Tag Archives: clear writing

Here’s to Clear Writing

download.jpg   When I taught business writing classes in the corporate world, I used this example from George Orwell (a phenomenal writer whose essays I highly recommend) to illustrate how overwrought language does not impress but does confuse:

 “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

I see you scratching your head. Did you read it more than once, hoping to discern a clue? What does this paragraph even mean? I’ll bet you can define all the words yet still cannot explain the meaning of them when laid side by side. So many multi-syllable words—saying what?

Now try this:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

You are likely familiar with this excerpt from Ecclesiastes, whether you are religious or not. It is saying. “The race is not to the swift” has become a staple of advice in the English language. Although you read an archaic word (“happeneth”), you still understood it.

That unwieldy first paragraph was Orwell deliberately rewriting the portion from Ecclesiastes by using the most convoluted, confusing, off-putting language possible. Just giving a cursory look at both paragraphs, who would choose to read the first one?

The lesson is simple and clear: Rid your writing of pomposity. Use clear, straightforward words. Writing simply will not cause others to assume you are simple-minded; instead, they will look forward to reading what you write. Won’t that be satisfying?

 

 

 

 

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Does “Proper” English Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal asking the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London.

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make the student feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback on this topic.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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Commas for Clarity

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Here are some sentences written without commas. On first reading, you likely will be scratching your head. But read each sentence again and put in a comma; instantly, your confusion will be lifted.

  1. Just as we were ready to leave my brother drove up in his new convertible.
  2. While I watched my uncle assembled the ingredients for a salad.
  3. After he shot the arrow always hit the target.
  4. If you can afford to visit New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
  5. They recognized the document was not complete and announced it could not have been given the situation and time.

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A Laugh for the New Year

At least I hope it’s a laugh. I’ll let the Dog/Them disparity go.

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Wishing all my readers a better year than 2017 has been (IMO), and hoping for good health and good times for all. (Stay away from fad diets that advocate eating children.)

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Discreet vs. Discrete

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Will she be discreet?

These two words are pronounced identically and are commonly mistaken for each other.

DISCREET means circumspect, prudent, careful. If you are discreet, you will avoid gossiping or criticizing others. You try to avoid embarrassing others. Roger promised he would be discreet after his best friend told him he was thinking of divorcing his fourth wife.

DISCRETE means singular, unconnected, separate. Academy Awards are given in multiple discrete categories.

 

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How Do You Like This Euphemism?

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Euphemisms are generally used to change something icky into something more palatable. As George Carlin said, “Sometime in my life—no one asked me about this—toilet paper became bathroom tissue. The dump became the landfill. And partly cloudy became partly sunny.”

I was in a medical center the other day, where an information station was set up under an umbrella. Emblazoned on the umbrella were the words SERVICE AMBASSADOR. I find nothing distasteful about the word INFORMATION, but I am entertained by the thought of a group meeting to find a supposedly better (and definitely more pompous) description of the services offered under that umbrella. SERVICE AMBASSADOR: Do you suppose the, ahem, ambassadors who staff that desk need congressional confirmation?

Keep it simple. Not everything needs to be prettied up. In most cases, your readers aren’t fooled.

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These Words: Weaselly, Superfluous, or Necessary?

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Don’t be fooled by the cuteness.

Maybe

Perhaps

Appears

Seems

Possibly

At this time

In fact, depending on the context, these words could fit into any one of those three categories.

• If you honestly don’t know about a situation, it might be necessary to use one to give yourself some wiggle room and buy some time.

• If you are certain of the situation and you use one of those words, you are adding extra verbiage that serves no purpose. Cut out all deadwood.

• If your intent is to deceive and you use one of those words, you are being a word weasel. Avoid this.

 

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