Real Words

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.

Aeon: Intellectual Culture

My new favourite place to go very morning is Aeon, a marvellous multimedia site devoted to intellectual culture: “big ideas, serious enquiry, a humane worldview and good writing.”

From the About page:

Aeon has four channels…. Most weekdays, it publishes Essays – longform explorations of deep issues written by serious and creative thinkers.

From Monday to Friday, it also publishes Opinions – short provocations, maintaining Aeon’s high argumentative standards but in a more nimble and immediate form.

Aeon’s Video channel streams a mixture of curated short documentaries and original Aeon content, including a series of interviews with experts at the forefront of thought.aeon

Finally, Aeon’s Conversations channel invites the reader in to put their own arguments and points of view. With Conversations, old-style web comments give way to a new form of collective inquiry.

This morning I read a lively, lucid opinion piece by Cory Powell arguing that Galileo’s reputation might be more hyperbole than truth – the author chooses “is” for “might be,” no surprise. (Hint: Kepler was the real giant of science who explained heliocentrism and the laws of planetary motion.)  A 4-minute animation directed by Sharron Mirsky showed me how to enjoy a blackout. Reading an essay by Frank Furede called “The Ages of Distraction,” I learned that moralists and philosophers have complaining about how distracted humans are for hundreds of years:

Attention was promoted as a moral accomplishment that was essential to the cultivation of a sound character. The philosopher Thomas Reid, the foremost exponent of 18th-century Scottish ‘common sense’, argued in his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788) that ‘there are moral rules respecting the attention’ which are ‘no less evident than mathematical axioms’. The moral rules of attention required cultivation and training and it was the job of educators to ensure that the young were protected from acquiring the ‘habits of inattention’. Inattention was increasingly perceived as an obstacle to the socialisation of young people.

Countering the habit of inattention among children and young people became the central concern of pedagogy in the 18th century. Educators have always been preoccupied with gaining children’s attention but in the 18th century this concern acquired an unprecedented importance. Attention was seen as important for the nourishment of the reasoning mind as well as for spiritual and moral development. Advice books directed at parents, such as Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798), insisted that the cultivation of concentration and attention required effort and skill.

After reading this wonderful essay, I quickly zipped over to The Drudge Report, alas, to see what crazy things were happening all over the world – well, mostly all over the United States. Shame on me!

Returning to Aeon I got caught up with a high-toned and truly friendly discussion that addressed the question, “Can a mystical tradition within a religion be said to express its true spirit.”

As an author, editor, and publisher, I could not be more impressed and gratified by this initiative. Salut to co-founders Brigid and Paul Hains.

New Sophos series: “What is …?”

Sophos, the esteemed network-security company, is starting a new series on its always erudite blog. It is called “What Is …,” and it promises to turn “technical jargon into plain English.”

The inaugural post, written by Paul Ducklin, is called “What is … a VPN?

VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Writes Ducklin:

On your own network, you get to set the security rules.

You can make sure your router has a decent password; you can keep everything patched; you can run security software on all your devices; and so on.

But once you’re on the road, whether it’s free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop or the business network in the airport lounge, you don’t have the same control.

For all you know, the network you’re using might not merely have been hacked by crooks, it might have been set up by crooks in the first place.

One solution is to be careful, and stick to secure websites for sensitive work such as uploading documents or online banking.

But you are probably giving away plenty of information anyway:

  • Some secure websites include links to insecure sites, which leave a visible trail.
  • Some applications use secure connections, but don’t bother to check if they’re talking to an imposter server.
  • Some applications use insecure connections, but don’t tell you.
  • When a program connects to, say, https://bank.example/, it first asks the network, “I need bank.example. Where do I find it?”

In other words, your computer’s internet connection is a bit like a conversation two rows behind you on the bus: even if most of it is inaudible, you can nevertheless be pretty sure what it’s about.

That’s where a VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, comes in.

The idea is surprisingly simple.

You get your computer to encrypt all your network data (even if it’s already encrypted!) before it leaves your laptop or phone, and send the scrambled stream of data back to your own network.

When the scrambled data is safely back on home turf, it is decrypted.

Only then is it sent onto the internet in its unscrambled form, just as if you were at home.

The encrypted internet link, known in the trade as a tunnel, acts like an long, secure, extension cable plugged into your own network.

Unless the crooks can crack into the encrypted tunnel itself, they’re no better off at hacking you than if you were back at home or in the office.

So, you have neutralised any advantage the crooks were hoping for because you were on the road.

And that, very briefly, is a VPN.

Read the whole thing. It is completely lucid.

This is a wonderful start to the series.

Bryan Garner’s

Bryan Garner is a lawyer whose range of work on the topics of writing and rhetoric is humbling – to me as it should be to you, too. His blog is a gas. Here he is, just the other day, on one of my favourite topics, the hyphen (or, more precisely, hyphens “in phrasal adjectives”):

     When a phrase functions as an adjective, the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Professional writers and editors regularly do this. Search for hyphens on a page of the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker and you’ll spot many. But less-polished writers often fail to appreciate the difference that adjective can make (consider criminal law professors vs. criminal-law professors). And for some reason, lawyers resist these hyphens. To prevent miscues and make your writing clearer, you should master the art of hyphenating phrasal adjectives and consider the guiding principles every time you encounter one.

Here’s the rule: if two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun, those words should be hyphenated {second-year associatecase-by-case analysistrade-secret protectionsummary-judgment motionbreach-of-contract claim}. [The possible phrases are infinite. For more examples see Garner’s Modern American Usage 625-26 (3d ed. 2009); The Redbook 46-47 (3d ed. 2013); The Winning Brief 278-83 (2d ed. 2004).]

But there are exceptions. Do not hyphenate the phrase in these situations:

(1) When a phrase begins with an –ly adverb:newly admitted lawyer;legally permitted actioncalmly spoken argument. An exception to this exception applies when the phrase is longer than two words. Hence: poorly-thought-out strategy.

(2) When the phrase contains a proper noun: a United States diplomat; that famous Civil War battle; the Pablo Picasso painting.

(3) When the phrase is borrowed from a foreign language:de novo reviewhabeas corpus petitionprima facie case.

(4) When the phrase follows the noun it modifies: that rule is well known (vs. a well-knownrule); a claim of bad faith (vs. a bad-faith claim);action for unlawful detainer (vs. unlawful-detainer action). But there are some fixed phrases that are invariably hyphenated even if they follow the noun {cost-effectiveold-fashionedshort-livedstar-studdedtime-tested}. In general, these hyphenated, fixed phrases will be listed in a dictionary.

If you’re still uncertain about why you should hyphenate, ponder the plain meaning of small animal veterinarianhigh school dropout, or one armed bandit.

There’s more, all delightful.


“What distinguishes effective from ineffective legal writers,” notes Garner, “is empathy for the reader.”

(h/t LH)

A Generation of Mentors

It’s hard for me to re-read KPMG‘s October report “BC Junior Mining at a Crossroads,” commissioned by the BC Securities Commission, without feeling not just loss but what will be lost. The report’s findings echo the lamentations of my friends and former colleagues who run or rely on public companies in the natural resources sector: This is the worst downturn ever; there is almost no money to be had; the senior mining firms have abandoned the junior companies, as have younger investors.


The report’s language is succinct:

– Less money is currently being put into exploration or the necessary studies needed to move a project forward (for financing or development). Much of the funding raised is survival capital, i.e., being used to keep the company operational until such times as the market returns.

– As stock prices have dropped significantly and the market appetite for Juniors has lessened, it has become increasingly difficult and less attractive to raise funds through public offerings. The dilution factor is a major concern of most of the Juniors, as they do not see the upside of
significant dilution of ownership.

– There was some sentiment amongst the Juniors that until the Seniors show consecutive quarters of profits without further write-downs of “toxic” assets on their balance sheets, junior mining company projects will not be of interest to the Seniors. Until stock prices rise and investment returns to the Seniors, Juniors will continue to have a problem raising money.

– The competition for investment capital has become more intense, and Juniors stand to be less competitive than many sectors because of their risky nature and the longer term required for return on investment, if any.

– As a result, many Juniors have chosen to go into a survival mode instead, until the markets become more favourable and interested in mineral exploration investments. However survival is still not cheap. Maintaining a listing and other administrative requirements can cost from $75,000 to $150,000 per year, depending on the circumstances of the company. Many Juniors only have $100,000 in cash available and will only be able to survive another year or so.

When these Juniors disappear, their management, geologists, geophysicists, and technicians will need to find new lines of work. So will their corporate communications and investor relations officers.

Indeed, these latter are often the first to go when funding’s gone. At least these people, though, have skills and experience that transfer relatively easily across sectors of service and commerce – from retail to not-for profits, from education to government – and across lines on a map.

Whither the geophysicists and their high-end colleagues?

I don’t fear for their economic survival; they are super-smart and resilient folk; they will make it, somehow, but elsewhere, away from Canada’s once exalted mining industry. My fear is that they won’t come back when the Junior market does, however many years that this will take.

And then who will mentor BCIT’s newly minted geotechnicians and UBC’s young geologists, guiding them in the field, fostering their laboratory acumen, keeping them safe, and supporting them with continual education and feedback? How will this new generation fare when their mentors are elsewhere?

(photo of Granville Street, Vancouver, by Bob Basil)

“Scholarly Writing and How to Get It Done”

That’s the subtitle of my favourite blog on academic writing, “Stupid Motivational Tricks,” authored (primarily) by Jonathan Mayhew, a Professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas, who is a friend of mine and has been since our days in the sun in graduate school at Stanford. I have mentioned Mayhew’s work earlier, in my post on “The Plain Style.”

Mayhew’s blog is notable for its winsome erudition and a tart, funny and hyper-lucid prose style. Its focus on practical strategies for actually putting words on the page is unmatched among scholarly blogs and books I’ve seen. His insights on the latter include ways to divide one’s days and weeks rationally, how to use one’s non-writing time to resolve intellectual and creative problems, and how best to interact with one’s peers.

All of these insights are “portable,” and can help you become more productive in your own workplace. His blog is worth bookmarking as a resource for all writers.

I quite like Mayhew’s recent posts on “creative uses of theory,” like this one called “The Theoretical Reading“: It is said that if you don’t have theory, you will be relying on an unstated theory, unreflectively. That is true. Not having a theory or not having theory will not make you into a creative reader! In fact, you are likely to have very dull ideas, in the same way that someone who knows nothing of poetry is likely to write a poem about flowers that rhymes.

Full disclosure: A few years ago I made one post on this estimable blog. It was titled “Detecting BS.”

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The Plain Style

One of our resources over on the right-hand side of the page is “The Plain Language Style Guide,” published by the BC Securities Commission to help securities professionals in the composition of correspondence and public documents. Drafted with the assistance of Wordsmith Associates Communications Consultants Inc., the guide’s goal is to make sure that all stakeholders – investors, public-company management and directors, brokers, and the like – easily understand the Commission’s written prose. Although it is an in-house style guide, we’ve found it useful in a numerous other workplace environments as well as in the classroom. Its sections on planning, designing, and writing professional text are uniformly lucid and helpful.

The “plain style” is also making in-roads in some literary criticism. Professor Jonathan Mayhew’s “defense” of “writing that is clear, concise, elegant, and free from unnecessary jargon” is worth reading, as is his blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly writing and how to get it done.

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(Photo by Bob Basil)