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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Don’t be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue

Well, here's another point of view. In this column, Smith questions, strongly, the value and intent these days of using clear, concise language in our writing and speaking. He contends that people, especially politicians and "corporate front men," can lie and mislead as easily using plain language as they can when writing and speaking in convoluted sentences.

He writes: 
The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.
Smith also contends that many writers most likely use clear, plain language as a persuasive device rather than to provide truthful information. He writes:
Whatever the moral merits of your argument, it is always best to present it in the clearest, most memorable style. Disarming linguistic simplicity is a technique that can be learned. But how you deploy that technical mastery – the authenticity of the argument – is quite a different matter.
To be honest, I can't argue, too much, with Smith's objections. As with the effective use of any tool, effective use of plain language can help a writer accomplish his or her purpose in producing a document. If a writer wants to deceive readers and persuade them to do something, not do something, or think in a certain way, choosing familiar words and organizing them simply can certainly help accomplish that.

But I think the huge weakness in Smith's argument is that he doesn't provide much evidence that the alternative to plain language is any more honest and truthful. So I would say, in response, that convoluted language is more likely than plain language to be dishonest and misleading. And perhaps more important: No government regulation, no corporate ethic, no academic standard, no professional obligation, and no plain-language principle can--or should--ever diminish the responsibility of readers and listeners to evaluate the messages they read and hear. 

Here's another response to Smith's article: Yes, plain language is awesome. (Added here Feb. 22.)

I'd also like to stress two principles of plain language that go beyond the simple choice and organization of words in a document. Actually, the principles go before those steps. 

First, a plain-language writer carefully considers his or her readers--from their need(s) for any particular information to their ability to comprehend the information they read. And second, a plain-language writer carefully considers the purpose of a document: What does the writer want to accomplish? How does the writer want readers to respond to the information?

Now, I realize a dishonest, deceitful writer can answer those questions with the intent of being dishonest and deceitful. But I also must say this: In many things we write, we do want our readers to respond in some way, be it a smile or a frown, or be it taking action to do something or not taking a certain action. 

Even if our intent is simply to provide information for its own sake, we writers are likely to choose and organize information in a way that we think will be most useful or interesting to our readers. At least we should  try to choose words and organize sentences to do that.

For more information on plain language, visit my website, Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It describes these seven steps:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
A Resources section at my site also lists other websites and organizations that provide useful information about plain language.

Speaking of resources, here's Orwell's essay: "Politics and and the Englilsh Language." 

Smith's article is featured today, Feb. 9, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’ | Stan Carey, Sentence first

Here's another article in the continuing debate about using they with singular verbs.

In things I've been reading, it seems this debate is over among British writers and editors, like blogger Carey. But it's still alive in the United States. I believe, however, that the trend in the U.S. is toward a singular they, and I support it. Using a singular they is a common-sense way to deal with outdated English uses; namely, to get rid of "he" (as well as "his" and "him") in generic uses that apply to both women and men.

I especially like Carey's argument using the singular you:

People who complain about singular they rarely extend their censure to singular you – but they could, if they wanted to be more consistent, and what peever doesn’t? You was once exclusively plural but crept into widespread singular use ....
Where then are the howls of protest over singular you from devotees of logic and order? You would do well to find any: it’s just not the done thing to complain about singular you nowadays. No one would take you seriously.
Carey concludes:
Peeves about singular they are unsupported by historical and present usage and unsupportable by appeal to grammar or logic. You don’t have to use it, but resistance invites unnatural awkwardness and unnecessary exclusion. Why not get on board with it?
Here's my related advice in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual:
their, them, they The day may come--and should--when these plural pronouns are accepted as singular pronouns that don't note a person's sex. Some respected writing authorities now suggest this change in language as we eliminate the outdated use of he, him and his as references to both men and women. This updated usage would be similar to use of the pronouns you and your for both one person and more than person, taking a plural verb even when mentioning one person.
Still, for now, consider the potential reaction of your audience--and the reaction you would prefer as the writer or editor--before applying this use. Meanwhile, try other acceptable uses, especially using the plural pronouns to refer to plural nouns.
Carey's column is featured today, Feb. 8, in my daily online paper,
Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

The tricks to not writing badly | John E. McIntyre,

Newspaper editor McIntyre reviews a new book in this article: How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda.

McIntyre writes:
Fortunately, Ben Yagoda understands that the trick of achieving what he calls "good-enough writing" is to avoid the errors that make you look like an unskilled writer. ... [H]e identifies a clutch of about fifty problems areas, plentifully illustrated by selections from students' prose. Train yourself to avoid those hazards, he argues, and you will produce respectable prose and be able to move on to more sophisticated effects.
Yagoda's book covers the basics, McIntyre writes. They include: 
  • punctuation
  • the words misused and the words confused
  • common problems in grammar
  • split-infinitive and split-verb superstitions
  • overdoing the Latinate vocabulary
  • cliches, euphemisms, and buzzwords.
McIntyre continues, summarizing more of Yagoda's advice:
Once you have paid attention to the words, he says, you can concentrate on building effective sentences, and from there proceed to construct effective paragraphs. His advice is straightforward, plain-spoken, lucid, and sound ....
And he quotes Yagoda:

Relatively short sentences should be the default ... but too many of them in a row produces a staccato ersatz-Hemingway sound. ... A series of long sentences is even worse. ... It's like walking in the jungle and finding that all of a sudden the vegetation has gotten impassably thick.
McIntyre's articles is featured today, Feb. 8, in my daily only paper,
Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Social Media Mistakes to Run Away From | Adrian Snood, Social Media Today

Blogger Snood provides good advice in this article. I especially appreciated the eighth and final mistake he lists, not just for social media but also for other forms of communication, including email:
You don’t proof your content for spelling and grammar errors. 
Poor spelling and grammatical errors in your content reflects badly on your business. Nothing looks more unprofessional than spelling mistakes. If a client sees that you can’t spell correctly in a social media post, then why would they have the confidence to deal with you? The fix for this is to always proof-read your content before hitting the send button.
I value Snood's advice here not just because I too often see spelling and grammar errors in posts by social media users but also because I make them sometimes. For a professional writer and editor to publish such mistakes--because I didn't proofread my message before posting it--is not acceptable. That's a lesson I continue to teach myself.

Snood's blog is featured today, Feb. 8, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Good Cause Communications, available at the Nonprofit Communications tab above and by free email subscription.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Creativity | Jim Goldstein, Digital Photography School

Blogger Goldstein focuses mostly on photography in this article, but his advice applies to creativity in other endeavors, like writing.

He writes:

No matter what your artistic interests, whether photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, etc., the underlying force behind your work is creativity. ...  While every art form is unique unto its own, harnessing one’s creativity is a universal skill.
He goes on to describe six ways he likes to get his creative mind working. Here's a summary of his ideas:

  1. Never Stop Thinking About Photos [or your particular creative interest] ... If your mind is primed for creative thought, creativity will have an easier time striking you.
  2. Embrace Your Mistakes & Chance ... Not every mistake is a creative epiphany, but you’ll never have one if you never look.
  3. Find inspiration ... [E]mbrace the work of others including Mother Nature to help you see or think in new ways. ...
  4. Break the Rules ... Once you know or have mastered the rules its time to break them. Creativity knows no bounds. ...
  5. Have No Fear ... Never let norms and the attachment others have to them sway you from your creative exploration of the world before you ....
  6. Extract Yourself ... Taking time to be away from the things that normally fill your day is a great way to obtain freedom for your mind to wander. ...
Goldstein's article is featured today, Feb. 8, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Creativity Connections, available at the Creativity tab above and by free email subscription.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tips & Tools: Simple Word Suggestions | Plain Language Action & Information Network

This useful list has two long alphabetical columns of words and terms, one headed "Instead of" and the other headed "Try." Here are examples of the suggestions--the list's "dirty dozen," the 12 offenders most likely to weaken your work:

Instead of -- Try
  • addressees -- you
  • assist, assistance -- aid, help
  • commence -- begin, start
  • implement -- carry out, start
  • in accordance with -- by, following, per, under
  • in order that -- for, so
  • in the amount of -- for
  • in the event of -- if
  • it is -- (omit)
  • promulgate -- issue, publish
  • this activity, command -- us, we
  • utilize, utilization -- use.

The list is provided by the Plain Language Action & Information Network (or PLAIN), a group of employees in the U.S. federal government from many different agencies and specialties. They support the use of clear communication in government writing. 

Here's the home page for PLAIN. Information and advice at the free site is available and useful to writers and editors in all fields and occupations--not just government workers.

I provide similar advice at Garbl's Concise Writing GuideMy free guide is organized in three sections that provide alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and verbose, sometimes amusing redundant phrases.

The PLAIN list is featured today, Feb. 7, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

Besides visiting PLAIN's website, you can get more information on plain language at Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It provides a seven-step approach to writing clearly and concisely to meet the needs of your readers:  reader and purpose, organization, paragraphs, sentences, words, design, and testing.

A Well-Crafted Letter Still Gets the Job Done - Bryan A. Garner - Harvard Business Review

Business letters aren't a quaint thing of the past. Write them well, and you'll create a lot of goodwill with clients, partners, and vendors. You'll increase your profits, too — by getting key customers to renew large orders, for example, or persuading service providers to charge you less for repeat business.
So begins writing authority Bryan A. Garner in this article. This post is the second in his blog series on business writing. The series draws on insights from Garner's excellent new book, the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

He immediately jumps in with four pointers. Here are headings and key messages for each one:

  • Focus on the reader. Motivate people to act by giving them reasons that matter to them. ...
  • Use direct language. Write simply. ... [This advice includes a chart on phrases to avoid in letters.]
  • Ease into bad news. If you have a rejection to deliver, sandwich it between happier elements. ...
  • Don't write in anger. Say please and thank you — even in letters of complaint. ...
Garner's article is featured today, Feb. 7, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What every designer needs to know about people | Iva Cheung

The headline for Cheung's article targets graphic designers. But that's a narrow target, as Cheung notes in the final paragraph:
Many of these points have interesting implications for editors and plain language specialists. ...
Cheung heard these 10 guidelines in a webinar by behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk, author of 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People (and the upcoming book How to Get People to Do Stuff).

Here are headings for some guidelines that I thought were particularly pertinent to writing and plain language (they were CAPITALIZED in the article):
7. MILLER’S LAW [about short-term memory] IS AN URBAN LEGEND
For more information on plain language, see Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. Check out its section on Focusing on Your Reader and Purpose.________

Cheung's article is featured today, Feb. 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

“A Ukulele” or “An Ukulele”? | Mignon Fogarty, The Grammar Girl, The Quick and Dirty

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty describes an interesting dilemma in this article about respecting cultural differences in pronunciation when choosing the proper words. Her focus is on the pronunciation of ukulele in Hawaii, how it differs from the pronunciation elsewhere, and the impact on word choice.

But I like the article because it provides a unique example of when to use an and when to use a before a noun or adjective. By highlighting the correct rule for making that choice, she reveals misunderstandings about that rule:
  • Wrong: Use a before words that begin with a consonant, and use an before words that begin with a vowel.
  • Right: Use a before words that begin with the sound of a consonant, and use an before words that begin with the sound of a vowel.
In other words, pronunciation matters in those choices. Spelling does not matter (except that the words must be spelled correctly, of course).

She concludes with this advice about which word to use with ukulele:
If you’re writing for a national publication, I suggest you stick with “a ukulele”; but if you’re writing for a Hawaiian publication, you should definitely go with “an ukulele.”
Here's how I put the use of a and an in the first entry of my online writing guide, Garbl's Editorial Style Manual; I also include the:
a, an, the The articles aand and the are adjectives that modify nouns. Use the to point to a specific noun; use a and an to point to a general, nonspecific noun: Please bring me the newspaper suggests a specific newspaper, while Please bring me a newspaper doesn't specify which newspaper. 
Use a before consonant soundsa European countrya B.A.a historic eventa one-year terma style manuala utopia. Use an before vowel soundsan 18-year-old candidate, an environmental disaster, an FDA study, an MBA, an heir apparent, an honorable man, an hour ago, an NBC sitcom, an SBA loan. If the letter h is sounded, use aa hamburger, a history book, a house, a hotel.

Fogarty's article is featured today, Feb. 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Styles tab above and by free email subscription.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chicago Manual of Style Q&A: New Questions and Answers, February 2013

The Chicago Manual of Style website has been updated for February 2013 with answers to questions asked by readers. I get a free monthly email message listing the questions and a link to this site for the answers.

Among the questions:

Q. Over the years, both clients and other practitioners have consistently used the word gift as a verb, as in “I want to gift my house to my daughter.” This seems awfully stilted. Is there something wrong with the word give?

Q. A number of my friends and colleagues now use invite as a noun, as in “send him an invite.” I think it’s pretty lazy usage when the perfectly good word invitation is available. Am I just an old crank who doesn't like change?
Q. When making reference to western (occidental) cultures, western media, western identity politics, I prefer to use a lowercase w. However, my copyeditor has changed every instance of my use of western to Western. Who is right and why?
Q. Recently a fellow editor and I had a discussion on the use of “whether or not” and when the “or not” is needed.
Q. When referring to a zombie, should I use the relative pronoun who (which would refer to a person) or that (since, technically, the zombie is no longer living)?

Washington State moves toward gender-neutral language | Rachel LaCorte, The Associated Press, The Seattle Times

State officials have been changing the language used in many laws, including thousands of words and phrases, many written more than a century ago when the idea of women working on police forces or on fishing boats wasn't a consideration.
This article was featured recently in my hometown newspaper. I consider it good news. Updating our language to reflect and respect reality is important. 

LaCorte writes:
That process is to draw to a close this year. So while the state already has welcomed “firefighters,” “clergy” and “police officers” into its lexicon, “ombuds” (in place of ombudsman) and “security guards” (previously “watchmen,”) appear to be next, along with “dairy farmers,” “first-year students” and “handwriting.”
She quotes Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark, a catalyst for the change:
Some people would say ‘oh, it’s not a big thing, do you really have to go through the process of changing the language.' But language matters. It’s how we signal a level of respect for each other.
And Crispin Thurlow, a sociolinguist and associate professor of language and communication at the University of Washington:
Changing words can change what we think about the world around us. These tiny moments accrue and become big movements.
For related advice in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual, see the sex, sexism entry. It begins:
Base communication on relevant qualities of men and women, not on their sex or sexual orientation. 
Avoid the outdated use of words that restrict meaning to males. Include all people in general references by substituting unbiased, asexual words and phrases: informal agreement for gentlemen's agreementhomemaker for housewifeemployees and their spouses for employees and their wives.
LaCorte's article is featured today, Feb. 5, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, avilalbe a the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

Minimalism Quotations ... Through the Centuries | Joshua Becker, Becoming Minimalist

I write a lot in my blog about using plain language--or clear, concise writing--to capture and keep the attention and interest of readers, to aid their understanding and use of things they read.

That advocacy parallels my growing interest in living simply--or following the principles of minimalism, as Becker and some other folks call it. Voluntary simplicity has become more appealing to me as I've approached and entered my semi-retirement years. I just don't want or need so much stuff--be it things in my house or things in my mind. But I'm still learning these principles.

These quotations substantiate that living simply isn't just a modern trend. Most, obviously, apply to how we live and think, but some also can apply to how we communicate. We can unclutter things we write as we unclutter our homes and offices.

Becker introduces the list:

Voluntary simplicity (and/or minimalism) is certainly not new. In fact, it has been practiced and encouraged for thousands of years… literally. Just consider the following men and women who have advocated for a lifestyle of minimalism. (To place emphasis on the history of the movement, they have been arranged chronologically by author’s birth year).
The most recent quotation is by author Sandra Cisneros, born in 1954:
But I deal with this by meditating and by understanding I've been put on the planet to serve humanity. I have to remind myself to live simply and not overindulge, which is a constant battle in a material world.
The oldest is by Buddha, 563 BCE:

To live a pure unselfish life, one must count nothing as one’s own in the midst of abundance.
Here's a somewhat similar list of mine, mostly about writing and communication: Words of Wisdom in Garbl's Concise Writing Guide. Its introductory quotation, by Richard Lederer and Richards Dowis from Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay:
Contrary to what some people seem to believe, simple writing is not the product of simple minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both grace and power. By not calling attention to itself, it allows the reader to focus on the message.
Becker's article is featured today, Feb. 5, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Simple Dreams, available at the Simplicity tab above and by free email subscription.

Monday, February 4, 2013

An 'infographic' by LearnStuff | Equal Education Unequal Pay: Closing the Gender Wage Gap

I've been seeing more and more infographics--like this one--posted on websites in recent months. They're a colorful graphic tool to provide information and even deadly dull statistics in a readable, useful way.

As I wrote Kayla Evans of LearnStuff about this infographic (also shown below):
It looks good and reads well. And, more importantly, it makes it point clearly and persuasively.
Kayla is a contributor to the project. Describing this infographic, she told me:
It was created as part of our project’s larger mission to build a free web resource rich with educational material for those interested. ... We wanted to raise awareness that this issue is existing and provide answers when enough people are talking about it.
Kayla explained that LearnStuff wants to spread this infographic as widely as possible. It can be downloaded and reprinted, she said. And it can be embedded in blogs and on other websites with coding provided below it on the LearnStuff page.

LearnStuff has produced other infographics covering the topics of education, health, science and technology. Each includes sources of the information provided. 

Here are some other recent LearnStuff infographic titles:
  • Suffocating the World
  • Did You Vote?
  • Take A Break
  • Social Media At Work
  • Got Milk?
  • Medical Hazard At Work
  • Your Boss Is Insane [That's an intriguing title!]
  • Big Bad Corn
  • College Study Drug.
And here's the Equal Education Unequal Pay infographic:

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Which Are More Legible: Serif or Sans Serif Typefaces? | Alex Poole

During my long career in publications production, I've been involved in quite a few discussions and debates about the use of serif and sans serif typefaces. I sided with a particular viewpoint for many years until I finally was convinced that the readability or legibility of either typeface doesn't matter much. Other considerations are more important.

Poole does a thorough job in this article of describing and evaluating the viewpoints, including references and links to various analyses. He summarizes his findings in the introduction (good!) and the conclusion.

My long-held belief, uh, preference: serif faces in body copy and sans serif faces in headlines and headings. But I now believe that my preference was based mostly on what I was used to from my study in journalism and my work in the newspaper business. My belief now is that the "what I was used to" influence I had is also what influences the preferences of many people. And that preference is hard to substantiate scientifically.

I tend to favor sans serif faces now in most uses (especially for reading on computer monitors)--but not any sans serif face (and not any serif face in my past preference). Each typeface must be considered for legibility ... and aesthetics. What face creates or supports the mood or tone of the document you're producing?

Poole writes in the introduction (emphasis added):
An argument has been raging for decades within the scientific and typographic communities on what seems a very insignificant issue: Do serifs contribute to the legibility of typefaces, and by definition, are sans serif typefaces less legible? To date, no one has managed to provide a conclusive answer to this issue.
And his thoughtful conclusion:
What initially seemed a neat dichotomous question of serif versus sans serif has resulted in a body of research consisting of weak claims and counter-claims, and study after study with findings of “no difference”. Is it the case that more than one hundred years of research has been marred by repeated methodological flaws, or are serifs simply a typographical “red herring”?
It is of course possible that serifs or the lack of them have an effect on legibility, but it is very likely that they are so peripheral to the reading process that this effect is not even worth measuring (Lund, 1999).
Indeed, a greater difference in legibility can easily be found within members of the same type family than between a serif and a sans serif typeface. (Tinker, 1963, Zachrisson, 1965). There are also other factors such as x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width which are more significant for legibility than the presence or absence of serifs. Poulton, 1972; Reynolds, 1979)
Finally, we should accept that most reasonably designed typefaces in mainstream use will be equally legible, and that it makes much more sense to argue in favour of serif or sans serif typefaces on aesthetic grounds than on the question of legibility. (Bernard, 2001; Tinker, 1963)

Poole's article is featured today, Feb. 3, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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