Monday, April 28, 2014

Random thoughts (3)

Have you ever wondered about signs like the one pictured above? I mean, is the property owner asking the local police to watch for trespassers? Or is he warning the reader (potential trespasser) that the local police do indeed watch for trespassers?

My Internet service provider’s monthly statement displays a telephone number and a snail mail address, but no website address. That seems wrong somehow.

I just learned that there is a phenomenon called “The Starbucks Effect.” It is illustrated here.

Today, it seems everything we do is an experience. Unless it lasts more than a day – then it’s a journey. And the journey must be on a path. And we must follow that path with passion. And perhaps with a soul mate (someone who shares our belief system and has a similar moral compass). Is it only me, or does this diction also strike you as histrionic and callow?

According to Wikipedia, the George Washington Bridge (pictured – what a beautiful bridge!) is known informally as the GWB (and other acronyms). The acronym GWB works well when written (three letters vs. 24 letters), but not when spoken (five syllables vs. five syllables.) The busy New Yorker who says GEE-DUH-BUL-YOU-BEE actually saves no time.

And that reminds me of Malibu, which the locals call “The ‘Bu.” One hipster reportedly explained that the reason people don’t say the whole name Malibu is that “it takes longer, and then you’ll be old.”*

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.”

*This quotation is from memory and may be inaccurate. I do not recall where I read the original quotation; possibly in Joan Didion. If you know where it appeared, please post a comment, or email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Thanks.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The uninhabited clause (20)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause that has a non-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 two paragraphs of an article titled “Acquittal – and Denial – at Dartmouth,” by KC Johnson:
“It seems as if periods emerge where sexual assault issues tend to focus on a single university. Even in the aftermath of the lacrosse case, attention remained on Duke – in part because of the civil suits, in part because the university, rather than learning from its mistakes, adopted a new policy that could brand a student a rapist based on ‘perceived power differentials’ that can create ‘an unintentional atmosphere of coercion.’
“Then the focus turned to Yale – in part because of the university’s mishandling of the Patrick Witt case (still no word on any investigation of who breached confidentiality at the school), and then because of the Orwellian definitions of sexual assault (‘economic abuse’ as intimate partner violence) offered in the university’s periodic sexual assault report documents.”

Only one of the clauses is inhabited:
who breached
The other ten clauses are uninhabited:
It seems
periods emerge
issues tend
attention remained
university adopted
that (antecedent = policy) could brand
that (antecedent = differentials) can create
focus turned
word is (the context implies the verb is)
that (implied; antecedent = definitions) were (implied) offered

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 risk sounding academic and boring.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Poor composition

Poor composition almost always confuses readers. Here’s an example of poor composition:

In an article titled “How to De-Crapify Your Home: A Start-to-Finish Guide,” the writer uses these words to introduce four policies for avoiding the accumulation of new clutter after you have de-cluttered your home:
“You may have heard that you should toss it if you haven’t used it in the last year. This is true, but that’s a very reasonable attitude to take with your stuff. If you have a tendency to keep things you don’t need, you need policies a bit more strict and timely than that. Live by these instead: [then he lists his four policies]
When the reader arrives at the end of the first sentence, he assumes that the sentence is a straw man that the writer will immediately refute. So, when the reader sees, “This is true, but that’s a very reasonable attitude,” he becomes confused, because:

The writer has not clearly refuted the straw man;

The pronouns “this” and “that” may refer to the same thing or two different things.

It seems illogical that the clause “that’s a very reasonable attitude” is preceded by the conjunction “but.” Isn’t a reasonable attitude a good thing?

The reader silently asks, “Where is this writer going?”

If you click through to the article, you will see that it would read better if this introduction were entirely deleted.

The Takeaway: As a writer, you may know where you’re going, but your reader does not – unless you tell him. In good composition, you continually tell your reader where you’re going, via such techniques as logical sequence,* clear transitions, parallel construction, and consistent nomenclature. When your composition is good, your readers glide effortlessly through your writing and are surprised and delighted at how quickly they finish reading it.

*For example, from the past to the present (chronological), from left to right, from top to bottom, from the general to the specific, and from the less important to the more important. There are many types of sequences to choose from; just make sure that you stick with the sequence you have chosen (the flashback is an allowable exception to this rule).

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

This dialect quiz can tell where you grew up

In case you missed it:  Last December The New York Times published an interesting online quiz about dialects. If you grew up in the United States, the quiz can identify the region.

The Takeaway: Try the quiz.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Grammatical parallelism, parallel structure, parallel construction, parallel form (5)

Grammatical parallelism is also called parallel structure, parallel construction, and parallel form. It is the use of equivalent syntax to array equivalent ideas. Parallelism makes writing easier to read; faulty parallelism makes writing harder to read.

An example of faulty parallelism

“In other words, the more English a given region, the less political and ideological flexibility one finds in that area among white voters.” (Source)

A suggested  rewrite

In other words, the more English a given region, the more inflexible (politically and ideologically) the white voters.

An example of faulty parallelism

“Get organized in ways that help you better use everything you still have. Organize your refrigerator like a supermarket. Organize your kitchen like a programmer. Organize your clothing by color, like in a clothing store, so it's easy to find what you're looking for.” (Source)

A suggested rewrite

Get organized in ways that help you better use everything you still have: Organize your refrigerator by category, your kitchen by function, and your clothing by color.

The Takeaway: Check your parallel constructions to make sure they really are parallel. This is one of the quickest fixes you can make during a copy-edit. Parallelism will make your copy easier to read. Your readers will notice and appreciate it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bits and pieces (2)

Today we present examples of miscellaneous errors that may confuse your readers.

Using a general verb instead of a specific verb

“...the use of these ubiquitous texting shortcuts is negatively altering their ability to identify and use correct grammar.” (Source)

When you feel that you must add an adverb to a verb, you’re probably using a verb that’s too general. Above, for example, the writer used the general verb alter and probably sensed that she must add an adverb to make it more specific. But it’s still too general. She should have just used a more-specific verb; for example, hinder, hurt, reduce, dull or destroy.

Misuse of preposition

“They (the big corporate contributors) tried this (bribery) to me in Minnesota.” (Source)

The natural preposition here is on: “They tried this on me.”

Logic error

“emotionally charged social and political implications” (Source)

An implication is a concept; it cannot carry or hold or experience an emotional charge. A person can experience an emotion as a reaction to recognizing an implication. The writer should have decided what emotion she had in mind and should have rewritten the passage. For example, she could have written “frightening social and political implications.”

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, April 7, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (26)

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
~Gloria Steinem (pictured)

“Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.”
~Robert F. Kennedy

“[American family court] is a system that is corrupt on [its] best day. It is like being tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged down a gravel [road] late at night. No one can hear your cries and complaints and it is not over until they say it’s over.”
~Alec Baldwin

“We live in an age of no poetry—the first such age in all of human history.”
~John Derbyshire

“Stupid ideas spread when people who know better refuse to confront them.”
~John Leo

“I do not believe in God, because I believe in man. Whatever his mistakes, man has for thousands of years past been working to undo the botched job your God has made.”
~Emma Goldman

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
~A.A. Milne

“Dare to be wrong and to dream.”
~Friedrich von Schiller

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Or, as Robert Frost put it, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” (BTW, how did you fare on the above quotations?)

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (17)

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 three recent examples of mixed metaphors:
“A new general manager almost always means a new coach. If Miami travels this second road, Philbin’s short run in South Beach is on the hot seat.” (Source) (Boldface added.)
“[Sociological research by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam] runs directly counter to some of the most deeply-held prejudices of liberal modernity, so it’s unusual to see results like these get any positive attention. Even Putnam felt it necessary to sandwich his rigorous results showing a powerful negative effect of ethnic diversity on social cohesion between a pabulum of hand-wringing about long-term benefits of immigration and assimilation, though he has no similarly rigorous results to sustain these claims.” (Source) (Boldface added.)
“Democracy is on the brink of a sea change (Source) (Boldface added.)
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.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for the pointing out the first example.

See disclaimer.