Monday, June 30, 2014

A clear piece of political writing

I select many of my examples of unclear writing from political writing. Here’s why:

Most political writers prefer long words to short words, arcane words to common words, long sentences to short sentences, and circumlocutions to straightforward language. They also favor passive voice to active voice, uninhabited clauses to inhabited clauses, and abstract examples (or no examples) to concrete examples. Usually they are careless with their sentence structure, the organization of their paragraphs, and the flow of their entire text.

These vices make their writing difficult to read and understand.

Today I show you the opposite: a political article that is relatively easy to read and understand: “Just Another Narrative About Privilege,” by Rosslyn Smith. She has not done a perfect job (who does?) but she has taken pains to make her article readable and clear.

For the record, the article is 1,001 words long and its Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score is 44.9, which is approximately as readable as The Wall Street Journal.

I do not know or care whether the article is accurate or inaccurate, or even whether it is honest or dishonest; I am interested in the article only as an example of fairly good writing.

The Takeaway: Whatever your opinions on class and politics may be, temporarily turn off the political part of your mind (important) and just the read the article for its diction. If you have the time, read it twice. This kind of exercise helps you improve your writing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The subjunctive mood (2)

The subjunctive mood is slowly disappearing; you seldom need to use it. But seldom is not never; there are situations in which you must use the subjunctive. So, you need to know what those situations are. Stay with me; it’s not difficult.

Overview of the major moods

“There are three major moods in English: (1) the indicative mood is used to make factual statements or pose questions, (2) the imperative mood to express a request or command, and (3) the (rarely used) subjunctive mood to show a wish, doubt, or anything else contrary to fact.” (Source)

Examples (all are song titles from famous musical comedies)
Indicative:  “A Secretary Is Not a Toy."
Imperative:  “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Subjunctive:  “If I Were a Rich Man."
The Takeaway: If you use the indicative where you should have used the subjunctive, your readers or listeners will normally guess what you meant to say. However, the well-educated people among your readers or listeners will think you are ill-educated. Therefore, to avoid losing credibility, you must learn when to use the subjunctive. If, following my advice, you have been reading good writing aloud for at least ten minutes a day, eventually you will learn the subjunctive automatically, by unconscious imitation. If you want faster results, study the examples here and here.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The uninhabited clause (21)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause that has a non-human subject: a thing or an idea, as opposed to a person or group of persons. There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses, but when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers. They prefer reading about people to reading about things or ideas.


Deborah C. Tyler begins her article “Real Crime vs. Vicious Identity” with these four paragraphs:
“Since the beginning of the 20th century, advances in science and technology have enabled the most cruel and irrational debris produced by the human mind to be concentrated into the ideological footings of modern totalitarianism.  Totalitarianism politicizes every aspect of life: family, religion, education, and culture.  As Benito Mussolini exulted, ‘[e]verything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.’
“Worldwide movements to create transnational socialist ‘new world orders’ have been carried out under the banners of communism and Nazism.  We are now living through the Obama administration's efforts to transform the constitutionally founded and legally bordered nation-state, the United States of America, into a socialist totalitarian cog in a new world order.
“In claiming absolute power and promulgating narratives of intra-national enmity, totalitarian regimes have a history of justifying ideologically driven mass murder of noncombatants.  Thus far, the mass murder justified by American totalitarianism obtains in its single-minded emphasis regarding the necessity and righteousness of eliminating many of the unborn.
“The pivotal psychological dynamic of totalitarianism is a reorientation of moral and psychosocial attribution of guilt and culpability.  The psychology of totalitarianism provides the term ‘real enmity’ to mean being an enemy of society based on voluntary, legally transgressive behavior – i.e., being found guilty of committing a voluntary criminal action.  ‘Objective enmityoccurs when a member of a governmentally non-preferred group is deemed an enemy of society because he is suspected of thinking unacceptable thoughts or holding unacceptable views.” (Boldface added.) (Source)

The professors take an interesting topic – wealth – and makes it sound academic and boring. She uses eight uninhabited clauses:
advances have enabled
Totalitarianism politicizes
movements have been carried out
regimes have
murder obtains
dynamic is
psychology provides
enmity occurs
And only four inhabited clauses:
Benito Mussolini exulted
We are now living through
member is deemed
he is suspected
And in two of those four inhabited clauses (“member is deemed” and “he is suspected”) she has put the verbs in passive voice. Therefore, only two out of twelve clauses describe people doing something.

When we use a lot of of uninhabited clauses, we are in effect telling our readers: “Nothing’s happening here. Stop reading this. Go read a graphic novel.”

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.

Note: For comparison, my portion of the text in this post includes six uninhabited and fourteen inhabited clauses, and I have used no passive voice.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Straight talk: an example (23) – Carey Roberts

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) (more samples here) that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate evasive diction.

Winston Churchill used straight talk and advised other writers to do the same: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack!”

An example of straight talk

Carey Roberts (pictured) is one writer who seems to agree with Churchill’s advice. In a book review published on, Mr. Roberts begins like this:
“There is no better example of how radical feminism hoodwinks women than the gender ‘wage gap’ controversy.
“For years, the Gender Warriors have been on the war path over this issue. Their argument is simple: On average, female employees receive 76 cents for every one dollar paid to male workers. And that difference equals discrimination.
“It’s time to blow the whistle on that nonsense. And a just-released book by Warren Farrell does exactly that. Why Men Earn More is chock-full of government wage data and research findings which show the feminist-driven ‘pay gap’ is an ideological con-job.
“I feel a little silly making such an obvious statement, but I guess it needs to be said: the work patterns of men and women are different.” (Source)

Using terms like hoodwinks, blow the whistle, nonsense, and con-job, Mr. Roberts leaves little doubt where he is headed in this book review.

But he hasn’t yet turned off his pile driver. Before he finishes the book review, he uses dishonest, shrill, bombshell and tsunami.

Please note: As always on this blog, I am analyzing diction, not ideas. My intent is to show you Mr. Roberts’ straightforward diction, not to comment on the strength or weakness of his argument.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting diction. 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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Avoiding shifts that impede your readers

In four previous posts, we have discussed the common mistake of unnecessarily changing from one grammatical person to another. For example, an executive of a publishing house said:
“It was not a book where a whole house [third person] runs out and pushes like crazy, and you [second person] have to have success right away, because you [second person] spent all this money.” (See post.)
This unnecessary change, or shift, confuses and impedes the reader.

There are also other kinds of shifts. Towson University, as part of its Online Writing Support, includes a very helpful page on seven kinds of shifts: shifts in tense, voice, mood, person, number, discourse and sentence construction. The page includes illustrative examples of each.

Nice work, Towson.

The Takeaway: When you have a chance, read the whole page. From time to time, review it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A soldier who wrote like a professor

Most professors write exhausting prose. They exhaust their readers by continually forcing them to decode circumlocutions, euphemisms, evasions, ambiguities, misplaced modifiers, vague antecedents, and logical fallacies. They make the readers endure passive voice, elegant variation, and sheer nonsense. They make the readers slog through long sentences.

But professors are not the only vexers. Many non-professors exhaust their readers, too. Consider, for example, the British soldier Frederick J. Veale (pictured), who died in 1976. In his revisionist history Advance to Barbarism, Veale claims that the Allies thought up the idea of deliberately bombing civilians and the Axis merely followed suit. But after enticing his readers with this provocative thesis, Veale exhausts them with prose like this:
“It would not indeed be correct to say that what was officially termed ‘the strategic bombing offensive’ was carried out to the last day of the war without opposition, protest or misgivings. Questions were asked in Parliament as to the character of this air offensive which were fully reported in the Press with the answers given. Certainly it cannot be said that the Ministers of the Crown upon whom fell the duty of answering these questions, resorted to evasion or equivocation.
“In accordance with the British tradition they kept a stiff upper lip and gave clear and emphatic replies, without any signs of embarrassment such as might have been expected from them having regard to the fact that as recently as March 1942 Mr. Churchill’s War Cabinet had accepted the plan laid before it by Professor Lindemann by which ‘top priority’ as an objective for air attack was in future to be given to ‘working-class houses in densely populated residential areas.’ ” (161 words)

There are many things wrong with these two consecutive paragraphs; for the sake of brevity, I’ll just hit the highlights:
Long sentences (average 40.2 words).
Passive voice; for example: “Questions were asked in Parliament as to the character of this air offensive which were fully reported in the Press with the answers given.” (Boldface added.)
An egregious, grotesque circumlocution: “...such as might have been expected from them having regard to the fact that as recently as March 1942 Mr. Churchill’s War Cabinet had accepted the plan laid before it by Professor Lindemann by which ‘top priority’ as an objective for air attack was in future to be given to ‘working-class houses in densely populated residential areas.’ ” 
A suggested rewrite

In just over three minutes, I did this rough rewrite:
Several government officials opposed, protested or at least questioned “the strategic bombing offensive.” For example, Members of Parliament asked the Ministers questions about the character of the offensive. The Ministers answered clearly and emphatically, and the press fully reported both the questions and the answers. The Ministers did not appear to be embarrassed that the War Cabinet had decided to deliberately bomb “working-class houses in densely populated residential areas.” (68 words)
My rewrite is 58 percent shorter than the original, and it is much easier to follow. (Note: I felt it was fair to delete the mention of Professor Lindemann, because two paragraphs later a quotation describes the professor’s role in the offensive.)

The Takeaway: Try not to fall into the bad habits of the typical professor. As you edit your drafts, watch for circumlocutions, euphemisms, evasions, ambiguities, misplaced modifiers, vague antecedents, logical fallacies, passive voice, elegant variation, and sheer nonsense. Keep your sentences mostly short; vary the sentence length. And always check your prose for readability; if your Flesch Reading Ease score is consistently below 30, you probably are writing like a professor. Ask a capable editor to look at samples of your work and advise you on how to break your bad habits.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (27)

Critical remarks about schooling

“American education has been littered with failed fads and foolish ideas for the past century.”
~Diane Ravitch (pictured)

“The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

“The widespread substitution of indoctrination for education in America produces lots of young people who have been conditioned to believe that their inflated sense of self-worth and moral superiority are marketable skills. Unsurprisingly, many end up in politics…”
~Thomas A. Oakes

“The simple fact is that when parents send their children to school they want them to become good readers. They don’t send them to school to become socialists.”
~Samuel L. Blumenfeld

“...women should not be allowed within fifty feet of a school where boys are taught. A boy, especially a bright one, will want to drop out of school through the nearest window and run screaming to a recruiting office for the French Foreign Legion – anything to get away from inane, vapid, and insubstantial feel-good compulsory niceness inflicted by some low-wattage ed-school grad.”

“Never let school interfere with your education.”

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?)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Somerset Maugham on accepting your inadequacies

Unfortunately, it takes a lot to become a competent writer; not only education, time and hard work but also self-awareness, humility and honesty.

The British playwright, novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham (pictured) was extraordinarily self-aware, humble and honest. No matter what kind of writing you do, you could learn some valuable lessons from reading Maugham’s literary memoir The Summing Up. If you would like a sample of the lessons it contains, read this brief article.

The Takeaway: If you are a serious writer and want to build your skills, I urge you to read the article about W. Somerset Maugham. Read The Summing Up if you have time. And I suggest you occasionally read some of Maugham’s fiction – even just a short story will give you insights. (Sample. Sample.) Maugham’s style is humble, observant, thoughtful, sympathetic, straightforward, euphonious, clear and concise. Often marvelously concise.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Random thoughts (4)

From long tradition, cashiers and bank tellers keep all bills faced and right side up. It’s not difficult; when I worked as a cashier (1961), every cashier in the store, even I, could do it right. But many cashiers and tellers are now abandoning the orderly practice. This trend is a small but telling sign of impending doom.

A California man named Dana Contreras became a woman and began using the name Dana McCallum. I thought people who changed from man to woman changed their first names, as in the famous change from George Jorgensen to Christine Jorgensen.

I keep hearing that Americans’ attention spans are shrinking. However, I’ve noticed that online sales pitches are getting longer. Many of the pitches I see are more than 10,000 words long. I saw one the other day that was 14,000 – almost half-way to the average length of a novella. Long copy must be working, or these marketers wouldn’t use it. So what gives here? – are attention spans shrinking or growing?

Do any natives of Walla Walla, WA, “the friendliest small town in the United States,” move away so that when people ask them where they live, they will never again be forced to say “Walla Walla” out loud?

Speaking of odd place names, my five favorites in my home state of New Hampshire are Deerfield Parade, Gadwah Notch, Gaza, Hardscrabble, and Pickledish Hollow.

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.”