Headlines are NOT Expository Writing!

rogersgeorge on February 14th, 2018

The  point of a headline is to get someone to read what follows, so the more sensational, the better. I could take about any headline nowadays: newspaper, magazine article, or on-line item for an example. Expository writing has the goal of explaining as plainly and accurately as possible. So here’s an example of a headline appropriate for the day:

Mallard Fillmore - 02/11/2018

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to re-write a headline as a piece of good old plain exposition. Post some in the comments.

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Tourette Syndrome

rogersgeorge on July 27th, 2016

When people read good expository writing, they think about the content, not about the writing. (This doesn’t apply to poetry, by the way, where part of the attraction is admiration of the writing itself.) In a way, this is a disadvantage for technical writers and such, because by definition, then, you tend not to notice the good stuff. Several years ago someone got a Nobel prize in economics for describing this situation, in which the highest value things tend to be under-priced because the purchaser tends not to appreciate the difference in quality.

Tourette syndrome is a condition when a person with physical tics involuntarily inserts profanity into their conversation. That’s the point of this Carpe Diem comic—the fortune teller has Tourettes. I suppose the comic censors prevented the cartoonist from making her say anything more profane, though “serial killer” is bad enough.

Carpe Diem - 07/15/2016All that leads to a hobby horse of mine that I’ve mentioned only once before. You don’t need profanity to explain something. It calls attention to the writing, jolting the reader away from the content. If you’re a tech writer with Tourette syndrome, be sure to proofread your work really really carefully.


Slogan writing

rogersgeorge on February 16th, 2012

Most of the time The Writing Rag is about expository writing—writing to communicate information in a manner that causes the least amount of effort for your readers. One of my rules of thumb is that if your reader has trouble understanding, the problem is with the writing, not the reader. Business letters, instructions, technical writing, essays, and (in my opinion) good journalism fall into this type of writing.

Other useful kinds of writing exist, whose intent might be to amuse, inspire, motivate (cause action), persuade (cause belief), or cause any number of other effects in a reader. To accomplish these, someone might use poetry, short stories, novels, riddles, essays. You name the genre, the writer has a reason for exposing a reader to it. Obviously some writing formats fit into more than one purpose—blog posts, for example.

For completeness, I should remind you that sometimes the writer is the reader, and the purpose might be to clarify thinking, record events, or express feelings. For these purposes we have notes, journals, diaries.

One kind of writing has the goal of creating a mindset in the reader. This type of writing is the slogan. I am tempted to give a bunch of examples, but I’d rather let you suggest a few of your favorites in the comments.

A famous slogan: Do a good turn daily.

That one was suggested by Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting. I’m not going to tell you how to write an original slogan, but if you have a nicely codified way to write one, please share with all of us in the comments.

Instead, I must cop out. I found a website that creates a slogan for you. Type in something, click the button, and you get a slogan.  Here’s the link. Go play with it. http://thesurrealist.co.uk/slogan.cgi. They even give you a snippet of code so you can put a slogan you like on your website, with a link to their site, of course. Here’s my favorite, so far:

Because So Much Is Riding On Your Grammar.

Enter a word for your own slogan:

Generated by the Advertising Slogan Generator. Get more grammar slogans.

After trying a few, I figured out that they plug your word into a selection of existing slogans, some well-known, and sometimes with amusing results. How about

You’re in the Grammar Generation!

My apologies to that carbonated sugar water.

I suppose that’s one way to create a slogan: Take a popular meme and plug your own words into it. Some of my colleagues told me about the most interesting man in the world recently, mainly because I had never heard of him and I look like his brother. So I’ll offer his meme for a slogan base:

I don’t often write letters to the president, but when I do, I use good grammar.

My third invitation to comment: What can you come up with? Share.

Four-letter words

rogersgeorge on January 7th, 2012

Yes, this post is about bad language. Does profanity have a place in writing? Not in the kind of writing I advocate; just the same, profanity is an interesting subject.

Perhaps a small glossary is in order.

Profanity—terms that call to mind the purely earthly and secular.
Cursing—wishing someone ill.
Swearing—calling the deity to be a witness of the truth of a promise.
Minced oath—changing a bad word or phrase to avoid the stigma of using the actual expression.
Insult—accusing someone of possessing undesirable traits.

First, why do we call profanity “four-letter words”? Back in 1066 when the Norman French defeated the English, Anglo-Saxon got relegated to the barnyards, and pretty much lost all social standing. Perfectly ordinary (sometimes four-letter) words took on this low status, and we have inherited this social standing for many words of Anglo-Saxon origin. So we say “cow” when it’s on the hoof, and “beef” when it’s on the plate. You can supply your own examples for bodily functions, whose social status fell rather more sharply than terms for food.

On the plate

On the hoof

In our culture, direct public references to private bodily functions using words of Anglo-Saxon origin have almost no place in polite conversation, even though the words themselves have benign origins. You might be interested to learn, for example, that the word for sexual intercourse has one of the longest and most distinguished etymologies of any word in our language. Look it up in your copy of Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages. This tome is a fascinating read, by the way, but that’s a topic for another post.

Even when the topic of your writing covers these private functions (a medical document, for example) you should use Greek- and Latin-based technical terms.  That’s just how it is. Using profane four-letter words distracts your reader from the subject matter; and remember, your goal is to let your writing be transparent.

What about cursing? It carries the same social stigma as profanity. If you’re explaining something, you don’t need to curse. I have a problem wishing ill on anyone under any circumstances, but I can see how it might fit into some fiction and polemical writing.

And swearing? (Which of the Ten Suggestions Commandments is it?) “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Vain means “of little value; temporary.” God says He doesn’t want to be called to witness anything trivial. I think the admonition in the New Testament that “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay” is reasonable. Whether you believe in God or not, you don’t need to emphasize what you say by reference to deity. Just say what you mean; always tell the truth. Period.

What about saying “darn” or “sacré bleu” instead of “damn” or “by the devil”? The intent is the same as using the “official” bad word; just as undesirable, in my opinion. Be creative! Say what you mean with realistic or clever unconventional words. “I wish you better understood the value of silence.” “You really missed a good opportunity to not say anything, didn’t you?” “I wish your behavior weren’t so reprehensible.” “I certainly hope that doesn’t happen again.” “It wasn’t a year one would look back on with fondness, was it?”

Finally, insults. Insults are perhaps the most benign type of bad language because they lend themselves to creativity. Shakspeare used some wonderful insults in his plays. Remember the old westerns on afternoon TV in the 50s? “Why you mangy lily-livered polecat! I oughta slit yer gizzle.” Actual bad language was forbidden back then, so some of the language got pretty colorful. Nonetheless, insults are ad hominem arguments, fallacious. Stand above that sort of thing.

Enough! I need to go take a shower.

All these proscribed words are bad mainly for cultural reasons. This negative emotional effect has one benefit, however, in some kinds of speech therapy. Watch the movie The King’s Speech and you’ll see what I mean.

What if you want to express the emotion of disappointment, frustration, surprise, or disapproval? If you can’t do these without resorting to profanity, here’s a little help. I recently ran into a word for that purpose that seems to have absolutely no scatological or other culturally unpleasant connotation. I ran into it in a Google error message: Oh Snap!

Even though I digress occasionally, the kind of writing I expose you to in these humble pages is expository writing; writing that conveys information with as few distractions as possible. Profanity, cursing, swearing, and insults cannot help you express yourself plainly. Save those things for trashy novels and old westerns.

For vocabulary that I never use, this has been a long post. Eight  hundred eleven words.

In which I wax philosophical

rogersgeorge on November 6th, 2011

I often post about removing extra verbiage from your writing. No one has mentioned it, so I will: If you take everything out, you end up with plain, non-conversational, maybe boring prose.

That’s correct. I approve of writing that’s not awash with waves of superfluous locutions.

My goal is to teach you how to write prose that nobody pays attention to. You want them to think about the subject, not about you, not about the writing. Do not to distract your reader.

“But what fun is that?” you ask. “How will they identify with me as a fellow human?” “Don’t I want my reader to feel connected with me?”

You have a point. Under some circumstances you want your reader to think about you, to get a feeling of conversation, fellowship, company. Here is the philosophical question—When do you want these things? Unlike Plato, I’ll tell you straight out:

Plato in conversation

Think about your readership and the document you are writing. If it’s expository and all business, go for plain. If your writing is supposed to be entertaining, such as a blog, an editorial, a novel, a poem, a love letter, then those extra words that add atmosphere and flavor are appropriate. That’s why you occasionally see a conversational tone in this site. However, I make a conscious effort never to waste my words—I want to be a good example; you won’t find me breaking my own rules very often, and I always do it on purpose.

Be friendly when you need to be, but don’t go overboard.