DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR…?

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters
by
Harold Evans

I’d argue that the maelstrom of mendacity [turbulent confusion of lying. This is a great example of alliteration, JH] makes it all the more imperative that truth be clearly expressed. p. 15

“The unclouded face of truth must not suffer wrong.” —C.P. Scott, 19th century editor of the Manchester Guardian. p. 15

…A video of pushers in Japan trying to cram people into packed subway cars; they are doing what journalists do, notably in oversourcing an introduction to a good story; what lawyers do in shoving in clauses to catch every imaginable contingency; what office speakers on the stump tend to do. Winston Churchill discerned it in Ramsay MacDonald as the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought. p. 49-50

The Evans Corollary: Murphy’s Law—Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—is vindicated every day. I propose the Evans corollary: anything that goes wrong will always be wordier than anything that goes right. p. 75

Roya Hakakian, the Iranian-born author, tells me the simple direct prose admired in the West is abhorred in Persian writing.

Persian writing is rife with deceptive language…. Most of the deception manifests itself in outright ambiguity of meaning. For instance, Muhammad Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, is the best selling poet in Iran, but also in America where he is the idol of the gay community. How is that possible? Well, it’s simple really. Because Persian is a gender neutral language, meaning the third-person pronoun is the same for he and she, in Iran the tenor person in Rumi’s poems is deemed to Allah. In the west, we know it is a lover who happens to also be a man. Blasphemous!

Roya suggests that the habit of deception in literature seeps into prose. “Because censorship has been a perennial threat, the deception in Iranian writing is considered a virtue. This explains a lot about why negotiations with Iran never go anywhere and why all reporters find Iran enigmatic.” [This was also a problem with the Soviet Union/Russia because Russian has no articles—either definite, the, or indefinite, a/an. Russians don’t say a bottle of vodka or the bottle of vodka, they just say bottle of vodka. JH] p. 82

Vigorous, clear and concise writing demands sentences with muscle, strong active verbs cast in the active voice: The pope kissed a baby on the forehead, leading the crowd of thousands to erupt in cheers and praise. Not: A baby was kissed on the forehead by the pope, leading the crowd of thousands to erupt in cheers and praise.

In the active voice, the subject (the pope) is the actor; the receiver of the action (the baby) is the object p. 83

The passive voice is preferable, if not inescapable in four categories:

1. When the doer of the action is not known: The lease was sent back to us without signature.

2. When the reciever of the action merits more prominence than the doer: Donald Trump was run over by a rhinoceros today, not A rhinoceros ran over Donald Trump today.

3. When the doer of the action is known but tact or cowardice imposes reticence: Your application is denied or The last of the chocolate ice cream was missing from the freezer. Author Edward Johnson neatly labels such cop-outs as the pussyfooting passive. Legal inhibitions—or cowardice—may require the prudent passive: Methylamines found in air samples were judged the source of the malodorous mists enraging people in townships across the valley.

4. When the length of the subject delays the entry of a verb: The complexity of designing an aerial propeller when none had existed, marine propellers having simple to displace water and not cope with the complex aerodynamics of flight, troubled Wilbur. vs. The complexity of designing an aerial propeller was troubling to Wilbur since none had ever existed, and marine propellers had simply to displace water and not cope with the complex aerodynamics of flight. p. 86-8

Writers and editors should favor sentences in the active voice. Bureaucrats, lawyers, business executives and academics are recidivists, habitual perpetrators of the passive without plausible excuse. p. 88

If all this hectoring from me, you still find passive sentences lying prone in your paragraphs, post this one on your screen: The moon landed on by Neil Armstrong today. p. 91

Comb through passages you are writing or editing on the alert for strings of overworked abstract nouns: amenities, activities, operation, purpose, condition, case, character, facilities, circumstances, nature, disposition, proposition, purposes, situation, description, issue, indication, regard, reference, respect, connection, instance, eventuality, neighborhood, satisfaction. Words like these squeeze the life out of sentences. p. 91

Chase out most abstract words in favor of specific words. Should be full of bricks, houses, cars, cows, men and women. p. 91-2

Most ly adverbs don’t enhance. They enfeeble. p. 95

Use the Adverb Annihilator: just type in ly and interrogate all the ly adverbs that pop up. p. 95

Adjectives not susceptible to modifiers are: certain, complete, devoid, empty, entire, essential, everlasting, excellent, external, fatal, final, fundamental, harmless, ideal, immaculate, immortal, impossible, incessant, indestructible, infinite, invaluable, invulnerable, main, omnipotent, perfect, principal, pure, round, simultaneous, square, ultimate, unanimous, unendurable, unique, unspeakable, untouchable, whole and worthless. p. 97-8

“The test of style is economy of the reader’s attention.” —Herbert Spencer. “If is its possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” —George Orwell. “Murder your darlings.” —Arthur Quiller-Couch. “Read your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” —Samuel Johnson. p. 98

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” —William Strunk. p. 99

A parallel structure is a simple putting together of things that belong together. It saves words too. p. 104

Sentences should assert. Express even a negative in a positive form. That sounds like boosterism, but it’s a risk worth taking since it is quicker and easier to understand what is than what is not. The project failed, not The project was not successful. p. 105

Sentences vary in form, between and complex-compound; in function, between statements, commands, questions and exclamations; and in style, between loose, periodic and balanced. p. 110

Loose sentences are the way most of us speak. They are conversational. We start talking about the main point we want to make and then fill out the detail and comment. In writing you begin by announcing the main idea with an independent clause that’s simple and straightforward, then you add subordinate or modifying elements after the subject and the predicate. This short loose sentence is from a Guardian reporter on the opening day of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: Eichmann slipped into court this morning our of mystery and legend of his imprisonment, almost unnoticed. The passage opens with the clause Eichmann slipped into court. It could end there, but it adds several modifiers to evoke the circumstances of his capture and trial. p. 111

William Chauncey Fowler, the nineteenth-century author, and teacher, defined the loose sentence as having at least one sente3nce before the end where you can stop and the main part preceding will still be understood as a complete sentence. p. 111

The periodic sentence is the stylistic reverse of the loose or cumulative. It is tightly structured, not open, less easy to write than the loose sentence. Some prefer to call it a suspended sentence. You hold off writing the main clause and/or its predicate to the end instead of at the beginning or middle. In such placements, the crux of your sentence’s meaning does not become clear until the climax: you hold the reader’s attention to the last word, at or near the period, lending it greater dramatic emphasis: And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, have not charity, I am nothing. —I Corinthians 13. p. 113-4

You have to hold your breath from the moment Nabokov opens with a long subordinate clause: “If a first-class sleeper bears you away from a secure and prosperous home to the Crimea, from which you then depart for a life of ceaseless exile, which will end in acclaim and in America for yourself but in a concentration camp for Sergey, your beloved younger brother, is it surprising that your stories will come to resound to the clatter of night trains, to the thrill and devastation of a one-way ticket in the dark?” p. 114

“He was young at his death, younger than either Kennedy, but he had traveled farther. He did fewer things; but those things last. A mule team drew his coffin in a rough cart; not the sleek military horses and the artillery caisson. He has no eternal flame—and no wonder. He is not dead.”

“The changes King wrought are so large as to be almost invisible.”

—Garry Wills reflecting on Martin Luther King’s funeral. p. 114-5

The last word in a sentence can punch above its weight. It is a point of climax. Use It. How’s this for impudence? “Liverpool Street is the finest point of departure in the whole of Southern England because wherever you go from it, whether to Southend or, ultimately to Outer Mongolia, it cannot fail to be an improvement.” p. 115

Peter Clark, the author and teacher at the Poynter Institute of when to go slow, when to go fast and when to accent a word or series of words in his simple demonstration of his favorite Shakespeare sentence in a riff on six words from Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead” This is far superior to:”The Queen is dead, my lord” or “My lord, the Queen is dead.” p. 115

“Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.” —Boswell, from Life of Samuel Johnson. This is an example of a balanced sentence, a work of deliberate symmetry similar to parallel construction and alike suggestive of calm and order as is this from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him. there is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition.” p. 117

There are three mischiefs in the mess of pottage on prepositions: (1.) the circumlocutory preposition, (2.) the prepositional verb and (3.) pedantry. The circumlocutory preposition is a fluffy substitute for a single preposition which give the meaning as clearly. The grossest offenders are: in the field of, in connection with, in order to, in respect of, so far as… is concerned. p. 119

Prepositional verbs grow like toadstools. Once there was credit in facing a problem. Now problems have to be faced up to. The preposition adds nothing of significance. To say one met somebody is plain enough; to say one met up with him adds nothing and takes two further words. So it is with consult with; check up on; divide up; test out; stall out. Parasitical prepositions like these can often be eliminated or replaced by a simple alternative verb. Call is better than stop off at; fit, reach or match will serve better than measure up to. There is idiomatic strength in a few prepositional verbs, such as get on with; go back on; take up with. Southerners defend visit with us as suggestive of a longer, more convivial visit… p. 120

Pedantry—the display of useless knowledge or minute observance of petty rules or details—is found in the notion that the preposition should always be placed before the word it governs and was an attempt to impose on English some of the rigor of Latin and it will not do. Many arbiters have scorned the pedantry of the preposition but it flourishes in official, legal and police-court language. Police are no longer apt to say the water into which he dived, but lawyers are programmed to say the contract into which he entered. p. 120-1

A monologophobe, says Theodore Bernstein, is a guy who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines. He would edit the [Christian] bible so that you would read, God said, ‘Let there be light’ and their was solar illumination. Word warriors stricken with monologophobia have3 an aversion to the humble pronoun; their remedy is to invent another noun.

Ukraine plans to launch a diplomatic initiative to recover the Crimea, the province is lost to the Kremlin in a Russian coup, but Moscow has given no sign it will ever consider returning the Black Sea peninsula. p. 121-2

The zombie is a noun that’s devoured a verb: implementation, assessment, authorization, documentation, participation, transmittal, realization… all zombies. The huge tribe of zombies has long been classified as smothered verbs or controverted verbs, their parents having been subjected to nominalization, an ugly noun from the verb nominalize.

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction. p. 141

Helen Sword, a professor at the University of Auckland, the creator of the more vivid—I call them zombie nouns because they canniblalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings—eliminates or reanimates most of the zombie nouns, adds a human subject and the sentence springs to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

They do, and their sentences spin fluff. p. 141

Run a computer search of your writing or editing for other frequent telltale suffixes, such as -ance; -ment; -ence; -ent; -ant or -sion. p. 143

Zoophagi orsum (flesh-eating words) are unnecessary words, pompous phrases and prepositional parasites that eat space and reduce the muscularity of your writing—and of writing at the highest level of public affairs. p. 151

A pleonasm is a redundant unnecessary superfluity, related to the family cousins of flesh-eaters and the tribe of tautologies. The tautology says the same thing twice and in usage redundant may make tautology redundant. Pleonasms are often enough unnoticed redundancies, such as complete monopoly and awkward predicament, that do not add to the sense of the message. p. 157

The misuse of credit stains print, broadcasting and the web. On 23 December 2015, in Afghanistan, a motorbike suicide killed ten U.S. soldiers, and CNN credited it to the Taliban. Boko Haram was credited with with the seizure of 276 girls in Chibok, Borno. The credits in broadcasting, print and website headlines make it clear one part of humanity just does not think about the meaning of words. For five hundred years, since the English first adopted the word from the French, credit has meant honor.

Terrorists have no hesitation in claiming credit. ISIS did the day after the Paris Killings. The aim is to ratchet up anxiety and panic. But why does the media act as ventriloquist? The Wall Street Journal, generally scrupulous with words, wrote in an editorial on 30 June 2016, that the Islamic State hasn’t taken credit at this writing for killing forty-one and injuring more than two hundred at Turkey’s Ataturk Airport. Nouns and verbs that chime with universal values are accessible, words such as responsibility, blame, guilt, admit, accept—and the strong verb perpetrate, “to execute or commit a crime or evil deed.” It is more than carry out, as if the bad guys were delivering pizza.

The media does not intend to equate murder and honor. But it does. It is erratically careless, too, with execution, embellishing a desert decapitation with the word for the infliction of capital punishment in observance of a judicial sentence. I think claim credit just pops into mind as a reflex coupling, the way fires rage, plots thicken, fire engines race.

Orwell would classify it as duckspeak, to quack without thinking, a word in the language of Newspeak. Orwell, in his 1948 description of the principles of Newspeak, wrote:

Ultimately, it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all.

Oldspeak—and literature and history—would gradually be supplanted by Newspeak, and obliterated by 2050. Facebook’s mass dissemination of fake news in the 2016 presidential election suggests that we are ahead of schedule. p. 183

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