Search results for the tag, "Language"

September 6th, 2011

Calling Linguists and Lexicographers: Do You Love Grammar? Then Remember: Good Writing Is Good Writing—Even if You Capitalize “TIME” Magazine and Say “Most Importantly”

A few recent posts from my language blog, Sprachgefuhl:

”most important,” or “most importantly”?

TIME Magazine? Time Magazine? Time magazine?

Linguists vs. Lexicographers: Why Stylebooks Should Not Be Dictionaries

Good Writing Is Good Writing

Do You Love Grammar?

June 6th, 2011


In high school, I developed a deep-seated passion for words. I studied the dictionary. I made word-of-the-day notecards. I employed highfalutin, esoteric language in essays. And I e-mailed a lot of questions to Merriam-Webster, the Modern Language Association, and the Chicago Manual of Style.

Publishing this correspondence has long been on my to-do list. Today, I’m delighted to report that I’m now in the process of crossing this task off the list. Here are a few posts I recently published on my other blog, Sprachgefuhl:

August 17th, 2010

Where I’ve Been


As some of you know, I maintain another blog, Sprachgefuhl, which chronicles my pet peeves about the English language. Since I haven’t blogged at No Straw Men in such a long time, here are links to my most recent posts at Sprachgefuhl:

1. Do “High-Quality” and “Quality” Mean the Same Thing?

2. Is “News Media” Redundant?

3. Don’t Spell-Out What You Can Abbreviate

* Lest you think I’m ignoring my own advice, I keep Sprachgefuhl separate from No Straw Men because their readerships are so different.

August 16th, 2010

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

—William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

Related: “A Little History of the Little Book.”

August 6th, 2009

The Speciousness of “Strategic”

I work in the field of “strategic communications.” In my past job, I worked on “strategic partnerships,” among other things. Both terms are well-established, yet both are 50% meaningless.

After all, aren’t all communications “strategic”? Do nonstrategic partnerships even exist?

The truth is, these are differences without a distinction. As any semanticist will tell you, if you can remove the adjective without changing the meaning of the noun, chuck the adjective. It’s a buzzword, “an important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase, often of little meaning, used chiefly to impress laymen.”

Think of this speciousness the next time you’re tempted to employ such jargon.

August 14th, 2007

Are Liberal Ideas Harder to Communicate?

Rudy Giuliani

A version of this blog post appeared on TechRepublican and Redstate on August 15, 2007.

Rudy Giuliani is a Republican who holds the Democratic position on abortion. He’s also a Catholic, which digs his hole even deeper, since various American bishops have threatened to deny him Holy Communion, as they did to John Kerry in 2004.

Accordingly, most political strategists would advise Rudy to avoid the subject of communion at all costs, on the theory that there’s no good way out of this minefield. A satisfactory answer would require either an encyclical or a Castro-length sermon, they posit.

Sorry, but that’s dead wrong. Instead of obfuscating or tiptoeing around the issue, Rudy plunged headfirst into it, in the current issue of the New Yorker:

“They [the bishops] have every right to tell me anything they want,” Giuliani said to me. “But then I have every right to believe anything I want. And, ultimately, that sort of expresses both my political faith and my religious faith. They have a right to instruct me. And then, having my own conscience, and my own mind, and being my own individual person, I have a right to determine whether I agree with that or I don’t agree with it. Now, there are some people that look at religion differently. That’s the way I look at it. It’s a way that helps me understand morality better. It helps me understand God better. And ultimately it’s my relationship with God, my relationship with Jesus, that’s the important one. And I’ve got to figure it out. And if they help me they do. And if I don’t agree with it then I have to go with my own conscience.”

Thus, in just 152 words—to a reporter, no less—Rudy defused a tinderbox. He didn’t pander, but spoke from his heart. Joe Klein would be proud.

Rudy’s homily is especially important because it disproves the conventional wisdom that Republicans are better communicators than Democrats, the thinking being that the nuance of clause-draped liberal ideas doesn’t lend itself to sound bites (cf., “support the troops” vs. “pro-troop, anti-war”). As Stanley Fish has brilliantly elucidated, what matters is not the message but the messenger:

If you can’t explain an idea or a policy plainly in one or two sentences, it’s not yours. . . . Words are not just the cosmetic clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack.

Indeed, a good communicator can always articulate his message, regardless of complexity and without compromising the integrity of his argument. Tom Friedman, a liberal columnist for the New York Times, is a master of this art, using simple metaphors, like The Lexus vs. the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat, to encapsulate big ideas.

Bear this in mind the next time someone carps that, say, Hillary Clinton’s position on Iraq is too sophisticated to be simplified. It’s not the position, it’s the person, that’s the problem.

Addendum: As soon as I finish praising Rudy for being forthright, I read that he’s clammed up. Asked last week at a town-hall meeting in Iowa if he is a “traditional, practicing Roman Catholic,” Rudy retorted, “My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests.”

Addendum (8/20/2007): The more I think about it, the less I think there’s a contradiction between the above two quotes. In short, some questions, like whether one is a good Catholic, are inappropriate, and it can be refreshing to hear a politician tell a questioner as much.

In fact, this is what Mitt Romney told a writer for the Atlantic Monthly last year, who asked if he wears Temple Garments—white underclothing, with the “Marks of the Holy Priesthood” sewn in, donned with reverence by the most faithful Mormons. “I’ll just say those sorts of things I’ll keep private,” Romney sensibly replied.

May 18th, 2007

Why Ron Paul Is Bad for Himself and Good for the GOP

A version of this blog post appeared on TechRepublican.

Here’s the now-infamous exchange (parts of which I’m omitting, signified by ellipses, to get to its essence) among Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), Rudy Giuliani and moderator Wendell Goler, during the most recent debate for the Republican presidential candidates:

Paul: They attack us because we’ve been over there. [For instance,] we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East. . . .

Goler: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

Paul: I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it. . . .

Giuliani: I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn’t really mean that.

Paul: I believe very sincerely that the C.I.A. is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. . . . If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem. They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.

For these arguments, many are now clamoring for Ron Paul’s exclusion from future debates. This is not only unhealthy, but also sets a dangerous precedent. (What’s next: baring a Republican who supports gay marriage?)

Dissent—in a debate of all places—invigorates discussion. And since Paul is the only one, out of 10 candidates, to oppose the war, his views merit inclusion.

Of course, not all dissent is worthy. Dissent for dissent’s sake is a waste of time, which is precious with only 90 minutes and 10 people. But dissent that’s grounded in conservative principles (“war is the health of the state“), or even some evidence, deserves a hearing.

Indeed, the idea that the U.S. invited 9/11 is not as radical as one might think. This idea, at least the nuanced, scholarly school of it, does not blame the United States for the attacks, but recognizes that it’s both who we are (“They hate us for our freedom“) and what we do (“We’ve been in the Middle East”) that fans the terrorist flames.

Even if Paul sounds like him, Michael Moore he is not.

But if he’s not a kook, then who is he? Well, some of his ideas are kooky, but the bigger problem is that he’s a poor communicator, who suffers from a rhetorical Napoleon complex. In short, he’s his own worst enemy.

Even a fool realizes that a format where you’re given one minute per question is probably the worst place to articulate perhaps the most controversial thing you could say to an American audience (you have blood on your hands for the deadliest attack on American soil in the nation’s history), especially one of Southern conservatives to whom the war on terror trumps everything. To wit, Paul’s above remarks were unnecessary (yes, he was baited, but he took the bait) and inappropriate (they require far too much time to explain, let alone convince someone of).

Since it’s fair to assume that a 10-term member of Congress is familiar with the cardinal rule of marketing—know your audience—the only explanation I can think of for these follies is that Paul likes controversy. And, to give him his due, as a going-nowhere candidate, he may be right to exploit the P.T. Barnum rule of publicity: all press is good press. If nothing else, his confrontation with Giuliani (it’s playing on YouTube as Ron vs. Rudy) has heightened his profile.

But Paul is seemingly oblivious to the alternative: instead of trying to ride his antiwar bona fides, he should emphasize his domestic agenda.

For example, when asked by both Giuliani and Goler to disabuse those who thought he had just likened Americans to cold-blooded mass murderers, instead of returning to theories of blowback, he might have simply said “No, I am not,” and pivoted back to why the Iraq war is hurting our national security.

What Ron Paul offers are deeply consistent, principled views on what the Constitution authorizes and does not authorize. Among Republicans hungry for a candidate who not only believes but also acts on fiscally conservative principles, this is his unique selling point.

Yet in listening to him, you’d never know this. You’d never know that he has never voted to raise taxes. Or that he has never voted for an unbalanced budget. Or that he has never voted for a federal restriction on gun ownership. Or that he has never voted to raise congressional pay. Why? Because Ron Paul is lousy at self-promotion—when, ironically, he has the most to promote.

So, instead of attacking Giuliani and asking him to apologize, both of which only fuel the perception that he is out of touch, Paul must focus more on himself. He’s already nailed showmanship. Now he needs to master salesmanship.

Addendum (6/1/2007): Finally, Paul declares, “It’s preposterous to say that I’m blaming America. That’s a complete distortion, like blaming a person for being murdered. No, I’m looking at the motives and reasons that elicit such hatred and willingness to kill.”

April 4th, 2007

Totalitarian Hyperbole

A version of this blog post appeared on Reagan Republicans on April 4, 2007.

The cover of the current issue of Reason (not yet online) contains the subtitle, “The totalitarian implications of public health.” By contrast, the subtitle of last month’s cover story used the word “authoritarian,” as in “The frightening mind of an authoritarian maverick.”

I don’t think it’s purely semantic to argue that “totalitarian,” as used today, is facile and hyperbolic, and, as such, diminishes real totalitarianism—of the Stalin, Hitler, Mao variety.

Say what you will about socialized medicine—or even conscription or the terrorist surveillance program—but do you really think they amount to the idea that you “should be totally subject to an absolute state authority“?

Let’s be clear: nothing in America today compares to the systematic murder and enslavement of tens of millions of people, engineered by tyrants unconstrained by checks or balances and utterly dismissive of democracy.

Accordingly, let’s reserve “totalitarian”—like references to the Holocaust, Nazis and tsunamis—for the real thing, and instead partake of the richness of the English language with words like “dictatorial,” “authoritarian,” “tyrannical,” “despotic” and “autocratic.”

January 3rd, 2004

A Little History of the Little Book

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

A version of this blog post appeared in abridged form on Polaris and in the Hamilton College Spectator on February 13, 2004.

We pass the building every day, yet most of us have been inside only once. Upon matriculation, we entered Kirkland Cottage to sign the College Register. An administrator then gave us each a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, a practice that began in 1999. With Hamilton’s commitment to a “writing-intensive experience,” this “little book,” as Strunk sardonically called it, unites all Hamiltonians; so shouldn’t we know more about it? Here’s a little history:

In 1918, as mandatory reading for the fall semester of his English 8 course at Cornell University, Professor William Strunk Jr. copyrighted and privately published in Ithaca, New York, a textbook titled The Elements of Style. Arguing that one must first know the rules before breaking them, Strunk intended his reference book “for use in English courses in which the practice of composition is combined with the study of literature.”

In 1919 Strunk reprinted The Elements for the spring and fall semesters of that year’s course, in which one Elwyn Brooks White was a pupil. The next year, Strunk had his textbook published, by Harcourt Brace and Company, as a 52-page book; this is often called the “first trade edition.” In 1935, two years before Strunk ended his 46-year tenure at Cornell, one of his sons, Oliver, copyrighted a “revised edition” of The Elements by William Strunk Jr. and Edward A. Tenney. (A search on reveals nothing about Tenney.)

Strunk died in 1946. In early 1957, H.A. Stevenson, editor of the Cornell Alumni News, filched from the campus library one of its two remaining copies of The Elements and mailed it to a longtime friend, E.B. White. Seeing the book again inspired White to write an affectionate piece about his late professor for the New Yorker. An editor at the Macmillan Company, J.G. Case, spotted the article and asked White if he’d like to revive the book.

Case’s original proposition was to use White’s essay as an introduction, but the project expanded and White revised the text as well. According to Letters of E.B. White, Case commissioned several grammarians well versed in the textbook field to submit suggestions to White. No doubt, Strunk would have applauded his co-author’s retort: “If the White-Strunk opus has any virtue, any hope of circulation, it lies in our keeping its edges sharp and clear, not in rounding them off cleverly. . . . Any attempt to tamper with this prickly design will get nobody nowhere fast.”

Thus was born The Elements of Style, with Revisions, an Introduction, and a New Chapter on Writing by E.B. White (1959).

In 1972, White published a second revision with the help of Eleanor Gould Packard. A longtime copy editor and authority on grammar and style at the New Yorker, Miss Gould had bought a copy of The Elements when it first appeared, marked it up as she would mark a raw proof, and slid it into a drawer of her desk. White knew nothing about this—Miss Gould was too shy to admit doing it—but later, when The Elements was up for revision, White asked for her help. She agreed, and revealed that she had in her possession a marked-up first edition.

In 1979 White published a third edition, which included an index prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Laurence W. Mazzeno of the United States Naval Academy.

White died on October 1, 1985, but The Elements of Style lives on, published in hardcover and paperback by Allyn and Bacon. For the “modestly updated” fourth edition, Roger Angell, E.B. White’s stepson and also a New Yorker staff writer, wrote the foreword; Charles Osgood, who also produced a video called The Elements of Style Video, wrote the afterward; and Robert DiYanni furnished a glossary. The book remains, as The Chicago Manual of Style puts it, a pithy “classic that offers excellent practical advice.”