Monday, September 29, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (19)

Joe Philbin, Head Coach, Miami Dolphins

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 four recent examples of mixed metaphors:

“The issue that I’m getting at is that there’s not enough, racial, cultural, or gender diversity in game development to create this really lush palette of voices that we need to help move the medium forward.” (Source)
“With one economic fluctuation taking the wind out of the sails of industries that employ that nucleus of well-compensated young people who keep the house of cards from toppling, the entire edifice could come crashing down, leaving urban centers hollowed out just as they were in the 70s and 80s.” (Source)
“Gathering a kindling and setting on fire the hot seat under [Miami Dolphins Head Coach Joe] Philbin should also be on the table, because this was the kind of uneven performance against a winless team that sets people on the road to being fired.” (Thanks to Paul G. Henning for spotting this wonderful mess.) (Source)*
“You buttered your bread…. Now lie in it.” (Probably intentional.) (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.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Staples store gets religion

A few years ago, I published a post about refusing to accept unclear language. I mentioned that I often make a point of refusing.

For example, in retail stores, such as the local Staples, I correct indolent clerks who are not speaking clear, grown-up English.

Well, it appears that I may not have been the only Staples customer to do that. Recently I was in the store and was delightfully surprised to notice that things had improved; every clerk within earshot was speaking clear, grown-up English.
I heard clerks asking customers “Can I help you, sir?” instead of “All set?”
I heard a clerk using the correct, grown-up, second-person-plural personal pronoun, “you,” instead of the childish, white-trash “you guys.”
I even heard a clerk conclude a transaction with “Thank you” instead of “Hah wuh goo wuh” (Have a good one).
How wonderful! It appeared that Staples (or at least that one store) had gotten religion.*

Admittedly, I am quick to complain. But I’m equally quick to praise. I went online and posted a highly positive customer comment, praising by name the two clerks who had waited on me – both of them clear-speaking, dignified, polite and helpful.

The Takeaway: Intelligent people always judge you by your diction. Always. For every irascible geezer like me who complains out loud, a thousand other intelligent people maintain a polite or cowardly silence. But they do judge you. If you could read their minds you would die of embarrassment. So use clear, grown-up English. You can do it; you know you can. Don’t worry about small errors in grammar; people will overlook those if they see that you are trying. Let your intelligence shine through.

*“get religion: Fig. to become serious (about something), usually after a powerful experience.” (Source)

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Roger Angell on E. B. White

I love to read great writers discussing other great writers. Recently, my friend Paul Henning sent me a copy of a passage in which Roger Angell (pictured) discusses how E. B. White worked. Mr. White was Mr. Angell’s stepfather.

Be sure to read the last line. If you understand it, you are probably an accomplished writer.

White’s gift to writers is clarity, which he demonstrates so easily in setting down the daily details of his farm chores: the need to pack the sides of his woodshed with sprucebrush against winter; counterweighting the cold-frame windows, for easier operation; the way the wind is ruffling the surface of the hens’ water fountain. Clarity is the message of “The Elements of Style,” the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers—the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian—through the whichy thicket. “Write in a way that comes naturally,” it pleads. “Do not explain too much.” Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer’s life.
He was a demanding worker. He rewrote the first page of “Charlotte’s Web” eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, “to let the body heat out of it.” Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings. He was the first writer I observed at work, back in my early teens. Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write his weekly Comment page for The New Yorker—a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag, left out in the box by the road. “It’s no good,” he often said morosely afterward. But when the new issue turned up the next week the piece was good—unstrained and joyful, a snap to read. Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy. (Source)

The Takeaway: Whatever your aptitude, and whatever your current ability, you can become a vastly better writer if you: (1) keep writing, (2) demand the best from yourself, and (3) ask for criticism. Do those three things and you will improve; there is no doubt whatsoever.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (38) – Aaron Clarey

In Chapter 1 of Bachelor Pad Economics, a guide for young men as they leave their parents’ homes and set up their own quarters, Aaron Clarey warns his readers that their elders have told them some pernicious lies:

For example, about college:

“The lies you were fed were that you could ‘follow your heart and the money would follow’ or that ‘it doesn’t matter what you major in, it’s what you do with the degree that matters.’ As long as you went to college, racked up $100,000 in debt, you were doing ‘the right thing.’ Of course, working for $8/hour as a barista to pay off your student loans for your ‘Art History’ degree has taught you otherwise.” (76 words)

For example, about girls and dating:

“There is not one young man alive today who has not suffered immeasurably because of the lies he was told about girls and dating. The ‘wisdom’ his elders gave him was ‘to be the nice guy’ or ‘be a caring, sensitive man.’ Only to find out the drug dealing thug or the philandering athlete was getting all the girls. It wasn’t until hundreds of men compiled notes [via the Internet] and realized the advice they were being given the past 40 years was completely wrong, and set out to rediscover the truth about women. Women like tall, strong, aloof, confident a**holes who ignore them and treat them like sh*t.” (105 words)


I don’t know whether you agreed or disagreed with those two opinions, but I’m sure you easily understood what the opinions are. Mr. Clarey states them clearly, using only 76 words and 105 words, respectively. In contrast, the typical Fortune 500 CEO couldn’t be that clear and concise if his life depended on it.*

Please keep in mind that this is a blog about clear writing, not about opinions. When I select text samples for this blog, it is because the writing is especially clear (or especially unclear). I quote people who I disdain, people who I admire, and everything in between.

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.
*Not even if he had the help of an experienced speech writer or corporate writer. Unfortunately, many writers today are as bland, boring, effete and evasive as their CEOs. And even when the writers are not, the CEOs often muck up the writers’drafts. Most CEOs want to avoid being clear, concise, direct and unequivocal. They think and write like shyster lawyers, not like leaders. Do not imitate their language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Random thoughts (6)

A Subaru Forester

When the spell-checker in Microsoft Word detects no errors, it tells me “You’re good to go!” I am offended by this puerile, presumptuous language. On the other hand, I realize that the fellow who wrote it may be retarded; if so, it wouldn’t be fair of me to judge him by normal grown-up standards. On the other other hand,* why does Microsoft allow such employees to communicate with customers? Of course, it could have been worse; it could have been “Your good to go!”

Where I live and work (Meredith, New Hampshire), a portion of the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee is historically known as “Church Landing.” A local developer bought Church Landing and built a beautiful but very pricey inn on it. Confusingly, he named the inn “Church Landing” and the inn’s restaurant “The Lakehouse Grille.” It seems to me that the inn would more logically have been named “The Lakehouse on Church Landing.” Or maybe there’s something here that I am misinterpreting.**

Two years ago, on the advice of my doctor, I set out to lose 90 pounds. After I had lost the first 30 or 40, people started asking me, “How did you do it?” When I told them the simple truth, “I ate less,” they typically let out a nervous laugh and then asked, “No, really, how did you do it?” Apparently my candid answer was unwittingly embarrassing people by reminding them that they had allowed themselves to be distracted by the $20-billion-dollars-a-year weight-loss industry, whose aggregate message seems to be, “You can’t lose weight just by eating less. Trust us. Our book / plan / group / seminar / pill /surgery is the way.” So nowadays when people ask how I lost weight, I say either “I don’t remember” or “I think it may be cancer.” They seem to be more satisfied with these obvious lies than with the simple truth. I give them what they want and they leave me alone, which is what I want.

On a recent flight from Boston to Miami, I noticed that the airline boarded us coach passengers by groups. Good method, except they do it backwards: They board from fore to aft (front to rear). In other words, Group 1 boards first, in the front section of coach, which forces Group 2 to wait until every single slowpoke in Group 1 has stowed his carry-on bags and has finished asking stupid questions of the stewardesses. Then Group 3 has to wait for every slowpoke in Group 2, and so on. It would be quicker and easier to board the coach passengers from rear to front. How do I know this? Simply by recalling that that’s how airlines used to do it, decades ago.

Here in New Hampshire, many of my neighbors drive Subarus.*** I hear that Subarus are good on snow, of which we get plenty. And yet I don’t recall ever seeing a Subaru ad. So where does Subaru advertise?

The Takeaway: Be here now.
* Every editor should have at least three metaphorical hands.
**I have no financial interest in the restaurant, inn or lake.
***I have no financial interest in Subaru or its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (30)

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
~Mark Twain

“A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”
Burt Shavitz (pictured)

“I know what it means to do a job . . . I worked in a factory. I respect people in the service industry. What irritates me more is when people aren’t respectful. There’s a lot of nonsense behavior, especially in a place like Hollywood. The money, the power, they create little monsters.”
~Gary Oldman

“[Without justice], what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?
~Augustine of Hippo

“... just as one small pin can pop a balloon, one little fact can shatter a rationalization.”
~Selwyn Duke

“If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
~Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, in a speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1641.

“Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.
~Greg Lukianoff

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The etiquette of jargon – an editorial

A few years ago, as I was making a bank deposit, I noticed a half sheet of paper posted inside the teller’s cage. On it was a list of rules for good customer service. I was delighted to see that Rule #1 was “Don’t use bank jargon.”

The managers of that bank had enough insight to recognize that, although employees know that rule, they often need to be reminded of it. That’s because employees speak jargon all day with their co-workers. It eventually stops feeling like jargon, because everybody understands it.

Everybody except the customer, that is.

It is good manners and good business for employees to remain aware of their jargon, so they won't forget and use jargon in front of customers.

For more on jargon, go here.

The Takeaway: We all forget occasionally; we use jargon when speaking or writing to someone who probably doesn’t understand our jargon. The main thing is not to make this error too frequently. As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, “Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”*

*Unfortunately, even five minutes of folly can be too much on some days, including the day in 1915 on which Elbert Hubbard booked an Atlantic crossing on RMS Lusitania, in spite of the German government’s recent warning that it would fire on British-flagged passenger liners in the war zone. When the German navy torpedoed and sank the Lusitania, Elbert Hubbard and 1,194 other passengers and crewmen died.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (18)

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 four examples of mixed metaphors:
“As she read more, disparate threads started clicking together…” (Source)
“ ‘Short-term, this is a lot tougher for Democrats than for us,’ said Republican pollster Wes Anderson, referencing polls showing immigration hurting Democratic incumbents across the country in 2014. ‘Long-term? I think Sen. (Marco) Rubio’s experience with the issue has taught most Republicans to tread very lightly into these waters.’ ” (Source)
“The first of three triggers we’ve been tracking has just flashed red.” (Source: a sales letter)
“Any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole…” (Source) (Boldface in original.)
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 pointing out the second example.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Strategies for making your sentences clear

Here’s an online page of strategies for improving sentence clarity. The page is part of The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.

The Takeaway: If you are having trouble making your sentences clear, visit the OWL’s “Improving Sentence Clarity” page. Like the rest of the OWL, it is well thought out, well organized and well written.

See disclaimer.