Two Scams

rogersgeorge on September 3rd, 2016

One of my most important guidelines about expository writing is to be clear. It turns out that in some circumstances you can be clear and still confuse. The auto sales industry can do this at least two ways: Supply too much information, or not enough.

First, the not-enough-info option: It’s called sidewinding. A salesman gets his hands on a car not owned by the dealership, and sells it as if it were. The buyer is none the wiser unless they need to bring in the car for service later. And the dealership doesn’t get its commission. This happened to me a couple decades back. The dealer took care of the needed repair, and the salesman lost his job.

The other one happens in a lot of industries that involve sales, and you probably heard of it. The good old Bait and Switch. Something is offered for sale, and then the thing you want isn’t available but they have something else you can buy. The something else always works in the seller’s favor, and if it’s done right, the buyer is pretty happy. I ran into a blog post by Scott Adams (writer of Dilbert) about his experience with the bait and switch. Go read it. It’s too long for me to quote, but it’s worth reading. Here’s the link again. I think this version of the bait and switch routine is somehow related to the discovery that increasing one’s choices does not increase one’s happiness.

And since this is a writing blog, I had to find something in Scott’s post to point out. This is a subtle one:

So customers either accept the bait-and-switch or they don’t buy a truck, like me.

Scott saves himself here with that comma after “truck,” making it clear that the truck is not like him, but the refusal to buy was like what he did. (I almost wrote “like him,” which would have fallen into the same trap). The rule is to make the pronoun (me or I) agree with what you’re actually comparing. “Me” would be correct if it was “a truck like me,” but it has to be “I” if it’s “refused to purchase, like I refused.” “Like” is so close to the pronoun that we make the pronoun’s case go with “like” instead of with “don’t buy.”

Just be clear—don’t let your reader think you’re like a truck.

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How not to use “While”

rogersgeorge on May 7th, 2016

Here’s a common usage that is easy to improve on. Look at the first word in this sentence:

While detox diets differ in their details, no specific protocol is worth dissecting in detail because it will soon fall out of favor as another variant becomes the next fad.

While means “at the same time as.” Here it’s used as a substitute for Although, Whereas, Since, or Because. These are subordinating conjunctions and correctly make the first part of the sentence an introduction to the main idea, about dissecting protocols. Use that subordinating conjunction when you don’t want to convey simultaneity. Don’t use “while” when “since” will do.

I feel compelled to point out something the writer did that’s correct. In the middle of the sentence he used because, not as. Because is more straightforward. Use it. As appears correctly a little farther into the sentence, meaning “at the time of.”

Two out of three ain’t bad!

As you like

rogersgeorge on March 9th, 2012

(My apologies to Shakespeare for the title of this post; at least it’s grammatical.) I had planned another serious lesson for today, but this comic popped up. It mentions a grammatical issue I’ve been wanting to mention for a long time, correct use of “like” and “as.”

It’s not hard, really. We use both words for comparisons. Remember that “like” is a preposition, so it goes with nouns and pronouns. The trick is that with “as,” which is an adverb, we often leave out the verb, and all you see is a nearby noun. Perhaps you remember the book Black Like Me. The grammar of the title is correct. If you wanted “as” in that phrase, you’d have to say “Black as I.” Where’s the verb? It’s implied. You’re really saying “Black as I am.”

So maybe this is part of  The Hard Part of Writing—you have to think about what you’re writing. Are you comparing a noun or a verb? Test by seeing if you can insert a verb into your sentence.

All that to get to the comic:

Seth might be a hunk, but he knows his grammar

Regular readers of this site might recall that I am a fan of  Brooke McEldowney, who writes and draws two erudite comics. The one above is 9 Chickweed Lane, and the other is Pibgorn. I recommend them both.