Tuesday, October 29, 2013

10 foreign words we could us in English

1. Kummerspeck (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

2. Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
You know when you’re really full, but your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it? The Georgians feel your pain. This word means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing."

3. Tartle (Scots)
The nearly onomatopoeic word for that panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember.

4. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
This word captures that special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do.

5. Backpfeifengesicht (German)
A face badly in need of a fist.

6. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet? This is the word for it.

7. Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)
Your friend bites into a piece of piping hot pizza, then opens his mouth and sort of tilts his head around while making an “aaaarrrahh” noise. The Ghanaians have a word for that. More specifically, it means “to move hot food around in your mouth.”

8. Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.

9. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them? The Indonesians have a word for it.

10. Faamiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

If you can't write, pick up the phone

Galbraith: Pick up the phone.
Here's a tactic that will get you going if you're in a rut and at the same time make your writing stronger.

Pick up the phone.

As a business writer at The Associated Press back in the Dark Ages, I found myself working on a series of articles about coffee prices with a fellow reporter who came up to New York from Washington, where he covered the CIA and other spooky things.

We were going to prove that there was a conspiracy to raise coffee prices. After several weeks of tramping around odd parts of Manhattan chasing down coffee brewers, who wouldn't tell us anything, my colleague allowed as how covering the top-secret CIA was a lot easier.

I digress. I was sitting at my typewriter one morning (I told you it was the Dark Ages) stuck on what to type next. My editor wandered by, took one glance, sized me up, and scolded, "You just can't pick up the phone, can you?"

His point: if you don't know where to go next, get some more information. If you can't write, report.

You can't write your way around a problem. You have to read more or ask someone to get around it. The payoff is that the more facts and data you get, the better your insight into the topic and the more precise and concrete your writing. Specific is always better than general. Real is better than theoretical.

I was reminded of this when I came across an article written in 1978 -- about the same time I discovered that coffee prices go up because of market forces, duh -- by the economist  John Kenneth Galbraith. He had been asked to teach college students about writing, and he was pondering what he might say.

Here's his version of "pick up the phone":
George Bernard Shaw once said that as he grew older, he became less and less interested in theory, more and more interested in information. The temptation in writing is just the reverse. Nothing is so hard to come by as a new and interesting fact. Nothing is so easy on the feet as a generalization. I now pick up magazines and leaf through them looking for articles that are rich with facts; I do not care much what they are. Richly evocative and deeply percipient theory I avoid. It leaves me cold unless I am the author of it. My advice to all young writers is to stick to research and reporting with only a minimum of interpretation. And especially this is my advice to all older writers, particularly to columnists. As the feet give out, they seek to have the mind take their place.
It's good advice for young and old.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Grammar up with which I will not put!

What's with the hair, dude?
A snobbish English teacher was sitting in an Atlanta airport coffee shop waiting for her flight back to Connecticut, when a friendly Southern belle sat down next to her.

"Where y’all goin’ to?" asked the Southern belle.

Turning her nose in the air, the snob replied, "I don’t answer people who end their sentences with prepositions."

The Southern belle thought a moment, and tried again.

"Where y’all goin’ to, bitch?"

That one is from a blog post at the Oxford Dictionaries. If you want a good lesson on prepositions, that post by Catherine Soanes is your go to post.

For the rest of us, here's a distillation regarding ending a sentence with them.
The word ‘preposition’ ultimately derives from Latin prae ‘before’ and ponere ’to place’. In Latin grammar, the rule is that a preposition should always precede the prepositional object that it is linked with: it is never placed after it. According to a number of other authorities, it was the dramatist John Dryden in 1672 who was the first person to criticize a piece of English writing (by Ben Jonson) for placing a preposition at the end of a clause instead of before the noun or pronoun to which it was linked. 
This prohibition was taken up by grammarians and teachers in the next two centuries and became very tenacious. English is not Latin, however, and contemporary authorities do not try to shoehorn it into the Latin model. Nevertheless, many people are still taught that ending a sentence or clause with a preposition should be avoided.
I'd like to point out that both John Dryden and Ben Jonson are dead. Reason enough to avoid fighting over grammar.

Friday, October 18, 2013

To write well, daydream well

Jessica Lahey, an author and former teacher, writes in The Atlantic about the lost art of daydreaming and its value for our children.

She quotes psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:
The rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion.
If it's good for children, why isn't it good for adults? Well, it is.

On a 30-minute walk on my road in the evening I often create an entire 750-word column in my mind. It needs a bit of sharpening, of course, but it's there. It springs forth seemingly out of nowhere. I've always marveled at this, but it should be no surprise. A mind at rest from the daily toil is free to play.

Sigmund Freud makes the connection for us:
Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality.
Of course, you might want to first close your office door.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to begin, and end, a speech

Stop here.
Think of your talk as a story that will take your listeners from one place to another, from where they are now in relation to your topic to where you want them to be.

Every story has a beginning and end, and the storyteller gets to choose them. There's more to that than you think. When I was a magazine editor we let our writers just type away and have a good time. When they turned in the manuscript, we would have to find the true beginning. Usually the writer had to get a lot off his chest before getting to the real story.

I once worked in the New Orleans bureau of The Associated Press. The joke there was that when we were picking up a local newspaper story for distribution on our wires, we'd immediately go the seventh graf to find the real lead.

So don't assume that, for instance, your personal story begins when you were born. Of course it does, but not when you're telling someone else. It must begin at a point that will immediately engage your audience. Your story will end when you die, but that's for you and not your audience, so you also have to decide where to stop.

Chris Anderson, a former journalist, is the curator of the TED Conference, which features the world's most important speakers. Anderson advises this:
If you frame the talk as a journey, the biggest decisions are figuring out where to start and where to end. To find the right place to start, consider what people in the audience already know about your subject—and how much they care about it. If you assume they have more knowledge or interest than they do, or if you start using jargon or get too technical, you’ll lose them. The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.
Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story. The speaker starts out by presenting a problem and then describes the search for a solution. There’s an “aha” moment, and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way. 
If a talk fails, it’s almost always because the speaker didn’t frame it correctly, misjudged the audience’s level of interest, or neglected to tell a story. Even if the topic is important, random pontification without narrative is always deeply unsatisfying. There’s no progression, and you don’t feel that you’re learning.
Ah, the aha! moment. That's where you pause for effect and end it. Why step on the punch line? You're done your job. Get outta Dodge.

From Wikipedia: The Eureka effect, also known as the aha! effect, refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. Unfortunately, the writer of the Wikipedia entry says that, "It is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can predict an Aha! moment."

You could study your audience's faces, I suppose. You might learn over time as you hone your presentation. Often a powerful anecdote illustrating your thesis can be used to generate the epiphany you desire. Achieving this, of course, forces you to understand the one thing you want to convey in your speech. Knowing that will help you know where to start and where to end.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Actually, you really don't need adverbs. Really.

Just say no.
In all matters language I defer to my patron saint, Mark Twain, and on adverbs his pronouncement is:
"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference. Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't."
Stephen King is a good writer, and in his opinion:
"I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's--GASP!!--too late."
So there.

I recently came across Pat Holt's blog. She's a longtime book editor. Adverbs are on her list of ten mistakes.
Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence. 
I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving. 
In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (“in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision. 
(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)
In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated. 
In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial.. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)
The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. 
Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it. 
The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information inEmpire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” – it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used. 
Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it. 
Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.” 
Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.
Hopefully, you'll constantly remember this.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keep your eye on "I"

I once had a job counselor tell me that in cover letters to a potential employer I should never use the word "I."

I suppose the idea is that the letter should be about the company, not about me. I've found that advice impossible to follow, but maybe I just don't get it.

You may have noticed that I have already used "I" six times. I told you it's not easy. There, I did it again.

Now from the University of Texas comes research about this. People will research just about anything, no?

Well, this work will give you some insight into yourself and others when you're trying to communicate. It should inform the way you write and speak. Keep it in mind, for example, the next time you compose an email.

The research suggests that people who often say "I" are less powerful and less sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the word. Frequent "I" users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they are talking.

Oh boy.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein quotes Dr. James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department.
Pronouns signal where someone's internal focus is pointing, he says. Often, people using "I" are being self-reflective. But they may also be self-conscious or insecure, in physical or emotional pain, or simply trying to please. In five experiments people deemed to have higher status used "I" less.
"There is a misconception that people who are confident, have power, have high-status tend to use 'I' more than people who are low status," he says. "That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself."
People curb their use of "I" subconsciously, Pennebaker says. "If I am the high-status person, I am thinking of what you need to do. If I am the low-status person, I am more humble and am thinking, 'I should be doing this.' "
Pennebaker has found heavy "I" users across many people: Women (who are typically more reflective than men), people who are more at ease with personal topics, younger people, caring people as well as anxious and depressed people. (Surprisingly, he says, narcissists do not use "I" more than others, according to a meta-analysis of a large number of studies.)
All his leads Pennebaker to conclude: "You should use 'I' the same way you use a speedometer on your car -- as feedback on yourself. Are you being genuine? Are you being honest? Learn to adjust some, to know yourself."

I get it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Keeping a diary can improve your performance

Diary of the Wright Brothers' father.
If you're like me, your first thought is: exactly when am I supposed to write in a diary? 1:30 - 2:00 a.m.?

Plenty of smart, exceptional people have kept diaries, and they must know something. What's interesting about the lists of famous diarists, however, is that they all seem to have been of previous generations.

Is there something about our 24/7 information barrage and never-ending connectivity with the office and everyone else -- and, of course, television -- that robs us of quiet time for reflection?

Today you can keep a diary on your computer, of course, using any number of specialized programs. And you can split hairs and decide to keep a journal,  not a diary. There's a distinction.

Let's assume you've found a few minutes between your conference call with India and your handball game. Why do it?

Teresa Amabile, a business professor at Harvard, and psychologist Steven Kramer have come up with a few reasons: (1) focus, (2) patience, (3) planning, and (4) personal growth.

Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, they point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:
On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.

Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.
Perhaps I should set the alarm for 1:30 a.m.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The original Mad Man's rules for writing

David Ogilvy, an advertising executive who died in 1999, has been called "the father of advertising" and "the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry."

He worked at a time when good writing was valued -- demanded, in fact. Here are his rules for it, taken from an internal memo to all employees of Ogilvy & Mather:
People who think well, write well. Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches. Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:
  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
Oh dear. I may have inadvertently let some new cliches loose on the blogosphere.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How "different from" is different from "different than"

Different from New York.
I suppose it's a rather minor matter in the world of writing. Whether to use "different from" or "different than" is different from more serious issues, such as getting your subject to agree with you verb.

However, to people who do this stuff for a living it does matter. You can find a lively discussion in a Linked In group called LinkEds & Writers. It's not for the faint of heart, and you may well have to join the group to see what editorial sausage making looks like, which is a blessing.

I googled around and found an explanation I like at a University of Houston - Victoria website. Here's the thing: you're not going to jail if you don't follow the rules here. But it's good to know. You can, for instance, amaze a total stranger at a cocktail party with your newfound knowledge.

David Felts writes:

What is the difference?
In the 18th century, different than began to be seen as unacceptable in certain situations. This view has survived for the most part. Many grammar books, such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, argue against using different than. Different from is preferred and considered correct, but different than is considered acceptable on some occasions.

When to use different from
Use different from for simple comparisons, as in comparing two persons or things.
Ex.: My car is different from (not than) her car.
Ex.: The book I bought is different from the one sold in the bookstore.
It is important to remember that when using different from, the two things being compared (e.g. my car and her car in the first example) should have the same grammatical structure. This is called parallel construction. Here are a couple of examples:
Ex.: People in the field of literature write differently from people in the field of business.
Ex.: People in the field of literature write differently from those in the field of business.
When different than is acceptable
Because of increased use, different than is sometimes considered acceptable in American English. When in doubt, just use different from, as it is preferred by most people. According to the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel (1992), different than is acceptable only if the words following different than make up a clause—especially if the clause is elliptical (referring to an aforementioned context without restating it). Here’s an example:
Ex.: It seems so different than Paris.
In this example, if different from were used, Paris, the city, would be the object of comparison. Using different than creates a subtle distinction in meaning. Since different than is used, the clause following different than is interpreted as elliptical and suggests “the way things were in Paris” or "than Paris was" or “what happened in Paris.” If you have doubt when to use different than, you might just use different from following the parallel construction rule.

So there you are. Thanks, David. I wonder if he's ever been to Paris. I haven't.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keep sentences short, stupid

Try this sentence on for size:
The paradigmatic change from the fully controllable, powerful point sources in the classical power grid to the distributed area sources of alternative energy sources – such as wind and solar – calls for new qualities in the system-wide aggregation and processing of basic data.
Yeah, me too. Now look at it edited:
Adding new sources of energy such as wind and solar to existing power grids will require better data processing to manage them. 
That example from Tim Parker of The Bloom Group illustrates one of the best ways to make your writing more powerful: keep you sentence length under control. Give the reader a chance to breathe.

"For readability," Parker says, "the optimum sentence length is somewhere in the range 15 to 25 words. But if you go to most professional firms’ sites, you’ll more likely find an average length of at least 30 words, with 50 to 75 word sentences not uncommon."

Long sentences create several problems for you, too.
  • They require you as the writer to make a number of ideas work together.
  • They require you to shuffle more words into some logical order.
So you're doing yourself a favor, as well as the reader, when you keep them short.

N. Watson Solomon, a readability expert, quotes a number of experts here. One notes that:
Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.
Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words. More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.
Perhaps you should become the Sentence Length Cop in your office. Suddenly everything might become clear, the operation might run more efficiently, and you might be able to leave for home on time.

Addendum: I ran this post through a readability checker. Here's what it told me:

No. of sentences19
No. of words346
No. of complex words31
Percent of complex words8.96%
Average words per sentence18.21
Average syllables per word1.39

That translates into a grade level of about 9, meaning it should be easily understood by 14 to 15 year olds.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Before you write, listen to these professors

Harvard economics professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz offer advice to students on writing. Their guidelines apply to anyone in business.

Rule #1: You will probably not have a Nobel Prize winning idea.
Theorem #1: It is always possible to transform a good idea into a great paper and a superb
Theorem #2: Even if your idea is Nobel-worthy, you can always make it into a poorly written paper and a lousy presentation. This theorem will probably never be needed; see Rule #1.
Rule #2: The insights of your paper will first be judged by how you present them. If your paper is written in an unprofessional manner, your empirical work, mathematical proofs, and models will be viewed with initial skepticism.

Rule #3: Your paper is an exercise in persuasion. Your readers are your audience. They have better things to do than read your paper. Make them interested in your thesis and convinced of your argument. 

Rule #4: No great paper—no matter how well constructed, brilliant, and well written—first emerged from the author’s printer in that form. It was rewritten at least 10 times. Rewriting is the true art of writing. 

Rule #5: No author—no matter how careful and humble—can see all (or even most) of his or her writing errors. Trade papers with another student. Be tough; there will be some initial pain, but gratitude will follow. 

Rule #6: Most paragraphs have too many sentences and most sentences have too many words. Repetition is boring. We repeat: repetition is boring. Cut, cut, and then cut again.

Rule #7: Verbalizing your argument is more difficult than writing it. Giving a presentation will reveal where your argument falls flat and will show you how to redraft the paper. Give many presentations before sending out your paper. Give them to a workshop, friends, a dog or cat, even the wall. The presentation will force you to confront inconsistencies in your argument.

How to write good

Familiar, but always amusing and helpful, advice from Frank L. Visco in Writer's Digest:
  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren't necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

Very good advice

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

~ Mark Twain