Sunday, April 19, 2015

How not to write badly (2)

2. Write sentences the right way round

I remember editing a book on Asian history in which the author insisted on writing sentences something like this:

As the Manchus had banned the queue, many men felt a loss of face

which I would of course correct, and he'd be very upset, mostly because I replaced "as" with "because". He insisted that one had learned at school that one should not begin a sentence with "because". Was he right?

Yes, he was. But not because "because" is on some list of words that you're forbidden to start sentences with but because you should not put the causal clause first.

Instead of:

Because I do not like foreign places, I staycation in Cornwall.

you ought to write:

I staycation in Cornwall because I do not like foreign places.

In the first sentence, the adverbial phrase has been fronted and generally you should avoid this, particularly in formal writing and even more so if your sentence is long.

Some are fond of fronting "while" clauses:

While they did not like the outcomes, the participants were enthusiastic about joining the programme.

 Which is better as:

The participants were enthusiast about joining the programme but did not like the outcomes.

I apologise for the examples I have given being rather marginal but I'm struggling to come up with anything better. You know what's bad when you see it though. Something like:

Because the individuals with diabetes have restricted diets, they cannot eat the chocolate biscuits.

is bad and:

The people with diabetes cannot eat the chocolate biscuits because they have restricted diets.

is better or:

While the implementation of the programme had its difficulties, it was considered successful

is simply:

The programme was a success although there were difficulties.

(Side issue: you should be very strict in avoiding impersonal passive constructions such as "it was considered". Write them out completely if you can or replace them with either something that explicitly states who did the considering or a more active version. "It is necessary to introduce new protocols on the distribution of memoranda" is better as "New protocols on distributing memoranda need to be introduced" or even better "New protocols on distributing memoranda are needed", since if there are new protocols, they will have been introduced. "It is thought that broader distribution is necessary to be fostered"? Who thinks it? If you absolutely cannot say, just write "Some think distribution needs to be broader". Note that in the past two example sentences, we got rid of extraneous concepts. In the latter, we don't need to say anything is being "fostered" because if distribution is broadened, someone is broadening it, and this is all "foster" means -- that someone is doing something. We'll say more about that when we discuss writing tight.)

The model for an English sentence is Subject Verb Object. Subordinate, adverbial or conjoined clauses should generally come at the end of the sentence. You can almost never be wrong if  you stick to this model (almost but not always: "I usually don't eat chocolate" is idiomatic; "I don't eat chocolate usually" is a bit awkward, and of course, there are times when adverb fronting is acceptable -- "Usually, I don't eat chocolate" -- but not so much in formal writing).

You can readily abide by this rule by simply doing the following. When you have written a sentence, take a look at it. Is the first word or group of words the person or thing that carried out the action of the sentence? No? Then you probably need to think again. There are of course many counterexamples but you should be able to justify them readily. (There's an example in this paragraph: clauses that indicate temporal succession can be fronted, so I write "When you have written a sentence" first -- I could write "Take a look at a sentence when you have written it" and that would be fine. See also "If... then..." "If you like it, you can take it" is fine and you can also write "You can take it if you like it".)

Words to avoid

however -- If you have a really long sentence, hooked together with a "however", you have likely committed the sin of writing a sentence that's too long and could just as well have been two sentences. Even on a smaller scale, something like "They had always wanted to go to Paris but they never found the time" is much to be preferred over "They had always wanted to go to Paris; however, they never found the time". "But" is much underused but it's a lovely, versatile word. Use it for most contrasted clauses and you'll be happy with the outcome.

individual -- Anyone who wants to write well must of course study Fowler. And this was a word he particularly deprecated. In his day, it was used largely as a facetious version of person but now it is a somewhat elegant variation for that word. Politically correct writers love it because it stresses the individuality of members of groups of people. But it is rarely correct to do this. A friend of mine loves to write about "individuals with autism" (it is the commonly used terminology). But they are simply "people with autism". Nothing about that phrase suggests they are not individuals. It does not, as some seem to think, imply that the people in question are identical or have the same issues, just the same as, for instance, "dogs" does not suggest every dog is a Labrador. You should only use "individual" when you specifically wish to distinguish an actual individual from a group and you will rarely enough wish to do that that you can simply exclude the word from your vocabulary. Oh, and forget using it as an adjective, lest you fall into such horrors as "an individual portion" (portions are by definition individual). You may use the adverb "individually" when you write something like "I spoke to them individually" (not as a group) but often you'd prefer some other construction anyway: "they worked on their own" is better than "they worked individually" for instance.

impact on -- It's easy to see how we drifted into this abomination. "Have an impact on" was already horrific but that was just not egregious enough for some. Or perhaps some, tired of being told that "impact" is not a verb, decided to create a new phrasal verb instead. Why even go there though? There's a perfectly decent English word that means what you want to say: "affect".

action -- Don't "action these proposals". Either "Do what I propose" or "Act on these proposals". Don't "Put these proposals into action" either. This is using nouns where you should use verbs. Remember that?

implement -- Nearly always when you write "implement", you meant to write "do" or "make", sometimes "create". I'll have more to say on using Anglo-Saxon words in preference to Romance words later. This is a good example of something many people don't seem to be able to avoid when writing formally: using what they take to be the more "erudite" word over the more commonly used one. They "attempt" instead of "try"; they "establish" instead of "make"; they "consider" instead of "think"; they use "implements" instead of "tools". To avoid "implement" you'll often have to recast your sentence but it'll be worth it.

How not to write badly (1)

Writing well is a skill that can only be acquired by working hard at it. You cannot overnight become a good writer. But you can quite easily avoid being a bad writer by following simple rules. I'm going to write a few posts in which I set out some of those rules. I won't be schematic: I'm just going to post whatever occurs to me as I go along. Mostly they can be summed up as: write short sentences, write simply, write tight, use common words, aim to replicate the flow of speech.

Of course, most rules are there to be broken and there are times and places for not doing what I suggest. But you need to know what the rules are to know when you can safely break them.

At the end of each post, I'll give a few words and phrases to avoid and give better choices.

1. Use verbs not nouns

Possibly the quickest way to improve writing is to understand that nouns are your enemy. Everyone knows you shouldn't use adjectives much but most people are unaware that it's nouns that clutter your sentences.

Look at the following:

They made a joint effort in the establishment of a team.

Yuk. In this sentence your meaning swims away from you in a morass of nouns. There are four. You needed to write: "They came together to build a team." Just two nouns (we are counting pronouns as nouns).

"Made a joint effort" feels more formal to the novice writer than "came together" (or simply "joined") but the aim of formal writing is not to feel formal. You don't seem cleverer when you are harder to understand. You convey your knowledge by leaving the reader in no doubt about what you're saying.

Verbs such as "do", "make", "grow", "build", "take" are your friends. They are short words that convey solid meaning. You don't need to "implement" things. You can just "do" them. You don't need to "formulate" things. You can "make" them. And so on. Notice that I substituted "build" for "establish" in this sentence. Where possible, this is what you should do. Use the commoner, simpler word.

Try this:

We began the implementation of a strategy to diversify our products.

Write instead:

We began diversifying our products.

Or this:

The lessons we abstracted from the process of the interviewing of the study participants facilitated our understanding of the differentials in their processing of social situations.

OMG: What we learned from interviewing study participants helped us understand how they saw social situations differently.

"The --- of" is your enemy. Eradicate it. At worst use the verbal noun instead. "The interviewing of" is just "interviewing".

Worse still:

They were engaged in the building of understandings of personal dynamics.

Which means:

They built an understanding of how people worked together.

I often sub real estate pieces and the journos love to say a house "is located in close proximity to a park". They mean to say "is right next to a park". Note another error in the journos' rendering, which you should avoid. "Is located", "is situated", these say no more than "is". People like these quasi-passive constructions but they are clumsy (and they break the rule to "write tight", which I'll refer to later). Similarly, "we found ourselves unable to" is an egregious rendering of "we couldn't". If you find yourself tempted by complex verb phrases, resist the temptation and stick to the simple verb.

Words to avoid

enhance -- it's probably a losing battle to fight against the encroachment of "enhance" on "increase", "improve", "better" but I still think it's worth fighting. "Enhance" means "improve or increase the quality of". You enhance flavour in food with salt. You enhance pain by rubbing salt in a wound. If you mean "increase", write "increase". If you mean "improve", write "improve".

"I enhanced my understanding of French by learning vocabulary"? Nope. You just "grew" it.

foster -- you can nearly always replace "foster" with "grow" or "encourage", sometimes spread. It's become a vogue word in quasi-academic writing but you look like an idiot if you use it.

on a regular basis -- if you find yourself writing the word "basis" with any kind of adjective, you've made a mistake. "On a regular basis" means "regularly". "On a daily basis" means "daily". The same goes for "fashion", which you should nearly always restrict to clothes, and "manner", which you probably could live without ever writing at all. For some reason people think using adverbial phrases is more elegant than using adverbs but they're wrong. You can nearly always use the corresponding word ending in "-ly". "In a different fashion" is "differently". "In a hopeful manner" is "hopefully". Yes, I do know that "he did it timely" feels awkward to you and you want to write "in a timely fashion". But don't. You'll get used to it.

as when you mean because -- "as" means "at the same time as" (and if you find yourself writing "at the same time as", you probably want "as"!). It's often used to mean "because" but avoid that usage if you can. It can create ambiguity that is easily avoided. "He handed them sweets as he liked them" says "he handed them sweets while liking them", when what you meant was that his liking them was the cause of handing them sweets. "He left as he was hungry" does not say hunger made him leave. It just says he was hungry as he was leaving. Learn to love "because" for causes. Also, while we're on the subject, learn to love "because of" too. "Due to" has a fairly restricted meaning. I won't get into it here because all you need to know is that if you just wrote "due to" you probably meant "because of". You might have meant "owing to" but I think that distinction has pretty much died and isn't worth fighting over.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

yeah whatever

then I realised you did not want a boy to play with
but a glowering Victorian
all morality and tight trousers
because I frown you think I'm forbidding and you like it

but I was thinking it would be fun
if we just weren't who we are all day long
because life is short and you don't get to be
anyone but you anyway

and I realise that was something of a mistake
if I wanted to keep you and you know
keeping someone is not necessarily
what I wanted but
then I realised keeping them seemed better than losing them
and that's why you end up with regrets

and yeah I would like you to know who I am
but just like anyone I've ever met
you want to know I'm who you know I am instead
and I have to want the same thing
if I want women in my bed

and I do

(crossposted from Your own planet)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

About possession

It's quite common these days for people to get confused over the apostrophe in possessive constructions. I've worked with style guides, written by professional editors, that insist that "girls school" is correct in English. The notion is that it is an attributive construction, similar to "dog bowl" or "fish fry", in which the type of thing is specified by another noun.

This is incorrect though and can easily be demonstrated. Do this if you're confused or don't know whether to use an apostrophe. Simply replace the word in question with "men" or "men's".

If you would write "men school", you are illiterate. You must write "men's school". So you must also write "girls' school".

The difference between the two is not immediately clear. This is because English nouns can refer to either a particular thing or group of things, or to a class of things. So "man" can mean "that man there" or it can mean "the thing in the world that is called a man". Contrast "a man thing", which is a thing to do with men, with "a man's thing", which is usually a thing belonging to a particular man (although one can of course say "a man's thing" with the first meaning also). And it's not that the generic thing must be in the singular. We can say "dogs bark" and we mean the class of things called dogs, not particular dogs. But generally in attributive constructions, one does use the singular: "dog bowl" not "dogs bowl", "life cycle" not "lives cycle", "drug paraphernalia" not "drugs paraphernalia", "kitchen hand" not "kitchens hand".

So I think you could motivate "girl school" or "boy school", although neither is good English. But "girls school" is simply incorrect. Don't write it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Even flow

I wish I could tell you how beautiful an open road late at night can be but sometimes you run dry and there are no words, just a feeling you cannot convey, although it lingers, wordless.

I wish I could tell you how lovely the hazy lights are, the gentle, welcoming glow leading you home.

I cannot tell you anything.


I get rejected a lot. It's a natural outcome of the desire to be beloved being greater than how loveable you are. Not that I'm not loveable but people love the image they create themselves, not the person, and all the person can do is fail.

I get bruised but before the bruises have even faded, I am ready to be bruised all over again. The bruisings never seem to me to be connected. I just let it flow, each in its place.

Sometimes I think I consist in nothing, just an empty space, at best a jumble of concepts and memories that amount to nothing. Sometimes I think I am filled with inspiration and love and have so much to offer, you are lucky I want to offer it to you.

Sometimes I don't think anything at all and get washed by the stream, delirious in the tumbling of my soul in the flow of whatever it is that's happening to me. Sometimes I don't try to make sense of anything and sometimes I break it down to a succession of points.


Sometimes I think I can soar. The trees are beautiful in the late-summer day. The sky is aching blue and the warmth is visible beyond the aircon. Sometimes, just for a few moments, I feel glad to be where I am.

I have dark hours. I sometimes glimpse an oblivion so deep and pure that it sets off an agony that leaves me gasping for air. But sometimes a burst of colour wipes it away and I think that this is how the bird feels as it takes wing, as the salmon feels as it leaves the water.

Sometimes there is no one to be but yourself.


I will always think the best of you. It takes a lot for that to change. I think it is the best thing about me. I don't know whether you agree. People mystify me. There must be reasons they want me to exist but they rarely tell me. They seem not to realise that we all need to be nailed in place sometimes.

I will never stop loving you now I have loved you. And even if I did, there it is, there are the moments, the kisses, the caresses, the urgings, the bleatings, the madness, there they are, little points of light in a universe so still it seems to us it has a flow from one to the next, a deep rolling, but never moves, never changes, has always been and always will be, and so love never dies, no matter what you do.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

50 Shades of YHBT

So I recently read 50 Shades of Grey. I had heard it was terrible but you want to find out for yourself just how terrible things are. And I was delighted to find that far from being terrible, 50SOG is a work of genius.

Wait what? I hear you say. Isn't it one of the worst-written piles of nonsense ever foisted on the reading public and aren't you supposed to be a good judge?

Indeed but here's the thing. If you are reading 50SOG as a serious attempt at literature that falls flat, you are doing it wrong. It is in fact a stunning parody. The writer has run a huge troll on the reading public and has coined it in doing so.

It takes the romantic novel trope of the ingenue who is swept off her feet by the hard man, unleashing the romantic side he has up to now been hiding because he's afraid of being taken for a ponce, and ramps it up to 11. The ingenue is ridiculously disingenuous: she is not just clueless about men to the extent that she doesn't worry about the dude's stalking her, raping her and assaulting her; she is clueless about everything. But it turns out this shy virgin has no gag reflex and is an expert knobgobbler.

Yes, people, she is a dream woman. She doesn't need to be shown how to be great at sex, she just is. She is totally passive. The dude tells her not to touch him and instead of laughing full in his face, she does what she's told. Upon being shown a list of kinks, she's slightly alarmed by butt plugs. Slightly alarmed! Lady, you had your first fuck on Sunday and now it's Thursday and you're wondering whether you would or wouldn't like a chunk of plastic up your arse (hint: you wouldn't; protip, begin with a finger and see if you like it).

Now where can I meet women like this, I want to know? Well, nowhere, and that's the point. And even if I could, I'd need to be a helicopter-flying, hard-charging bazillionaire to get in her lacey knicks.

What I do know is that EL James is very aware that romance novels are inherently patriarchal. They sell women a myth that they should be what men want and what men want is passive women with no discernible qualities except a willingness to suck us off on demand. Or so I'm told. Contrast with the romcom, which takes the approach that the hard man will really like you if you're a complete bitch, so long as you're pretty. Oh wait, that isn't a contrast at all and it's no surprise that romcoms are so often written by men.

James does leave clues. My favourite was the sentence that went something like this: "Oh Mr Grey, you are naughty fellow!" she said with an exclamatory tone.

Yes, she thinks you're an idiot. She thinks you could not figure out that Ana had an exclamatory tone from the, erm, exclamation mark she deployed but needed it further explained. But get in on the joke. Obviously, James does not think you are an idiot. She is parodying the by-the-numbers awful writing that is foisted on you in romance novels.

Perhaps the best part of this work of staggering genius is the dark secret. The romantic novel hard man has to have a secret, obviously, because underneath the abusive rapist is the lovely bloke all women believe is hidden by the exterior arsehole. Come on, you do. Why else did you spend so many years of your life trying to change men who shit on you (literally if they could get away with it)? See, men aren't fooled by other men. If a dude seems to be a wanker, he's a wanker. He doesn't have hidden depths. He really is the bastard he seems to be. We don't do complexity. We wear ourselves like coats.

So anyway we're not totally sure what the details of Grey's secret are yet (I'm guessing you have to read all three books to find out) but we know it involves cigarette burns and a crack whore mother. But of course. He would be lovely if he hadn't been abused. Again, this is a myth men like to propagate. We'd be completely well adjusted and lovely if it wasn't for our mothers and other assorted women who have treated us like shit. Well, sometimes women treat us like shit, but we're arseholes because we're arseholes and we're fooling no one.

Except for those poor souls trolled by 50SOG.

Friday, March 06, 2015

About Looney

A lifetime ago, I used to troll on Usenet. If you don't know what that is, it was a cesspit where fools would daily parade their folly and nasty shits like me would get their kicks by pointing it out to them. Great fun would be had by all.

One particular fool used the screenname Looney. He was a typical American evangelical Christian: rightwing, dumb and opinionated without anything to back his opinions up. So we had a nice joust from time to time.

But a curious thing happened to Looney. He woke the fuck up. Now, most of us never wake the fuck up. we plough the same sterile furrows year after year, learn nothing, grow not at all. But Looney rethought everything he knew. I can't recall what began him on that journey but watching the journey has been incredible. It's like he ripped the blinkers off.

So we became what passes for friends on the internet.

A few years ago, on a brief trip to the States, I met up with Looney in LA. We travelled together up to San Francisco and to his home in King City. I had been a little nervous about turning virtual friends into real people -- me being me, I thought they would not like me in person. But I needn't have been. We got on like the proverbial house on fire.

I realised that in him I had found something rare: a truly good man. Not just because he had adjusted his politics to something more palatable, nor because he had unshackled himself from religion. But because he exemplifies thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity, both materially and spiritually.

Sometimes I get mired in self-pity or self-scourging to the point of drowning in it but one thing has often brought me out of that and back to safer waters: that a deeply decent and genuine man like Looney will have me as a friend. Is it too much to say I sometimes feel his arm around my shoulder? I don't think it is.

When my faith in humankind is running low, when I feel like I am smothered in assholes, when I feel like the shit is neck high, I remind myself, there are good people, I know it for sure. I will never drown while he is my friend. Thanks Looney for giving me that feeling.