Language

On Writing

It’s almost tautological to say that you can make something better by removing the bad or unnecessary parts. When we apply this advice to writing it means crossing things out with a red pen, or pressing the delete key, hoping that we’ve properly identified the pieces of text that aren’t essential to the whole. I used to try to improve my writing by combing over each sentence in search of “needless words” to remove. I came to realize that apparently needless words can serve a purpose that’s easy to overlook: they can improve the rhythm and pacing of a sentence and can contribute to subtle changes in inflection. I also came to realize that if my goal is to use the reader’s attention well, it’s more valuable to cut out entire paragraphs, pages, or chapters that are unnecessary than it is to worry about individual words. So how can a writer go for the really big prize, eliminating whole paragraphs, pages, and chapters as opposed to a few words here and there? Every piece of writing is different but there are common causes of bloat. I’ll venture to say that the biggest cause of bloat is anxiety – specifically, the writer’s anxiety manifested on the page. Basically, if you can cut the anxiety out of your writing you can make it shorter by, I don’t know, thirty, fifty, ninety percent without sacrificing your message.

When one sits down to write, it’s common to feel a swirl of emotions, and many of these are negative. Writing is hard! The thing you want to discuss might be very complicated. You might not even be sure what you want to say or fully convinced of the point you hope to make. Perhaps you’ve missed something important? You might not feel worthy of writing about your chosen topic, considering that you don’t have credentials X, Y, and Z. Perhaps your point is very serious and you worry that you won’t do it justice. Any time you write something, you expose yourself to criticism. People might misunderstand you. They might question you. They might think you’re naive or stupid. They might think your message is obvious, or that it’s unoriginal, or that you’re wasting their time, or that you haven’t done your homework, or that you’re an imposter.

You want to guard against imagined criticism and ridicule, so you start hedging, making disclaimers, trying to anticipate and preemptively respond to all possible lines of attack. You talk about how dauntingly complex it is to broach this particular topic. You move to establish your authority on the topic while also making sure that no one could accuse you of inflating your credentials. You move to defend your position while also making clear that you’ve considered all other sides of the matter and that you’re aware that nothing can be known for sure. Writing becomes an adversarial project where your goal is to score some points without losing more than you’ve gained. Writing becomes more about you than it is about subject at hand. You think you’re writing about your topic but really you’re manifesting your own personal anxiety through your ramblings on the topic.

If you can eliminate the anxiety, and the gunk it creates in your writing, you’ll be left with something that really shines… or maybe something that doesn’t shine… but you won’t know until you try. Imagine the reader likes you, respects you, trusts you, and is ready to understand your point. Imagine you’re a good writer and you have unfettered access to the truth. Now tell it as simply and vividly as you can. That’s your mission.

What I’m saying here is the product of my own quest as a writer and the insights I’ve gained from one remarkable book: Clear and simple as the truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.

I’ll give an example from my own recent experience. Over the past four years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about how America has gotten so polarized and I’ve wanted to summarize my observations in an essay. But I’m not a social scientist, I don’t have a degree that’s applicable to this topic, and I haven’t done any formal research. I’m just a guy who’s spent some time reading, watching, and thinking. I could have started my essay by making disclaimers and explaining why the reader should still take me – a layperson, an average citizen – seriously as a commentator on the nation’s affairs. But I realized that no reader stands to benefit from my justification for why I should be taken seriously. That justification contributes nothing of value to their lives or their knowledge. If they’ve stumbled upon my essay, they’re ready to spend a few seconds or minutes trying to ascertain my point and decide if it’s interesting enough to pursue, so I better make the point efficiently and let them judge it for themselves. The more I hedge and defend and qualify what I’m saying, the harder that’s going to be for them. Expressing my own doubts about what I’m saying doesn’t help the reader either. It’s better that I speak with full confidence and let them decide if I’m right or wrong.

I make one particular assertion in my Polarization essay: I say that people tend to ascribe good intentions to those who share their gut reactions and bad intentions to those who don’t. This is something I happen to believe. Of course I’m aware that it’s the kind of claim that researchers in psychology and sociology might study and write papers about and gather data to support or refute. Because I respect expertise, I feel that I should either find references to support this claim or let the reader know that it’s just a hunch that I can’t support in any formal way. Maybe I encountered the claim sometime in the past and forgot the source — I had better look it up. If I were writing a paper for a college class I’d indeed have to do that. But an academic mindset is actually my enemy when it comes to writing effective personal essays. If I get quickly to saying what I really think, without the justification, the hedging, the pugilistic citations, the defenses, the reader will sooner be able to make their own judgement, and guess what… so will I! If I manage to get my point down on paper without the gunk of self-defense and reified anxiety, I’ll be able to discover what I actually think and then I’ll be able to decide whether I really believe it. Cut the fear, keep the meat. In this way, the goal of “Writing to learn,” named by William Zinsser, might come to fruition.

Language, Society

Don’t lead with lies, even quoted ones

To anyone in the media who might ever read this, I beg you to stop spreading propaganda through your well-meaning but counterproductive efforts at “fact checking.”

When a politician releases propaganda, they want the propaganda to spread. They’re hoping for people to repeat it as often as possible. They’re trying to exploit the illusory truth effect — the way familiarity breeds belief.

Whether the propaganda is repeated approvingly or disapprovingly doesn’t matter. As long as the repetition – the transmission – occurs, the goal is achieved. If you, as a member of the media, repeat the propaganda and then explain why it’s false, you’ve still repeated it and served the goal of the politician who wanted precisely that to happen. This applies especially to the genre of fact checking.

When you fact-check a statement by a politician, you often do it in two steps. First, you recite the statement: “Politician X said ‘Pigs can fly.’” Second, you address the veracity of the statement: “There is no evidence that pigs can fly.”

It matters what you lead with.

Leading with a falsehood – even a quoted one – is a terrible approach because it gives the falsehood the spotlight. Wouldn’t it be great if pigs could fly? You should give the truth the spotlight instead. The truth is at a disadvantage because it’s less titillating than the lie. Pigs are earthbound – how boring! If your goal is to promote the truth, you need to work extra-hard to compensate for its inherent disadvantage. Showcase the truth by introducing it first. Explain why it matters. Only then, once the truth has been firmly established, quote the lie. Then repeat the truth. “Pigs definitely can’t fly. But Politician X claimed today that they can. But we know they certainly can’t.”

After this “truth sandwich” has been presented – truth-lie-truth – you should then examine the motivations behind the lie. “Given that pigs can’t fly, why would a politician want citizens to believe the falsehood that pigs can fly? What is at stake?”

Realize that your audience consists of some people who trust you more than they trust Politician X, and some people who trust Politician X more than they trust you. If an audience member is in that first category – if they’re already suspicious of Politician X – then your fact-checking probably doesn’t tell them anything they didn’t already assume. You’re only asking them to dedicate more of their mental energy to considering a falsehood that they’ve already rightly dismissed. But if an audience member loves Politician X, they’re going to cling to what Politician X said. When you quote Politician X they’re going to concentrate on the quote itself, ignoring the analysis that you offer next. They’ll forget your quibbling assertion that Politician X’s statement is false because what you’re saying isn’t as exciting and they don’t really trust you to begin with.

The only way to make fact-checking effective as a tool for promoting the truth is to make it about the truth. The truth is the story. The truth is the main character. The truth gets the spotlight. The propaganda – the false statements that are being fact-checked – should be given a minor role. They should only be allowed an appearance after the truth has had its initial say. And once the propaganda gets its turn, the truth should get another turn, the final say.

When I started writing this post, I assumed I was developing the material on my own. Indeed, fact-checking has been a pet peeve of mine for some time and I had written about it back in 2016. But when I searched for the term “truth sandwich,” I came across an NPR article from 2018 citing the linguist George Lakoff. I vaguely remembered reading it back then. I must have internalized the idea and forgotten the source — not unlike someone who remembers a claim they heard during a “fact check” session and then forgets the fact-checking part. So… the “truth sandwich” idea isn’t mine – the credit goes to Lakoff. Back in 2018, Lakoff’s proposal got a few mentions. A few members of the media discussed it and published articles on it. I fear that two years later, the lesson has not been widely learned and propaganda maintains the upper hand, happily co-opting the efforts of those who attempt to fact-check it out of existence. So I will do what I can to promote Lakoff’s truth sandwich. I hope you will too.

Language

Rip, Slam, Blast

I understand that people who write news headlines face a challenge. The headline should be compact, gripping, and easy to understand. So it’s natural that editors would prefer active, monosyllabic verbs. But this leads to an inequity of sorts. I see a ton of headlines of the form:

X rips Y!

X slams Y!

X blasts Y!

Typically, X is a loud, obnoxious individual who has done nothing more than go on Twitter and post a derogatory and unfounded comment about Y. In other words, X hasn’t really done anything aside from spouting off. And yet, for not doing anything particularly hard, X gets the benefit of having their actions described with some of the most powerful verbs in the English language.

To rip, slam, or blast something suggests an act of great force and great consequence. One assumes that that the person doing the ripping, slamming, or blasting possesses great energy and is motivated by great conviction to use that energy in service of a cause. Superheroes blast things.

If all you’ve done is type some nasty, possibly misspelled, and probably false words about someone you don’t like, you’re not a superhero, and your actions don’t merit the powerful descriptors we attach to the heroic. You haven’t done anything to deserve the strength of a word like “blast.”

Journalists, if you must report on the fact that X wrote something nasty about Y on Twitter, how about not saying “X slams Y?” Instead just say what happened:

X tweets about Y

Or do you not want to do that because a matter-of-fact description would reveal there’s no story here?

 

Diversions, Nonsense

Onions

bearersofmeaning

While I was browsing the aisles of a used book store last Friday, my gaze fell upon the spine pictured above. With no disrespect to the author, I hope I may be forgiven for interpreting the title as Onions: Bearers of Meaning and believing for a moment that the book was really about the semantic potential of this indispensable vegetable. For no reason noble or worthwhile, I decided to devise a few titles for possible sequels to Onions: Bearers of Meaning. Here they are:

Shallots: Capsules of Signification

Pumpkins: Vessels of Erudition

Lima Beans: Agents of Reference

Eggplants: Envoys of Intellection

Potatoes: Canisters of Qualia

Brussels Sprouts: Vectors of Logicality

Peas: Pellets of Gravitas

Tomatoes: Conduits of Intention

Artichokes: Impresarios of Allusion

Radishes: Couriers of Denotation

Avocados: Vehicles of Symbolization

Carrots: Utensils of Argument

Parsnips: Virtuosos of Ratiocination

Cannellini Beans: Custodians of Discernment

Yams: Emissaries of Reason

Nonsense

It’s not April Fools’ Day

Today is not April Fool’s Day.  I can prove this in several ways:

Proof #1:  Was yesterday April Fools’ Day?  No.  Was the day before yesterday April Fools’ Day?  No.  Hence, by induction, we may conclude that today is not April Fools’ Day.

Proof #2: April Fools’ Day only happens once a year.  So, the probability that today is April Fools’ day is 1/365.  That’s almost 0.

Proof #3: If today were April Fools’ day, there would be unanimous consensus about the fact, but there isn’t, because I disagree.

Language

The Emperor Experiment

Years ago I became intrigued by the idea that some forms of perception involve physical mimicry. One of my college linguistics classes (back in the mid-90s) touched on the motor theory of speech perception, which asserts that when we listen to speech, we reverse-engineer the sounds we hear, identifying each sound with the motion or “gesture” of the vocal tract that would be needed to produce it. So, when I listen to you say a word like “dog,” I recognize the word by preparing to say it myself, or at least by figuring out what I’d need to do to with my mouth in order to make those same sounds.  In fact, some studies show that seeing and hearing speech excites the motor system involved in speech production (to quote the title of one paper by Watkins, Strafella, and Paus) — when I listen to you say “dog,” I exhibit neural activity similar to the act of speaking.

When I first heard about these ideas, I wondered if there was a way I could test them myself, or at least explore the territory through an introspective experiment. If listening to speech, or even imagining speech, involves some degree of physical mimicry, what would it happen if that mimicry were obstructed? Would it be harder to perceive speech, or to imagine speech (two separate but related processes) if I adopted an awkward physical position — a configuration of the vocal tract that would make it difficult to physically mimic what I was hearing?  I came up with the following simple experiment that focuses on imagined or “inner” speech:

The Emperor Experiment

1) Stick your tongue out as far as you can (as when a doctor asks you to say “ahhh”) and keep it in that position.

2) Now try to imagine yourself saying the word “emperor.” Try to hear the word in your mind’s ear (as when you talk silently to yourself) but don’t actually say it out loud or do anything with your mouth besides holding your tongue out.  Although your tongue should remain extended as you do this, you should try to imagine the word pronounced clearly, as you would normally say it (i.e. without an extended tongue).

Stop reading and try it!

Were you able to hear the word “emperor” enunciated without a lisp in your mind’s ear? Or did you find that were only able to hear something like em-pah-wah — the way “emperor” would sound if actually spoken with an extended tongue?

I’ve administered this experiment to countless “subjects” informally over the years, including dozens of unsuspecting conversation partners at coffee shops throughout New England, and approximately 30 classmates in an Artificial Intelligence class I took as a grad student. I find that roughly half of participants react to me as though I’m crazy, not because I’m asking them to do something silly like sticking out their tongue, but because they have no problem imagining a clearly pronounced “emperor” in step 2 and therefore don’t see any point to the experiment. The other half quickly bursts out laughing in step 2, because they discover (often to their great surprise) that they simply cannot imagine a clearly pronounced “emperor” while they keep their tongues extended — they can only imagine a mangled, lisping em-pah-wah. Their imagination is a slave to their tongue!

My own experience was that I could only hear em-pah-wah the first couple of times I tried the experiment, but with some practice, I gained the ability to imagine a clear “emperor” no matter the position of my tongue. So it seems that a physical obstruction interferes with imagined speech for some subjects initially, but it’s possible to learn to separate the imagined sound from what it suggested by the obstruction.

I still wonder why people have such different experiences the first time they try this expirement: why is it initially easy for some but hard for others? And how might other kinds of physical or motor interference affect what we can perceive or imagine? I haven’t had occasion to study “extended tongue effect” formally, and I don’t know whether something similar to the emperor experiment occurs in the research literature: I’d appreciate any references you might send my way.

The emperor experiment came back to mind today after several years of dormancy: I was having coffee this afternoon with a neuroscience researcher (and founder of the startup momedx) who has done some fascinating work on visual perception in people who gain or regain sight after years of blindness. On his first try, my coffee companion reported that he heard “em-pah-wah.”

Diversions, Language

PLOWS USE CAUTION

Driving on I-90 from Boston towards the Berkshires yesterday, I spied a curious road sign gleaming in the summer haze:

PLOWS USE CAUTION

My mind skipped over three possible interpretations of this grammatically ambiguous statement and landed on a fourth. I didn’t read it as an assertion of the tenet that plows are cautious; I didn’t read it as an admonition to plows to be cautious; and I didn’t take it as a directive to non-plows to avoid plows. Channeling my inner copy editor (always the pessimist), I assumed it must be a simple misspelling of:

PLEASE USE CAUTION

It’s not easy making signs (as evidenced by the preponderance of wretched signage in our world), and so I can easily imagine an incautious sign-maker trying to write PLEASE and having it come out as PLOWS.

Unfortunately, the very thought of this has put me in a state where I can no longer see the word please without mentally substituting it with plows (and the result turns out to be grammatical with surprising frequency). And so I invite you, dear reader, to join me in this affliction by listing some of your favorite please/plows substitutions. I will start off with one of my favorites:

Always say plows.

Language

Gettysburg

All prose is wordy–it’s made of words! So when does prose, a fundamentally wordy thing, deserve to be disparaged as wordy?

I struggle with this question because my brain is wordy–got lots o’ words. My thoughts are wordy, so my writing comes out wordy.  How much time should I spend eliminating “unnecessary” words?

The question is complicated because “wordiness” is a matter of perspective. If someone is convinced I’m a good writer, or if they’re particularly interested in my subject, they will likely ignore the redundancies in my prose. However, if they don’t “trust” me as a writer, or if they are bored by my topic, they will notice and object to my excesses.

I’ll go further and say that “wordiness” is a matter of musical taste and reproduction. All writing is musical in that it has tone and rhythm; the words are the raw material for a concert that we perform in our minds as we read.  Words will “sound good” to us if we can find the right voice to read them in (and when the author or text comes recommended, we usually work harder to find that voice).  If we don’t have an inner voice to fit the text, then our performance will fall flat: we’ll hear a bunch of disconnected sounds and call it “wordy.” 

We accept the wordiness of great speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because all of the verbiage becomes a substrate for the aura–and the sound–of a great speaker.  Read it like Lincoln, and it does sound great; read it in the voice of a bored student, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve tried to rewrite Gettysburg as a modern schoolteacher might, if the original text had been submitted as a homework assignment, an essay draft to be edited. Here is the final revision (95 words):

Our nation was founded eighty-seven years ago on the idea that all men are created equal. Our civil war is now testing whether any nation based on that idea can endure. Today, we dedicate a portion of the battleground to our fallen troops. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow this ground with words–the troops have already hallowed it with their struggle. Instead of talking idly, we should dedicate ourselves to their unfinished work, so they will not have died in vain. Let’s keep our nation free and ensure that self-government survives on earth.

Here is the original (267 words):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Language, Visual Design

Swearing Prohibited

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)