This can also make for rather dull writing and I appreciate the irony in this paragraph:
> However, at first you may still find yourself writing the odd long sentence, especially when trying to explain a complicated point. But most long sentences can be broken up in some way.
Here we see the Tetris player drop a sequence of blocks leaving a 3x1 gap down the left edge. Where are they going with this? More blocks stack up on the middle and right, there are “bubbles” in the pile that are covered by squares and there’s still that annoying gap on the left holding them back from clearing. Time passes. The screen is now getting dangerously full.
Then they drop in a pair of 4x1 blocks that completes rows 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. The bubbles on rows 4 and 7 become exposed making a T shaped hole. The next block to fall is a T shape. The screen clears, the sentence’s cognitive buffer is flushed, and we move on to the next point.
"You must fill form 331 unless you are over 60 years old, in which case you must fill form 445."
"You must fill form 331. If you are over 60 years old, you must fill 445 instead."
"If you are over 60 years old, you must fill form 445. Otherwise, you must fill form 331."
You might have noticed that the last version is an if-else statement.
This resplendent sentence in the Vulkan spec did it to me the other day:
The layout of subresources of images on other logical devices that are bound to VkDeviceMemory objects associated with the same underlying memory resources as external memory objects on the lost device becomes VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED.
I got about half way through and suddenly discovered I didn't know where I was, what year it was or my name.
(I don't know anything about Vulkan, and there is some ambiguity in the quoted sentence, so I've given a few different versions with different meanings. Note that the ambiguity is not necessarily a flaw in the quoted sentence -- it may be perfectly unambiguous, albeit very unclear, to anyone with any knowledge of Vulkan.)
If a device is lost, the subresources of some images on other logical devices may have their layout become VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED. This happens if the VkDeviceMemory object to which the image is bound is associated with the same underlying memory resources as an external memory object on the lost device.
... or, if an image isn't necessarily bound to exactly one VkDeviceMemory object, ...
If a device is lost, the subresources of some images on other logical devices may have their layouts become VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED. This happens if the image is bound to a VkDeviceMemory object which is associated with the same underlying memory resources as an external memory object on the lost device.
... or, if it's the other logical device bound to a VkDeviceMemory object rather than the image:
If a device is lost, the subresources of images on other logical devices may have their layouts become VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED. This happens if the other device is bound to a VkDeviceMemory object which is associated with the same underlying memory resources as an external memory object on the lost device.
Or maybe a slightly different structure. "If a device is lost, and some VkDeviceMemory object is associated with hte same underlying memory resources as an external memory object on that lost device, then all subresources of any image bound to that VkDeviceMemory object have their layout set to VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED."
But I can't help thinking that this really wants a diagram. Nodes for the logical devices, the images, the VkDeviceMemory object, the "underlying memory resources", the external memory object. Labelled arrows for relationships like "bound to", "has as underlying memory resource", "is a subresource of", etc.
And it seems as if this business of "having your layout set to VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED" deserves a name. (Naming things is a powerful general technique for reducing cognitive stack overflows.)
"Under some circumstances, the memory resources associated with an image may be invalidated, in which case all subresources of the image will have layout VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_INVALIDATED and [explain here the consequences of that]. In this case, the image is said to be layout-invalidated. " ... And then later, when talking about lost devices, you say "If a device is lost, images on other logical devices may be layout-invalidated. This happens when the image is bound to a VkDeviceMemory object, and that object is associated with the same underlying memory resources as an external memory object on the lost device."
A meeting of faculty heads is taking place. The topic - funding. The chairman says: "Hey, physicists, why are you so expensive? You need all those gadgets and materials to perform your experiments. Look at the mathematicians. All they need to produce a research paper are a box of paper, a box of pencils, and a trash can."
"We don't even need trash cans, sir." announces the dean of Philosophy.
(becomes (qualified (layout of subresources of images on other logical devices) (bound . (same-memory-resources (VkDeviceMemory objects) (external memory objects on the lost device)))) VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT_UNDEFINED)
Will natural-language tools eventually help us turn these puddles of nouns into reasonable sentences?
Funny to read this as I'm learning German! In German the main verb of a sentence has to be at the end depending on the context (e.g: if it is a question, or following some prepositions such as "dass").
Let's say we want to build a question, it will be constructed this way:
1. question marker (such as "Was", "Wo", "Warum", etc)
3. other details regarding the subject (adjectives and others)
4. the verb, with correct grammatical form depending on the subject
Something I find quite frustrating is that I have to keep in mind everything about the subject during the entire duration of the sentence just to be able to use the verb correctly. So because of this I always try to keep the distance between a subject and the verb as short as possible when trying to speak German, which results in very terse sentences that looks similar to what you described.
My life partner speaks native German and doesn't even realize that she does this buffering.
It's a pain for the translator to pull off the same effect in most other languages.
An American woman visiting Berlin - intent on hearing Bismarck speak - obtained two tickets for the Reichstag visitors' gallery and enlisted an interpreter to accompany her.
Soon after their arrival, Bismarck rose and began to speak. The interpreter, however, simply sat listening with intense concentration. The woman, anxious for him to begin translating, nudged and budged him, to no avail.
Finally, unable to control herself any longer, the woman burst out: "What is he saying!?" "Patience, madam," the interpreter replied. "I am waiting for the verb."
"As Gregor Samsa one morning from restless dreams awoke, found he himself in his bed into a huge verminous bug transformed."
Haha, that's a nice one, thanks for sharing :)
E. g. "aufgeben" translated part-by-part is "upgive", so "to surrender" or "to give up" in English.
However, in sth. like 3rd position singular, the form would be "er gibt auf" ("he gives up"). But in German, the object goes between "gives" and "up".
Thus, my roommate mentioned a sentence like "Der Präsident gibt sein Versprechen zur Verbesserung der Arbeitslosigkeitsquote auf" (The President gives up his promise about improving unemploymemt rates).
So yeah, parsing German sometimes results a pause while everyone unwinds their stack.
The "in" is logically related to "which basket", so one would expect that the question would actually be *"In which basket...", but nope, that's rustic and colloquial at best. I suspect it's because of the word inversion in questions, since in dependent clauses the order is reasonable: "I put the figurine in this woven concrete basket over there".
nope, the other way around; "don't end sentences in prepositions" is a formal rule iirc. Quoting Grammarly website,
* Which journal was your article published in? (Casual)
* In which journal was your article published? (Formal)
"Into which basket did you put that exquisite marble figurine?"
Could the tension/buffering in that sentence be resolved with something like: "Which basket has got that exquisite marble figurine"? When spoken by a native speaker 'has got' would likely be contracted to "which basket's got"
Sub out 'has got' for 'contains' if you want to be more formal.
As you mention, it gets even screwier given the opportunity to put a "nicht" (not) at the very end of a sentence to lead listeners down a garden path.
In German, the word order "I believe you not" is the proper way to phrase that sentiment, without being pithy about it.
This is no different in English: "He told the upstanding, proper young woman off".
"He told off the ... woman."
German doesn't (directly) give you that chance.
I knew a German to Polish translator and she complained about how hard live translation was when a key part of the sentence is held until the very end.
1. It's an infinitive verb, perfect verb, or a verb in a subclause, in which case it goes to the end.
2. You're asking a question without a question word (i.e. "Can you" or "Will you") or issuing a command, in which case the verb moves to the beginning).
Verb in second position:
> "Was willst du" -> What do you want?
Infinitive verb at the end of the clause:
> "Ich will mit dir reden" -> I want to talk to you
Conjugated verb at the end of a subclause:
> "Kannst du mir versprechen, dass du mich nie verlassen -wirst?" -> Can you promise you will never leave me
Just to clarify, I'm not any sort of authority on this. Merely trying to double check my own understanding as I continue on my language learning journey :)
In light of that, the default German construction is effectively verb-last. (separable prefixes moving to the end exacerbates this need for buffering too)
Üben macht den Meister!
In Dutch at least, you can imagine these really long sentences which build up details, adding more and more, until they finally surprise you with the verb at the end. But in practice people don't speak that way - the patterns of speech and just the way people use the language in different subtle ways mostly prevents that from happening, in natural ways that don't feel terse. It may be different in academia/legal professions and that sort of thing.
Dutch: "De man die de vrouw die bloemen plukt kust."
Literally: "The man who (the woman (who flowers picks)) kisses"
Meaning: "The man who kisses the woman that is picking flowers"
The subordinate clause is sandwiched between subject and verb. However, Dutch allows the following order:
Dutch: "De man die de vrouw kust die bloemen plukt."
Literally: "The man who (the woman) kisses (who flowers picks)"
In this case the verb kisses has moved to the front. It is a transformation that allows a form of tail recursion elimination. After the main verb the parse stack for the main clause can be popped and all resources dedicated to parsing the trailing subordinate clause(s). This allows us to string together quite a lot of subclauses without getting lost.
Correct, a sentence like this is quite easy to read:
De man, die gewoonlijk zijn handen afveegt aan zijn broek, besloot dit keer zijn handen af te vegen aan de handdoek die zijn vrouw, die gister nog bloemen aan het plukken was, specifiek hiervoor had neergelegd.
"The proverbial German phenomenon of the 'verb-at-the-end', about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nunplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping."
"If you are age 59 or under, fill form 331. If you are 60 or over, fill form 445."
This problem is further exacerbated by the wide variety of temporal arithmetic possibilities any such workflow might adopt.
The solution is to either combine the forms, or (in an interactive context) ask the user if they were born before 1960, then give them the right form.
How did they manage this? I've tried every way I can think of forgetting my age, to no avail -the bastard number is always there :)
I’ve started doing similar now. I don’t often recall my age or the number of years my wife and I have been married, or, heck, even our kid’s ages. But I recall all the years and dates. In this way, I more easily appear to recall the right value.
Diffusing bomb model AX72 steps:
- Cut the blue wire.
- But first cut the red wire.
“Complete form 445 if you are over 60 years old. Complete form 331 if you are 60 years old or younger.”
Also, is it my age at the time I sign the form, or my age at the time the form is received, that matters? Arguably that's a problem with the rule itself rather than how it's expressed. It's better if you can write something like: "If you were born before 6 April 1960 ... otherwise ...". Note that "after 6 Apr 1960" is arguably more ambiguous than "before 6 Apr 1960" because there's a slight risk that someone could interpret "6 Apr 1960" as meaning 1960-04-06 00:00:00.
This problem is vaguely related to the insurance policy renewals that leave a one-minute gap between the old policy and the new policy, and even more vaguely related to the ambiguity of "midnight on the next day".
I strongly prefer pairing “before” and “on or after” (or “on or before” with “after”) when it comes to dates. “On <date>” is widely and conventionally understood to encompass the entire day, and it seems to make it far less likely than with after/before alone with “otherwise” that people will trip up over boundary conditions. But the right phrasing is highly sensitive to the context and the underlying rule; if it's an age based rule and you have fixed text that doesn't dynamically adjust by dates you can't use date-based language even if it would be clearer.
Imprecise language to allow flexibility and 'let the judges decide'... I'm not sure I'm comfortable with common-law-inspired regulation.
Not sure how to do this better though.
In other words, it's not really an if-else block, but just an if statement before the default scenario. Almost everyone has to fill form 331.
I think the sentence structure you suggest would quickly make a longer text tedious to read. I have experimented with that sentence format, and it added a lot of text, but not a lot of clarity.
I also think that putting the if statement at the end makes little sense, just like when reading code.
To me (I am not a native speaker), the default emphasis is on the first words:
The police stopped the riot. -> emphasis on the police
The riot was stopped by the police. -> emphasis on the riot
It coincides with the examples in which passive voice is recommended.
> To make something less hostile - 'this bill has not been paid' (passive) is softer than 'you have not paid this bill' (active).
> To avoid taking the blame - 'a mistake was made' (passive) rather than 'we made a mistake' (active).
Yes, I agree that we often overuse passive voice, and active voice is a good default. However, I think that the rule of thumb should be "write in the natural order", rather than "don't use passive voice unless strictly necessary".
Rather, there is a rich history in English prescriptivism of misdiagnosing and blaming the passive for all ills.
FWIW in UK 'must' in gov advice indicates a legal obligation. It annoys me no end when such obligations are not supported by references to legislation: as then I can't check if they've been correctly interpreted.
Prose should be readable, but also functional.
I did start adding little calculators and utilities in my articles, but those only make sense because I have a lot of free time.
I heavily cite sources, so at least you'd know the exact paragraph in the law that supports it. It's something my competitors neglect, and it makes it hard to tell facts apart from hearsay.
It's poor writing to state a mistruth and then whittle away at it until you arrive at the truth. Far better to build up truth upon truth until you arrive at the full picture.
A natural number greater than 1 cannot be expressed as the product of two smaller natural numbers, if it is prime.
A prime number is a natural number greater than 1 that is not a product of two smaller natural numbers. (Stolen from Wikipedia.)
A prime number is a natural number that is greater than 1, and not a product of two smaller numbers.
Commas let you catch your breath and flush the buffer. When there are two many commas, I use a bullet list.
I'm afraid I don't see your rephrasing as an improvement. It doesn't substantially restructure the sentence, and to someone familiar with the mathematical writing style, it reads less naturally.
Prefer declarative statements:
"If you are 60 or older, you must fill form 445.
If you are 59 or younger, you must fill form 331."
Somehow, this single expression made me finally (after reading beginning of it) understand your post better. Before that expression had hit my apprehension, the post read like "what is he on about?".
Perhaps needless to point out, but this is quite a beautiful thing you've done there: the expression itself works as the very thing it describes, in the context of your post. Within the post, that expression is the T-shaped block, - the thing that clears the buffer and makes all the collected blocks all make sense together.
Starting a paragraph with However doesn't seem right. It ties the paragraph too intimately to the previous one, from which it should stand apart. Similarly, sometimes it may be ok to begin a sentence with But, but in this instance it doesn't read quite right. I'd have preferred:
> At first you may still find yourself writing the odd long sentence, especially when trying to explain a complicated point. Fortunately, most long sentences can be broken up in some way.
Something the article does but doesn't mention, is to use short paragraphs. I do this instinctively on Hacker News/Stack Overflow/email, I think it improves readability, although it might not be appropriate for more formal writing (papers, books).
> Starting a paragraph with However doesn't seem right.
If I were to do this, my paragraphs would become at least 3 times as long. Because much of my writing is complex enough that it takes about half a page to make the 'basic argument' and another half a page to explain the exceptions to the basic argument. I would put both half-pages in separate paragraphs. And I do think it makes sense to start the second paragraph with however. It clearly signals to the reader that:
* The previous point is finished (end of previous paragraph)
* Reading this paragraph without having read the previous one doesn't make sense.
I don't think my second point there is bad. The second paragraph deserves to be split from the first to delineate the arguments. It allows the reader time to drop all but the conclusion of the previous paragraph from their mind. But the second paragraph still depends heavily on the first.
I find this jarring to read. That should be a comma, not a period. By using a period, you've technically made your sentence shorter, but the structure is unchanged. Alternatively you could just chop the Because, and it would flow fine. I really doubt your writing is thrice the density of mine. I very rarely encounter writing that approaches sentences this way, authors are able to get by fine without it.
I find it similarly jarring to read the sentences beginning with and, or but. It's as if you've told me the sentence is finished, only to then reopen it. It's like a programming language permitting a && b; && c;
There may be situations where it's ok to do this, but I wouldn't overuse it.
Hmmm, I guess I agree. I am going to try that a lot. In sentence structure I often get the issue of "$Claim, because $justification." This leads to really long sentences that I feel should be split. And again, I want to preserve the link between the two parts. Doing $Claim. $Justification. Feels like I am making an unsubstantiated claim followed by another unrelated claim.
In the programming language I would see this sort of as:
int a = foo(b);
return 1 + b
I guess this is similar to my earlier point. Where I want to split the un-related parts but still want to capture the strong relation between the two.
An alternative might be something like.
"We know that $justification. Hence, it follows that $claim."
You've given me food for thought. Thanks!
- Although John is a nice guy, he beats his dog.
- Although John beats his dog, he's a nice guy.
- John is a nice guy, but he beats his dog.
- John beats his dog, but he's a nice guy.
These are all plain English sentences, but will be interpreted quite differently. For the moment, try to set aside the moral judgement on dog beating and consider what the author's opinion of John is in each case.
For example, readers tend to latch onto the last part of a sentence. So putting the nice guy part last tends to support John. Whereas putting the dog beating last tends to undermine John.
Same facts, almost the same words, but different messages.
"i didn't say he stole the money." this doesn't say much, but when a word is stressed takes on a new meaning, so one should be careful to capture the stress in writing.
I didn't say he stole the money. - someone else said it, not me
i DIDN'T say he stole the money. - you think I said it, it wasn't me.
i didn't SAY he stole the money. - I never said such a thing, might have suggested it's a possibility, but never said it.
i didn't say HE stole the money. - I said someone else stole it.
i didn't say he STOLE the money. - I might have said he took it, like borrowed, but definitely didn't say he stole it, who knows?
i didn't say he stole THE money. - not the money in question, another money.
i didn't say he stole the MONEY. - he stole something else besides the money.
So the same sentence can mean something very different and to really make sure the reader get's the meaning, will need more context than in spoken language.
For example in Hungarian, most of the above emphasis differences would have to be reflected in word order and would therefore be visible in writing.
This makes translation also quite difficult, because English likes to play with this ambiguity a lot: "I won't kill you." "Oh thank God!" "... Johnny, my assistant will." - this is hard to express the same way in Hungarian, because you'd have use a different word order in the first sentence if you negate the "I" vs. if you negate the "kill". (Or more precisely: you'd include the "I" if and only if it's emphasized, otherwise the "I" pronoun has to be omitted in Hungarian.)
Languages hide their expressive power in different places, rather. Hungarian is primarily an agglutinative language, while English is historically a fusional language, which lost most of its inflection and is mainly analytic in its modern form.
In conclusion, the first clause of your first sentence is bearing most of the load.
Depends on what "nuance" exactly means here. What I meant is specifically the kind of logical and structural ambiguity like what "NOT" refers to or what "TOO" refers to. For example "I ate lunch, too..." can be continued as "... not just my friend" or as "...not just breakfast". In Hungarian this wouldn't be possible because the grammar is less ambiguous. The word order would tell what the "too" refers to, similar with "not".
English feels distinctly "Tarzan-like", it feels like words put next to each other. Most of the difficulty in learning English comes from the strange orthography and the difficult phonology and, yes, some of the grammar too, like tenses. But students can start building correct sentences from day one, because there is not much complexity in the grammar. High fancy prose in English is mostly about using rare words and synonyms, not through intricate grammatical structure.
As I said one effect in the opposite direction is the richness of tenses in English. All the "I had been going" or "I used to go" and "I have gone" and "I am going" kind of complex tenses do not exist in Hungarian. So it may be that we just notice the parts of our native language that have no equivalent in the second language, while discounting things we don't "need" as extraneous complexity and fluff. For example in Hungarian if you want to tell a story with complex timelines, you can't rely on tenses alone as in English, you have to give more explicit times or say "before that" and "meanwhile" and similar temporal phrases explicitly.
Yes, that's what an analytic language is: words put next to each other.
English is also a creole language, synthesized from an Anglo base stratum with French imposed by the ruling class. This has a simplifying effect on a language: as you point out, English is simple to pick up, and devilish to master.
I will say this: Hungarians offer this complaint about English more often than can be explained by chance. Russians and Germans as well, two heavily inflected languages. I gather that Hungarians are justly proud of their language, and wish I had a spare decade to see what all the fuss is about!
One aspect of this analytic ambiguity which I treasure, is the facility with which humor can be expressed in English. Even the silly Groucho Marx kind, like "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."
Basically word order reflects the informational structure of the sentence, as opposed to grammatical structure. So what was known before, what is the new information, what is the surprising bit etc. East Asian languages like Japanese do this as well and are perhaps better known for this internationally.
I didn't say he stole the money. - Nem (not) én (I) mondtam (said-I), hogy (that) ellopta (he-stole) a (the) pénzt (money-accusative).
i DIDN'T say he stole the money. - Én nem mondtam, hogy ellopta a pénzt.
i didn't SAY he stole the money. - Mondani nem mondtam, hogy ellopta a pénzt. (Needs a bit of different structure)
i didn't say HE stole the money. - Nem mondtam, hogy ő lopta el a pénzt. (See how ő=he/she has only appeared now, it was implied by the conjugation before)
i didn't say he STOLE the money. - Nem azt mondtam, hogy ellopta a pénzt.
i didn't say he stole THE money. - Nem azt mondtam, hogy A pénzt lopta el. (This one is unusual already in English, we'd explicitly say "that money", not just "THE money").
i didn't say he stole the MONEY. - Nem azt mondtam, hogy a pénzt lopta el.
Imagine if English had versions like:
Not I said he stole the money.
I not said he stole the money.
I not said stole he the money.
I not said the money he stole.
Or something like that. Depending on which part is negated the order would be different. However since English morphology is very simple, you can't shuffle the words around because grammatical structure is only encoded by the words' position in the sentence, there are no significant conjugations and declensions to mark words according to their role in the sentence.
But in practice I hear often in English media and books something completely else, where a word next to it has the accent/emphasis, not the one that is CLEARLY arising from context.
I tried to consult that with local English teachers and people coaching others in communication in that language, but they just had no idea what I am talking about.
In your example it would be:
"i didn't SAY he stole the money" when it's perfectly clear from context that the person denies such situation ever had place and was not involved in it in any way.
In TV it's just weird, but maybe I'm dumb, or person speaking is weird. But in books it's stated with bold font or "<<word>>" and the context is clear. I saw that espacially in books from 1940-1970, modern reeditions from UK and US have all those bold text left intact.
Very awkward for a non native speaker.
I wish I was taking notes while reading, to show examples now :)
Harsh: We really like your proposal but we don’t have the resources.
Soft: We don’t have the resources, but we really like your proposal.
Another trick is to not just say, "I disagree" when you disagree. Validate first, then express disagreement. For example: "I hear you and see where you’re coming from. I have a different view." This lessens defensiveness.
This might all sound very silly, but these are actually brain hacks in order to have constructive conversations. Depending on your culture, you might have a different sensitivity to direct speech. If you're sensitive, your lower brain (fight-or-flight mechanism) is activated when you perceive someone is critical toward you. The idea of rearranging language is to defuse that lower brain (fight-or-flight) tendency and move the conversation to the upper brain (executive function), so instead of fighting at a pure feelings level, ideas can be exchanged (and disagreements can be had) at a more abstract level.
For me, the difference is that the second one carries more of an implication that the speaker doesn't consider dog beating all that problematic since even though John does it, he's still a nice guy. Also, to me, the first one is more judgemental towards John than the second.
Everything before "but" is often bullshit. "I'm not racist, but". "No offense, but".
"He is a nice guy, but..." ~= "He is not a nice guy, because..."
One interesting things is that when you look at sentiment of words in reviews, the word "but" glows (in red).
"There are multiple ways to solve this problem, but this is best one."
Isn't that better than:
"This is how we should solve it"?
I see no problem with qualifying an assertion with a lesser weight.
Another example: "Boris Johnson is a woefully inadequate Prime Minister but he was kind of funny 20 years ago on Have I Got News For You".
It's almost like weighing Negative Fact #1 against Positive Fact #2 and suggesting to the audience that the scales are now more or less level so let's move on.
Obviously the 2 facts are a long way from being really "equal", and how one applies the offset (minor bad vs major good, major bad vs minor good, etc) should be influenced by what one is trying to achieve.
"I haven't ever gotten professional training, but I think my driving ability is above average because I analyze what I do."
Among interesting things to note that they strongly discourage FAQs (“if you write content by starting with user needs, you will not need to use FAQs … they are usually not frequently asked questions by the public, but important information dumped by the content editor”). The concept of FAQ has long been a pet peeve of mine, although I do believe the “question and answer” format has some merit.
They represent discovered problems in the text the author didn't foresee.
Indeed. If certain questions are asked frequently, likely the information is not presented with audience’s actual needs in mind. Content should be updated, possibly rewritten. Putting up a FAQ shows content editor washing their hands of that responsibility.
I also find it a little rude, like “Welcome to the group of people who, despite our best efforts, didn’t manage to understand what we wrote! Here are some questions you lot keep asking…” (Of course, usually it’s not that, but rather a half-hearted attempt to be helpful and/or reduce the amount of people getting in touch with questions.)
Obviously gov.uk material is of a different nature than that of a corporate motto, but it speaks to the exasperate community complaints at that time.
Kinda like how some people don’t like hearing that their plane will be taking off “momentarily” or when people use “begs the question” to mean “raises the question”
Your mileage may vary. By rather a lot.
TBH in the example given the above should simply be:
> A language for building reliable and efficient software.
Agenda, advance, deliver, deploy, facilitate, empower - all such cringy words when used out of context.
"Filed by Mark Liberman under Prescriptivist poppycock"
edit: Just checked and it still rates "Silly" x 75 as "Good". "Hemingway" x 30 rates as "Post-graduate" but otherwise good. Yeah, it's still broken.
Language, specifically jargon, is an expression of culture. It's an expression of power, education, experience, or lack thereof. It's a quick way to gauge if someone is "like you" or not. If they have the same experience, and especially in professional settings, a quick (yet often incorrect) measure of competence.
Take everyone's favorite, "Business English":
You don't try again, you iterate. You don't take another call, you jump or hop to another call. You sync, and you align. Against the article's recommendation, you nominalize all day, by "bringing projects to completion" and "moving forward with the engagement".
Jargon and style, while often utter bullshit, is a way of measuring people quickly. I once had someone ask me, "would you say you practice disruptive innovation methodology?" My answer to that question was a quick way to learn that unlike them, I did not have an MBA. Complexity is often synonymous with education.
> Jargon is a type of language that is only understood by a particular group of people. You can use jargon when writing to people who will understand the terms and phrases. It can be a useful form of shorthand. But try to avoid using specialist jargon on the general public.
Unless your goal is to identify if someone is part of said particular group. And therefore in the vast majority of business and technical cases, Plain English -- at least jargon and nominalization -- unfortunately may close more doors than it opens.
I disagree with your last paragraph. Speaking clearly and decisively is a good thing, and people will usually appreciate it. People become famous for speaking clearly. I remember some general made the rounds for his plain, no-nonsense COVID-19 address. I wish I could find it again.
I can only think of this scene right now.
Speaking a language people understand is decisively a good thing, and what people understand varies dramatically by situation. "Plain English" isn't always the answer. (Also hierarchy -- when you're on top, you get to set the tone.)
If you want to be part of a club, you need to sound like a member. Unless you own the club.
I'm not sure why it took me until now to name that style of speaking.
Over 10 years ago I was in a room where someone said "let us dialogue about this offline" to actually mean "shut up, let's continue".
I am often reminded of the phrase "It does not require many words to speak the truth", but here we are with "Business English".
My eye genuinely twitched reading this sentence
how can something disruptive and innovative -- which I take to imply unpredictable novelty -- be methodological?
I take methodology to imply that something has become normalized; that it has become common enough and happened enough times that its practice can be systematically described as a method.
"Our scientific and engineering production pipeline makes 10 disruptive innovations every year! 100% satisfaction guarantee. invest now!"
"Style toward Clarity and Grace" by Joseph M. Williams is, imho, the most thorough, yet comprehensible, guide to how to write in Plain English. It goes beyond short 'do this, don't do that' guides by explaining why, and how, English can be unclear with exercises to help transform your writing.
I can't stress enough that the ability to take both simple ideas, and complex ideas, and write both in a clear and compelling way that inspires action, will pay dividends over any career.
Every decent writer I know has worked diligently at practice, usually for years. They're also omnivorous readers of good long-form writing. Finally, they seek and are grateful for the advice of a good editor.
Talent can help you advance in skill more quickly and perhaps reach a higher ultimate plateau, but it does little to replace the requirement for observation, practice and review. I've often thought that talent is indistinguishable from interest and passion---it's what gets you to do the work, not a replacement for it.
Some minor comments: "utilize" should be on the list of words to avoid. I have yet to encounter a use of that word that wouldn't be improved by replacing it with "use". In technical and scientific writing, passive voice can be valuable when the salient concern is not the actor, but the act and its consequences. "The sheep were administered methamphetamine one hour before being tased" focuses on the study, while "we gave the sheep meth and then we tased them" focusses on the scientists. The former is often better for this type of writing.
Note: the example is from one of my favourite studies. I wish I had heard about before I chose my thesis topic: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1553-2712...
1) The writer should make a conscious effort to keep his or her sentences as long as possible; just one word: the flow; some shorter sentences can be juxtaposed, periods replaced with comas or semicolons; the abundance of adjectives and adjective phrases never hurt --
2) The passive voice has to be chosen whenever possible; safer, less offensive, less responsible language is the enabler
3) Possessive determiners are to be preferred over personal pronouns, the passive voice is based on their liberal use
4) Thesaurus is considered by some to be essential for richer and more subtle communication, word substitutions refine the ideas being conveyed to the reader --
-- the reader should be never explicitly solicited to do anything -- he or she should be free-willed into doing
6) Consideration of these dos and donts will likely unleash also the power of nominalization; nominalized verbs put action first
*) Bullet lists are the standard punctuation;
Born in 1938, Chrissie largely missed out on formal education
and could not read until she was in her mid‑teens.
In 1994 Chrissie received an OBE and in 1995 she was awarded an
honorary MA by Manchester University. Two years later, she received
an honorary doctorate from the Open University. And in 1999 she
officially joined the 'establishment' when she was listed in Who's Who.
When I'm writing a long-form prose/essay, I start writing in Hemingway. Edits and changes are done there to cater to my target audience. I'd then pick up the draft from there and go through Grammarly as the final passage.
## Quick, Short Writings
For everyday use, I use iA / Writer. I turn on all the Style Check filters to spot superfluous adjectives, weak verbs, and unwanted repetitions. I then, let it go through Grammarly (either with the App, or via browser Input fields).
This has helped me a lot. Growing up in a region with too many dialects per area, we used English as the one medium to communicate and educate, so I have the affinity to write more phrase-y, English-y. For quite a while, I have wanted to simply and write more clearer, simpler, and effective. These three tools have helped me a lot.
I have used Grammarly for almost a year, it says my vocabulary uses more unique words than
94% of Grammarly users. I'm not particularly proud of that. I want to simplify.
Pre-boarding is just boarding.
Pre-booking is just booking.
Pre-prefixing everything. Sigh.
"Please revert" - you mean 'reply', not 'return to a former state'.
"Ping me" - ugh.
And my favourite.... "Learnings" - you mean lessons. "What drivings have you been on?" ... "What journeys have you been on?"
Is close to a real sentence pronounced upon us from a management type during one of their endless Zoom meetings.
Someone sent in a semi-private chat shared by some of us, "They meant, we should share what we've learned."
I feel like we worked for the same company. Last time I heard this exact phrase I was participating in a meeting where one of the agenda points was feedback from a meeting about meetings.
Result: we scheduled another meeting.
Important question: did we deliver value?
Ping me => email/call/slack/whatsapp/zulip/telegram/meet-in-person me
What bothers me are 'ask' and 'lift' used as nouns. They add nothing to the language, and are just ugly. Maybe my father felt the same the first time he heard 'sweet' to mean 'cool.'
"Build out" instead of just build.
"Actionable" - although it is a real word, it is a legal term, not a synonym of practical.
It literally has no other meaning outside of the ICMP echo utility; and the onomatopoeia of hitting glass.
How did it enter the Business world?
Everyone of a certain age will have seen a half dozen submarine WW2 or Cold War films so regular people do have context.
And there's nothing wrong with it.
'Learnings' is an odd word but it actually makes sense because there are no perfect substitutes. 'Insights' isn't quite it.
There are plenty of other English words that work in context where you might use 'learning', like 'lesson', 'insight', or 'takeaway'. 'Learning' just encapsulates them all without nuance.
(a) a formal lecture given by a qualified person to a class;
(b) a fact that you learned from any person or even just a situation you were in.
"Lesson" in the sense (b) is a direct substitute for "a learning", but I have to admit a few people might sometimes interpret it as (a) and be confused. But it depends on the context - if a project report has a "lessons learnt" heading I don't think any reader is going to expect that means meaning (a).
I'll bet there are words in other languages that more perfectly capture the meaning of 'learnings' - and admittedly it's a really ugly colloquialism ... but I would accept it out of a resigned pragmatism.
What about in the context of a sonar system on a submarine? My first encounter of the term was probably The Hunt for Red October.
Every place I've worked with managers that speak like this has invariably produced crap.
Pre-booking is the initial step before a complete booking.
Ticket agencies use 'pre-booking' to book the first tiny tranche of tickets.
And HR departments seem to love 'pre-authorization' to get... authorization for holidays, or purchasing, and so on.
eg you can make on the day bookings or call up HR to say you've got dave from forklifts incorporated on the phone and you need the company card immediately.
I personally love "ping me". It's even shorter and more punchy, compared to "message me".
Language evolves. Shakespeare would find our English today bewildering. Instead of complaining about it, I find it most helpful to keep up with the latest lingo, and focus instead on conveying my message most clearly.
1. Most people writing content will assume that their readers are like themselves or their social circle and will therefore have good literacy skills. However the actual proportion of people with poor (or even just not high) literacy skills is much higher than you might estimate from your social circle.
2. Improving clarity for people with poor literacy will also improve readability for people with good literacy.
> Research shows that higher literacy people prefer plain English because it allows them to understand the information as quickly as possible.
> For example, research into use of specialist legal language in legal documents found:
> 80% of people preferred sentences written in clear English - and the more complex the issue, the greater that preference (for example, 97% preferred ‘among other things’ over the Latin ‘inter alia’)
> the more educated the person and the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English
> People understand complex specialist language, but do not want to read it if there’s an alternative. This is because people with the highest literacy levels and the greatest expertise tend to have the most to read. They do not have time to pore through reams of dry, complicated prose.
someone linked this above: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/content-design/writing-for-gov-u...
My takeaway is slightly different: simple words (familiar) are easier to digest than big words (unfamiliar) because familiar words will be parsed very quickly for most people than unfamiliar words.
I prefer to use the categorization of “familiar” vs “unfamiliar” because the categorization of a word as “big” or “simple” depends largely on the reading ability of the person making the assessment.
(I'm not sure if I'm agreeing with you here)
Using words most people are familiar with will afford a lot of people nearly instantaneous cognition  of the information you are trying to convey with your writing.
This applies to both ends of the reading spectrum: highly educated people who do a lot of reading than most; and poorly educated people who probably had to drop out of school to make ends meet.
This can be a real issue, indeed.
It is one thing to speak to people in a language they will understand without judging. But it is another thing to simplify grammar and vocabulary too much in written technical documents that need to be precise.
One example is the push to use "plain English" in legal documents. As it happens, legal documents are highly technical and the wording is very important, with terms having an actual precise meaning.
There needs to be a balance.
Letters from HMRC are amazing. The first time it is really shocking, but after a while it's almost a pleasure to be asked to send money to the Queen!
But I think one of the reason bureaucracies prefer writing jargon and long winded sentences is to protect their influence and necessity. If you write in plain English (or French), then there's little room for interpretation. Good for the reader, but not for the sender. Ambiguity is power.
I'm distressed to learn they now expound at book length and I'm surprised to see this garbage taken seriously by HN.
See, e.g. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002229.h..., https://web.archive.org/web/20110510090548/http://oliverkamm....
If you actually have substance to say and feel confident about it, then chunk it up. Clear writing needs courage and is a weapon in itself against the entrenched lazy elites. A slingshot of David against Goliath. While unclear writing is a middle finger towards the public.
Also, I disagree that Shakespeare is as obscure and hard to read as your comment would suggest. He is just from a different era but was quite a down-to-earth fellow, not some stuck-up obscurantist.
It is a pleasure to read that style in literary works, but in your day to day life is that how you want to communicate with people? I think that's what the linked article is talking about, how to use plain English for communication.
There's a youtube video with Steven Pinker explaining how passive verbs often improve the flow of writing thus increasing legibility
One of the software engineers (an English major) I worked with at a previous gig could not get his head around the idea of writing in plan English.
He would write English at such an elaborate level that when he announced his resignation to the company via email, most people did not understand from that email that he was resigning!
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones"
Can't recommend enough this book. Peek inside the mind of the master of writing in Plain English and one of the greatest modern storytellers. For me one of the best non-fiction books out there. Wish more artists produced something like this.
Sure, it's all for ensuring we are understood better among ourselves, but I wonder if writing this way makes us cognitively simpler.
"unnecessary verbosity" is just one way to express your position in the society. Wearing impractical clothes, complex etiquette, having pale skin and speaking in certain manner was something that requires either wealth or practise.
Today business jargon combined with clothes and behaviour still work today as signalling your identity. So is wearing hoodie and saying "bro" constantly. People learn to feel comfortable in the uniform and in the language they identify with.
> "Consider the leisurely style of British correspondent William Howard Russell in his coverage of the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.
If the exhibition
of the most brilliant valor,
of the excess of courage, and
of a daring
which would have reflected luster
on the best days of chivalry
can afford full consolation
for the disaster of today,
we can have no reason
to regret the melancholy loss
which we sustained
in a contest
with a savage and barbarian enemy.
It's not that the style was unknown (Tacitus' prose was flattened compared with Cicero's) but that it wasn't expected in asynchronous long-form writing. In a different genre, compare Cooke's easily tweetable summary of Custer's 1876 command:
> "Benteen. Come On. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs. P.S. Bring Packs."
If an idea can be expressed in the same way with "Plain English", how would this make people 'congnitively simpler'?
One notes that even in letters sent home from American and Western European wars in the 19th century, the common soldiers who wrote those letters often used much more elaborate sentence structures than today, even though they were from the peasantry and had not received more than a rudimentary schooling.
Frankly, it's more important to maximise the number of people that understand government advice than it is to maximise your enjoyment of application forms.
The advice is not even necessarily for situations that are partway between factual and pleasure, like a blog post or your example of a news article (or a HN comment!). In those cases it could still be helpful to bear the advice in mind, but without taking it too seriously.
Les Cowboys Fringants display the full colours of Canadian french in their songs, but they're creating art.
The government needs to tell people of all backgrounds that they must do something or face serious consequences. They are not creating art, but communicating important information to busy, confused people.
It's not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip.
A good complement to this article is Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which talks about how people might use long, complex words (like those in the Words to Avoid list) to seem more important. That's the other side of the "variety" coin. The reality is that a skilled writer can walk that fine line, but most people are better off keeping their word choice simple and direct.
But let us go deeper and ask: how did importance become associated with longer words? Was it perhaps because important and educated people used them, since they carried more precise and specific meanings?
Acronyms are a plague, especially in technical documents. These documents may include a glossary, which it better than nothing, but if an acronym is only used once or twice in a document, why not use the full name instead?
Here is a couple of anecdotes:
- I once overheard a heated argument between a project manager and some over guy who criticized his work. Turned out, they weren't talking about the same project at all, only their acronyms where the same.
- In a report that explained why a particular proposal was selected over its competitors, one of the positive points was that their proposal was clearly written, understandable, and didn't contain any acronym.
He says that to achieve clarity, imagine the subject of each sentence as the character of a scene, and the verb as its action. Make sure you hit both character and action within the first 6-10 words of your sentence.
Begin each sentence with information that the reader is familiar with, and end it with the new information you want to introduce.
That will get you a long way toward creating understanding (and feeling) in the reader.
Never assume anything about your audience's understanding. Break everything down into short, concise sentences. If you're attempting to get across a non-trivial concept avoid the temptation to use big words - even if you end up having to write more. When you're done take another pass and see if you can simplify things further.
> [The authors of E-Prime] describe misuse of the verb to be as creating a "deity mode of speech", allowing "even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things".
And I think that's appropriate here.
We are forced to identify explain specific evidence of behavior that John has done that show that he's a racist.
Saying that, "John in frequently unkind to people different from him" or "John commonly uses racial slurs" goes beyond applying a label. This kind of approach to describing the ways people's actions hurt others requires more work. The pay off is that this kind of claim is also harder to credibly dismiss as "grievance culture."
Mind you even when trying to stay close to E-prime I still miss the mark all the time.
A run-on sentence can still be read, just more slowly. An unfamiliar word can be tackled with a dictionary.
But if the text isn’t well-organized on the larger scale, there is no hope.
To quote from 'Towards Clarity and Grace' (it is alluding to what's lacking in 'The Elements'):
This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to "Omit Needless Words" or "Be clear." Telling me to "Be clear" is like telling me to "Hit the ball squarely." I know that. What I don't know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.
But I want to do more than just help you write clearly. I also want you to understand this matter to understand why some prose seems clear, other prose not, and why two readers might disagree about it; why a passive verb can be a better choice than an active verb; why so many truisms about style are either incomplete or wrong. More important, I want that understanding to consist not of anecdotal bits and pieces, but of a coherent system of principles more useful than "Write short sentences."
"Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions and often even to standard spellcheckers/grammar checkers (‘planification’, ‘to precise’ or ‘telematics’ for example) and words that are used with a meaning, often derived from other languages, that is not usually found in English dictionaries (‘coherent’ being a case in point). Some words are used with more or less the correct meaning, but in contexts where they would not be used by native speakers (‘homogenise’, for example)."
> * A list of separate points with an introductory statement (like this list).
> In the list above, each point is a complete sentence
Er, no, each of those is a (quite long, given the target sentence size the piece argues for) freestanding noun phrase, not a complete sentence.
Totally disagree with this point. Orwell explains how the exact opposite is true in his "Politics and the English Language." Vague writing requires only vague thought. Clear writing requires clear thought (as well as editing), and clear thought takes effort. As a writer, you might have to spend more time actually typing unclear and convoluted garbage, but you can basically turn off your brain and just start vomiting words onto the page. To do that asks much less of you than writing clearly does. (Classic example is the Pascal quote: "I apologize for the length of my letter. I didn't have time to write a shorter one.")
I'm not a native English speaker, but I find it funny how Americans often consider English spellings wrong.
I wonder if American Hispanics do the same for Spaniards:
> Ahem, it's pronounced "ustedes", not "vosotros". That's not a word.
As someone who learned Spanish in Spain, I have occasionally been "corrected" by South Americans when using vosotros. Of course, no one denies that vosotros is a word, but I have been told something along the lines of "There are X Spanish-speaking countries in the world, and only one says vosotros, so please, stop doing that and talk like us instead." South Americans with this hangup are a small minority, of course, but they definitely exist.
On the other hand, in Spain we’re famous for “cecear”, that is to pronounce “c” as the z in zombie; while in the rest of Latin America the pronounce it more like an s.
So there are no accents or dialects in Spain?
For example, in English the "o" in "woman" and "women" sounds different, with exactly the same syllabic structure. However in Spanish, every time you write the "o" it is pronounced the same as every other "o". In some accents/dialects some letters will have slightly different pronunciations or intonations (e.g. c turns into s, or s at the end of a word will turn silent), but within that accent, most sounds will remain stably linked to a letter.
EDIT: Of course, I am not a linguist and I'm sure every word of my example can be debunked a million ways; but this is the experience of the language for a native Spain Spanish speaker.