Voting opens for Best Grammar Blog of 2011! Vote now!

Voting has opened for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011 Award, and Writing, Clear and Simple is one of the nominees.

The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 nomiee

This is the first time my blog has been nominated for an award like this, and it feels a bit odd to ask, but I would be grateful for your support.

Please click here and vote.

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No such thing as “very imperative”

Can something be “very imperative?” No, it can’t.

I’ve already written about the overuse of intensifiers, our habit of tacking adverbs like very, really, and extremely onto words in an attempt to turn up the intensity of our language. While adding an intensifier sometimes makes sense, we can usually find a word that already has the intensity we want.

And then there are times when you simply should not modify a word’s intensity at all. I read an essay recently that described something as being “very imperative.” This will not do.

Imperative means “absolutely necessary or required; unavoidable.” Just as there are no shades of pregnancy (you either are pregnant, or you are not), there are no degrees of intensity with the word imperative. There is no volume knob, because being imperative is a binary state. Something either is imperative, or it isn’t, and so the intensifier very doesn’t add any information.

Remember that some words have no gradation, no variation of intensity, and therefore it is useless to graft a modifier to them. Things are everlasting, unique, monochromatic, or symmetrical, or they are not. These words don’t work with intensifiers, just like a coffee maker doesn’t come with a speed control—it’s either on or it’s off.

Think of it this way: if it wouldn’t make sense to modify a word with a diminishing adverb like slightly, then it doesn’t make sense to add an intensifier like very. It doesn’t make sense to say something is slightly imperative, therefore it’s equally nonsensical to say it’s very imperative.

Posted in Grammar, Usage, Word Choice | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Why worry about good writing? Because appearances matter!

We love the truism “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” We all want the world to appreciate our “inner value” without taking external appearances into consideration.

But human nature does not work that way. As Stacy London and Clinton Kelly (of the show What Not To Wear) adamantly insist, appearances matter. In the case of your wardrobe, it matters for two reasons: people make judgements about you based on your appearance, and your appearance has a huge impact on how you judge yourself.

And what is true about your wardrobe is also true about your writing: readers will make judgements about you and your ideas based on the quality of your writing. (I’m convinced that this behavior is hard-wired into human nature: we naturally notice patterns and make judgements based on those patterns. Our ancestors’ survival depended on their ability to notice and recognize patterns: that kind of cloud means rain, those kind of plants will make you sick, these kinds of berries are good to eat and we can find them there.)

James Chartrand of Men with Pens drives this home in a guest post over at Jonathan Fields’ blog:

Online, there aren’t any face-to-face interviews. It’s all websites and blogs and newsletters and emails. Sure, you have some Skype calls and videos thrown into the mix, but for the most part, people learn more about you and your business through written communication.

And how you present yourself in words means everything to your success.

You may have brilliant ideas, but you have to help people see that. “A good idea presented badly can look like no idea, or a bad idea,” says Patrick Winston. “So you owe it to your ideas to present them well.”

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A little more on ethos-building: rhetorical devices that can make your writing more credible

When I wrote about strengthening your credibility I neglected to mention a couple of rhetorical devices that can help boost your ethos.

“But what’s a rhetorical device?”

No, a rhetorical device is not a speech-writing machine. First, rhetoric is the art of using language effectively and persuasively. Rhetorical devices are techniques for using language effectively and persuasively, and the Greek rhetoricians identified and named hundreds of them.

(We probably didn’t know it at the time, but we learned a few rhetorical devices back in grade school when we first learned that comparing one thing to another (“His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad”) is called a simile. Metaphor—referring to one thing as being something else (“This project is a train wreck”)—is another well-known rhetorical device.)

One of the rhetorical devices that helps boost your credibility is called anamnesis, and it is what you do when you quote someone who your audience knows and respects. This helps give your readers or listeners the impression that you know what you’re talking about, that you have read and studied the authorities on the topic, which builds your credibility.

Another way of increasing your ethos is litotes, which is deliberate understatement, often to the point of saying the opposite of what you really mean. The oldest surviving Latin text on rhetoric, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, suggests that using litotes or understatement to express modesty can help you gain credibility. For example, Will Rogers, one of the most popular humorists of the 20s and 30s, would open his monologues with the line “All I know is what I read in the papers,” downplaying his intelligence and experience. He would then proceed to deliver witty and insightful commentary on the events of the day.

I wouldn’t worry about remembering the Greek names for these devices (unless you like tossing words like litotes and anamnesis around in casual conversation). Just keep in mind that quoting recognized authorities and using understatement to express modesty can help bolster your credibility.

Posted in Growing as a writer, Rhetorical devices, Writer's toolbox | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In the mailbox

I’ve received a new writing journal called 365 Things to Write About, by Allegra Newman and Peter Trauth. I plan to review it after playing with it for a while.


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“Be vewwy quiet! I’m hunting intensifiers!”

A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies another word or phrase by adding descriptive, limiting, or qualifying details. Adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and everything else. Intensifiers are a special class of modifier that work like volume-control knobs for other modifiers.

For example, a sunset isn’t just beautiful, it’s very beautiful. The barista isn’t merely rude, she’s extremely rude. Politicians are really oily, and puppies are so cute.

We all do this, especially in conversation. Instead of saying that someone is kind, and that we are touched, we turn it up to eleven and say they’re awfully kind, and that we are deeply touched. (Preferably with an upper-class British accent.)

We frequently tack intensifiers on to words that don’t need them. It’s fine to describe someone as very angry, but there’s no need to add intensity to words like livid, furious, or enraged. Watch out for these, and cut them out when you find them.

The other problem is that we apply intensifiers to words that are worn out through over use. For example, great has been used so much to describe things that are really good (“How was your date with Baxter?” “It was great!” “Was the movie good?” “It was great?” “And that new restaurant?” “That was great too!”), that we feel like we can’t just call things great anymore; we need to turn up the intensity by calling them really great.

This habit is a symptom of laziness or a poverty of vocabulary—we don’t want to do the work of giving an apt description of something, or we can’t think other words we could use, so we fall back on great, coupled with a few stock intensifiers like very, really, and extremely.

But when we do, the intensifiers we use become just as tired as our modifiers. We call on them so frequently that they never get any rest, and they have no energy left to add intensity to our tired words. As Arthur Plotnik says in Spunk and Bite: A writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style*, “Exhausted adverbs cannot intensify weary adjectives.”

Replace those tired intensifier/modifier combinations with fresher, more fitting modifiers. Pull out a thesaurus and figure out if that sunset is stunning, beauteous, resplendent, delightful, awe-inspiring, or ineffable. Is the barista just rude, or is she surly, boorish, churlish, impertinent, brusque, or cantankerous?

If you’ve used the right word in the first place, you don’t always need to turn it up to eleven. If you do decide to add intensity, pick an adverb that is fit for the task. Try to spice things up with a bit of creativity. Then, that really cute puppy becomes “radioactively cute,” and the surly barista is “corrosively surly.”

Better still, toss out the standard intensifiers and modifiers and mix in some similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices. In that case, the puppy is “1.21 gigawatts of cute poured into a five-pound sack of fur, floppy ears, and over-sized feet.”

*Besides having a brilliant title, this book is a cracking resource if you want to spice up your writing. I wish I had been smart enough, and good enough, to write it before Art did. Buy it, read it, and then read it again.

Posted in Growing as a writer, Style, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Strengthening the pillars—Ethos, or “a reason to believe”

A while back, I introduced you to (or reminded you about) the pillars of effective communication: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos.

(Here’s a quick refresher: ethos is your credibility, logos is the evidence and logic you use, and pathos is the emotional appeals you use.)

So how do you strengthen your ethos, that is, your credibility as a source? You have no direct control over what your audience believes about you (the Wikipedia article on ethos puts it like this: “In a sense, ethos does not belong to the speaker [or writer] but to the audience.” But can you influence those beliefs?

Why yes. Yes you can.

You can do a few things that will give your audience reasons to believe that you are believable.

First off, you can demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about. If you show your audience that you are competent to discuss a topic—for example, by letting them know your credentials and experience, by writing (or speaking) with authority, and by giving them the opportunity to check your sources and verify your work—you will gain credibility in their eyes.

Another way to build credibility is to build a connection with your readers, showing that you are like them, that you understand them and their concerns. “As a fellow writer, I understand what it’s like to face a blank page with an equally blank mind” is a statement that says to the reader “I’m like you; I struggle with writer’s block just like you do.” Connections like that make the audience more inclined to view you as credible.

As you build your ethos, your credibility, keep in mind that it is fragile. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Ben Franklin wrote that “Glass, China, and Reputation, are easily crack’d, and never well mended.” Once you do something that undermines your audience’s trust, you will find it hard to gain it back again.

Don’t count on your readers (or listeners) to be like the narrator in Tim Hardin’s song “Reason to Believe:”

If I listened long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true

Do everything you can to give your audience reasons to believe.

Posted in Growing as a writer, Rhetorical devices | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Writing is a pipeline for ideas

“Ideas are not really alive if they are confined only to a person’s mind.”—Nancy Duarte

One of the most beautiful parts of writing (or of speaking) is what I call idea flow. That is, writing is a pipeline that allows ideas to flow from one mind to another. (Stephen King says that writing is actually mental telepathy.)

Granted, there are often problems with our attempts at creating idea pipelines.

Kinks or clogs in the pipeline can impede the flow (as can filters on the receiving end).

A pipeline that turns this way and that will slow down the idea stream to a trickle, leaving the receiver thirsty for more clarity than you’re providing.

If information comes too fast, the receiver will have a hard time processing it (hence the “drinking from a firehose” metaphor).

Think of yourself as an idea flow specialist. Always be looking for ways to transmit your ideas from your mind to your readers’ as smoothly and effectively as possible.

Posted in Audience, Growing as a writer, Quotations | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Stop manipulating me!

The older I get, the less I tolerate people using words to manipulate me. Hence this rant about a potato chip package.

In nice bold letters on the back of the package, it says “It all starts with farm-grown potatoes…”

Apparently, I’m supposed to be impressed by the fact that this company uses “farm-grown potatoes,” as opposed to… well, what other kind of potatoes would they use? Potatoes put together on a Detroit assembly line? Potatoes that they find under taxis in lower Manhattan? Potatoes cultivated in huge vats in an oil refinery?

The only kind of potatoes anybody uses to make any potato-based product are “farm-grown potatoes.” Adding that modifier–“farm-grown”–doesn’t add any information to the statement, but it is supposed to make the reader feel all warm and fuzzy, inspiring bucolic images of men in bib overalls wearing straw hats and standing by a red barn.

But are the potato fields farmed organically? What about the quality of the spuds harvested from those fields? I don’t know, and they don’t tell us. “Farm-grown” is not information. It is manipulation.

Do not manipulate your reader.

Posted in Word Choice | Tagged | 1 Comment


Here’s an exercise you can try this week: Make everything you write as simple as possible. Think Shaker furniture.

Don’t add words. Cut them. Pare your message to its core.

Don’t use big words. Use the simplest words you can.

And let us know what you learn.

Posted in Everyday writing, Growing as a writer, Style | Tagged | Leave a comment