“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips.
Today is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . — we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as ‽ , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.
But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.
On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5.
1. People will judge your content on the quality of your writing. You may be brilliant, have done superb research or have an innovative new idea, but if you can’t communicate it clearly and cleanly, you’ll lose your readers. If you’re asking for their time and attention, don’t waste it with sloppy, convoluted or error-riddled writing.
2. Readers do not know what’s going on inside your head — all they know is what your words say. Your thought process may be clear to you, but your writing needs to make it clear to the readers.
3. It’s not about you. It’s about the information. If you can render it in a particularly engaging and interesting fashion, all the better. But the line between lively prose and eye-rollingly over-the-top prose is fine, so be careful.
4. Get to the point. Don’t make readers slog through a bunch of background or detail before they find out what you’re actually talking about.
3. Don’t be a slave to the rules. Think of them as guidelines, and remember that clarity is always more important.
4. Trust, but verify. Always check names, dates, places, times, superlatives — anything you can check, check it. Anything that seems strange or off, check it. For that matter, even if something doesn’t seem strange or off, check it.
5. Math is your friend. Numbers are facts too, and should be treated with the same amount of care and scrutiny.
The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader.
Why it’s wrong: When you “back into” a sentence with a phrase, the information in that phrase goes with the subject of the sentence. So here, the “having started this post” goes with “an idea,” which is not right — it belongs with “me.” Sometimes sentences start with a phrase that doesn’t belong with anything in the sentence, which can really confuse readers.
How to spot one: Anytime you have a sentence that begins with a phrase — an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase — make sure that phrase goes with the subject.
How to fix it: You may be able to simply move the modifying phrase closer to what it modifies, or you may need to rewrite the sentence. With a dangling participle, it’s often better to change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause, which is what works for the title of this post: “As I started this post, an idea struck me.”
Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a single sentence into several jargon-laden, empty-phrased-stuffed minutes while saying next to nothing. Did I say the show was a comedy?
Jargon has its place in language: it’s a shorthand for members of a particular group that allows them to communicate specific concepts quickly to other members, who don’t require definitions or explanations.
Problems arise when jargon bleeds into everyday speech or writing and ends up impeding communication instead of making it clearer. The same can be said for buzzwords, unnecessarily long words* and needlessly wordy sentences. This is not to say that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object only — we don’t want to sound like a second-grade reading textbook — but that separating individual ideas into their own sentences generally increases clarity.
In my experience, people who use too much jargon or construct overly dense sentences outside of professional discourse generally have three reasons for doing so:
They want to hide something. Government “bureaucratese” is the best example of this: if you really don’t want people to find out about something, bury it under an avalanche of convoluted sentences, jargon and endless prepositional phrases.
They want to seem smart. The old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Lots of people think using big words makes them appear intelligent, but the reality is that making a point clearly and concisely requires a lot more thought and smarts.
They want you to think they know something that they don’t. People don’t like to say “I don’t know,” especially when it’s something they think they should know. If you’ve ever watched an unprepared student get called on in class and try to muddle through an answer, you’ve seen this.
All kidding aside, we do need to strive for clear, informative writing. If there’s a chance that something might be confusing, ditch the jargon in favor of straightforward language. Take a machete to overgrown sentences to clear a path for the reader. And if you don’t understand something, you can bet your readers won’t, so don’t be afraid to ask “What does this mean?” or “What are we trying to say here?” and adjust the writing accordingly.
Remember, no one will ever complain that something is too clear.
* I’m not one to shy away from sending people to the dictionary from time to time, but only when the word that will require looking-up is the best word for the situation and lacks a less-obscure synonym.
Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a corporate merger to a romance, a political campaign to a horse race.
Metaphors are a useful linguistic device, but sometimes they can go off the rails (a train metaphor). Writers sometimes get carried away (a nautical metaphor) and shift gears (an automotive metaphor) in the middle of a metaphor, which can befuddle readers instead of making an idea clearer to them.
A recent news story I saw said that my employer, the University of Kansas, “pushed ahead by a few nose lengths” in an annual college ranking. I’ll buy a horse-race comparison here (though this annual ratings scramble seems more aptly compared to a decathlon), but horses can win by a “nose,” or by a “length.” A “nose length” is not a distance used in horse racing, so instead of making the idea clearer, this metaphor confuses the issue. Plus, a ranking doesn’t really need a metaphor to make it more easily understood. “Moved up a few spots” would have been perfectly clear.
In my career as a copy editor, I’ve run across a lot of mixed or mangled metaphors. Some made me scratch my head (figuratively) and others made me laugh out loud (literally). Here are a few:
“When this critical column buckled due to lack of floor supports, it was the first domino in the chain.” Domino effect / links in a chain — pick one.
The rival teams “find themselves with their backs against the wall as if they were stuck in a linen closet.” The backs-against-the-wall part is clear (if a bit cliched), but how the heck does a linen closet enter into things?
“We’re just about ready to start putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a way we can put some real structure on this skeleton.” Is it a puzzle, or a building, or a skeleton?
“A lot of people think they were born on third base and hit a home run.” How this usually goes is “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which is a sports metaphor applied to a person who comes from a privileged background but is oblivious to the fact he got a head start. How the home run connects here I can’t imagine.
“As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time.” Since when are there brick walls inside beasts?
The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.
A recent post on the Economist’s language blog about a sign on a New York shop window discussed the inadequacy of relying solely on a computer or bilingual dictionary for translation. All the shop owner — admirably — wanted to do was welcome tourists in their own language (some of them, anyway, and I still don’t get the purpose of having a greeting in Latin, but it does bring to mind the classic Monty Python Latin grammar scene in “Life of Brian”). But instead of saying “Welcome!” the greeting, many of the words were “welcome” the noun, as in reception, which would have made little sense to visiting Norwegians, Russians and others.
The Economist post points out that one should at least check the part of speech when using a dictionary or computer translator. One word should be clear enough, but what about a whole sentence? That seems to inevitably result in gibberish, as is commonly spotted in signs around the world. And while bad signs or directions can be funny, they can also be confusing, misleading or offensive.
I’m all about clarity and accuracy, but I also realize that sometimes you need to say something in a language you don’t know. The only good way to do this is to get a speaker of both languages to help you. Barring that, if you must use a computer translator, check the translation by running it back into English to see what was lost.
I hear people all the time refer to the “Grammar Police,” or, even worse, “Grammar Nazis.” (As an aside, can we all please quit referring to anyone other than Nazis as “Nazis” — real Nazis were far more heinous than any politician, pedant or petty bureaucrat.) And while I’ve made a living as an editor and a teacher of editing, I don’t like to think of myself as the “Grammar Patrol” but rather the “Grammar Pep Squad.” After all, grammar is a grand and necessary thing, and it deserves a little cheerleading.
Grammar structures our language and lets us use it to communicate all manner of information (as linguist Noam Chomsky put it, a finite set of rules for infinite combinations). The rules of grammar help us convey messages clearly and accurately, and let us express meaning through small nuances and great distinctions. Grammar is not always elegant, but we need it. Without grammar, our sentences would fall apart and we’d have a hard time communicating. And communication is the point of language, after all.
Supporting clear, professional language and helping people understand how to get there calls for celebration, not scorn.