Monthly Archives: September 2013

Keep It Simple, Stupid

photo posted on post-gazette.com

Today, I’ve called this special weekend class to address a serious writing problem: pomposity.

The principle (not rule) is: write to express, not to impress. Your goal is to communicate as clearly as possible. If being artful helps, be artful. But never choose your words with the goal of impressing people with your sophistication, command of the language, or learnedness.

A related principle is, “Prefer the simple to the complex.”

Press briefings by policemen and military personnel always amuse me. They love the word “utilize,” as in, “We will utilize every resource available.” In every other context of their lives, it’s “use.” But put them in front of a microphone, and they apparently feel “utilize” better conveys their authority. I suspect that in the military, promotions have been denied and careers ended because something said “use” instead of “utilize.”

So, don’t write in your bulletin, “Our church utilizes the New International Version.”

Here are other examples–the complex word, followed by the word you should use most of the time.

modify – change
optimum – best
demonstrate – show
terminate – end
magnitude – size
approximately – about
commence – start
facilitate – help
close proximity – near

Can’t you just hear a police commissioner, in a press conference about some tragic event, using nearly all of those more complex words? As an editor, I continually make such changes (not modifications) to people’s writing. Prefer the simpler word, which is usually the one with fewer syllables.

Mark Twain, referring to freelance writing for which you are paid by the words, once wrote, “I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents, because I can get the same money for ‘city.’ I never write ‘policeman,’ because I can get the same price for ‘cop.'”

All of this also applies to speaking. To best communicate to your audience, write–and speak–in ordinary language. Don’t broadcast your insecurity by using big words to try to impress people.

That’s it, class. Now, go ye into the world and communicate as simply and clearly as possible. Unless you’re writing an academic paper, in which case it’s permissible, if not requisite, to be a pompous fool.

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Sniffing Out Marijuana No Longer Wanted

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Some drug-sniffing dogs need to be upgraded, according to an interesting little piece in BusinessWeek.

Dogs have been trained to detect marijuana, which creates “probable cause” for police searches. But now, several states have legalized possessing small amounts of marijuana (normally an ounce). The problem: dogs don’t differentiate between legal and illegal amounts.

Dogs give the same response, regardless of the drug they detect. “We can’t train our dogs to bark if it’s cocaine, roll over if it’s marijuana, scratch if it’s methamphetamine,” said a Colorado policeman.

Imagine this scenario. A dog indicates that a car contains drugs, and a search reveals huge amounts of cocaine and other drugs. BUT, there’s also an ounce of marijuana. In court, lawyers argue that the dog actually detected the marijuana–which was purely legal–and therefore it was an illegal search. Anything ELSE found during the search should be ruled as inadmissible.

As a result, some police departments in Washington State are sending their dogs to “pot desensitization training,” and not training new dogs to detect marijuana.

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Don’t Point Out Nothing

Today, class, let’s talk about currency numbers.

For instance: “The registration cost is $250.00.” Lose the decimals, or I’ll lose them for you. Just write, “The registration cost is $250.” Besides, it kinda makes the number look like 250,000. Especially avoid this on the web, where periods tend to get lost on low-resolution screens.

Certainly never write, “He won $1,000,000.00!”

How many times have churches sent me a news article with something like this: “We collected $800.00 for missions.” I’ve edited out hundreds of nothings.

If there’s nothing there–no cents–then there’s no reason to point it out. That’s why you write, “The length was 24.2 inches,” and not “The length was 24.2000000 inches.” The extra zeros communicate, literally, nothing.

That’s all for today, class. You may go.

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Presidential Diversity

darryl

I am nearly two weeks late in changing my Office (from the TV show) calendar to September. This month’s person is Darryl. The calendar gives this quote from him. “I used to say I wanted to live long enough to see a black president. I didn’t realize how easy that would be. So now I want to live long enough to see a really, really gay president. Or a supermodel president. I want to see all the different kinds of presidents.”

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Artificial Emphasis and Exclamation Points

exclamationToday, class, I’d like to discuss exclamation points. You probably use way too many of them. As an editor, I’ve spent untold hours excising unjustified exclamation points.

Your words must be emphatic enough, by themselves, to merit an exclamation point. Don’t write a bland sentence and then, wanting to emphasize your point, stick an exclamation point on the end.

For example: “I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”

That sentence carries no inherent emphasis. Not like this sentence: “I can’t wait to see you tomorrow!”

And don’t think that, by adding multiple exclamation points, a dull sentence will be propelled into the realm of the emphatic. “Your order has shipped!!!!!!!!”

Another example: “I hope you come to our service this Sunday! We have some great things planned! Be sure to bring some friends!”

Three exclamations, none of them merited. This, sadly, is true of much hype-heavy advertising copy. On the other hand, it’s okay here: “The service this week is gonna be awesome! Honest!”

The fact is, when you choose your words well, the emphasis shows WITHOUT using an exclamation point. If the words are not emphatic, adding an exclamation point is just playing dress-up. It’s painting flames on the side of a Ford Focus.

Stop it!!!

Class dismissed.

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The Day the Laughter Died

For many decades to come, every comedian will remember exactly where he was, and what he was doing, when he heard about the loss of BOTH Anthony Wiener and Elliott Spitzer.

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Hold the Apostrophe on Those Name’s

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no-dogs-allowed

Okay, children, in today’s lesson we’ll talk about plural names. In general: no apostrophes. Ever.

I am a Dennie. Pam and I are the Dennies. We are not the Dennie’s.

If your last name is Jones (already ending in an “s”), you are the Joneses, not the Jones’ or Jones’s. An “es” may also be required to pluralize names ending in z, x, ch, and sh (the Alvarezes, Marxes, and Nashes, for example).

If a name ends in “y,” such as Kennedy, don’t you dare pluralize it as “Kennedies.” As a proper noun, just add an “s” and make it Kennedys. Again: NOT Kennedy’s. More than one blackberry may be blackberries, but if you own more than one Blackberry phone, they are Blackberrys (and not Blackberry’s).

I know it takes a great deal of restraint to NOT pluralize with an apostrophe, but it’s the right thing to do.

Class dismissed.

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Tears in Rain

bladerunner

One of my alltime favorite movie scenes comes at the end of “Blade Runner,” when replicant Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, makes this speech just before dying:

“I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears… in… rain. Time… to die.”

The night before filming, Hauer rewrote the scripted speech and added the “tears in rain” part. Here’s what it was before he took a knife to it:

“I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I’ve been Offworld and back… frontiers! I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion…I’ve felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I’ve seen it, felt it…!”

Hauer described this as “opera talk” and “hi-tech speech.” While I actually kind of like the original speech, it’s unquestionable that Hauer’s more concise version–coupled with his amazing interpretation of it–is far better.

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Sox. Anyone Have Trouble with that Spelling?

socks4sox2As an editor, can I truly respect a sport that doesn’t know how to spell “socks”? I give you Red Sox and White Sox. Yet, where is the outrage among the language Nazis?

At the time the Red Sox and the White Sox baseball teams were named, many Americans, including the editor of the Chicago Tribune, were pushing for simplified spelling of American English. It was apparently common at the time to see socks spelled s-o-x.

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Business-Casual Communion

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Folks with a “high church” bent do communion better than we United Brethren, who take a “business casual” approach to communion. This was apparent last Sunday, when Anchor and five other Protestant churches in our 46808 zip code held a joint service in a local park (as we’ve been doing for several years).

The Presbyterian and United Methodist pastors led communion. I appreciated the solemnity they gave to the experience, the traditional motions, the way the loaves were broken in front of everybody. For me, it gives the experience more gravitas. Yes, they wore bluejeans and sneakers, but they still pulled off making it a holy moment.

But maybe partly, it’s just a matter of experiencing something different. If some of those Presbyterians and United Methodists participated in communion at a United Brethren church, perhaps they would find our business-casual approach to be refreshing. Perhaps.

And I must remember that the original Last Supper was just a meal. Jesus didn’t turn on worship music, lower his voice to a more authoritative level, and break into a special service. They were eating, and he said they should think of him whenever they ate. That’s a bit simplistic perhaps, but we United Brethren tend to be simplistic.

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