for “male,” cross out “gender,” insert the correct word, “sex,” and write this note in the margin: “The word gender is a grammatical term – as in masculine, feminine and neuter. The biological term is sex. I am embarrassed to have to explain this to a medical doctor, but there it is.”
“Medication,” as opposed to the traditional term “medicine.” Medication connotes that a doctor (a medicator) puts substances onto or into the body of a patient (a medicatee), or orders the patient to do so. It also connotes that a patient (who, being only a medicatee and not a medicator) should not decide whether to put anything onto or into his body (self-medicate). When I hear “medication,” I politely insist, “Please speak plainly: Say ‘medicine.’ ”
The Takeaway: Let us take a lesson from the linguistic offenses of doctors: Communication consists not only of what we say, but also of how we say it. People judge us by both, so we must always try to remain consciously aware of both.

*I am generalizing; I am of course aware that not all doctors talk like this.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Forcing adjectives to act as nouns

I’m sure you’ve noticed this trend: Millions of speakers are forcing adjectives to do the work of nouns, simply because the speakers are too lazy to utter the nouns.

For example, a receptionist says to a doctor, “Your nine-thirty is here” instead of “Your nine-thirty appointment is here.” Because the receptionist is too indolent to utter the three-syllable noun appointment*, he makes the adjective nine-thirty do the work of a noun as well as the work of an adjective.

And I will bet that you find this indolent habit annoying. Judging by what I have noticed, I can say that many people agree with you. When I am in a waiting room and the receptionist refers to an appointment without using the noun appointment, I glance around for reactions. I have noticed eye-rolls and angry looks. And even angry words: “Oh, so I’m just a time of day, am I?”**

You may have noticed other examples of this trend. Here are three that I’ve heard recently:
“Don’t let people put their crazy on you.”
Their crazy what? Thoughts? Feelings? Plans? Rituals? Fetishes? Body paint? Tattoos? Ideologies? Political opinions? Cosmological theories? Memories of being reared by Amelia Earhart and Elvis?
“I live the day-to-day with them.”
The day-to-day what? Struggles? Joys? Fears? Aches and pains? Drunken stupors? Superficial disappointments? Achievements? Housework? Homework? Wanderings in the Gobi Desert?
“He works in a vertical.”
I think this speaker meant either a vertical market or a vertically integrated company; they are two different things. Unfortunately for his listeners, he did not specify which thing he meant.

The Takeaway: When speaking, don’t be indolent or lazy. Remember that we speak in order to inform. When we use generalities because we are too lazy to think of specifics, we risk confusing and irritating our listeners.

*And many indolent speakers, when they do utter the noun appointment, pronounce it as “appoin” (only two syllables). For more examples of this disgusting trend, see “Slurring.”

**People are angry because they sense that referring to an appointment without saying “appointment” is part of the dehumanizing language of medicine. I’ll discuss more examples of this language in a future post.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The vague cliche “all set” (3)

In two previous posts (here and here), I’ve discussed the vague cliche “all set,” which is the worst cliche in use today. Here are two simple, real-life incidents that demonstrate how lazy and inconsiderate the promiscuous use of this cliche really is.

The champ

A waiter served me an entire dinner using only six words, consisting of the question “All set?” three times:

When he first approached the table, he didn’t say a word of greeting; he simply left the menu.

When he saw that I had finished looking at the menu, he approached and asked, “All set?” I went along with the gag and assumed that he meant “Are you ready to order?”, and I ordered.

When he brought my dinner, he said nothing.

When he saw that I had apparently finished eating, he approached and asked “All set?” I stuck with the gag and assumed that he meant “Shall I bring the check?” I said “Yes.”

He brought the check folder and left it, saying nothing. I counted out a quantity of cash and put it inside the folder.

He noticed, approached, picked up the folder, waved it, and asked “All set?” for the third and last time. I assumed he meant “May I keep the change?” – he was hustling a tip. I said “Yes,” by which I meant to say “Yes, you may keep any money in excess of the check total. However, I believe that I have left the exact amount, to the penny.” I’m usually a heavy tipper, but this stiff was asking to be stiffed.

The comrade

Recently I began to wonder if I was the only person left in America who noticed the lazy and inconsiderate use of the expression “all set.” But then I eavesdropped on a conversation that proved I had at least one comrade.*

I was at the supermarket, in the frozen-food aisle. At the far end of the aisle, three men were stocking: one middle-aged man, who appeared to be the supervisor, and two young men. One of the young men looked alert; the other looked confused. The supervisor, who was standing closer to the alert clerk, raised his voice slightly and asked the confused clerk, “How are you doing?”

Without looking up, the confused clerk mumbled, “I’m all set.” The supervisor said, “Good. I’m all set, too.” His voice had taken on a mischievous tone. He winked conspiratorially at the alert clerk and then asked him, “Hey, are you all set, too?” The alert clerk announced, “Yep. I’m all set, too.”

“Well then,” said the supervisor, “I guess we’re all going to Heaven.” I laughed out loud, blowing my cover.

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’.

See disclaimer.

*I humbly call your attention to my refusal to add “out there” at the end of this sentence, as most Americans would have. I try to practice what I preach.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How NOT to introduce a guest speaker

Most people do a poor job of introducing a guest speaker. They either: (1) don’t know how to prepare an introduction or (2) don’t know how to behave in public. Sometimes both.

Here’s an example of both: a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell introducing the author Stephen King. The introduction begins at 00:25 in the video. It’s two and a half minutes long; watch it now.


The introduction is histrionic and creepy.

Although the introducer is a professor, she uses baby talk: “beepy things.”

Although she is a professor of English, she uses a confusing circumlocution: “please just make sure you’re not going to be that person who embarrasses themselves.”

She tries to humiliate the audience members: “that you thought was really cool.”

She apparently thinks it’s cute to warn the people in the front rows that she may “projectile vomit” on them.

Worst of all, she upstages her guest speaker by spending more than one-third of the introduction talking about herself. Projectile narcissism.

How to prepare a decent introduction

Even if you are not a trained public speaker, you can easily prepare and deliver a decent introduction. Even on short notice. Here’s what to do:
First write 20 words that identify the speaker’s topic.
Then write 40 words about the importance of that topic to the audience members.
Then write 80 words about the speaker’s qualifications to discuss that topic.
Then write, “Please join me in welcoming (name of speaker)!”
You now have a rough draft of your script. Rehearse your script with a recorder running. Then listen to the recording and edit the script. Then rehearse and edit again. You now have the script for a decent, polite, relevant one-minute introduction. You will deliver it well, especially if your heart is in it.

And if you have sufficient time for thorough preparation, consider using this detailed and thoughtful guide, written by a wonderful librarian. And I hope you always will have sufficient time.

The Takeaway: If you are asked to introduce a speaker, be diligent and considerate in your preparation. You don’t have to be a smooth, fancy professional speaker – just a modest, well-mannered grown-up with a heart.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A resource to help you avoid redundancy

Recently I published a post about a humorous but instructive essay about redundancies. Since then I learned of a good resource for avoiding redundancies; it’s a list of the more common redundant phrases, with a concise replacement for each. Here are five entries:
Instead of arrived at the conclusion, change to or try concluded.
Instead of I wish to take this opportunity to thank you, change to or try thank you.
Instead of same identical, change to or try same.
Instead of visible to the eye, change to or try visible.
Instead of warn in advance, change to or try warn.
The Takeaway: When you have the time, read through the entire list. Then keep the list in your resource file as a reminder and guide.

See disclaimer.

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

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Straight talk: an example (22) – Laurence Vance

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

In his book The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, Laurence Vance (pictured) writes this:

“The [U.S.] federal war on drugs is undefendable. Not only has it failed to curtail drug use, it has eroded civil liberties, destroyed financial privacy, corrupted law enforcement, crowded prisons with non-violent offenders, ruined countless lives, and wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.”*


That’s an opinion stated strongly and clearly in fewer than 50 words. Most business executives couldn’t talk this straight to save their lives.** They are hopeless pussyfooters and you should try not to imitate them.

Please note: As always on this blog, I am analyzing diction, not ideas. For example, whether I agree or disagree (or both or neither) with Mr. Vance is irrelevant to this post.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive diction (more samples here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It will help you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

*As quoted by Jacob G. Hornberger.

**I claim the professional expertise to make this generalization, having spent 33 years as a speechwriter and coach to hundreds of executives. Generally speaking, the larger the company the more evasive the language.

Monday, March 10, 2014

People judge you by your diction

As you have noticed, many people in the professions talk and write like children. By doing so, they detract from their professional credibility, even when they apparently are trying to bolster it. Here’s a good example:

In an interview with Elle magazine, a professor of psychology argues that professional psychologists are better at giving advice than are the authors of self-help books. But she fails in her delivery, by using awkward, juvenile diction:

Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside, says, “We [psychologists] just sort of ignore that whole [self-help] section of the bookstore... We set it as so different from what we do, like, ‘Well, we do science, and those people are just spouting off their ideas.’ ” (Highlighting added.)

I do not know Professor Lyubomirsky. I haven’t read her books or papers. I’ve never heard her give a speech. For all I know, she may be the most brilliant and knowledgeable professor of psychology in the world. But that quotation makes her sound like a teenager.

The Takeaway: If you want to be respected as a professional, always talk and write like a professional. People judge you by your diction – even people who insist they would never do such a thing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Meaningless nouns can make you sound phony

Recently I published a post that described how some people try to enhance nouns by placing meaningless nouns after them. For example:
A crisis becomes a crisis situation.
Boarding becomes the boarding process.
Seafood becomes seafood solutions.
Flooding becomes a flooding issue.
An emergency becomes an emergency condition.
Here are five more examples:
A cause becomes a causal factor.
A workplace becomes a workplace setting.
Practice becomes practice exercises.
Preparation becomes preparation activities.
A login becomes a login experience.
This is not a natural way to write (or even speak). If you write like this, you’re probably just unconsciously imitating other writers. But beware: Those writers are poseurs. Adding meaningless nouns is a cheap trick that poseurs use in order to boost their credibility.

However, the trick rarely works. Most people can sense that there’s something wrong with the added nouns. That’s why, for example, you will occasionally overhear passengers at the airport making fun of the phrase, “the boarding process.”

The Takeaway: Don’t lard your sentences with meaningless nouns. Only semi-literates and zombies will accept that as normal writing; all others will think you’re a poseur, a scammer, or some other type of phony.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out some of these examples.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Random thoughts (2)

Like most writers, even in my grammar-school days I wanted to be a writer. But I confess that one of my reasons was frivolous: I wanted to have bookshelves that don’t sag, and I had noticed that writers’ bookshelves never sag. Every bookcase I ever owned had shelves that sagged – from the first bookcase I built out of orange crates, to the trendy collegiate bricks and boards, to mass-produced bookcases, to some quite expensive bookcases that were guaranteed in writing not to sag but did. (Pictured here: the late Elmore Leonard.)

And like most writers, I have always been curious. For example, as a young boy in the late 1940s, I heard many veterans sum up the recently ended World War II by saying “I saw too much.” But I never once heard a veteran say, “I did too much.” So I wondered, sometimes aloud: Who did all the “too much” that the other men saw? And what was it, anyway? Grown-ups told me to stop asking these questions; they wouldn’t say why, but they seemed frightened.

As I am sure you have noticed, people who give driving directions usually finish by saying, “You can’t miss it.” Why are they so optimistic? That only gives the driver false confidence. Myself, I wish direction-givers would be helpfully pessimistic: “Drive slowly and watch closely, because the house is easy to miss – it’s almost invisible behind trees, the driveway is narrow, and the street-number sign is faded.”

In my town, which is on a lake, there’s a marine salvage company. It’s an elaborate affair, with a big warehouse holding tens of thousands of parts – plus many large pieces of equipment lying out in the open. One sunny Saturday morning I noticed a hand-made sign in the driveway of the salvage company. It read, “Garage Sale.” Wha...?

Many widows “go home” – move back to the towns where they grew up. Why don’t widowers do that? Is there some rule against it?

Whatever happened to Brandy Alexanders?

Speaking of drinking – I used to think that “dropsy” is what you become if you keep drinking after you become “tipsy.” But I looked up “dropsy” in the dictionary. It’s not even an adjective; it’s a noun. And there’s nothing funny about it.

The New York Times recently said, “These sorts of romantic complications are hardly confined to North Carolina, an academically rigorous school where most students spend more time studying than socializing.” My, how the definition of “academically rigorous” has been watered down: to qualify today, a school need only have 51 percent of its students spend only 51 percent of their time studying. Yikes! If I had studied only 51 percent of my time, I would have flunked out in my freshman year (1961-1962). And if there was any romance around, I didn’t see it; I was probably in the language lab that day.

Why do we say “he wrote an article” or “he penned an article” but never “he typed an article”?

The Takeaway: Be here now.

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

See disclaimer.