Sep 212016

One of the best pure writers I have ever seen was a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University named Emily (she gave me permission to use her first name). She could amalgamate and compress numerous, complex source articles into a hyper-lucid page or two, which on top of that was mellifluous when read aloud. Just the memory still gives me goosebumps.

Once Emily complained to me that professors in her major often dinged her for submitting assignments that did not meet the page requirement. “I wish they understood how hard it is to be so brief.”

I thought of Emily the other day when I read scholar and blogger Bryan A. Garner’s post Law Prose Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms, which I quote here in full:

Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.

This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if this means making the writer’s job more difficult.

A certain judicial opinion defines the following terms: EFP, FCM, HC, NYME, REDCO, ROI, and TOI. Before we know it, we read that an FCM represents REDCO before NYME, expecting an improved ROI, but that the FCM also has duties to TOI, under EFP-1, to certify that TOI owned enough HCs to cover its EFP obligations. To most readers, it’s all gibberish.

Instead, use real words. Make it succinct, but use real words. Otherwise, your readers will rebel by putting your prose down and never again returning to it—or if they do return to it, they’ll detest you.

Dear Reader, Try to make the above piece of prose more clear or more concise. I tried; couldn’t. Emily could probably give it a whirl, but I don’t know what she would come up with.

Readers of this blog know how much we esteem author Garner‘s work, the scope of which is wholly humbling:

Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges—cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia—and Better Business Writing, a work focused on the art of communicating in the business world, published by the Harvard Business Review.

His magnum opus is the 942-page Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. It is widely considered the preeminent authority on questions of English usage.

If you are already feeling lazy today, check out these links another time. Just a recommendation.

Nov 292015

From professor Jonathan Mayhew:

One of Orwell’s sillier pieces of writing advice is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell advises “scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.” But then wouldn’t he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb “scrap” and the cliché phrase “has outworn its usefulness”? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are “abundantly clear.”

We don’t just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer’s jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn’t have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I’m not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase “makes a valuable contribution to the field” in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as “chunking.”

Nov 292015

The Washington Post compiles a helpful list; it’s up to 200. I am guilty of using the following in speaking (and the first one listed here in writing, too – alas):

Any “not-un” formulation (as in “not unsurprising that you’d use that cliche”)

Less than you think (how do you know what I think?)

More often than not

The new normal

For all intents and purposes

Don’t get me wrong …

Some clichés irritate more than others. I tend to stop listening when I hear “Orwellian” or “double-down.”

h/t JG

Nov 142015

A friend in the media emailed me this morning: “Everyone keeps talking about hostages having been taken in Paris. Doesn’t the word ‘hostage’ imply a demand on the part of the terrorists? They made no demands; they intended all along to slaughter them. Wouldn’t captive be a more appropriate word, or am I over-thinking this?”

I replied: “You are definitely right about ‘hostage’ being the wrong word and for the reasons you say. I would say that ‘captive’ is also the wrong word, because captives are prisoners – not intended victims of murder. At the very least, one ‘holds’ a captive for a predetermined period of time; this was not the case yesterday. To see how ‘captive’ is the wrong word: One would not say that a person killed in his/her or another person’s home is a captive – same for a person killed in a restaurant in a drive-by. I think ‘intended victim’ is the closest. There is no single word for ‘terrorist victim,’ and it seems discourteous to refer repeatedly to the slain as ‘terrorist victims’ – two awful words to describe innocent souls.”

My friend’s reply: “Alas, ‘intended victim’ is clumsy.”


About this one can truly say, There is no word.

Nov 072015

Many Italian Americans pronounce cucumber – “cetriolo” in the Italian dictionary – this way: ‘jadrool’.

In Fairport, New York, where I grew up, there were lots of Italian American families, and I had many Italian American friends (still do). I married an Italian American from Liverpool, New York, and have a son from this marriage who, though he is only *half* Italian American, regards himself as *almost completely* Italian American. I noticed the way my friends and my (then) in-laws and wife pronounced words for food dishes did not correspond (to my ear) to either the spelling or the pronunciations provided in my fat dictionary. Writer Dan Nosovitz of explains why, in How Capicola Became Gabagool: The Italian New Jersey Accent, Explained:

Let’s do a fun experiment and take three separate linguistic trends from southern Italian dialects and combine them all to show how one Standard Italian word can be so thoroughly mangled in the U.S.

First: “The features that you’ll find across a lot of these dialects, and one that you still hear a lot in southern Italy today, is vowels at the ends of words are pronounced very very softly, and usually as more of an ‘uh’ vowel,” says Olivo-Shaw. D’Imperio is a little more extreme, calling it “vowel deletion.” Basically: if the final syllable is a vowel? You can get rid of it. Vowel deletion is common amongst many languages, and is done for the same reason that, sometimes, vowels are added: to make the flow from one word to another more seamless. It’s easiest, in terms of muscle movement, to transition from a vowel to a consonant and vice versa. A vowel to a vowel is difficult; in English, that’s why we have “a” versus “an” in phrases like “a potato” or “an apple.” Some Italian words that would follow food words, like prepositions or articles, would start with a vowel, and it’s easier to just remove it so you don’t have to do the vowel-to-vowel transition.

The stereotypical Italian “It’s a-me, Mario!” addition of a vowel is done for the same reason: Italian is a very fluid, musical language, and Italian speakers will try to eliminate the awkwardness of going consonant-to-consonant. So they’ll just add in a generic vowel sound—”ah” or “uh”—between consonants, to make it flow better.

Second: “A lot of the ‘o’ sounds will be, as we call it in linguistics, raised, so it’ll be pronounced more like ‘ooh’,” says Olivo-Shaw. Got it: O=Ooh.

And third: “A lot of what we call the voiceless consonants, like a ‘k’ sound, will be pronounced as a voiced consonant,” says Olivo-Shaw. This is a tricky one to explain, but basically the difference between a voiced and a voiceless consonant can be felt if you place your fingers over your Adam’s apple and say as short of a sound with that consonant as you can. A voiced consonant will cause a vibration, and voiceless will not. So like, when you try to just make a “g” sound, it’ll come out as “guh.” But a “k” sound can be made without using your vocal cords at all, preventing a vibration. So “k” would be voiceless, and “g” would be voiced. Try it! It’s fun.

Okay so, we’ve got three linguistic quirks common to most of the southern Italian ancient languages. Now try to pronounce “capicola.”

The “c” sounds, which are really “k” sounds, become voiced, so they turn into “g”. Do the same with the “p”; that’s a voiceless consonant, and we want voiced ones, so change that to a “b”. The second-to-last vowel, an “oh” sound, gets raised, so change that to an “ooh.” And toss out the last syllable. It’s just a vowel, who needs it? Now try again.

Yeah. Gabagool.

My Central New York State friends and family didn’t share the famously distinctive accents of their New Jersey brethren, but they did pronounce “Prosciutto” like this: “pruh-zhoot” (or “bruh-zhoot,” beginning with the voiced consonant).

P.S. – A “jadrool,” you should know, can mean moron as well as “cucumber.”

h/t BD

Oct 102015


My friend Jonathan Mayhew has been on a tear of late, publishing a series of manifestos on poetry in his wonderful blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks. Some snippets (but read the whole thing):

Manifesto (1)

Nobody knows what poetry is for. I think it is for something of great importance; that it is not trivial. …      It follows that the reading of poetry is a spiritual exercise. For me, what poetry is about is the experience of awe. I only really care about poetry, or music, or art, that offers this sense of wonder about being alive in the first place. If you’ve never felt this reading a poem then you need to read someone else’s blog and leave me alone. …     There are poets who write poems, and have a decent, acceptable, style, but don’t seem connected at all to anything related to the awesomeness of poetry. There are critics who make nice arguments about which poetry belongs in which category. I have done that myself. A lot of this has nothing to do with poetry and can be safely ignored.

Another Manifesto (2)

There is a puzzling dichotomy in twentieth century poetics. Let us call it the division between aesthetics and the anti-aesthetic. It manifests itself in the debate between art itself (on the one hand) and socio-political uses of art. …     Both sides of the debate are actually in complete agreement with each other, deploying the exact same dichotomy without questioning it. …     So the puzzle is that this dichotomy would have not been comprehensible 100 years earlier. If you asked Shelley about this, he would not have understood what you meant. Or Milton or Spenser. The terms were not yet in opposition; the debate was not framed in that way in the least.

Manifesto 3

Reading poetry is a ruminative activity. Instead of being absorbed for hours in the reading of a continuous narrative, you read very short texts over and over again and then think about them for a long time. To read (really read) vast quantities of poetry is guaranteed to make you somewhat insane, since it invites solitary rumination. …     I am now the only poetry specialist in my department, so the effects of isolation are even greater.

Composition (Manifesto 4)

If you are a scholar of poetry, then you know how to pay close attention to every word and every space. You have, then, a certain prose responsibility to poetry. You must write well and accurately. You don’t have to be a poet, but pretty close. Everything I regret in my own work is the result of failure to live up to this ideal.

Manifesto 5 (viva voce)

Research is attested to in writing. Yet teaching is quintessentially oral. The living presence of the voice is what matters. …    I found myself yesterday in the engineering building, a third of a mile from my office, about to teach a class but without a copy of the novel we were reading. I still did fine, even referring to specific words and passages. Essentially I was teaching naked, though clothed in suit and tie. …You should be able to teach *viva voce*. If you need specific formats for information, such as tables of statistics, in your field, that’s fine. In poetry we depend on the written text too, and typographical details of the text can be extremely significant. But you shouldn’t have to look at notes to be able to teach something that you know well.

photo by Bob Basil

Jul 122015

From the great Language Log:

Most of the ambiguity contained in normal language use is passed over without any awareness on the audience’s part of the potential for double meanings. If one of the two intended meanings in an ad happens to be too faint, the ad must do something to fortify it and nudge it over the threshold of awareness. For instance, an ad that ran some time ago for British Airways used the tagline “Showers expected upon arrival.” To make it clear to the reader that showers could also refer to the bathing facilities that were available in the airline’s lounge at Heathrow Airport, the advertisers resorted to a fairly crude visual technique: a photo of a showerhead accompanied the tagline.

Much more sophisticated is the use of ambiguity in the following:

Are you up in the air about your future? Maybe that’s where you belong.

The ad was placed by the U.S. Air Force, whose logo appeared in the usual lower right hand corner of the print ad. I’m guessing that a typical reader response looks something like this: The idiomatic reading of “up in the air” is far more accessible in the first sentence than the literal one, and is perhaps the only meaning that the reader registers. The second sentence prompts a reanalysis, with the anaphoric where pointing to a definite spatial location, but it’s still not really clear how this second sentence fits in coherently with the first, on either the literal or idiomatic reading—until the reader’s eye lands on the logo, and voilà—the literal reading is further primed, and the identity of the sponsor now allows the reader to fit all the pieces together.

Such manipulation of context, to render meeker meanings more assertive, is part-and-parcel of the adept use of ambiguity. …

Jan 162015

Bryan Garner, lawyer and English language usage scholar, on one of my favourite words:

A portmanteau is a type of luggage with two separate sections. A portmanteau word is formed by combining the sounds and meanings of two different words. Linguists also call such a word a blend.

Most portmanteaus merge the initial part of one word with the end of another: smog (smoke + fog) and infomercial (information + commercial). Others combine one complete word with part of another: docudrama (documentary + drama) and palimony (pal + alimony). Sometimes words with the same sounds are combined to create a pun: shampagne (sham + champagne). …

The popularity of portmanteau words continues to grow. …

My favourite recent portmonteau is “bankster.”