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Staying out of hog water: tips for writers.

UNLESS MUDDIED UP, English can be a lovely and complex language, capable of expressing almost any nuance of thought or emotion. Perhaps becauseh it allows such precision of expression, it has overtaken French as the language of international discourse. Esperanto offers little competition.(1) Of course, one can make the cynical argument that English has surpassed all other languages in international commerce because of economic forces. In other words, English wins not because it is a rich language, but because it is the language of the rich. And detractors of English point to the lack of logic in its spelling,(2) pronunciation, and grammar(3).

Granted, English is a difficult language to master, but mercifully it does not assign a sex to every noun the way some languages do.(4) It also avoids the complexity of kanji, the Chinese and Japanese characters which are lovely to look at but devilishly hard to write or decipher.(5)

English has almost twice as many words as any other language, according to William Berlitz. This interesting fact is cited in a foremost literary magazine, Reader's Digest.(6) Now some way scoff at the idea of Reader's Digest as literary, but for sheer good editing, Reader's Digest is invariably a masterpiece. Stripped of excess verbiage, every word tells. No sentence is so complex that it must be reread, and thus the reader is impelled from the first word in an article t its last with no backtracking. Yet the stories impart drama and humor and interesting facts.

Perhaps students of composition -- and almost certainly students of law, medicine, and philosophy -- should be forced to read Reader's Digest on a daily basis.

Law has long been noted for its unnecessary complexity and wordiness. In fact, in 1596 an English chancellor became so exasperated with a wordy lawyer's 120-page document that he ordered that a hole be cut in the document, the lawyer's head be shoved through the hole, and the lawyer then be paraded around the court.(7)

A persistent rumor is that lawyers charge not by the hour, but by the number of times they use befuddling terms such as "whereof," "to wit," "party of the first part," and "hereinafter." But law is benefiting from a "plain English" movement that encourages -- or in some cases even demands -- that legal documents such as contracts be written in plain English instead of "legalese."(8) Only two weeks after becoming president, Jimmy Carter in his first "fireside chat" promised to "cut down on government regulations and make sure that those that are written are in plain English."(9) And the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure exhort attorneys to write appellate briefs using parties' names instead of the confusing nomenclature of "appellant" and "appellee."(10) The states are doing their part. The California Bar adopted a resolution in 1989 to "promote and foster" plain English; the Bar governors' first move was dropping "hereby" from the resolution.(11) In Maryland, a commission of lawyers has been working since 1970 to edit the Maryland statutes. It has proved a multi-million dollar project as commissioners chop through legal thickets such as one-sentence laws that run on for page after page.(12)

Arguably the legal minds most in need of Reader's Digest guidance are the writers of the United States income tax code. One government study showed that more than one-third of the callers who dialed the Internal Revenue Service's help line received wrong answer!(13) But that shouldn't be surprising, considering the text poor IRS employees were trying to interpret.(14) Even the IRS is starting to use "plain English" in some of its regulations.(15)

While erroneous tax returns can cost either the taxpayers or the government money, mistakes concerning medical matters can cost lives. People attending the first International Plain English Conference, held in July 1990 at Cambridge, England, heard about money lost because of complex tax forms. More important, they learned about serious injuries and deaths caused by medical warnings that were too complex for patients to understand.(16)

Philosophy has long had a reputation of being hard to understand. Sometimes philosophers appear to mistake obscurity for profundity. Is Hegel profound -- or just a poor writer? Arguably, some philosophers use lack of clarity in their writing as a smoke screen to hide muddled theories; clarity of writing would reveal their flawed thoughts, and thus they offer linguistic globbledygook instead of philosophical substance. Of course, not all philosophers who are poor writers are necessarily poor thinkers. The genius of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason shines through his prolix writing.(17) But it does seem a shame to say that a work has merit despite being miserably written.

Good writing, of course, always has to start with appropriate words, just as a tasty dish has to start with the right ingredients. "Plain English" is an excellent start. But good writing takes more. To a large degree, it's an art of avoiding pitfalls; greater writers not only create "beauty," but also they avoid producing blemishes.

Most writers have "pet peeves" -- things thhey count as blemishes. Some, for instance, shun "to be" verbs.(18) "Being" verbs can be direct. "A cow is a mammal" seems straightforward. However, "to be" verbs do lack vim and vigor. Sparkling, active writing avoids them.

French author George Perec apparently didn't like the letter "e." His 1969 novel, La Disparitim (The Disappearance), does not contain a single "e." It is remarkable feat because "e" is the most common letterr in the French (as well as in the English) language. Perec did illustrate a point: An author with enough willpower can avoid anything!

Here is my short list of things writers should avoid. (If your list of things to avoid includes first- and second-person terms, then please change "my list" to "the author's" list.) It may help your students make decisions when they're writing or reviewing their work.

1. Avoid redundancy.

* Don't use "whether or not."(19) The "or not" adds nothing but words.

* Phrases such as "not unjust," "not unreasonable," and "not unattractive" not only involve "double-negative" problems, but also are wordy. "Just," "unreasonable," and "attractive" are forthright terms. Use them unless you're convinced they can't convey your exact meaning. Not unusually, they're not unsuitable.

* Although some grammarians will defend it, the phrase "as follows" seems particularly redundant. "The list is: 1, 2, 3." That's straightforward. "The list is as follows: 1, 2, 3" is verbose. Of course the list is what follows. Would anyone think the list is what precedes?

* "That" is often overused. So is "which." Compare: "The book that is on the table is red." "The book on the table is red." "The book which is my favorite is red." "My favorite book is red."

In short, drop excess baggage for crisper, cleaner writing. The little words that add nothing to meaning should go.

2. Avoid anything that impels the reader backward.

* Forget "former" and "latter." They are designed to propel a reader backward, which, of course, is the wrong direction.

* If you have a list of items to cover, briefly remind your reader of what you're explaining every step along the way. Say you have a list of points to cover--1, 2, 3, 4, etc. By the time the reader gets, say, to the explanation of "point 4" covered seven pages later, the reader has forgotten what "point 4" is. The reader then has to go searching back in the text to find "point 4." But by now the reader has also forgotten on what page the list of points appears. Repeating your point right before you discuss it does not create redundancy; it avoids confusion and keeps the reader moving the right direction -- forward. (This also falls under the next category of "help the reader.")

3. Help the reader. This is a simple rule of courtesy.

* If you are writing about multiple characters, liberally use brief descriptions to help your reader. It takes little ink and can avoid much confusion. This rule holds good for the simplest stories or the most complex legal briefs. Consider these examples:

Renfro, the butler Mary James, the teacher John Doe, the lessee

* Using names instead of pronouns also helps readers when authors use multiple characters. Even when there is no grammatical problem with a wrong referent or an indefinite one, pronouns can be confusing. Pronouns can unnecessarily sap reader's energy, forcing them to focus on a constantly switching array of "he's" and "she's" and "them's." Even the most diligent readers can benefit from having their memories gently jogged. Forcing them to do rigorous memory gymnastics just to keep the chracters straight is counterproductive.

* Anticipate and answer your readers' questions. Say you're writing an article about soybeans and have discovered that they rank as the second leading cash crop in a particular area. Of course, you'll want to use that fact. But an obvious question a reader might have is, "What is the leading cash crop?" A writer does well to include that information. Of course, a writer cannot anticipate and answer all questions. Some readers might want to know what crops rank next in economic importance after soybeans. Perhaps it would be helpful, thus, to list the top five or so cash crops. Answering anticipated questions obviously is not an exact science; it's more a matter of empathy with one's readers.

In sum, your reader stands to enjoy your writing more if you keep the "reading field" clean of clutter, move the reader in the right direction, and help the reader with thoughtful reminders and answers to obvious questions.

A special rule for computer aficionados is: DOUBLE CHECK THE "SPELL-CHECKER." Remember that spell-checkers can only determine whether letters make words, not whether words make sense. Thus "doe snot" looks just as good to a spell-checker as "does not."(20) Writers at a well-known research firm learned the hard way not to trust a spell-checker when they discovered their already submitted proposal referred to "hog-water" boilers.(21) In short, to avoid ending up in hog water, don't trust a machine to do your profreading!

The programmer who creates a good "syntax-checker" will make a mint.

Fashioning words into sentences is a game -- a treasure hunt for the perfect words to impart the right meaning and rhthm. Remember, however, that it must always be an other-directed game. The successful writer causes the reader the least amount of struggle to get the point.

No writer should force readers to wallow in muddy writing.


(1.) In 1897, Ludwig Zamenhof, a Russian-born eye doctor living in Warsaw, invented the language of Esperanto, which means "hopeful," after witnessing the violence caused by lack of communication in Polish ghettos. Using the alias "Dr. Esperanto," he published his pamphlet about what he hoped would become a cammon language. Esperanto has only 16 straightforward rules and not a single exception.

Early in this century, Esperanto grew. Its enthusiasts translated the Bible and some other major works into Esperanto, and Tolstoy wrote for its magazines. But then Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco banned it. Now it appears to be making a resurgence, and Esperantists hold an annual convention. They gathered in July 1992 in Vienna. Still, the 12-member European Community has not embraced Esperanto, instead employing nine official languages.

Meriel Beattie, "Esperanto, Ready-Made Key to Europe's Tower of Babel," The Reuter Library Report (July 22, 1992).

For more information on Esperanto, call the Hot-Line of the Esperanto Society of New England -- (508) 264-4349.

(2.) In an article first published in 1946, Dolton Edwards builds on George Bernard Shaw's plan to simplify English spelling. Edwards suggests only one change a year, and he incorporates his changes, one at a time, into his article. During the first year, the soft "c" will be replaced by an "s." Because only the hard "c" sound remains and "k" will be replaced by an "s." Because only the hard "c" sound remains and "k" makes that sound, "c" would be eliminated the next year. Edwards says, "Imagine how greatly only two years of this prosess would klarify the konfusion in the minds of students." Several more years down the road, "c" would be reintroduced to substitute for "th." For a delightful tour de force in revamping English, see Dolton Edwards, "Meihem in ce Klasrum," selected by John W. Campbell, Jr., The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1952), pp. 247-249.

(3.) Abigail Van Buren received three poems collected by octogenarian Bertha D. Goff, who said she had had he poems for at least 70 years. Dear Abby, "70 years of Lighthearted Poetry," Chicago Daily Tribune, Sports Final Ed., October 17, 1987, sec.: Weekend Chicago, p. 19. Dear Abby published the poems one at a time. This poem illustrates the difficulty of forming plurals in English:

The Craziest Language

We'll begin with a box and the plural is boxes, But the plural of ox should be oxen not oxes. Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese, Yet the plural of moose should never be meese. You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice; Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice. If the plural of man is always called men Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen? If I spoke of my foot and show my my feet, And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth Why shouldn't the plural of booths be called beeth? Then one may be that, and three would be those, Yet hat in the plural would never be hose. And the plural of cat is cats, not cose. We speak of a brother and also of brethren, But though we say mother, we never say methren. Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him, But imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim. So English I fancy you will agree, Is the craziest language you ever did see.

(4.) French is a prime example of a language that gives everything a sex. Perhaps that's part of the reason it's such a sexy language. The Germans complicate matters even more, making every noun masculine, femenine, or neuter. Die Idee (the idea, feminine) appears in das Buch (the book, neuter) sitting on der Tisch (the table, masculine). Danke!

(5.) Speaking of difficulty of deciphering, a recurring nightmare of this author involves having to take a philosophy exam written in cuneiform. The professor of ancient philosophy hands us students a clay and tablet and stylus and then says with a grin, "Don't worry. You'll do fine."

(6.) "Did You Know? Reader's Digest, Sep. 1992, p. 74. On its front cover, directly beneath its title, Reader's Digest proclaims, "World's Most Widely Read Magazine."

(7.) Alan Abrahamson, "Keep It Simple: Cut the Legalese, Say It Straight in Plain English, Bar Tells Lawyers," The Los Angeles Times, Home Ed., Sep. 10, 1989, sec.: Part I, p.3.

(8.) For instance, federal law requires that lenders who approve students for federally guaranteed loans "provide the borrower with a separate paper which summarizes (in plain English) the rights and responsibilities of the borrowerl with respect to the loan, including a statement of the consequences of defaulting on the loan..." 20 UCS [section] 1083(d) (1992).

(9.) Carol Krucoff, "Impacting on Gobbledygook," The Washington Post, Final Ed., Sep. 18, 1980, sec.: Style, p. D5. Obviously, presidents can't always keep their promise.

(10.) Rule 28(d) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (1991 revised edition) says:

Counsel will be expected in their briefs and oral agruments to keep to a minimum references to parties by such designation as "appellant" and "appelle." It promotes clarity to use the designations used in the lower court or in the agency proceedings, or the actual names of parties, or descriptive terms such as "the employee," "the injured person," "the taxpayer," "the ship," "the stevedore," etc.

(11.) Abrahamson, supra note 7.

(12.) Darren C. Hackett, "Lawyers Toil for 2 Decades Trying to Break the Maryland Code," The Washington Post, Final Ed., sec.: Metro, p. B1.

(13.) The General Accounting Office says that 36% of the time, the IRS gives wrong answers to taxpayers calling its toll-free hot-lines for help. The IRS admits to giving wrong answers 31% of the time. But professional tax-prepares fare little, if any, better. When Money magazine asked 50 professionals to prepare the tax return for a hypothetical family, all 50 ended up with different answers. None, according to Money, was right, but 10 came close. Joel Dresage, "Last-Minute Aid for Tax Procrastinators," USA Today, Final Ed., April 12, 1989, sec.: Money, p. 1B.

(14.) As an example of poor writing, little could surpass the Internal Revenue Code. For instance, here is an I.R.S. definition that might apply to a divorced or separated couple:

The term "alimony or separate maintenance payment" means any payment in cahs if--

(A) such payment is received by (or on behalf of) a spouse under a divorce or separation instrument,

(B) the divorce or separation instrument does not designate such as a payment which is not includible in gross income under this section and not allowable as a deduction under section 215,

(C) in this case of an individual legally separated from his spouse under a decree of divorce or of separate maintenance, the payee spouse and the payor spouse are not members of the same household at the time such payment is made, and

(D) there is no liability to make any such payment for any period after the death of the payee spouse and there is no liability to make any payment (in cash or property) as a substitute for such payments after the deth of the payee spouse.

Internal Revenue Code, 26 USC 71(b) (1992) (as amended in 1986).

(15.) The IRS has attempted to make pension regulations for retirement plans understandable by writing them in plain English. See Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., "Materials Issued by Internal Revenue Service Regulations Under Sections 401(a)(4) and Related Provisions," Daily Report for Executives, May 11, 1990, sec.: Taxation, Budget and Accounting Text, DER No. 92, p. L-1.

(16.) Robin Young, "Plain Words Save Millions," The (London)( Times, July 10, 1990, sec.: Home News. Oregon apparently gave up on insisting that physicians write prescription in English, but that should cause no problems so long as pharmacists can interpret what the doctors say and so long as labels and warnings on medicine appear in understandable English. Oregon law requires that "[w]ith the exception of physicians' prescriptions, all records, reports and proceedings required to be kept by law shall be in the English language or in a machine language capable of being converted to the English language by a data processing device or computer." Oregon Revised Statutes [sections] 192.310. (Supp. 1991).

(17.) For instance, Kant explains:

The transcendental concept of reason is...none other than the concept of the totality of the conditions for any given conditioned. Now since it is the unconditioned alone which makes possible the totality of conditions, and, conversely, the tot lity of conditions is always itself unconditioned, a pure concept of reason can in general be explained by the concept of the unconditioned, conceived as containing a ground of the synthesis of the conditioned.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), p.316.

(18.) For a book which can help one eliminate "to be" verbs from one's vocabulary, see To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology, ed. by D. David Bourland, Jr., and Paul Denithorne Johnston, with a foreword by Steve Allen. [Distributed by The International Society for General Semantics, P.O. Box 728, Concord, CA 94522 (phone: (510) 798-0311).]

(19.) A "whether or not" recently was edited into one of my newspaper articles. Of course, the "or not" is not technically an error, but for me it is a peeve.

(20.) I thank a law student, who will remain nameless, for this example. Depending on the sensitivities and sense of humor of a writing class, recognition of the "bloopers of the week" can provide some amusing moments.

(21.) For this example, I think a colleague who used to work in the grant-writing division of the well-known research firm. She could not get a technical manager to pay for proofreading because a spell-checker had been used. After the hog-water debacle, the manager paid for proofing. My colleague will remain anyonymous.
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Author:Scott, Sandra Davidson
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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