Monday, April 27, 2015

Because faddishness

The proudly ill-educated are giddily following the current fad of using because as a preposition. For example:

“I’m late because YouTube. You’re reading this because procrastination.” (Source)

Some ditzy writers and editors at The Atlantic seem to think it’s cute. So do a lot of dudes and bimbos on the internet. But if you are a grown-up, in mind as well as in body, you will abstain.

The Takeaway: If you want to be taken seriously, if you want to preserve your self-respect, try not to imitate this latest puerile fad brought to you by the people who popularized having said that and at the end of the day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (8)

Another writer who does a lot with 100 words is Butler Shaffer (pictured), a professor of law. In his well-constructed article titled “The Foundations of Our Extinction” is this concise paragraph:

What passes as “news” in today’s culture is largely centered upon hostilities between or among persons or events that can be exploited for the purpose of further empowering the state not only to resolve the immediate conflict, but to mobilize the energies of massive numbers of persons to be galvanized into demanding a governmental response. If, for instance, a white police officer shoots an unarmed black man, those who identify themselves with the race of the victim will likely react with a more intense anger than might be the case if a white policeman shot an unarmed white man. (99 words)

Notice also that, although Mr. Shaffer uses two very long sentences (55 and 44 words long, respectively), his good sentence structure makes his meaning clear.

The Takeaway:  If you want to make your writing more concise, keep reading writers who are good at writing concisely. To see the earlier pieces in this series, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “You can say a lot in only 100 words.” For even more examples of good concision, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “Concise writing is usually clear writing.”

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Avoiding redundancy (6)

Originally created

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” (Source)

Something can be created only once; therefore, “originally created” is redundant.

Potential red flag

“Rising Inventories = Potential Red Flag” (Source)

A red flag is an “indicator of potential problems”; therefore, “Potential Red Flag” is redundant.

A snow event

“Parking During a Snow Event” (Source)

Snow (a form of precipitation) is an event; therefore, “Snow Event” is redundant.

Snow plowing events

“The City of Hudson has a specific ordinance that deals with snow plowing events that require all residents to remove their vehicles from all City streets, roadways and city-maintained alleys.” (Source)

Snow plowing is an event; therefore; therefore “snow plowing events” is redundant.

The Takeaway: Whether you are speaking or writing, be careful to avoid redundancy. If you use a lot of redundancies, your intelligent listeners or readers may conclude that you are ill-educated, stupid or careless.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Unintentional hedging (8)

Here are two more examples of people unintentionally hedging their statements.

A witness in the George Zimmerman trial:

“One guy on top in the black hoodie was pretty much just throwing down blows on the guy kind of MMA [mixed martial arts]-style.” (Boldface added.) (Source)

And a restaurant employee being interviewed by the press:

“They came into the restaurant itself and a lot of customers were kind of scared,” one restaurant employee told Fox 8 news in Cleveland. “They were threatening employees, they were threatening me and some customers.” (Boldface added.) (Source)

The Takeaway: If you intend to hedge, hedge: “I’ll be there about four o’clock.” Otherwise, don’t hedge. Say what you mean, and you will earn more respect.

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Unintentional hedging (7)

Here’s a quick and easy way to write and speak more clearly: Don’t hedge unintentionally. For example, don’t unintentionally use kind of. Unintentional hedging diminishes, undermines or negates your message. Here are three quick examples:

Regarding Linda Ronstadt’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ms. Ronstadt’s producer said:
“When certain people got in, before Linda, I was kind of outraged.” (Source)
Unintentional hedging is not surprising on Tumblr:
But even the Washington Post, whose writers and editors presumably are grown up and literate, sometimes indulges in this nonsense:
“Everything today is kind of horrible, so here are some penguins dressed up as Santa Claus” (Source)
If you think something is horrible, say “It’s horrible,” not “It’s kind of horrible.” If you don’t think something is horrible, don’t use the word horrible at all; use a word that says what you really mean to say. Saying what you really mean to say will create the impression that you are literate, not semi-literate.

Many people use more than one kind of or like per minute. If you hedge that frequently, even obtuse listeners are going to wake up and notice it. When they do, they will receive this unintended message from you: “I’m not really saying anything. I’m just thinking out loud, and I’m not even sure of the thoughts. So, don’t listen to me.” When I hear a public speaker do that, I stand up and walk out. Life is too short to be wasted on reading or listening to semi-literate slobs.

The Takeaway: Say what you mean. If you intend to hedge, hedge: “I’ll be there about four o’clock.” Otherwise, don’t hedge. Say what you mean, and you will earn more respect.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (37)

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream another dream.”
~C. S. Lewis

“Those who seek for and follow the Tao are strong of body, clear of mind, and sharp of sight and hearing. They do not load their mind with anxieties, and are flexible in their adjustment to external conditions.”
~Zhuang Zhou

“Great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects... totalitarian propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have by the most eloquent denunciations.”
~Aldous Huxley

“Peace is at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man; war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is happy and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals.”

“My reputation for writing quickly and effortlessly notwithstanding, I am strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is, or certainly should be, an art in itself.”
~Joyce Carol Oates

“Work is more fun than fun.”
~Noel Coward

“In a PC world, humor is a capital offense. ”

“If you don’t know what else to do, drink beer.”
~Wally Byam

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

See disclaimer.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Gobbledygook (7)

Pat Buchanan (pictured) is astute enough to spot gobbledygook, and combative enough to call people on it.

For example, in an article about high school admissions policy, Mr. Buchanan quotes Jeremy Shughart, admissions director at the merit-based Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (Fairfax County, Virginia):

“Says Shughart, ‘The committee is looking at a variety of admissions components and making recommendations for possible adjustments to future admissions cycles. … (We) will continue to work on increasing diversity at TJHSST and will continue to pursue outreach efforts to ensure talented underrepresented populations of students with a passion for math and science consider, apply to, and attend… Fairfax County Public Schools believes in the value of diversity.’ ”

Then Mr. Buchanan calls him on his gobbledygook:

“That is bureaucratic gobbledygook for saying they are going to start looking closer at the race and ethnicity of student applicants and begin using this criteria to bring in some — and to reject others.
“Race discrimination, against Asians, is coming to Fairfax County.”

The Takeaway: If you want to win debates and persuade people, strictly avoid gobbledygook – unless all your readers and listeners are stupid. Astute readers and listeners may call you on your gobbledygook. Then you are worse off than before: (1) you’ve made a weak point, and (2) your resort to gobbledygook demonstrates that you knew it was weak – otherwise, you would have stated it clearly and boldly.

You probably noticed that “this criteria” is ungrammatical.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (7)

Another writer who does a lot with 100 words is the former technology columnist and police reporter Fred Reed (pictured). In an article about why so many US citizens (plus legal and illegal immigrants living in the US) are thinking about secession, he begins with a remarkably concise statement of his diagnosis:
“The country is not a happy place. Today it is more consciously and resentfully divided, politically, regionally, racially and by sex and class than perhaps ever before. The rich prosper and the middle class sink. Three major racial blocs eye each other with fear and hostility. The hard left controls the media and government against the desires of much of the country, enforcing social engineering that is deeply disliked. Feminists make war on men, and destroy the schools and universities. Washington is widely loathed. Rules, laws, and regulations never voted on grow ever more burdensome and intrusive. Many quietly want out. The question is how to get there.” (108 words)

Mr. Reed’s grammar here is a little off kilter, but his meaning is clear, hard-hitting and unapologetic. This is the kind of writing that’s so clear and concise that it fools many beginners into thinking it’s easy. It isn’t; I know professors, business consultants and business executives who say less with 500 words,  even 1,000.

The Takeaway:  If you want to make your writing more concise, keep reading writers who are good at writing concisely. To see the earlier pieces in this series, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “You can say a lot in only 100 words.” For even more examples of good concision, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “Concise writing is usually clear writing.”

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 30, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (6)

Last week I showed you a 76-word blog post from Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur who turns out concise blog posts using only 100 words, more or less.

Another writer who does a lot with 100 words is the retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. In an article titled “This Can’t Last,” Mr. Dalrymple discusses signs of societal decline; his second paragraph is:
“A story is told by the British writer Christopher Booker in his account of the Moscow Olympics of 1980. A sports journalist of one of Britain’s less cerebral newspapers, than which no newspapers in the world are less cerebral, took one look around the Moscow airport on arrival, never having given the matter a moment’s thought before, and said something to the effect that ‘This system can’t last.’ This was not the opinion of almost all the learned Sovietologists of the day; but he had grasped in a matter of seconds a reality that they had not perceived in many years of close and devoted study.” (106 words)
Trusting that his readers know that the Soviet Union was dissolved a decade later, Mr. Dalrymple continues, turning his attention to his native Britain:
“Tiny details can, in my opinion, be very revealing of a society, as are those on a scan to a skilled radiologist. Here is one such, to which I referred recently in a public lecture. I had noticed on the website of the Guardian, Britain’s liberal newspaper, the self-description of a young woman, calling herself curlygirl24, who was looking for ‘soulmate’ (the name of the Guardian’s lonelyhearts service, though most readers of the paper would probably be horrified at the notion of a soul).” (84 words)
He quotes the young woman, in part:
“I have been told that I am a bit of a paradox: I seem to have the emotional fuzziness that comes with being a girl along with the capacity to drink copious amounts, still stand up and take the p*ss out of my friends and possibly random strangers.”
He comments:
“I said in my lecture that it seemed to me remarkable, and not altogether reassuring, that an educated young woman, a financial journalist according to her own report, who was on the lookout for, presumably, an equally educated young man, a member of our society’s intellectual and social elite, should think that drinking to excess and then being impolite to complete strangers would be an attractive quality. What did this tell us about our society, of its cultural level? I left it at that.” (84 words)
His article continues. It is worth reading in full.

The Takeaway: If you want to make your writing more concise, keep reading writers who are good at writing concisely. To see the earlier pieces in this series, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “You can say a lot in only 100 words.” For even more examples of good concision, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “Concise writing is usually clear writing.” My best wishes to you.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bits and pieces (4)

Today we present examples of various errors that can make you sound ill-educated.

Logic error

“His father was a building contractor and his mother came from France.” (Source)

Shifting grammatical person

“I’ll clue you in on a secret: death is not the worst thing that could happen to you. I know we think that; we are the first society ever to think that. It’s not worse than dishonor; it’s not worse than losing your freedom; its not worse than losing a sense of personal responsibility. (Boldface added.) (Source)

General ignorance

In a harassment case, Tufts University “may have made free speech history by being the first institution in the United States to find someone guilty of harassment for stating verifiable facts directed at no one in particular.” In other words, a once-venerated university publicly demonstrated that its administrative staff did not know that harass is a transitive verb, but apparently was not embarrassed by this ignorance. (Source)

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing something for publication – even if it’s “just” a blog – present yourself as a well-educated grown-up. Have an experienced editor read your copy; that’s what well-educated grown-ups do.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 23, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (5) - a master

In this series, “You can say a lot in only 100 words,” I’ve been showing you especially concise passages from longer works (journals, essays and books).

Today, I introduce you to (if you don’t know him already) a man who writes especially concise items all the time: Seth Godin (pictured). For example, his blog consists almost entirely of remarkably concise posts with an average length of about 130 words.

Here’s a recent post (76 words):

Like the pilot says, “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.

When youre on one of those Disneyland boats, it takes you where Disney wants you to go. Thats why you got on. And so you are lulled, a spectator, merely a tourist.

So different, isnt it, from driving yourself, choosing your own route and owning what comes of it?

How long have you been along for the ride? When is your turn to actually drive?

Seth Godin is a master. His posts are pithy and thought-provoking, and often inspiring.

The Takeaway: If you are striving to make your writing more concise, you should regularly read Seth Godin’s blog to watch how he does it. I read it for that reason, even though I’ve been a professional writer for 47 years. We should never stop learning.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Don’t add meaningless nouns

In a previous post, I talked about the silly practice of adding a meaningless noun immediately after a meaningful noun. In the US, probably the most familiar example is “the boarding process.”

Yesterday afternoon I saw two examples of meaningless nouns.

The first example

The first example was on my drive home from the hospital, where I had had a test. In a rural part of my drive home, I saw a handmade sign that offered “Firewood Materials.”

In most situations like this, I would stop and take a picture of the sign and try to interview the person who created it. But I wasn’t feeling so well, having been roughly handled at the hospital. As I drove by, I wondered what the seller would have handed me if I had walked up to him and asked, “Could I look at a sample of your firewood materials?”

I imagined that he would hand me a few packets of seeds – probably sugar maple, ash, beech and oak – and maybe a gardner’s trowel so I could plant them. Then I could harvest (is that the right word?) my firewood a few decades hence.

Or maybe, if I said I was not a patient man, he would just hand me a chain saw.

When I got home, I searched the web for “firewood materials.” Among some miscellaneous junk, I saw a URL for an organization called Don’t Move Firewood, which offers Don’t Move Firewood materials, such as posters, to help prevent the spread of pests that kill timber. A worthy cause, but I don’t think that was what the seller meant.

The second example

I started to read an “After Visit Summary” that my doctor had given me. Among other things, the summary said that the doctor was going to give me my test results by phone, one week later, between 5:00 and 9:00 PM. The summary explained that the reason for calling me in the evening was to allow me to receive my results “while you are in your home environment.” (Boldface added.)

Another example of the careless addition of a meaningless noun, I thought. But wait – a medical doctor wouldn’t be careless, would he? Maybe he put the word “environment” in there for a good reason – perhaps it was an attempt to conjure up an image of comfort and safety, to put me at my ease.


Hastily, I read the rest of the summary to see if it prohibited my having a drink tonight. It didn’t, and I did.

The Takeaway: Don’t add meaningless nouns. It can make you sound careless or even phony.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Is anywhere still safe from Dudespeak? – an editorial

Once in a while, out of curiosity, I take a hopeful glance at the web sites of institutions that may possibly be resisting, or at least avoiding, America’s decline into Dudespeak – the careless, vague, faddish, infantile diction of dudes and bimbos.

The other day, I read the web page for Harvard University’s Undergraduate Program in Applied Mathematics, a plausible place to expect serious grown-up diction.

Plausible but wrong, it turns out.

The person who wrote the page used the faddish impacts (n.) instead of effects.

He used interest (n.) and interests (n.), then apparently noticed that he had neglected to use the faddish passion, then quickly corrected this failure to conform.

At the end of the text, the writer inserted an “aw-shucks” disclaimer of elitism:

Graduates go on to careers in wide ranging fields, including business, law, medicine, academics, and well, just about anything.

I won’t bother to point out the grammar errors.

The Takeaway: If you want to be taken seriously and be perceived as a grown-up, you need to use grown-up diction. Avoid ingenuousness, coyness, silliness, faddishness and frivolousness – save them for parties.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The power of specificity (3) – an unspecified disaster

In previous posts (here and here) on the power of specificity, I’ve shown you samples of specificity and samples of vagueness.

Today I point you to another example of vagueness. It is a 565-word comment on an article. The article is titled “Why do expats go home? Why do they seek new overseas ‘havens’? Interviews with departing and relocating expats reveal the reasons.”

The author of the comment explains that he moved to Argentina ten years ago, that he had difficulty fitting in, and that he overcame his difficulty by making friends with some “bi-lingual and bi-cultural Argentines” who helped him understand the local culture and politics.

All well and good. The reader now expects the author to recommend that everyone expatriating to Argentina likewise find and make such friends, so as to enjoy a more serene and comfortable life there. And perhaps the author will provide a few examples of situations in which the friends and the understanding were helpful, and how.

But instead of doing those reasonable things, the author suddenly darkens the picture. He claims:

That it is “absolutely important” that the reader understand the local culture and government;

That “not understanding the culture, the laws, or the politics, can be an absolute disaster.”

After using such an extreme adverb (absolutely) and adjective (absolute), the author owes the reader some specificity. However, he gives none.

The reader wonders: “Is the government really that bad, or is this fellow just a blowhard? Will the cops kidnap and kill me, or just shake me down for a bribe now and then?”

Meanwhile, the author frivolously concludes his essay with this advice: “Keep your eyes and ears open.” This ancient cliche offers no specificity.

The Takeaway: If your writing is vague, you won’t make it specific just by adding absolutely, one of the most overused and abused adverbs in the English language, or other histrionic words. It will only make the reader more aware of how vague your writing is. Instead, just say what you mean, in specific, non-histrionic language. And give examples.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (5)

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions. I have posted examples before; here is another:

On a web page titled “Difference between Page Views and Impressions,” the first paragraph is:
“Page views and impressions are two commonly used words in the field of web analytics. These words are used interchangeably sometimes to denote the number of visits to a particular website. The term impression has a particular meaning however in context to page impressions; it is used as the same as page views. Generally, Impression is used in context to advertisement impressions.” (Boldface added.)
The preposition “to” should have been “of”: “in context to” should have been “in the context of.”

In the second paragaph, the writer has trouble with another preposition:
“The total number of page views can be divided with the number of unique visitors to calculate the average number of page views generated by a single user.” (Boldface added.)
The preposition “with” should have been “by”: “divided with” should have been “divided by.”

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. Carelessness can makes you look ill-educated and ill-read.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Random thoughts (9)

Diction: annoying affectations

I’m sure you have your pet-peeve examples of annoying affected diction. Here are three of mine:
Using genius as an adjective: a genius idea.
Following because with only a noun and a period (or exclamation point): I’m late because YouTube.
Combining a carelessly used issues with a carelessly used around: “Someone phoned me earlier to ask me to do some media training ‘around issues around teenagers.’ ”
Be careful with spell-checking software!

A journalist meant to write “back in the black” (i.e., profitable again), but in the published article the phrase was “back in the African American.” (Source)

Am I the only reader in the world…

…who thinks Don Quixote is boring? Three times I’ve tried and failed to read the whole novel. I’m giving up on it; I’m 71 and I have many more classics to read than time to read them. All due respect to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. I’m sure the failure is mine.

Slippage: commercial photography

About 40 years ago, I learned that food photographers are paid more than glamour photographers, in part because food photographers have to work very fast. During photo shoots, cool salads can go limp. Hot soup can cool and congeal. Hot coffee and grilled steaks can stop giving off steam. For decades, I admired food photographers for shooting hot foods and drinks while they were still hot and cool ones while they were still cool.

However, somewhere during the 1970s or 1980s, photography began to degrade, along with almost every other profession and activity in America. (Stephen King calls the phenomenon “slippage.”) Nowadays, food photos rarely look right. Dunkin’ Donuts shows you mugs of obviously cold coffee. McDonald’s shamelessly displays a poster showing a cold, congealing burger patty above the caption “Fresh off our grill.” I am afraid to even think about the professions of civil engineering and surgery.

My favorite proverb

I have always loved the Chinese proverb “He who treads softly goes far.” In my thirties I belatedly recognized that it was an apt summary of my own temperament. I usually quote the proverb as “He who treads softly travels far,” which seems to have better meter.

Blocking the distractions as you write

I recently read that Marcel Proust wrote in a cork-lined bedroom while wearing ear plugs. Now there was a writer who valued his concentration! Also, I understand he wrote pretty fast.

The Takeaway: Be here now.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The law – an editorial

As practiced in the United States, law is largely a filthy business, for which the practitioner needs a devious mind and strong stomach.

A recent, widely publicized letter from a lawyer demonstrates the point. The letter discusses an 18-year-old porn star, a professional poker player, a swimming pool and a broken foot.

You can read the background story and the lawyer’s letter here. Warning: risqué language.

The Takeaway: Don’t encourage your children to become lawyers.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (36)

“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.”
~Art Spiegelman

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
~Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian

“The problem is that it has become politically awkward to draw attention to absolutes of bad and good. In place of manners, we now have doctrines of political correctness, against which one offends at one’s peril: by means of a considerable circular logic, such offences mark you as reactionary and therefore a bad person. Therefore if you say people are bad, you are bad.”
~Lynne Truss (pictured), in Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door*

“Washington and its fawning presstitutes branded the elected Ukrainian government that was a victim of Washington’s coup, ‘a corrupt dictatorship.’ The replacement government consists of a combination of Washington puppets and neo-nazis with their own military forces sporting Nazi insignias. The American presstitutes have been careful not to notice the Nazi insignias.”
~Paul Craig Roberts

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
~Alvin Toffler

“Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping toward destruction. Therefore, everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle.”
~Ludwig von Mises

“I’ve finally gotten to the bottom of things.”
~Ilka Chase (her epitaph)

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

*Burt Shavitz seems to be of a similar mind.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Uninhabited Clause (24)

Here’s another example of the overuse of the Uninhabited Clause.* Below (in green) is the first paragraph of an article in Slate. The writer uses eight uninhabited clauses and only three inhabited clauses. I have boldfaced the subject and verb in each clause. In blue, I have interspersed my comments:

The great city of St. Louis has a major problem with gun violence.

   Non-human subject: city

Even as homicide rates have continued

   Non-human subject: rates

to decline elsewhere in the country, they have surged

   Non-human subject: they (i.e., rates)

in St. Louis, which last year saw a 33 percent rise in killing, to 159 in a city of 318,000.

  Non-human subject: which (i.e., St. Louis)

(Note: this does not include the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson,

  Non-human subject: this (the antecedent is ambiguous)

 which is in St. Louis County, a separate jurisdiction with 1 million people.)

   Non-human subject: which (i.e., Ferguson)

Criminologists point to all the usual reasons for the violence: a thriving drug trade, high unemployment among young men, and so on.

   Human subject: Criminologists

But a New York Times article on Tuesday noted

   Non-human subject: article 

that St. Louis police are contending with a factor that

   Human subject: police

their counterparts in many other high-crime cities are not (contending with): exceedingly lax gun laws.

   Human subject: counterparts

The Times reports:

   Non-human subject: Times

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Comprised of" – an editorial

Whenever he sees the phrase “comprised of,” Bryan Henderson corrects it. He has corrected it 47,000 times. Read the story here.

I call Mr. Henderson a hero.

I also point out that if US high schools still taught Latin, people would not confuse comprise and compose.

The Takeaway:  If you are a well-educated person, give something back to society: good English. Always use correct diction and grammar, and refuse to imitate the diction and grammar of semiliterates.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Inspiration from W. C. Heinz, sportswriter

W. C. Heinz (pictured), who died in 2008 at the age of 93, was an impressive and influential sportswriter. He is especially remembered for the column “Death of a Racehorse,” which he wrote on deadline, in “about an hour, one draft, on a manual typewriter, in the rain,” at the racetrack.

The Takeaway: If you are a budding writer, you will be inspired by “Death of a Racehorse.” It has been called the “Gettysburg Address of sportswriting.” Read the full text, plus commentary, here.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing me to this gem.

 See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The uninhabited clause (23)

Please note: This is a long post (859 words).
Our average is 355 words.

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 imply that nothing much is happening. In doing so, we bore and exhaust our readers. They prefer reading about people doing things.


For example, below (in green) are the first three paragraphs of a New York Times article about a rape. The reporters use a lot of uninhabited clauses; in addition, they deliberately weaken several of their inhabited clauses. I have interspersed my specific comments (in blue):

The crime was horrific


and the verdict stunningly swift.


Two former Vanderbilt University football players are facing the possibility of decades in prison

Inhabited. However, the subjects aren’t doing much; just sitting around waiting to go to prison, where they won’t be doing much either.

after it took a jury less than four hours to convict them

Uninhabited – deviously so. The reporters distort the sentence by using the infinitive mood (“to convict”) so as to evade using the more natural declarative mood (“a jury convicted them in less than four hours”). So even the jury didn’t do much; it didn’t convict – it just “took.” This weasely trick continues the “nobody’s doing much” tone.

for their roles in a 2013 sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

Another distortion; this one is worthy of a shyster lawyer: The reporters use “for their roles in… a sexual assault” to avoid saying “for sexually assaulting.” By doing this, the reporters insinuate that the football players didn’t do much during the assault – they just had “roles.”

Two more former football players await trial.

Inhabited. Again, although there are human beings in this sentence, they are not doing much of anything; they’re just sitting around.

At a time of widespread alarm and almost daily news reports about sexual assaults on college campuses, it is hard to imagine a case more likely than this one, captured on video by the assailants, to mobilize a campus.


As if to underscore how pervasive the concerns have become nationally, representatives from 76 Tennessee colleges and universities were holding a conference on the subject here, not far from the courthouse

Inhabited: The subject “representatives” refers to human beings, but the verb is weak: “were holding.” In other words, nobody’s doing much. Just sitting around and expelling hot air.

where Tuesday’s verdict played out.


But transformative moments are hard to come by


when a community’s population turns over every four years

Technically inhabited, because a community is made up of human beings. But it’s a weak subject of a weak verb. The reporters continue to insinuate that nobody’s doing much.

and its members have a deep investment in its reputation.

Inhabited, because members are human beings. However, notice what verb the reporters use here: to have. This verb and to be are the two weakest verbs in English.

So interviews Tuesday and Wednesday at Vanderbilt brought out horror

Uninhabited – and fiendishly clever. The word “horror” is the first strong word in the article. The reporters, writing about rape – a felony and a heinous crime – have finally, after 166 words, used a strong word. But watch how they immediately weaken it. They don’t quote anyone who says “I recoiled in horror” or “I was horrified.” They just say that “interviews… brought out horror.” The horror just floated around the campus like a fog.

at what had happened


and a distinct distance from it. Until the trial began more than two weeks ago, the episode seemed to elicit little sense of urgency


— in fact, the student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, found that


many students were not even aware of it.

Inhabited. However, the clause contains the weakest verb in English: to be


The reporters seem to be trying to say (and at the same time, trying to avoid saying) that something horrible happened on campus but the students reacted blandly if at all. But the reporters themselves are writing blandly. They can hardly bear to even type a strong word. In fact, they go out of their way – sometimes deviously so – to evade using any strong words.**

This is intellectually dishonest writing. The reporters sound like they are trying to get away with saying as little as they can, while still filling column inches to get paid. They and the editor who approved this piece should hang their heads in shame.

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. You may even sound dishonest and therefore untrustworthy. Be aware that many reporters deliberately diminish what they write about. Imitate such writers only if you deliberately intend to diminish what you write about.
*My coinage, so far as I know.

**In contrast, look at the words and phrases I use: deviously, dishonest, distort, evade, felony, fiendishly, get away with, hang, heinous, insinuate, rape, shame, shyster, strive, untrustworthy, weasely.

Monday, February 9, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (4)

In the last post, I showed three examples of how much you can convey in 100 words or so. Here’s another good example that I just noticed:


In March 1811, during the Peninsular War, British Private William Wheeler of the 51st Light Infantry, fighting under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (pictured), arrived in Lisbon. In a letter, Private Wheeler described his first impression of the Portuguese people, who were Britain’s allies during that war:

What an ignorant, superstitious, priest-ridden, dirty, lousy set of poor devils are the Portuguese. Without seeing them it is impossible to conceive there exists a people in Europe so debased. The filthiest pigsty is a palace to the filthy houses in this dirty stinking city, all the dirt made in the houses is thrown into the streets, where it remains baking until a storm of rain washes it away. The streets are crowded with half-starved dogs, fat Priests and lousy people. The dogs should all be destroyed, the able-bodied Priests drafted into the Army, half the remainder should be made to keep the city clean, and the remainder if they did not inculcate the necessity of personal cleanliness should be hanged. (121 words) (Source)


I don’t think any of us had the slightest difficulty understanding what Private Wheeler thought of his allies. It’s frightening to imagine what he thought of his enemies.

Note that he repeats a couple of words – either intentionally for emphasis, or carelessly, I don’t know.

I suspect you’d have to look far and wide today to find an army private who could write as well as Private Wheeler.

The Takeaway: When we write concisely and don’t waste words on circumlocutions, equivocations, evasions or tangents, we can say a lot in 100 words or so. One technique for writing concisely is to deliberately write an overlong first draft and then keep reducing it. For example, to write a 2000-word article, I typically write a 3000-word first draft. In successive drafts, I cut 500 words, 300 words, 150 words, and 50 words, leaving a concise, 2000-word fifth draft that connects like a sledge hammer. This technique is quicker and easier than it sounds. Try it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (3)

If you write concisely, you can say a lot in only 100 words or so. Needless to say, you need intelligence, discipline and the courage of your convictions. Here are three examples, ranging from 120 words to 245 words:

Paul Craig Roberts: 120 words about US foreign policy

Putting aside their brainwashing, their defensiveness and patriotic support of the regime in Washington, Americans need to ask themselves: How is it possible that the government of the United States, an alleged Superpower, is so unaware of its true vulnerabilities that Washington is capable of pushing two real powers [Russia and China] until they have had enough and play the cards that they hold?
Americans need to understand that the only thing exceptional about the US is the ignorance of the population and the stupidity of the government.
What other country would let a handful of Wall Street crooks control its economic and foreign policy, run its central bank and Treasury, and subordinate citizens’ interests to the interests of the one percent’s pocketbook? (Source)

Theodore Dalrymple: 184 words about Peshawar

We experienced no hostility toward us; on the contrary. Perhaps, being so young, we were callow or naïve enough not to recognize hostility when we encountered it. My letters home at the time make it clear to me now that I was not then an acute observer or, if I was, had no descriptive powers. What appeared to concern me mostly was my own comfort rather than the world about me: the past is not only another country where they do things differently, but also where one was oneself a different person. When I read my letters of that time, I feel as if I have no connection to, or even sympathy for, the writer of them (though my handwriting has not changed in the meantime). I understand the impulse of many people to burn the letters of the past. One day, those who are now young will hope that the electronic messages of their youth will suffer the degradation of entropy and go the way of all flesh, for there is nothing more to be feared than the perfect record of a life. (Source)

Lysander Spooner (pictured): 245 words about the US Constitution

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now [1870] existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children. It is not only plainly impossible, in the nature of things, that they could bind their posterity, but they did not even attempt to bind them. That is to say, the instrument does not purport to be an agreement between any body but the people then existing; nor does it, either expressly or impliedly, assert any right, power, or disposition, on their part, to bind anybody but themselves. (Source)

The Takeaway: When we write concisely and don’t waste words on circumlocutions, equivocations, evasions or tangents, we can say a lot in 100 words or so. One technique for writing concisely is to deliberately write an overlong first draft and then keep reducing it. For example, to write a 2000-word article, I typically write a 3000-word first draft. In successive drafts, I cut 500 words, 300 words, 150 words, and 50 words, leaving a concise, 2000-word fifth draft that connects like a sledge hammer. This technique is quicker and easier than it sounds. Try it.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (35)

“If it’s been officially denied, then it’s probably true.” (“Pilger’s Law”)
~John Pilger

“Unmarried women vote [Democrat] to take away the money of married women’s husbands.”
~Stefan Molyneux, Wednesday Call In Show, January 21, 2015

“I used to be scared stiff of the nuns… They’re sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day.”
~Peter O’Toole

“Pay the soldiers well.”
~Emperor Septimius Severus, famously, in his deathbed advice to his two sons

“[I am astonished that my country could] puke up its ancient soul… in five minutes…. God damn the United States for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles!”
~William James, on the invasion of the Philippines

“News is something someone wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.”
~Lord Northcliffe

“If advertisers spent the same amount of money on improving their products as they do on advertising then they wouldn’t have to advertise them.”
~Will Rogers (pictured)

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Straight talk: an example (24) -- David Clarke

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

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke (pictured) was asked to comment on the activities of Al Sharpton in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Mr. Clarke responded:

“I don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of the mouth of Al Sharpton. We know he is a charlatan. Al Sharpton ought to go back into the gutter he came from.”

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting, sniveling diction (more samples here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with the statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. A little dose of straight talk helps you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate the evasive diction of the Sensitive New Age Guys (SNAGs) in the media.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 26, 2015

More pet peeves from Montreal Gazette readers

As promised, the Montreal Gazette published more pet peeves from its readers. Like the last batch of pet peeves, this batch is worth reading.

I call special attention to reader Paul Nathanson, who pointed out that, by our promiscuous abuse of community, we are ruining the word.

The Takeaway: Enjoy the article.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Montreal Gazette publishes readers’ pet peeves

Denis Coderre, ill-served mayor of Montreal

If you enjoy reading peoples’ pet peeves about language, read this article in which the Montreal Gazette humbly and cheerfully publishes a couple of pet peeves from its readers.

The Takeaway: Enjoy the article.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Subjunctive vs. indicative

It’s true that some usages of the subjunctive mood are gradually disappearing. But that does not mean we should drop all usages; some are required for clarity. Consider the three examples below; each contains an indicative noun (shown in red type) that should have been a subjunctive:


To maintain all previous Google ranking data for the domain, it is advisable that a buyer grabs the domain before it is “dropped”. (Source)


After he reads “it is advisable that,” the reader expects to see a subjunctive. When he sees the indicative “grabs,” he probably guesses the meaning of the sentence anyway and recognizes that the writer does not know enough grammar to use the subjunctive “grab” here.


We hereby ask that gun licensing laws are reviewed with immediate effect to allow designated people in the Jewish communities and institutions to own weapons for the essential protection of their communities, as well as receiving the necessary training to protect their members from potential terror attacks.” (Source)


After he reads “we hereby ask,” the reader expects to see a subjunctive. When he sees the indicative “are reviewed,” he probably guesses the meaning of the sentence anyway and recognizes that the writer does not know enough grammar to use the subjunctive “be reviewed” here.


Now, I think it is important that sex is consensual. (Source)


After he reads “it is important that,” the reader expects to see either an indicative or a subjunctive, depending on the writer’s meaning. When he sees the indicative “is,” he assumes it is correct. That is, he assumes the writer means that it is a good thing that sex is always consensual.

But then the reader thinks, “Wait, I know sex is not always consensual; that’s why we have laws against rape. Why doesn’t this writer know that?” Then he rereads the sentence and recognizes that the writer meant that sex always should be consensual but did not know enough grammar to have used the subjunctive “be” here.

The Takeaway: If you habitually use the indicative where the logic of the sentence calls for the subjunctive, intelligent readers will recognize that you did not learn all your grammar. And in some cases, as in the third example above, your reader may become confused and irritated. If you did not learn the subjunctive mood, study it now.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to make your writing more readable (1)

Rudolf Flesch
Many people have asked me how they can make their writing more readable; more like conversation; easier to follow. A good question and a good goal.

I’ll cover the most important tips in a moment. But first, read this extremely readable sample:

“Yes. Many of us are angry. Not all the time, not so we can’t manage daily life, not to the extent that we cannot love, not so much that we are on the verge of psychotic actions. But yes, there is cause for anger among today’s men.
“We are angry that our children are so easily taken from us, and so easily trained to believe that we abandoned them. We are angry that our sexuality and our anatomy are the butt of constant abusive jokes. We are angry that so few women take us seriously, because, well, they know they don’t have to. We are angry over being blamed for all the evil in the world, evil that harms us as much as anyone else. We are angry at being told for a lifetime that it is our fault that women cannot have everything they demand, and angry that it is never noticed how hard we try to help them with that.”

Those are the first 165 words of a 794-word essay. The rest of it is here.

On the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) scale, the sample scores a towering 75.2, which is easier to read than Reader’s Digest, which is specifically edited for readability. In short, writing aimed at grown-ups doesn’t get any more readable than this sample.

OK. How did the author achieve it?

Short words, on average: Flesch says the average word length in the sample is 3.9 characters. That’s very short.

A good mix of long and short words: There are lots of one- and two-syllable words, a few three-syllable  words (e.g., “psychotic”), a couple of four-syllable words (e.g., “anatomy”), and one five-syllable word (“sexuality”). Note that the four- and five-syllable words are familiar words.

Short sentences, on average: Flesch say the average sentence length in the sample is 18.0 words. That’s short to medium for English.

Good composition: In the third sentence, the author makes good use of the rhetorical device anaphora, using the word not four times. This device makes the longish (31-word) sentence easy to follow. He uses anaphora again in the second paragraph to guide the reader through:  “We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… We are angry… ”

Good tone: The opening is stark, almost belligerent: “Yes. Many of us are angry.” That certainly gets the reader’s attention, but it may make him fear the author will go into a rage. So the author wisely softens the tone immediately with the four not’s and with the circumlocution “But yes, there is cause for anger among today’s men,” which (probably intentionally) does not have man or men as the subject of a verb. This deft early maneuvering assures the reader that the author is going to speak steadily and control himself.

And he does. Read the rest of the essay.

There is more to say about this little masterpiece, but I have covered the key points and I’m running long here.

The Takeaway: It is possible to make your writing more readable. Much more. If you keep reading good writers and keep Flesch-testing the readability of your own writing, you will steadily improve. You will probably surprise yourself at how far you go. If you are serious about readability, I suggest you start your course of improvement by reading all my posts about readability (scroll down to the LABELS and click on “READABILITY”). Then start getting into the habit of using Flesch every day. You can do it!

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Random thoughts (8)

The downside of freedom of expression

The columnist Theodore Dalrymple,* a retired psychiatrist, on freedom of expression: “When my patients used to complain to me of their f…..g headache, I used to ask them to explain to me the difference between a headache and a f…..g headache. They couldn’t; and in fact, complete freedom of expression has led to an impoverishment of expression, because one doesn’t need to think of alternatives to the first expletive that comes into one’s mind – or is it one’s f…..g mind?” (Source)

Nouns as adjectives

Using nouns as adjectives is useful, but sometimes it’s confusing. For example, “freedom fighters” (presumably) fight for freedom. But “crime fighters” (presumably) fight against crime.

Terms that writers should not use flippantly, but do

“Good intentions.” When a writer assumes a person had good intentions, the writer never specifies (1) what he assumes the intentions were; or (2) why he assumed those intentions; or (3) under which moral philosophy the intentions would be considered good; or (4) why they would be considered good. If a writer is not willing to state (or even hint at) all of this, he is flimflamming the reader.**

“The equation.” (Examples here.) Writers who like to refer to “the equation” (and they are legion) never specify what the equation is. To me, this practice usually sounds like insinuation or evasion; that is to say, the writer is trying to get away with something.

“Sustainability” and “Diversity.” Writers usually refer to these states as if they were self-evidently desirable. However, their desirability is bitterly disputed. Moreover, neither word even has a tidy, universally agreed-upon definition; for example, the Wikipedia definition of sustainability, which valiantly attempts (but fails) to include all the disagreements, is a whopping 755 words long. On cultural diversity alone (one of several kinds of diversity), Wiki spends nearly 4,000 words. On the related concept of multiculturalism, Wiki spends more than 7,000.

Life parodies itself

I just learned – but can hardly believe – that the current White House Press Secretary is a fellow named Josh Earnest. The name sounds like someone made it up after hearing the old gag by George Burns: “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” By the way, I see that Mr. Earnest succeeded a Mr. Carney. If a writer used these names in the manuscript of a satirical novel, his editor would probably rule them too heavy-handed and corny.

Is this too much to ask?

For about 15 years, I’ve been looking for a software application that can directly convert an internet article into a Microsoft Word document. Just the body copy: no photos, drawings, graphs, captions, pull quotes, ads or sidebars. Just so I can easily read the article. Can anyone help me? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

*Among his many distinctions as a writer, Mr. Dalrymple remembers that the past participle of the verb to lead is led not lead. (Look it up here.)

**And I’m sure you’ve noticed that writers invoke “good intentions” only when the person’s action or lack of actions caused a disaster or failed to prevent a disaster. And only when the writer has the same political leanings as the person. In other words, it is prejudice.

The Takeaway: Be here now.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Concise advice to writers (1) – Thomas Woods

The historian and prolific author Thomas Woods (pictured) recorded a 20-minute podcast titled “On Becoming a Better Writer” and published it December 23.

You will never hear better advice.

Mr. Woods offers bluntly stated encouragement: if you keep reading good writers, keep writing diligently, and keep comparing your work to the work of good writers, you will become a better writer. But along the way, the comparisons will embarrass you.

Mr. Woods has, besides his bluntness, two other traits that I like: he is sincerely, charmingly self-deprecating and he is an admirer of Thomas Sowell, my favorite columnist.

The Takeaway: Listen to Mr. Woods’ podcast. If you are serious, it will encourage you – maybe even thrill you. But if you have romanticized and trivialized the craft of writing, his podcast may offend and discourage you. If you want to try a sample, start listening at 3:58.

See disclaimer.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (34)

“All men are rapists and that’s all they are.”

“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical for [Obamacare] to pass…”
~Jonathan Gruber, MIT professor and co-architect of Obamacare, boasting

“To be able to glide through life in the knowledge that one is bogus is a great achievement, far greater than that of the majority of genuinely earnest people.” 

“Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as ‘heroes.’ ”

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
~George Eliot, Middlemarch 

“We must reclaim and retake feminism from our fellow idiotic women [and their] trivial bullsh*t.”
~Ayaan Hirsi Ali (pictured), commenting on this

“The Jews are the living embodiment of the minority, the constant reminder of what duties societies owe their minorities, whoever they might be.”

“It’s better to be unhappy alone than unhappy with someone – so far.

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Poor composition (2)

Poor composition can confuse our readers (or listeners).

“Another crippling factor of student loan debt is that it’s not eligible to be discharged by declaring bankruptcy. While not affecting a great number of people, you never know when something catastrophic could come along and you need the fresh start that bankruptcy sometimes provides for those in dire straits.” (Boldface in original) (Source)

The reader looks around for the subect of “affecting” and finally lands on “something.” To me that seems the least illogical of the choices. If that is what the writer meant, I suggest this improvement: “Although it is unlikely, a catastrophe could come along...”

“I feel rejuvenated. I feel excited about this opportunity. In a lot of ways, I feel like it’s my first year all over again in the sense that I feel like I’ve got a new energy. I say that in the positive light in the sense of being reenergized. Situations happen and you get released; it makes you look inside yourself a little bit and really analyze the situations and what could have been handled better. It was a little bit of a hard time when I was in limbo, but now that I’m back learning and working every day, I feel really energized.” (Source)

The listener wonders why the speaker used a lot of words (104, to be precise) to say “I’m happy to be here.”

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

The Takeaway: Be careful in your composition.

See disclaimer.