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.