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November 2015

Back to the Basics

Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- irritates me more than seeing an otherwise intelligent adult abuse a sentence. When you apply fingers to keyboard, you should follow the language convention of proper structure. Anything else, and you look semi-literate.

Let me illustrate:

  1. "Oil companies must explore for oil continually that is how they make money."
  2. "Oil companies are an important part of our economy, they employ thousands of people."

See anything wrong with those two? I hope so. The first one is a run-on sentence, easily fixed this way:

"Oil companies must explore for oil continually because that is how they make money."

Or: "Oil companies must explore for oil continually. That is how they make money."

The No. 2 example suffers from the egregious, thoughtless "comma splice." Commas by themselves don't join two independent clauses (in which a subject acts, verb-wise, on an object). You don't need them if you use transition words such as "because" or "since." Or you could reverse the sentence thusly, "Because they employ thousands of people, oil companies are an important part of our economy." In that case, with the pause between phrases, the comma is fulfilling its mission in life.

You may find such rules arbitrary, and choose to go your own way. Good for you. But readers who know the difference between articulate and shoddy will recoil, which inevitably blurs the message.

Backing that up and taking the issue to our formative years, I was gratified to read this from Natalie Wexler, chair of the board of trustees for The Writing Revolution, which helps underserved school students improve their writing skills, become better readers, speak more coherently, and elevate their thinking in all content areas:

"Once students understand the concept of a sentence, they can learn to use conjunctions such as 'but' and 'because.' Then they can create complex sentences -- including those beginning with subordinating conjunctions such as 'although' or 'despite' -- to introduce variety into their writing…When students have a basic grasp of sentences, then -- and only then -- should they move on to planning and drafting paragraphs. Once they can write paragraphs, they can tackle essays."

Write Like You Speak

Those transitional words I mentioned in my examples and those from Ms. Wexler fit in nicely with the notion that writing the way we talk -- excepting profanity, colloquialism, intentionally bad ("colorful") grammar, etc. -- is a sure way to be understood on the first reading. Failing to take that direct approach can lead to a bureaucratic form of writing that aims to impress when it should edify.

So much of written language, particularly in a workplace setting, "is more complex, which makes it more work to read," according to Paul Graham, a programmer, essayist, and investor who helped fund more than 800 startups, including Reddit and Airbnb. "It's also more formal and distant, which gives the reader's attention permission to drift. But perhaps worst of all, the complex sentences and fancy words give you, the writer, the false impression that you're saying more than you actually are."

I can’t improve on Graham’s advice, so I’ll quote it at greater length:

"In my experience, the harder the subject, the more informally experts speak. Partly, I think, because they have less to prove, and partly because the harder the ideas you're talking about, the less you can afford to let language get in the way.

"It seems to be hard for most people to write in spoken language. So perhaps the best solution is to write your first draft the way you usually would, then afterward look at each sentence and ask 'Is this the way I'd say this if I were talking to a friend?' If it isn't, imagine what you would say, and use that instead. After a while this filter will start to operate as you write. When you write something you wouldn't say, you'll hear the clank as it hits the page.

"Before I publish a new essay, I read it out loud and fix everything that doesn't sound like conversation. I even fix bits that are phonetically awkward; I don't know if that's necessary, but it doesn't cost much."

Well said.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

(Thanks to John Gorman of Benchmark Training for introducing me to Paul Graham.)