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Tips on appearing literate

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“Bob, you always sound so literate. What’s your secret?”

I’m sure someone named Bob received a compliment like this. I haven’t, but I’m not dead yet so it could still happen. In the meantime, here are a few of my … well, if they aren’t my secrets for sounding literate, exactly, they’re techniques I rely on.

Think geometrically: No, no, no, no, no. When deciding whether a rectangle, triangle, or rhombus is best for enclosing text on a PowerPoint slide, choose what you like. I’m suggesting you organize whatever document you’re creating like a geometric proof.

As you might recall from your high school days, depending on which high school you attended and what shape your memory is in, geometric proofs begin with stated assumptions (axioms) and proceed with inferences drawn from the axioms and from previously stated inferences, until the geometrician has reached the desired conclusion.

When you write to make a point, you should also take care to make sure each point you make flows clearly and logically from the previous points you’ve made, stating and explaining each transition without asking your reader to figure out the connections.

Put yourself last: We’re talking about lists, not cafeteria lines. If you and several colleagues worked on something, for example, you don’t say, “I, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf destroyed the ring of power.” You say, “Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, and I.”

It’s better writing, and better manners.

Choose the best word. A friend used to talk about the pointlessness of worrying whether to say “happy” or “glad.”

Guilty as charged. Here’s why: “Happy” has childlike overtones. “Glad” doesn’t, but still isn’t as adult as “pleased.”

Except that “worry” is the wrong word too (see?). I evaluate the two words to choose the one that fits the situation best.

Second example, for something more negative. Do you think it’s awful? Disastrous? Poorly done? Putrid?

Will the result be disappointing? A calamity? Horrible?

English provides a wide range of overlapping but distinct alternatives for most situations. Take advantage of it.

But don’t show off. There are underused words you can and should take advantage of. On the positive side of things, I put “phenomenal” in this category. On the negative side there’s “wretched” — a word I’m quite fond of, but that rarely belongs in business writing.

Speaking of choosing the best word …

Avoid “thing.” Whatever “thing” you’re talking about, in the English language you can almost certainly find a word that nails down what you’re talking about more precisely than the most generic noun in the language. Well, one of the two most generic; “stuff” is just as generic, and almost always just as avoidable.

They also aren’t interchangeable — things are discrete and countable where stuff is continuous. And, stuff has a slight overtone of messiness, too.

Sludge is stuff. A vat of sludge is a thing.

And another thing …

Avoid “there are.” There are usually better ways to start making a point. For example, “You can usually find better ways to start making a point.”

Get “that” and “who” right. When you’re talking about a person it’s always “who,” as in, “Harry is the employee who best exemplifies what I’m talking about,” vs “Netflix is the company that best exemplifies it.”

Get “less” and “fewer” right. When you’re talking about stuff, use less. When you’re talking about things, use fewer, as in, “With the new quality program we’ll have fewer defects.” Now, now, don’t be skeptical. It’s just an example, to distinguish fewer from, “With the new program we’ll have less waste.”

Avoid duplication and redundancy. Not really. Sometimes, “Saying this is redundant and duplicative,” does help emphasize a point more than just one or the other. I’m talking about phrases like, “We have to plan for the future.”

Not that this is a bad period of time to plan for; certainly it makes more sense than planning for the past or present. But “We have to plan,” (or, “We have to develop a plan,”) sounds just an increment more literate and makes the same point.

Make paragraphs short. With more than five or six lines in a paragraph the human visual system has a hard time keeping its place in the text. Reading content with long paragraphs is fatiguing.

Short paragraphs are, in addition to being more courteous, also selfish. With short paragraphs, those reading your dulcet prose are more likely to read it instead of skimming.

Keep the whole thing short. As short as possible, that is, and no shorter. KJR, for example, adheres to a strict length limit and I work hard to keep it within

Comments (19)

  • Here, here! Or is it hear, hear! Well said, or said goodly? I don’t know anymore. I liked the article…how about that?

  • Quite clever you are!

  • Let me recommend “The Sense of Style” by Stephen Pinker. Anyone interested in being a better writer will benefit from a style guide. Pinker’s recommendations are practical and modern. Best of all, he explains the rationale of the recommendations — especially when he points out much of the grammar we have been taught was wrong.

  • Can we please go back to the fundamentals for just a moment and remember the subject-object difference between I and me? Please never again say “Frodo went to Mordor with Sam and I.” That’s just as wrong as “Frodo and me destroyed the ring.”

  • You forgot my favorite: So take the bull by the horns and avoid using too many metaphors.

  • You are correct with avoiding wretched in business writing. It’s normally used to describe a person, not a situation – and if a person or situation is wretched, either they have already been dismissed, the situation has already been fixed, or you need to worry about being dismissed if it gets to the wrong reader. And even if it has been taken care of, you may find out (the hard way) who was benefitting from it being that way – and those people usually have strong feelings.
    I happen to like Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”, but Bill Bryson’s “Dictionary of Troublesome Words” is well worth a look.

  • I’m also a fan of ‘wretched’ (albeit perhaps for different reasons – I associate it Regency romances).

    RE: using the right word, made me think of how ‘unique’ has devolved to be a synonym for ‘unusual’. As well as the ‘words’ that aren’t, such as ‘irregardless’. And when to use e.g., vs. i.e. [mnemonic for that: ‘example’ and ‘e.g.’ start with e; ‘in other words’ and ‘i.e.’ start with i]

    Also,the style masters recently approved the use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ in singular situations e.g. “If a person washes their hands, they are less likely to get sick.”

  • Oh, but why did you avoid the proper use of “number” and “amount” when discussing “fewer” and “less”? It seems almost everyone uses “amount” for both things and stuff these days.

  • Online app http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ allows a person to paste a piece of prose in and it provides an evaluation of readability, etc. The online version is free and there is a paid desktop application for download. Pretty good for a first cut.

  • How about eliminating “boots on the ground”. I heard a reporter say, “boots on the ground here.” Why not just “here”?

    That was from a BBC reporter, killing the King’s English. *sigh*

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you! It’s sad that our society has become so uncaring about the way we speak/write, to the point that we don’t even teach proper grammar anymore in our schools. To those of us of a decision-making age, though, it’s still important. As I remind people in my Toastmasters meetings, if you sound uneducated you lose your credibility.

  • Well written post on writing well. I’m sharing this with my students.

  • One of the better choices I made in college was minoring in English (specifically, Technical Writing). It was the early ’80s. For one thing, it got me out of sophomore literature. More important (not “more importantly”) it helped me communicate, a topic on which I need all the help I can get. An excellent book at that time was “Handbook of Technical Writing”, Brusaw, et. al. (now up to its tenth edition).

    Some of the styles and habits we learned to avoid were affectation, jargon, “gobbledygook”, and inflated language. You do well on all these. Thanks for another good post.

  • Good piece. I am usually so disappointed about the writing and speaking skills of those around me. You hit on some common errors that nobody takes the time to correct. Other problems include poor understanding of pronoun usage, e.g. “I and Bob drink” or “He gave the book to Bob and I.”
    My theory about the root cause of this one is that the Catholic nuns taught us never to use the word “me” no matter what.
    Reflexive pronouns are the worst. I was once told by a newspaper reporter that you should never use the word “myself” unless you have a Masters degree in English. He said he did not have one, so he never uses reflexive pronouns.
    I suggest that we all read a grammar book by Stephen Wilbers or take one of his classes

  • Thank you for your blog post.Really thank you! Awesome.

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