Posts Tagged ‘language’

the man himself.Have you ever read a periodic sentence?

Of all the ways to arrange words, of all the methods of building a sentence, of all the ways craft prose, a periodic sentence may be the most elegant.

There. Now you have.

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which the main clause — the payoff, if you will — is delayed or suspended by a series of parallel clauses or other constructions that come before it. It’s a sentence that takes its time to unfold, often doing so in a pretty dramatic way at the end. Cicero, the Roman orator of the first century BC, is widely considered to be the most accomplished practician of this rhetorical device. I love the way these sentence pull readers along, teasing them with small pieces of the puzzle, getting them more and more engaged, until the meaning becomes clear at the end.

Of course, you could also be far more blunt and simply say:

A periodic sentence is elegant.

And why, you ask, should this matter to you? I’m sure many of my students had the same question when we discussed it in class yesterday. Well, it’s not because I think everyone should be familiar with Cicero and his periodic sentences. But rhythm is a profound element of such sentences, and I think we should all be aware of the rhythm of what we write.

Note that I said aware of the rhythm. Not rhythmic. In the same way, we should be aware of the tone of what we write. The vocabulary we use. The economy of our speech. And more.

The key word here is aware. Too often, we write in the same way we think — unwilling or unable to exert much control. And, if we are diligent, we’ll go back through and revise it some just to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes or that what we are trying to say is clear. That’s fine. But if you really want to be a better writer, there’s more you can do, and it starts with owning up to a particular responsibility.

Good writers understand that their primary purpose is often more than simply creating words. Their purpose is to create a feeling. They understand that it’s not simply the denotative value of their words that matters. The connotative value of what we write matters, too — sometimes even more than the words themselves. And these same writers understand that the creation of a particular connotative value is something to be carefully and consciously constructed.

Sometimes, your purpose may be best suited by short direct sentences. Sometimes it might be better to build complex, rhythmic sentences. Most of the time, you’re better off using a combination of these and other kinds of sentences. The same is true, as mentioned above, for vocabulary, tone, directness — you name it. Good writers begin with a desired end in mind, and control the many variables at their disposal with that end in mind.

That, as I tried to convince my students, is a pretty awesome responsibility, and being able to shoulder such a responsibility is what will set your work apart from the work of others who are less attentive.

Seriously. It will.


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Jason Dorsey, the Gen Y guy, thinks I have a problem. Okay, maybe not me personally. But still…

Dorsey delivered the keynote address for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) conference I attended as a presenter last week. Widely known and recognized for his insight into his generation, he’s a dynamic young man, and quite a speaker (though you’ll need a pretty high tolerance for his stand-up comedian schtick).

For the better part of 90 minutes, Jason poked some gentle fun at many of the differences between his generation and others, often by asking those of us in the audience to acknowledge our … ahem … anachronisms. There was a lot of hand raising and even more nervous tittering as people confessed to their outdated habits. Things like having a land line in your home. Offering up physical landmarks when trying to direct someone. And — here’s where it got personal — using apostrophes in your text messages. I raised my hand at that one, along with scores of others.

“Awwww,” Dorsey gushed, “that’s so cute.”

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. I’m not real big on being patronized. So the whole tone of his message already had me a bit on edge. Maybe I’m just not sure of my obligation to accommodate the tastes and habits of a younger and less-experienced generation in the workplace. Maybe some small part of me is fearful that the pace of change in more than I’m able to keep up with. Or maybe my reaction was just a part of my natural transformation into a grumpy old man.

But as someone who has made a living for more than two decades by using language deliberately and carefully, the notion that doing so should be looked upon as a quaint and outmoded practice just doesn’t strike me as sound thinking. To be fair, Dorsey wasn’t suggesting that punctuation doesn’t matter. He himself has authored a few books, and while I haven’t read them, I feel pretty confident that they are, in fact, punctuated. And he may well be right that apostrophes aren’t exactly necessary in text messages. After all, meaning can be translated without punctuation fairly easily, right? Let me put it this way:

i cld totally disregard grammar & usage in my posts, and youd still gt the message i wanted 2 get 2 you. wouldnt u? any writer can string words & symbols 2gether to convey meaning in tht way.

Here’s the deal, as least to my way of thinking. Language — and the way we use it — does more than simply convey meaning. It connotes something about the writer, as well. If I wrote all my posts as I did in the above example, you might reasonably draw some conclusions about the kind of person I am, for when we write,  readers make judgments about us and our message based on more than just our words. Their judgments are equally informed by the way we use our words. I understand that, for some, the use of capitalization and punctuation in text messages is a sure sign of a dinosaur at work. But at least it’s a careful, literate dinosaur.

Old habits die hard, and as a writer, it’s been my long-standing habit to choose my words and the way I structure them with both their denotative and connotative values in mind.  So if I’m reluctant to set aside the conventions of standard usage — even in a text message — does that make me old-fashioned? If I take that extra half-second to insert an apostrophe or capitalize a proper noun in my messages, does that make me cute — like some doddering old grandpa who has trouble figuring out how to save a contact on his cell phone?

Does all this mean I have an apostrophe problem?

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Okay, class — raise your hand if you noticed the unnecessary commas in the headline. Good for you. If you did notice, maybe it’s because you know all about the difference between that and which and how one signals a restrictive clause and the other a non-restrictive clause and how those two things need to be punctuated differently. Or maybe you didn’t know all that. Maybe you just know that it doesn’t look right.

We had just finished up this discussion like this in the advanced media writing class I’m teaching at Virginia Tech when a young woman (apparently with an unusually high tolerance for grammar and usage issues) asked me to explain the difference between who and whom.

“Well,” I began, “you have to understand the difference between subject and object.”

No sooner had I started than I sensed — more than heard — a collective groan. A quick glance around the room confirmed that, unlike the eager questioner, most of my students had already had their fill of language mechanics. Who, whommore like whatever, they seemed to be thinking.

“Can any of you explain this? When do you use who and when do you use whom?”

Not one hand went up. Not one word was spoken. In fact, the silence was so deep that I could make out the conversation of a couple of students walking down the hall outside the classroom. Apparently, someone named Troy was, like,  totally supposed to BE somewhere and he had, you know, like blown it off completely. Dude.

In that silent classroom, it became apparent to me that these students saw the task of writing in a very different way than I do. For them, it was all about prescriptive rules and how well you knew them, and those rules sometimes backed you into a corner, limiting your options. It’s either who or whom, and you have to make a choice, and if you don’t know which one it is, you’re, like, well … totally screwed.

I lowered my voice, so they would listen more closely.

“Can I let you in on a little secret? Something that professional writers do all the time?”

Maybe they didn’t actually lean forward, but it seemed like it.

“If you find yourself in a predicament like this, and you don’t quite know what’s the right way … write around it. Build another sentence that says the same thing in another way, a way that doesn’t put you at risk of making an embarrassing mistake.”

From the back of the room, a few students tittered nervously. Others exchanged glances, trying to gauge which way the please-the-teacher wind was blowing.

“I’m not kidding,” I told them, but I’m not sure they believed me. “You’re writers,” I told them, “or at least you want to be. Learn to use language and mechanics to suit your needs. It’s what writers do.”

It was nearly 5:15, and we wrapped up class by reviewing the AP Stylebook rules for who and whom: Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase …

I hope that some of them learned a lesson that day, but I can’t say for sure. They just zipped up their backpacks, shrugged into their Hokies sweatshirts, and skittered out of the door. It was late, and I’m sure they had to, like, totally be somewhere.

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The Da Vinci CodeYou might have gathered from my previous post that I’m not the world’s biggest Dan Brown fan. Heck, maybe you even agree with me that Brown is not exactly the world’s finest prose stylist. That’s not what he intends to be, you may argue. He just writes thrillers.  What’s so bad about that?

Well, in some ways, nothing. I’m not looking scornfully over the top of my reading glasses with a copy of Crime and Punishment in my hand, tut-tutting.  Thrillers — fiction driven purely by plot — are good. I like thrillers. But I also like good writing. It’s possible to find both in the same book, but it’s doubtful that that book will be by Dan Brown.

I shudder to think that for millions of people — at least 40 million, it seems — this may be what they define as “a really good book.” They are missing out on so much — on the ability of literature to move us; to make us ponder deep underlying themes in our lives and in the world around us; to help us live better and love better. Good writers can do that, and they do it not just by choosing more significant themes. They do it by crafting language that soars and resonates. Language that shows, rather than tells. Language that evokes complex, and often conflicting, emotions.

If you think you might not recognize the kind of difference I’m talking about, compare these opening sentences:

This from The Da Vinci Code:

“Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.”

This is Dan Brown’s invitation to a few hundred more pages of such tortured prose, bogged down with awkwardly worded sentences, nonsensical constructions, and ham-handed modifiers. Renowned curator? If that was such an important detail, why not take the time to establish the fact, rather than just tell us it is so? And why, at the end of that second sentence, does he feel like he has to tell us the man’s name again? Does he think maybe we’ve forgotten?

And now this, from Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides:

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”

In these simple words, Conroy introduces us to a compelling character. We know he is wounded, we know his is telling us his tale, but we don’t know anything more about him. Yet the sentence is so enigmatic — so loaded — that we want to know more. It’s a voice we hear, not a description we read. We’re driven to find out who this person is, whose voice this is.

Maybe in the end, that’s the critical difference between Brown and writers I admire. I want fiction that makes me ask, “Who is this person?” Not just “…and then what happened?’

How about you? What do you want out of your fiction?

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I can't wait to not read this.

I can't wait to not read this.

Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, hit the newsstands last week. Okay, maybe “hit” is not the right word. The new release actually rolled over the newsstands. Sources say the thriller sold well over a million copies in the United States, Canada, and Britain on the first day it was released. It dominated sales at Amazon — both in the hardcover version and the digital version for the Kindle. The Lost Symbol, of course, follows Brown’s other opus, The Da Vinci Code, which according to the author’s web site, has sold more than 40 million copies.

Think about that for a minute. 40 million copies. That’s a heap of books, and this is one successful author.

So what’s the mystery?

Dan Brown is a terrible writer. And I don’t mean “Gee, I just don’t care much for that style” kind of terrible. I mean the guy is really, really bad.

My wife and I read The Da Vinci Code , mainly just to see what all the fuss was about. The book stunned us into silence. For a couple of days, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about it. You know that feeling you get when you’re in a gallery somewhere and you’re standing in front of a piece of art — usually modern or postmodern — that you just don’t understand? Most of us tend to stifle that small questioning voice because, hey — it’s in an art gallery. It must be good, even if I don’t get it.

Reading The Da Vinci Code was like that for me — except the gallery had 40 million people in it and the painting had been done with a bucket of tempera and one of those chunky brushes your preschooler uses. Even setting aside the glaring historical hogwash or the clumsy attempts to use dialogue to fill in the backstory, the language itself is clunky and often mangled in a way that defies description.

I mean, get a load of this, taken from Chapter Four of The Da Vinci Code:

He could taste the familiar tang of museum air – an arid, deionized essence that carried a faint hint of carbon – the product of industrial, coal-filter dehumidifiers that ran around the clock to counteract the corrosive carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors.


Still, though, my wife and I did the socially acceptable thing and held our tongues when people asked us if we had read it, or recommended it to us as a “really good book.”

So imagine how relieved I was to discover we are not alone. This article in the Telegraph pulls back the curtain to reveal just what a bad writer Dan Brown is, and offers 20 good examples.

More to come …

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Okay, so I just realized it has been more than two weeks since I last posted here. That’s twenty days without a single thought passing through my head. Right? Well, not quite. In fact, I’ve had a whole bunch of thoughts going through my mind. Thoughts about work, about language, about parenting, about <gasp> politics. But none have made it here. Why?

That’s a little complicated to explain, but I think the answer says a bit about me, and a bit more about the medium.

About me — every day, just as I settle down to the keyboard to post something here, a pesky little editor lurks just over my shoulder, a mean spirited imp who has an opinion about everything from subject matter to semi-colons, from metaphors to metonymy. And he’s not the least bit shy about sharing his opinions, especially when he’s really got his game on. Lately, he’s been playing like an MVP. He doesn’t even wait for words to form before he starts whispering in my ear.

“Why would anyone care about that?”

“Don’t you have anything worthwhile to say?”

“Shut up already and go mow the lawn, doofus.”

As I mentioned he’s a pretty mean-spirited guy.

I know everyone has one of these companions. Some of them are worse than others. For the most part, mine’s been largely vanquished. Writing professionally for a couple of decades will do that. But here on this blog, he’s found new ground. And that leads me to a bit about the medium.

If you give me an assignment — something you need written — I’m on it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a clear or complicated, long or short, studious or silly. It doesn’t even matter that much if YOU understand what you want to say. I’ll write it because you need it. That’s what I do.

But a lot of new media doesn’t fit that bill for me. Take this blog, for example. No one tells me what subjects to focus on, what each post should say, what absolutely positively needs to be said. It’s a soapbox, really. The same holds true for my Twitter account. It’s there, waiting for me to feed it. There’s no assignment, no task to complete. Just the soapbox, waiting for me to step up and have my say. But just because I can have a say, should I?

Consider something as simple as a Facebook update. Do you think twice before you fill in that box? Do you wonder if it’s pertinent enough or witty enough or important enough? Sometimes the answer to that question is simple and you post away. But when it’s not, do you point your browser elsewhere?

Clearly there are those who deserve a say, and there’s ample evidence of these new methods of having it are working and working well. If you are a public figure, or the least bit concerned about public perceptions, the climate of the blogosphere is critical. And I’m sure most of you already know that the story of the plane in the Hudson was broken by a Twitter feed. What’s more, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the ability to capitalize on new media played a key role in electing our president.

But when it’s all said and done, I think striking this balance between what we can say and what we need to say remains an unresolved issue for many of us, even though my annoying pal says “What a load of hooey.”

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I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours I’ve spent in the last few weeks trying to help people tell their own story, and tell it in a way that will be compelling to others. I’m amazed sometimes at how hard this can be, even for people who have great stories to tell.

I’m not speaking, of course, about the kinds of stories that we tell one another as friends about how our weekend went, or what happened on our trip to the beach, or the funny thing that our son/daughter/neighbor/boss said. Most folks seem to manage those tales pretty well, though I’d wager we all know some who can’t. I can’t help them, and — thankfully — it’s not my job.

No, I’m talking about organizations that have to try to communicate what they are all about to a public that may or may not care. This is a far different  task, and generally speaking, there’s much more at stake. So why, then, do so many organizations have such a hard time with it?

My hunch is that it’s because they just can’t see themselves from the outside in. Many of the folks I’ve been working with lately are at the pointy end of the pyramid for pretty large organizations. One would think that such a vantage point would offer them a pretty good view of what’s around them, but my experience tells me that the opposite is normally true. These folks normally look straight down, and as a result, they are often consumed with the nuts and bolts of their organizations. They think much about how things work (or don’t work) and little about how their goods and services are actually experienced by those who use them. So, when asked to tell their stories, they can talk all day about the features of their organizations — we have this, we have that, we have a good program in this, we have this many options available in that.

But in the long run, customers are more readily persuaded by benefits, not features. What’s the difference?

Well, think of it this way –suppose I’m trying to sell you a load of firewood. I could tell you that it’s seasoned. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that it lights easily and burns clean. That’s a benefit. I could tell you that I’ll deliver and stack it. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that you won’t have to waste time, money, and energy to get the wood where you need it. Just step out your back door, and there it is. That’s a benefit. See the difference?

Many many moons ago, a mentor clued me in to a pretty blunt instrument that helps a lot of folks make this translation. Simply name a feature, then tack the phrase “which means that” on to the end. When you complete that sentence, odds are pretty good you’ve isolated a benefit.

For a house painter: I use only premium quality paint (feature) which means that you can put off repainting for a much longer time (benefit).

For a web designer: I’m up to speed on the latest technology (feature) which means that your web site will look and work like those of the big boys (benefit).

For a … ahem … freelance writer: I have nearly twenty years of experience across all kinds of business sectors (feature) which means that you won’t have to worry whether or not I can tell your story (benefit).

If you want someone to truly understand the value of what you offer, be sure to take this extra step. Don’t think only about what you offer — think about what benefit that conveys to your clients and customers.

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