Thursday, April 03, 2008


You know what, I've had it with this shit. My inner critic is an asshole and I just have to stop listening to him. It's because of him that I missed a lot of the great linguistic stuff that happened in the last couple of months and that just sucks.

So without further ado, let me:
1. Make a brief announcement: I'm back.
2. Thank every one who kept checking this space, especially Mr. Languagehat and my other fellow linguabloggers who are and always will be an inspiration.

And since I should probably start by picking up my own slack, here is - with many apologies to RAF, Abraham Lincoln and Bob Newhart - my modest and belated contribution to the celebration of National Grammar Day. Now if I could only remember how I found this one...

OK, so here's how it probably went down: I was catching up on Paleojudaica from whence a link lead me to On the Main Line, a very cool blog on the Cairo Genizah, Hebrew and other things fascinating, and somehow from there I got to Baltic Polyglottic, a new blog from Latvia (now sadly no longer updated). Hey, if the blogosphere needs anything, it's the general adoption of Lameen's "references with every blog post" policy and more people from the new EU Countries, so yay! It was there, in a charming post entitled "The most useful phrase I learned last year", that I learned about the career advice blog Brazen Careerist by one Penelope Trunk.

Now I'm not someone who needs career advice, nor would I listen to it should it be offered, but my recent job-hunting experiences made me curious. And so I clicked the link to find out how to turn an interview into a job. I learned that I should lose weight because fat (and therefore) unattractive people have a much lower chance to get hired, that I should prepare stock answers to standard interview questions and that I should practice being interviewed a lot. Now I admit that as a fat dude, I found the equation overweight = unattractive a bit insulting. But hey, that's no reason to stop being fair and balanced, so I decided to dig around a bit more to form a qualified opinion of Ms. Trunk and her writing. After two hours of reading brilliant advice like "being promoted has nothing to do with your skills and competence, it's all about being liked", "if you want to have a successful career start in college by geting out of the library" and having learned that Ms. Trunk is a former professional voleyball player (insert-jock-joke-here) and that she went through several stages of personal rebranding (... I got nothing), my mind was made up. The only question left to be answered was where does Ms. Trunk place on the George Carlin scale of stupid?

Fortunately, right about that time I got to a post, an excerpt from her book, which contains several tips on how to write "so people pay attention". The book costs $25, but Ms. Trunk was kind enough to provide us with one tip for free. It's #25 and it goes "Don't use adverbs". I'm guessing some of you can sense where this is going, so just grab your favorite snack and let's enjoy the ride.

By way of introduction, Ms. Trunk gives us her opinion on what constitutes good writing. First and foremost, you have to be brief. In Ms. Trunk's view and according to her understanding of the people she quotes, short equals elegant. Take Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - 270 words, yet undoubtedly one of the most powerful speeches ever written. So how do we write short and elegant texts that make people pay attention? Here are her seven tips:

1. Write lists.
... They are faster and easier to read than unformatted writing, and they are more fun. If you can’t list your ideas then you aren’t organized enough to send them to someone else.

OK, I can get behind that one, at least partially. I'm glad that an expert like Ms. Trunk approves of this strategy that was also employed by many great writers. Consider Winston Churchill, a Nobel Prize in Literature winner, and his famous "We shall fight on the beaches" speach which featured this list:

We shall fight:
  1. on the beaches;
  2. on the landing grounds;
  3. in the fields;
  4. in the streets, and
  5. in the hills.

Truly, this is the most powerful example of list as a literary device (with the possible exception of the Metterling list no. 5). It not only gave strength to the British people, but also outlined the Allied strategy for victory in WWII and even won the Battle of England. And I'm sure it provided people in London with endless mirth.

2. Think on your own time
....people don’t want to read your thinking process; they want to see the final result.

Indeed. Who cares about arguments and evidence, let alone what you read and where you read it? Results, that's what counts!

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

Unless, of course, you are Penelope Trunk.

4. Write like you talk.

What a splendid advice! For example, if like me you use the words "fuck" and "goddamn bullshit" a lot when you talk, you might want to start inserting these words into your work correspondence. I'm sure your boss will be impressed and people you deal with will appreciate the colorful character that you are. Especially if you work in customer care.

For example, you would never say “in conclusion” when you are speaking to someone so don’t use it when you write.

Very true. I mean think of all the pretentious nonsense people write to sound smart and educated and whatnot, shit they would never actually let pass through their lips. Like doctors, for instance, with their pseudolatin mumbo-jumbo. It's 'skull', not 'cranium', you asshole. Speak English! Or consider lawyers. Wouldn't all our contracts be much more clear and readable without all that "hereafter" and "aforementioned" and "compensation" and "shall" crap? Maybe when the revolution comes, we don't have to kill them. Let's just teach them to write properly.

5. Delete
When you’re finished, you’re not finished: cut 10% of the words.

Say, Abe, what's with that "The world will little note, nor long remember" shit? Cut it down. "The world won't remember" is good enough. And same goes for "we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow". Geez, keep it simple, will ya? Most of these folks don't even know what "hallow" means. Honestly, would you say that speaking to someone?

6. Passive voice. Almost no one ever speaks this way.

Ah, this is a familiar one. But the new twist Ms. Trunk puts on it is worth your last penny:

If you have a noun directly following “by” then it’s probably passive voice.

So when earlier today I wrote an email asking someone to "deliver the files by end of business", I was probably using the passive voice without even knowing it. Moreover, as Ms. Trunk points out,

... when you write it [passive voice] you give away that you are unclear about who is doing what because the nature of the passive voice is to obscure the person taking the action.

To pick an example: "When we write, authenticity gets buried under poor word choice". So who was it that buried authenticity? We really need to know!

And last, but by Jove, definitely not least:

7. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.

'Scuse me, ma'am, but why?

Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won’t need to throw in your interpretation.

Ah, I see. So when I say that the traffic light in an intersection is red, that's just my interpretation of the light spectrum and safe in that knowledge, I can just drive through. And when I tell someone that they are late because we agreed to meet at 1100 and they arrive at 1130, that's just my interpretation of the situation. For all I know, they are actually on time!

To recap, let's see these principles in action. For that, we can use the Gettysburg Address, which according to Ms. Trunk is a paragon of short and therefore elegant writing. Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln didn't have the opportunity to profit from Ms. Trunk's expertise, what with the tragic visit to the theater. But fear not, for I, a faithful acolyte of hers, am here to correct that. Behold, the new and improved version of The Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven 87 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 modify.
The world will little note, nor long won't remember what we say here, but it cannot 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.
Our It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task is remaining before us — that from these honored dead we to 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 will not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.
And that people's government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That's of course the version we get if we only follow rules 1- 3 and 6-7.
If we just follow rules No. 4 and 5, then we get this:

A lot of people died fighting in this war. Let's make sure they did not die in vain and that democracy will survive.

And honestly, folks, isn't that just better than the original?

Yeah, right.

As history has shown, the world has noted and to this day remembers what was said on that day in Gettysburg. That is because Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest orators of all time. He might not have been familiar with linguistics, but he sure knew about chosing the right words, about rhythm, about aliteration, about gradation and repetition. In short, he knew about all those things that make a speech great and of which Ms. Trunk hasn't got a fucking clue.

And finally, how does Ms. Trunk fare with regard to the George Carlin scale of stupid?

… I just checked to see if I have modifiers in this section. I do. But I think I use them well. You will think this, too, about your own modifiers, when you go back over your writing. But I have an editor, and you don’t, and I usually use a modifier to be funny, and you do not need to be funny in professional emails. So get rid of your adverbs and adjectives, really.

I report. You decide.


John Cowan said...

What a relief to see someone else posting after a long break.

It's true that Lincoln's speech was a masterpiece of its kind -- yet you omit all mention of the accompanying slides.

And just to twist a meme,


Panu said...

Welcome back! Where the fuck have you been for so long? :D

Andrew said...

It doesn't matter! He's back!

komfo,amonan said...

An unexpected development your return is. Welcome back.

Anonymous said...

The internet felt a little stupider until now. Welcome back.

Excellent post, too. I remember in third year undergrad, I decided to do some politics, both local and international. The first lecture of each was basically the course co-ordinator giving the rules, which included succinctness, adverblessness and "no passive tense". Needless to say I changed classes that afternoon.

bulbul said...

Thanks everybody, I feel like coming home :)

goofy said...

I'm all for National Grammar Day if it means more posts like that.

Anonymous said...

If you have a noun directly following “by” then it’s probably passive voice.


It's true that Lincoln's speech was a masterpiece of its kind -- yet you omit all mention of the accompanying slides.

Link doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Like doctors, for instance, with their pseudolatin mumbo-jumbo. It's 'skull', not 'cranium', you asshole. Speak English!

Linguist: I have this rash around my mouth.
Dermatologist: Looks like perioral dermatitis.
Linguist: That's what I said.

Languagehat said...

Bah, you might have let me know you were back! Ah well, at least I only have four posts to catch up on.

Oh, and welcome back!

John Cowan said...

The slides are at There's commentary on them by the author at

bulbul said...

nice of you to drop by :) And yeah, I could have, but I figured you were busy and didn't want to disturb...

ohsweetjesusonacross. I thought you were kidding about the slides. This is somehow even worse than the Sermon on the Mount in PowerPoint.

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Tongue said...

Lingua again