Episode 9: Shun the tion Words


Those zombie, empty nouns that don’t stand for any real thing—how do they creep into our writing?

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Full Transcript

Last week I talked about how much our writing is strengthened when we replace abstract subjects with concrete ones capable of actually performing actions, and then use those actions as our primary verbs.

Next week, we’ll look at some strategies for doing that. But first, let’s talk about what those abstract nouns are called, and how they arise. This will help us understand which ones are the worst offenders. Then we’ll know how to tell which ones to leave alone.

Page 1: The Dreadful Word Nominalization Stands for a Dreadful Thing.

Those abstract nouns that find their way into subject and object positions have a technical name among linguists: they’re called nominalizations. That is, they’re some word that’s normally not a noun, but been turned into one.

There are three parts of speech that get nominalized: adverbs, adjectives, verbs.

The nominalizations that wreak the worst havoc on writing are the verbs, so we’ll save them for last, and deal with the easy ones first.

Rarest and also least troublesome are adverbs. You’ve heard me use a nominalized adverb at least once if you’ve listened to all the episodes of Word Shots. In episode 6, I said that writers often get in trouble because they’ve “never clarified the why at all.” In that sentence, I’ve nominalized the adverb why. Most uses of a nominalized adverb are like this one; the writer is asking you to take a close look at that adverb either as a word or as a concept, and so it gets treated as a noun. If the writer’s dealing with it as a concept, there may be no way to make it less abstract than it is. But notice that I used it as object, not as subject. The subject is the writer, the one who must deal with the concept, who must look closely at the reasons behind his or her opus, “the why”. So the sentence still has the elements of story: an agent, the writer; and an action, in this case an action not taken, that of defining why he or she is writing.

If, in your reading, you give up on an author when you find such a usage, it’s probably because you disagree with their entire premise; you don’t believe that the adverb-as-subject is worth studying. Your reason for quitting is less likely to be that this way of using the adverb is unclear or distasteful to you.

Adjectives are nominalized more often than adverbs. They can be a little more troublesome, but not too much so. A nominalized adjective names a state or condition, and we’re actually quite used to thinking about those. For example, we often think about conditions such as happiness or sadness. These are nominalized forms of the adjectives happy and sad. The reason they’re not distressingly abstract is that we usually don’t think of them as separate from some actual being. Instead, we normally picture a happy or sad person, or perhaps an animal. And usually, the writer who uses one of these abstractions gives us some context that helps us choose the right thing to visualize.

Last week I used the sample sentence “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.” That’s an extreme case of the writer supplying plenty of context. Although the nominalized adjective sadness was in the subject position, the rest of the sentence invited the reader not only to picture it as belonging to a person, but to a very specific person. On the website, I included a picture of Woolf, who even when young and well-featured, gave the impression that she wasn’t fully out in the world where she was being depicted, but was inside herself hunting desperately for something she’d lost.

Aesop's fablesWe humans have a long tradition of telling stories to illustrate how human traits and conditions work themselves out, how they have predictable, if not inevitable, consequences. We see this illustrated in the fables attributed to Aesop, in which an abstract moral statement is turned into a story, and vice-versa.

So, we’ve dealt with nominalized adverbs and adjectives They don’t present a very thorny problem, which is why Joseph M. Williams, in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, doesn’t deal with them at all in his otherwise excellent treatment of nominalizations.

Page 2: Nominalized Verbs Are the Worst.

But that leaves us with the nominalizations formed from verbs. These are the ones that most often make for dreadful prose, the ones that too often burden academic writing.

There are three ways to nominalize a verb in English: the first is by adding a suffix, the second is by making no change at all, but simply using the verb as if it were a noun, and the third is by leaving the spelling unchanged but altering the pronunciation.

Let’s look at examples.

1: Using a suffix:

Difficult becomes difficulty by adding y.

Discern becomes discernment by adding m-e-n-t.

Move and announce become movement and announcement in the same way.

Fail becomes failure by adding u-r-e.

Refuse becomes refusal by adding a-l (after dropping the silent e).

And nominalize becomes nominalization by dropping the silent e and adding -ation. This tion-form is all too common in academic writing, where we see far too much of:

  • sensation
  • depiction
  • formation
  • investigation

and oh, the list is far too long.

The other two ways of nominalizing a verb I’ll cover very briefly.

2. There can be no change at all; I just used an example: change is a verb but I used it, unaltered, as a noun. The same is done with the verbs answer, reply, murder, hope, and return. Many of these verbs-turned-nouns are so frozen in our language that often we don’t notice them.

Compare “she didn’t reply” to “she made no reply”. A careful editor may prefer the first in many cases, but few readers will balk at the second and think “you used reply as a noun!” In most cases, this is because only the philologists and linguists among us even know whether it was the noun that came first or the verb.

3. Finally, there are those cases in which spelling is unchanged, but pronunciation is changed.

For example, use becomes use when it’s nominalized.

If you use your fork well, your host will appreciate your proper use of it.

In many cases, the change is only in accenting. This is common in two-syllable words whose second syllable is accented when the word is a verb, but in which the accent moves when the word is nominalized.


Increase becomes increase: When crop yields increase, there’s also an increase in happiness.

Insert becomes insert: Please insert the insert after page 40.

Import becomes import: When I import a car, the government wants me to pay a tax in the import.

In word-pairs like these, the normal pattern is that stress rises in the verb form (increase), and falls in the noun (increase).

And that covers how nominalizations are formed. Now…

Page 3: Your Turn: Are Some Nominalizations Worse Than Others?

Here’s where I want to turn things over to you. Help me puzzle out a few things about nominalizations.

Such as…

One kind of verb nominalization I didn’t mention is the common gerund, the noun ending in -ing. I’m pretty sure it causes a lot less stumbling to readers than the words that end in -tion. Why might this be? What do you think?

Although I haven’t responded in the podcast to all the questions and opinions I’ve gotten, I really appreciate the feedback I’ve been getting. And I’d love to hear or read yours. Here are the ways you can get your questions and opinions to me:

If you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, you can rate it and write a review there. And in your review, you can respond to a specific episode if you choose. You can make comments on the show’s website, at maximumstrengthwriting.com/podcast. It’s set up as an ordinary blog, so you can comment on the post for each episode. You can email us at maxwordshots@gmail.com. That’s maxwordshots@gmail.com. If you email, you can attach a voice comment of up to three minutes and 5 megabytes. Finally, one more way to leave a voice message is by Skype, where our user ID is word.shots. I really look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any topic related to Word Shots, but my special question for this week is: Are gerunds less bothersome to read than -tion-formations, and why or why not?

Let me know what you think!

How to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.

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Word Shots 8: Strong Writing Grows From a Kernel of Story

Bird writing on clay tablet

Even if you’re producing expository prose, the key to strong writing is story. All you need is an entity and an action.

Listen to the episode here:

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Full Transcript:

The following may or may not describe your experience with Word Shots. But I’d guess it’s true to at least someone’s experience:

You want to know how to write strongly. I’ve assured you that good theory can help you get there. But now you’re seven episodes into his podcast and you haven’t seen your prose improve in any remarkable way. Last week I talked about ritualization, but I didn’t really explain what it is, and you’re finding it hard to do anything with the concept. Before that I talked about why you write. But you were already pretty good at working out why you write each thing you write, and you always aimed at recruiting and empowering your audience. You’d like to hear something that will really improve your writing.

Very well. It’s time to descend from the heights of abstraction and get down to where pen meets paper.

Page 1: Our First Look at Structure: The Story Kernel

There’s a skill that too many writers lack. This skill is far easier to learn than grammar, far more quickly cultivated than a rich vocabulary. But too few writers have studied with teachers who teach it.

The skill I’m talking about is structure.

If you really want to empower your audience to take in and benefit from what you write, you need to understand that each member of your audience possesses a human brain, and that the human brain is wired to respond to certain kinds of things. Understanding what the mind likes to respond to will help you structure your writing so as to make a maximum impact.

I hope the next thing I say won’t be too obvious. I’m afraid the reason for much of the bad writing we see is that people consider this fact so, obvious that it’s not worth anyone’s attention. But in fact, because it’s so important, and so neglected, I’m going to say it three times:

People respond to stories.

People respond to stories.

People respond to stories.

Of course, not everybody neglects this; if you’re one of those who gets it, please stick around. Maybe together we can work out the most potent way of converting those around us to the gospel of story, because many writers and speakers do neglect it. I think different people have different reasons for this neglect.

Perhaps many fiction writers think it’s all just too obvious. They’re writing fiction; why do they need me to tell them to be sure to write a story? It’s like telling somebody you see running to be sure to get some exercise today.

And non-fiction writers may think: “I’m not here to write a story. I’m writing expository, not narrative prose. If I wanted to write stories I’d become a fiction writer or a journalist.”

Promising I won’t neglect the fiction writers forever, for this episode I’m just going to address the others.

What expository writers need to understand is that story is the kernel of good writing. I choose the word kernel for two reasons: 1: It’s at the heart of good writing. 2: The smallest version of story is a very tiny thing indeed. It consists of nothing but an entity and an action.

At its smallest, story structure is even smaller than sentence structure. For example, listen to this:

“Gusts, hot, dusty gusts off the Sonoran Desert…”

Those eight words aren’t even a whole sentence. And yet they contain both of the two elements of story: entity and action.

Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349

Sonoran Desert Scottsdale AZ 50349 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There isn’t even a verb, which is why, syntactically, it isn’t a complete sentence. But there’s a noun, gusts, which packs a verb inside itself, which comes armed with action. The heat can be felt, and the dust even makes it visible.

And that’s what people respond to. Entities and actions. Things and change.

Again, this is so obvious that I’m feeling the need to prove that writers ever neglect it.

For that proof, I’m going to refer to last week’s episode, in which a large, pale creature tried and failed to execute a courtship move on a princess in a comic book shop.

Page 2: Why We Don’t Understand Ritual

In discussing that story, I used the word ritualization. The word has been haunting me for years, since I learned it in a course in interpersonal communications I took as an undergrad at Northwestern. I felt it was poorly defined, but also that it was a very important concept, and I’ve been struggling to come to grips with it ever since. Every once in a while I reach out for help. And that leads me to all too many things like the piece of prose I’m about to read you.

This is from page 109 of Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, by Catherine Bell.

Here goes:

Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic. It does not see what it does in the process of realizing this end, its transformation of the problematic itself. And yet what ritualization does is actually quite simple: it temporarily structures a space-time environment through a series of physical movements (using schemes described earlier), thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors, both validates and extends the schemes they are internalizing. Indeed, in seeing itself as responding …

Zzzzzz. What? Oh. Sorry. I didn’t make it; there were five more lines.

Indeed, in seeing itself as responding to an environment, ritualization interprets its own schemes…

No. I can’t. Must… Spare… Audience…

Folks, that piece of prose went off the rails with its very first word, “ritualization”.

Let’s reread just that first sentence: “Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.” Now, I believe that ritualization is worth studying, and I’m motivated to study it. So what could be wrong with starting a sentence with that word?

The problem is that the word is in the subject position.

To make this clear, let’s map the elements of story into the simplest form of a sentence.

The simplest form of story is an entity and an action.

The simplest form of sentence is a subject and a predicate.

Sentences become more interesting when the predicate has an action verb, and the sentence form becomes subject-verb-object.

And sentences become far more interesting when either the subject or the object is an entity which the human reader is used to thinking of as an entity.

Here’s that first sentence again:

Ritualization sees its end, the rectification of a problematic.

What’s wrong, in terms of the writer’s effort to reach a reader, is that humans are not wired to think of ritualization as an entity. That’s what makes the word a poor choice as the subject of a sentence.

The sentence does contain an action verb, of sorts, the word see. But that only makes things worse. It makes the reader say inwardly, though not necessarily at a conscious level, “No. Wrong. Ritualization does not see.” Why does the reader think this? Because he or she knows, instinctively and correctly, that nothing whose name ends in T I O N ever sees anything. Such things do not have eyes, are not, in fact, even things.

Page 3: Your Entity Doesn’t Have To Be a Subject

Now, a sentence with a non-entity in the subject position can still be redeemed by having a real something as its object. For example: “Sadness claimed Virginia Woolf.”

Virginia Woolf

Virgina Woolf – photo: Wikipedia (public domain image)

That sentence has sadness in the subject position, a thing that has no physical being. And yet the sentence is a story, and a true and an important one. For people who know and have any opinion about Virginia Woolf, there is, packed into those four words, a whole saga as rich and troubling as any tale told by Dostoevski.

Given that Catherine Bell is dealing with a topic as abstract as ritualization, what could she have done? There’s a broad hint waiting for us in the third subordinate clause of the third sentence of the quoted passage. The important words are:

…thereby producing an arena which, by its molding of the actors…

Wait! Whoa! Stop! You mean there are actually actors in this labyrinth? And you kept them hidden until we were already asleep? If only we’d known, we would have paid a call on the poor lonely creatures.

Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic, but we’ve truly found the essence of the problem. The actors mentioned here are probably human. Those are exactly the sort of beings we care about and want to read about. Yet the author has put them in the object position in a triply-subordinate clause, deep down inside the paragraph.

It’s just possible that losing the audience to a coma isn’t even the worst result of this writing. But let’s save that larger damage for a minute, and finish talking about story.

Here’s the formula:

If you can, give your readers something real and concrete in the subject position. If it’s the sort of something that can actually perform actions, that’s great; now you can introduce an action verb. Now you have our favorite kind of story: one in which real beings do things. If those actions results in consequences, you’ve truly covered all the elements of story. Second best is if some real being can go in the object position.

Here’s the hierarchy of the kinds of things that should be subjects and objects. I present them from best to worst:

1. human and exercising moral agency

2. human, not exercising moral agency

3. conscious (with consciousness as close to human as possible, such as an anthropomorphized animal, or the artificial intelligences of Heinlein or Philip K. Dick.)

4. sentient (such as a non-anthropomorphized animal)

5. changeable and responsive (for example, plants or seascapes, which have no senses yet respond to stimuli)

6. concrete and physical

7. non-physical but perceptible (such as sadness or an ominous silence)

Last and absolutely least:

8. abstract (such as things that end in tion).

Page 4: To Sleep, Perchance Not to Evaluate

I said that our sample paragraph did worse harm than even that of putting us to sleep. That greater harm was to make it hard for us as readers, even if we stayed awake, to think critically about the substance of the paragraph.

The author might have rescued those actors from down there in the bowels of sentence three and made them the subject of the entire paragraph. This would have allowed us to think about what the author’s actor is experiencing when in the midst of ritual. We could have compared that to our own experience of ritual, and thus have weighed the validity of the author’s claims. This might even have made it easier for us to determine whether the word ritual actually needed to be stretched out by those three added syllables, and turned into ritualization.

Now, let’s get this week’s idea into a nutshell:

If you really want to reach your audience, it’s not enough for your sentences to be syntactically complete. If at all possible, they should tell stories. You achieve this by coming as close as possible to the ideal of having a real thing, preferably a living thing that people can relate to, in the subject position, and having the primary verb in your sentence be a real action. Second-best is to put that relatable entity in the object position. After all, we are often acted on by impersonal forces, and so, as readers, we can relate to a sentence that presents that sort of situation.

Least desirable is a sentence in which both the subject and any object are abstractions, nouns that don’t represent anything having physical or perceptible existence.

That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about those abstractions that creep into the subject and object positions, how to spot them, and what to do about them. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to wait for me, a title I recommend is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. There’s a link in the transcript on the Word Shots website. A much earlier version of this book is where I read my first lesson in using kernel stories (although the term kernel story is my own).

In episodes beyond next week, we’ll talk about larger story structures, and how they’re helpful for both narrative and expository writing.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

End of transcript.

Bird writing photo credit: jefka – Flickr.

Books mentioned in this episode:


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Communicate to Manage Change

All communication is about managing change. Good communication prepares the audience for the right kind of change.

Listen to the episode here:

OR SUBSCRIBE in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Full Transcript

I’ve said that the most important part of writing well is knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing. And last week I had an opportunity to chat with an excellent public speaking coach, Stephanie Silverman, who agrees. We developed the idea that most speeches and writing projects will have the best likelihood of success if the writer sets out with a twofold aim: to recruit and to empower.

This week I want to step backward just a little. I want to talk about the purpose of all communication, of every kind. That purpose is to manage change.

Page 1: Princess Belle and the large, pale creature.

Before I get all theoretical about it, let’s jump right to the concrete and practical. Let’s start this episode with the story of Princess Belle and her not very charming encounter.

NaNoWriMo badge 180x180Princess Belle is her online name. If I remembered her real name I wouldn’t use it here; we had enough stalking in episode 4.

She’s two seats to my left at a long table where a number of us are, between bites of pizza and bits of conversation, typing furiously on our laptops. It’s November, and that means it’s National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. We’re at a write-in at Empire’s Comics Vault. The place is bigger than I’d expected, and I feel dwarfed by it.

I’m meeting a number of my fellow writers for the first time, including Princess Belle, who’s about 20 years old.

I’ve asked Princess Belle about herself, and I’ve learned a lot, including that she speaks charmingly and greatly enjoys doing so. That was an hour ago, and I’ve returned to mostly minding my own business. I’m typing and typing and typing, when I hear a voice, a great and booming voice, a voice like that of a man but somewhat larger.

“So, you’re writing a novel, huh?”

And I hear the far smaller voice of the Princess. “Yes. I’m trying.”

I look to my left, and see the large pale creature, looming over the seated Princess and addressing her again.

“So that means you have brains. And you’ve got good looks. Nice combination.”

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Oh, did I neglect to describe Princess Belle? Well, the large pale creature was right. We fiction writers are told not to take the cheap shortcut around description that I’m about to take, but the Princess makes it all too easy. Physically, she’s Audrey Hepburn at about the same age. Any difference is chump change.

She replies, “Umh, thank you.”

“So, I was wondering if you’d like to go out with me.”

[Sweet Brown: Then I ran out I din’t grab no shoes or nothin’, I ran for my life.]

strange four-eyed creature

My four eyes are for only you. (photo: carulmare, flickr)

Well, in truth, nobody ran. A whole tableful of writers and a few others are now looking at the large pale creature, but he doesn’t notice. It seems his four eyes are only for the Princess. Silent for a very long time, and too proud to beg us for help, she looks, alternately, at the large pale creature and her laptop. This is awkward enough that I’m wondering if someone at the table is going to bail her out. But, of course, we’re fiction writers. If it’s not really dangerous, this is the sort of thing we don’t interrupt but memorize.

If you’re extremely surprised at this man’s behavior, maybe there’s something in the concept of a “comics shop” you don’t understand. On the other hand, if you’re not at all surprised, perhaps you yourself need a bit of schooling in the protocols of courtship.

In any case, we will squeeze some sort of lesson from this lemon of an encounter. But not just yet.

mail bag

My mail bag runneth over! (photo: Marcin Wichary, flickr)

Page 2: Comments from my listeners.

I’m delighted to report that my shameless begging for feedback has met with success. So much, in fact, that I can’t respond to all the responses. But I’ll take a few bits from the mailbag, not exactly at random.

Feedback item 1: Terminal Prepositions

Listener John asks: “what are the tools, methods or tricks to solving the problem of the ban on prepositions at the ends of sentences?”

My smart-aleck answer is to declare that banning terminal prepositions is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which you should not put.

My more serious answer is to go ask Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. There’s a link to her podcast in my right sidebar. [But this link takes you to Grammar Girl’s discussion of terminal prepositions.]  This is the sort of question she’s great at.

Well, if you’re too rushed to go over there, I can cover the matter here in a few words. The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a bogus rule. Ignore it. But do memorize the following: “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” That little gem exemplifies what you should avoid: Not ending a sentence with a preposition, which is perfectly legal, but ending a sentence with a word that has no function in the sentence at all. The same sentence without the final preposition runs “Never use a preposition to end a sentence”, and it makes perfect sense. As a sentence, that is. As a rule it remains a bad rule, the sort of nonsense up which nobody should ever have cooked.

But seriously, John, your question gives me an opportunity to say where I believe Word Shots fits within the world of language resources.

To wit: Word Shots is an advanced course. Grammar Girl does her work very well, and she’s a real help. My hope is to be as helpful as she is, but for people who already know more than 85% of what she teaches. My unhumble little podcast stands between her and those highly advanced language resources whose purpose is not to help improve your skills, but to display the erudition of the author or speaker.

So, for example, I love listening to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast. And one can glean from it some real insight into language. Listening to it may improve your writing or speaking, but that would be an incidental benefit. It’s an advanced course, but not one with an explicitly practical purpose. In my podcast, although I may sometimes fly at a lofty theoretical altitude, my purpose is still to give an understanding of language and communications that will help my listeners improve at both.

Feedback Item 2: Ain’t nobody got time for a podcast.

From no fewer than three readers, I learn that people are reading Word Shots, as opposed to listening to it. Chris says she simply doesn’t “do” podcasts. Jenny makes bold to say, concerning listening to a podcast…

Sweet Brown

A podcast? A podcast!? When my apartment’s on fire?

[Ain’t nobody got time for that.]

Brian didn’t explicitly say he doesn’t listen, but he gave away that he’s a reader by responding to something that’s on the blog but not in the audio.

And these three people give me a perfect opportunity to talk about how to consume Word Shots.

English: Podcast or podcasting icon Français :...

I love my listeners. But I love my readers, too! (photo: Wikipedia)

The answer is: consume it any way you can. Any way that feels right. I do considerable work to make it worth anyone’s while to listen or to read, or to do both. That includes putting a complete transcript of the audio on the blog.

But you should know that listening and reading will provide two quite different experiences.

If you only do one or the other, you just might miss something.

If you only read you may miss:

  • Music
  • The different voices of guests
  • Sound effects
  • Vocal effects
  • Pronunciation, when pronunciation is the heart of the matter, and
  • Outtakes and codas at the end that aren’t described in the transcript. For example, there’s a little miscue between Stephanie Silverman and me at the end of Episode 6. We found it a tad more funny than embarrassing, so I spliced it in right before the end of the final music.

So, that’s what you miss if you only read. If you only listen you may miss:

  • Helpful hyperlinks that I add to the transcripts
  • Images I’ve chosen to complement the text
  • All the cool stuff in the sidebar, such as snippets from related posts on the companion blog, Maximum Strength Writing, and
  • Headings that I sometimes add to break up the Saharan expanse of the transcript text.

So again I say, consume Word Shots any way you want. Every way is better than no way.

Feedback Item 3: Shaking up listeners.

The aforementioned Jenny sent quite a little sheaf of questions and comments she hopes I’ll respond to. Here’s one: “I read an article once about how purposefully using an odd word shakes listeners out of routine and into mindfulness.”

Well, that’s something I can respond to. And I’m going to bring the Princess back to help me.

Page 3: Communication As Change Management

So, back to the beginning. The purpose of every kind of communication is to manage change.

In managing change, there are two opposite purposes we might have. We might want to slow or prevent change. Or we might want to cause or hasten change. Virginia Postrel gave us handy words for these two poles: stasism is a bias toward no change or slow change, stasis; and dynamism is a bias toward more and faster change.

Much of communication is ritualization. And the main purpose of ritualization is to slow or prevent change. It’s to keep things in their accustomed places, to keep life on an even keel.

Although to an academic, ritualization may be very interesting, to someone seeking to provide advanced communication skills, it’s not something to spend a lot of time on. “How about them Yankees?” is typical ritualization, and while it may be interesting to a sociologist, if you need me to tell you how to say it, or when and where not to, you probably need more help than I can give.

Ritualization makes up a large part of our expense of communication energy, and I’m making the distinction between it and everything else, mostly just to say that the part of communication that I’m most interested in is the other part.

In ritualization, the connotations of words have more weight than their denotations. An effective ritual may involve incantations whose meaning is unknown to anyone doing the incanting. If the syllables are sung or chanted correctly, there’s nothing to them but connotation, and that’s all that’s required.

In episode 6, I introduced the idea of an opus. That’s a piece of communication that’s complex enough to require significant planning. One example I gave of a non-opus was a note asking one’s mate to pick up a loaf of bread.

loaf of bread

Bread is normal. Its absence is not. (photo: Teuobk, flickr)

Let’s look at that note for a minute. It’s too simple to be an opus. But it’s also not mere ritualization, is it? After all, its aim is to bring about change, such that here in the pantry which once was bare, behold, there shall be bread.

But how much change is involved, really? The fact is that in most households, the presence of some bread is not the exception but the norm. Thus to request the bread’s renewal is to request not a change but the setting of things to rights, the bringing of things back to equilibrium. On the other hand, if a wife wanted to talk her husband into giving up white bread in favor of something supplying a bit more nutrition and fiber, her communication might well have to be an opus. She might have to strategize before opening her mouth or setting pencil to paper.

Now, although I’ve said I’m not much interested in ritualization, in point of fact it’s unavoidable. Even in communications that aren’t mostly ritual, ritual is still involved. And that’s what brings us back to Empire’s Comics Vault.

When man meets woman and certain intentions develop, there’s an interesting change-management project underway, if the courage exists to undertake it. The courage only needs to exist on one side. In our little scene in the comics shop, one person wanted very much to change his relationship status. He put some real effort into it.

Page 4: What we talk about when we talk about courtship

But when we talk about courtship, we very often talk about ritual. And in our species as in many others, ritual is very much involved. So if courtship is such a major change project, why does it involve something that I’ve said is primarily stasist?

Ah, that’s because we don’t want to promise only change. Taking on a new relationship status (isn’t that a delightful euphemism?) is such a big hulking scary thing that we want it to come with assurances. We welcome the dizzy madness of new romance, but we hope that it will bring with it some whole new brand of steadiness.

[Paul and Storm: My love is a sailing ship, seeking out a friendly shore…]

In short, we want our stasism and our dynamism well-mixed.

Thus, for example, if you approach someone with an eye to romance, there are several subtle ways to assure him or her that, if anything interesting develops between you, you can be counted to be discreet about it. Pitching your woo in a voice that resounds throughout a building half the size of a football field conveys rather a different impression.Comics Shop

[Paul and Storm: your love is the ocean that drowns me…]

So, to Jenny’s comment: Yes, using an unusual word can shake up the reader. One might, for example, use the slang expression “chump change” in a context having nothing to do with money. But if the reader hasn’t found reason to trust you, such strangeness will only alienate. That’s why I say, over and over, that although to become truly good at writing, you need to graduate from grammar, I also say that you’ll need to keep studying grammar and write with an eye to getting it right.

Otherwise, when you introduce that bit of strangeness, your audience is tempted to flee. Your audience must feel “I’m putting my intellectual life in the hands of somebody who respects it and knows how to take care of it.” Fail at that, and you’re dead in the water, like the large, pale creature in the comics shop; your ship will never sail into the port it seeks.

I’ve just discussed communication as change management. And I’ve pointed out how, even when you want to bring about a major change, you’ll be effective if you also promise that certain things will remain steady, if you promise some kind of stasis.

Let’s tie this back to the previous episode. There, I talked with Stephanie about the two important goals of a well-designed communication: recruitment and empowerment. And this week I talked about the most important of all recruitment efforts: courtship.

In future episodes, I’ll discuss recruitment a great deal more. But for next week, let’s turn our attention to empowerment. I’ll talk about the single most important feature of communication that, when it’s done right, empowers your audience to take in and benefit from your message.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week and effective communication.
[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

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Word Shots #6: Write to Recruit and Empower

Stephanie Silverman, public speaking coach, headshot

Public speaking coach Stephanie Silverman

Near the end of episode 5, I said that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. For that matter, I said, in too many cases, they’ve never clarified the why at all.

I recorded that episode on a Wednesday. Three days later, I was listening to the radio show Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, and I heard this:

[clip: Stephanie Silverman introduced on Wait Wait.]

Well, after hearing such a corroboration of my idea from somebody who actually knows something, I just had to talk with Stephanie. I emailed her, she responded, and then she very generously gave me almost forty minutes of her time in two Skype calls. [clip: max and Stephanie saying hi] She didn’t tell me what I have to do to win her voice on my answering machine or voicemail, but she did answer a question about that appearance on NPR.

Peter Sagal

Peter Sagal of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

Max: this is the classic cartoon reporter’s question. What was going through your mind when you gave a very serious piece of advice to Peter Sagal and the audience laughed?

Stephanie: Well I laughed too, because I think some of the funniest things in life are also true. the truest things in life. Sometimes it’s just that simple, and I think also it was an unexpected answer. I think what got cut out of that recording was a question about whether or not people should imagine their audience in the nude or in their underwear. People are always so invested in all of these tricks and techniques to deliver a successful presentation, when really sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.

New term: “Opus” is a communication requiring planning.

Before I get into what Stephanie and I talked about, I have to introduce a word that you’ll hear me using a lot: opus. I use the word opus to refer to any piece of communication that requires considerable preparation. That means it includes almost any public speech, and also any piece of writing that’s much more complex than a note to your spouse to please pick up a loaf of bread. Although we may care about using good English in our everyday conversation, it’s in creating these more complex communications that we really pay close attention to craft. As I say, I call these opuses. And with that word in place, let’s get back to my talk with Stephanie.

Successful communication is designed to recruit and to empower.

We spent some time talking about the matter of why anyone gives a speech or writes any sort of opus. And I put forward my theory that any opus, if it’s to succeed, should have a twofold purpose: to recruit and to empower. By recruit I mean to get the audience, in some way, on your side. And empowerment, I’m pretty sure, needs no explanation. It’s a word we’ve heard so often since the mid-80s that we’re almost tired of it. There would probably be a movement to outlaw the word if it weren’t such a valuable concept. One way to look at these two aims, I said, is as the ends of a slider bar. One of the simple ways of thinking about what you’re trying to achieve with an opus is the relative weights you give to these two. If you’re teaching, then your aim, I hope, is to empower, to increase your audience’s store of some knowledge or skill. On the other hand, if you’re selling, what matters more to you is recruitment, to get the audience on your side, to make such allies of them that they’ll happily give you money.recruit_empower_01_620x170

It’s very hard for an opus to succeed if it doesn’t combine these two aims. Here’s Stephanie on the importance of recruitment in teaching:

Stephanie: What’s really interesting to me in what I am doing is figuring out just how to do that. And to identify first with the needs of the audience and try to angle the message in a way that will allow them to engage the way that you’re describing. When you believe what you are saying, it’s very easy to understand why everyone should agree, but it doesn’t work like that all the time and so that buy-in that you are talking about is really important, and figuring out where that common ground is is the first step.

Now, that teachers need to motivate their students isn’t news to any teachers who’ve been well trained. But I think the idea of recruitment is a bit different from what most teachers are taught about motivation. First, the way teachers are taught to bake a little motivation into a lesson too often results in their talking about “how to motivate this lesson” or “motivate this material.” When we hear these phrases, and I hear them a lot, a subtle but important something has been lost. What’s lost, of course, is the simple fact that we don’t motivate material, we motivate people.

wooden teacher and student

Motivate the student, not the material. Photo credit: krossbow — flickr

I think the idea of recruitment captures this pretty nicely. It’s a matter of forming people into a kind of team. Even if what you’re providing is only a very individual sort of empowerment, some skill that will be used by persons alone and not in groups, still you want your audience to feel a sense of community; it’s part of the joy of learning.

If selling doesn’t empower, it’s arm-twisting or pandering.

Well, if it’s easy for teachers to take the short conceptual step from motivating to recruiting, what may be a bit harder is for salespeople, whose job is primarily to recruit, to believe that they may be more successful if they also aim to empower.

That’s what Stephanie and I discuss in this clip:

Stephanie: I think on some level, the art of selling is to find a point on the empowerment line, or closer to the empowerment side, where you are selling, but where the ultimate goal is to empower your audience. But in so doing you’ve sold them as well. I think that is kind of where the excitement is.

Max:   A blogger named Kathy Sierra made herself something of a star for the time that she was in the blogosphere by saying that what you want to do when you sell a product to any buyers, is you want to turn them into evangelists for your product. And the most important way to do that is to focus on not how great your product is, but how great that purchaser is going to be when they use your product. And if that is your selling point, then you’re going to do really effective selling. You’re going to build a community of enthusiastic users, of evangelists for your product.

Old and New marketing paradigms: old: buy because we're great. New: buy because we want you to be great.

From Kathy Sierra’s long-lost blog, Creating Passionate Users. Creative Commons license: Attribution, Non-commercial, Share-alike.

Stephanie and I talked about teaching and selling, the two kinds of communication that are characterized by being near one or the other end of our recruitment-empowerment slider. But I’ve found it tremendously helpful to keep these two aims in mind in every kind of writing. Even a writer of haiku or sonnets (both of which I’ve been guilty of) will do better work by keeping these aims in mind. After all, if a poem doesn’t do at least a trace of recruiting and/or empowering, then it may be self-expression, but it isn’t communication at all. Even a poem that may seem very self-indulgent can succeed if there’s a reader in whom it strikes a chord, who reads it as C. S. Lewis said any of us reads anything, “to know we are not alone.” Just to know, “oh, someone else feels that way!” can be empowering. But the writer is more likely to succeed more often if that empowerment is an intention than if it’s merely an accident.

"We read to know we're not alone." C. S. Lewis

“We read to know we’re not alone.” C. S. Lewis

So that’s what Stephanie and I talked about.

Well… I was so excited to have a thought partner to toss these ideas around with that I got a bit ahead of myself. Before I even got around to identifying recruitment and empowerment as the twofold aim of good communication, I should have said that there’s a single purpose for all communication generally. It’s a purpose that applies even to those supremely simple jottings and utterances that we toss off every day: “Please pass the butter,” or “Call your Mom,” or “LOL”.

The purpose of every kind of communication, I believe, is to manage change. That’s an idea that will bring us back to one of my gurus whom I’ve already mentioned. Kurt Lewin was a psychologist who developed some very useful ideas about organizational change. And although he might not have called his work communication theory, in fact I believe that’s what it was, and quite useful theory at that. So, I apologize for putting my ideas somewhat out of order. I hope Stephanie’s good insights and charming voice made up for my lapse. I’ll pick up the idea of managing change in a future episode.

In the meantime, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a prosperous week and effective communication.

[Coda about how to comment on the show. Outtake of Stephanie and Max miscommunicating.]

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Episode #005: Anything You Can Do, You Can Do Meta

English has too many rules to remember them all. But some meta-rules can help us master the complexity.

Listen to the episode here:

OR SUBSCRIBE in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Full Transcript

Here’s what I want to do in this episode. I want to prepare you for the rest of the episodes. And here’s what I want to do in the rest of the episodes: I want to equip you to make good decisions about your use of language.

Only 1842 pages!

Only 1842 pages!

Rules Within Rules

In episode one, I talked about how little we can rely on rules to make our English as strong and useful as it can be. Part of the problem, I’ll remind you, is that English is so complex that, if we have to rely on conscious rules for everything, there will be just too many to remember. But think about how much life would be simplified if you had a rule that contained within it a hundred or more rules. If such a rule could exist, then to be useful, it couldn’t exactly contain the other rules; if it did, then to remember the one rule, you’d actually have to remember all the sub-rules it contains. There’d be no simplification at all. Instead, what a rule must do in order to save you from having to remember a hundred rules, is that it must be able to generate those rules.

A rule that can generate rules is what we call a meta-rule. And the good news for all of us is that we can learn to use meta-rules as easily as we can learn to use rules.

But wouldn’t it be great if, after discovering a few thousand meta-rules to contain the millions of rules required by English, we could then discover some meta-meta rules to contain those? And then some meta-meta-meta rules to contain those? And how far could it go? How many metas would we have to stack up to get all the rules down to a truly small number?

Are we meta yet?

Hugh MacLeod – http://gapingvoid.com/

Well, the fact is that each of us does have a small number of über-rules (ultra-meta-rules?) that guide us all the time. These ultra-meta-rules are our fundamental values and beliefs. These beliefs include beliefs about why we do what we do. In fact, our understanding of what it is we’re doing is a kind of belief.

Yet More Meta

So, if I’m going to teach you some meta-rules, I should go ahead and state what my fundamental values and beliefs are, or at least those that are relevant to the topic at hand. This is because a meta-rule can’t contain or generate an incompatible rule. This means that, if you find that your fundamental values and beliefs are very different from mine, you’ll probably also find that you won’t see much sense in the meta-rules that I’ll be teaching here. The rules I’ll generate out of my metarules won’t make sense to you if you don’t share the basic understanding out of which they grow.

I have to confess that I haven’t tried every possible set of meta-rules. I’ve used some that grow out of my fundamental values and a theory of what language is for. I don’t believe that I can necessarily talk you into sharing my values or even my theory. Some things simply have to be taken as a starting point, because to go back to very first principles would simply take too much time and involve us in too much complexity.

The Essential Santayana book cover

George Santayana

Some basics in our lives are like that. For example, the philosopher George Santayanasaid, “That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.”

So, without trying to make a complete case for them, as if they were presuppositions, I’ll repeat the values that underlie my approach to speaking and writing:

  1. I respect my audience.
  2. I respect the English language.

A Love That Speaks Its Name

Time for a personal confession. I said that I respect my audience. The truth goes beyond that. The fact is that I love humanity. Part of this, I’m sure, is unreasonable and unreasoning. If it’s a disease, this crazy and inexplicable love of humanity, it’s a disease I share with dogs. In any case, I’ve got it.

But, for my wanting to supply others with English as a powerful tool, I have some perfectly reasonable grounds. Mainly, it’s a matter of my wanting the people around me to make the best possible decisions.

Let me unpack that a little.

The fact is, we don’t live in a world of nature, if by nature we mean a world free of human influences. We live, mainly, in a world of human construction, a social world. It’s also a world that’s moving toward less authoritarian societies. This movement is not inevitable. Or, even if it is, it’s not inevitable that the progress will be steady and quick. It’s also not uniform. But it seems to be happening, and I welcome it.

Big Brother, Inc. poster

Down with….

In a less authoritarian world, people need better tools for making personal decisions. The first of these tools is language. The more democratic a society becomes, the less change can be managed simply by establishing who’s boss. In an autocratic or highly stratified society, much communication needs to achieve nothing more than to say, “do this or else”, or “don’t do that or else.” The reasons why things are done or not done are dreadfully simple. The less our lives are driven by our place in a pecking order, the more we must rely on language to tell us not only what we must or mustn’t do, or even what options are open to us, and more about how we can choose among options; in other words, why.

Language and Choice

Why is a very tricky matter, especially in the absence of strong authority. “Or else you’ll be punished” is simple. Far less simple are the whys that aren’t imposed on us, whys such as, “Because it will increase your likelihood of happiness by a small percentage”. Or, “because it might result in fewer highway deaths.” Why is about complex calculations, about tradeoffs, and about nuance. In a world in which why isn’t simply imposed on us from above, we need a tool for exploring these complex matters. Language is the first of these tools.

Even in the intrapersonal space, that is, where you and I speak to ourselves alone, we use language. And because we need to process matters of why, even internally, we need for language to be a good tool for conveying meaning. In other words, if we speak to ourselves in private, even there we need clear and effective language, to help us make good decisions.

“No man is an island”, said John Donne, and he was right. He was a poet, and didn’t think it was his responsibility to delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores or even the precise how of our being interconnected and interdependent.

Communicable Health

But let’s start with what’s easy to see: In the realm of communicable diseases, it should be clear to everybody (even if, sadly, it’s not) that there’s no clear boundary between private and public health.

Public Health sign with tissues.Every winter we have a flu season. Influenza cases increase greatly in the months of December through March. The more cases occur, the higher the likelihood of other cases, since the victims of the disease also serve as its carriers. This means that every time an individual makes a bad decision which increases his likelihood of catching the disease, he also increases the odds of his becoming a carrier. The greater the number of individuals who make poor choices that seem private, the greater the public danger.

Contagious disease represents only one of the most obvious examples of private behavior being also public. In many other areas of life as well, I want people around me to make the best possible decisions for themselves, because the sum total of all those tiny decisions is the overall health and sanity of the society I get to live in.

If the people around me are going to make good decisions, they need to have good tools for deliberating, that is, for considering their options. The first of those tools is language. And that’s why I care about fostering a language that’s as good a tool as possible.

As George Orwell put it, our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Tom Stoppard book cover

“A healthy attitude is contagious but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.”
– T. Stoppard

In other words, poor language is a self-reinforcing causal loop. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s one I want to do everything I can to break. I want the people who make up my environment to think about things in ways that clarify rather than obscure what they’re thinking about. That’s how they’ll make good decisions.

That’s why I want to equip you with language that does its work well. I want the habit of clear thought to spread from sea to shining sea, and beyond.

There’s Nothing More Practical Than a Good Theory

In this episode, I’ve been dealing with the extremely meta level of fundamental values and beliefs. Next comes the matter of what meta-rules follow from those meta-meta-rules. And that’s what I’ll be aiming at in all the other episodes of this podcast. I’ll be trying to trace a coherent line of thought from respect for audience and respect for the language all the way down to the tiniest day-to-day matters like subject-verb agreement.

For me, this process, of moving from the most meta down to the finest-grained rules, involves defining what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

If that sounds awfully theoretical… well, it is. But if you think it’s not practical to start at such a high level, that’s where I respectfully disagree. One of my guiding principles was stated very handily by organizational management guru Kurt Lewin. He said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin

Looking over my career as a communicator, I’d have to say that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. In too many cases, they never clarified the why at all.

So, in our next episode, we’ll start looking at why we communicate, and what the whole process involves. That will be the foundation for our developing some meta-rules that will make our communication stronger.

Is it really possible that you and I can improve the overall quality of thought in the English-speaking world?

I, certainly, am willing to try, and I hope you’ll join me, starting with the next episode.

Until then, I’m Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.

Good-bye, now.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

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Episode #004: Beyond Good and Evil in Grammar

In this episode, Max discusses how a change in usage stalked and murdered a perfectly nice poem.

Listen to the episode here:

OR SUBSCRIBE in iTunes or your favorite podcatcher.

Full Transcript

Snidely Whiplash in greenface

Robert Couse-Baker – Flickr

In this episode, I’m going to continue talking about the tricky matter of right versus wrong in the use of language. And I’m going to tell a story about a nasty trick that history played on a poet who probably deserved better.

In the last episode, I made the bold statement that if you could only afford to buy one book to help you with your use of words, your first book shouldn’t be a dictionary. Today I’m going to elaborate on that a little.

First of all, I want to say that it’s very important to have a reference that allows you to look up the definitions of words. But if you have internet access most of the time, the World Wide Web serves that need pretty well. It’s actually not a hard service to supply. What’s harder is to help you know, when you’re writing, which word you should choose out of several candidates. That’s where neither the web nor a dictionary can necessarily be counted on.

Dictionaries are better for reading than for writing

dictionary forbidden

Well, not forbidden, but…

Let’s look at this through a different lens. Use of language is either passive or active. You’re using language passively when you’re taking it in. You’re using language actively when you’re moving it outward, in other words, when you’re speaking or writing. With that concept in place, I can say what I’m saying about dictionaries pretty easily: they’re good for passive use of language, less so for active. When you’re reading and you meet a word you don’t know, the dictionary or the web will let you look up that word. On the other hand, when you’re writing, you might look up a word if you think you know its definition but you aren’t sure. And that can be helpful. But it’s not all the help you need. If you’re not sure you know what a word means, then you’re probably not very familiar with that word. That should be a red flag. It means that although you may be choosing a word with the right denotation, which is its dictionary definition, it still might not carry the right connotation, and dictionaries aren’t a great deal of help with connotations. In fact, it’s hard for dictionaries, even online ones that are easily updated, to keep up with changes in connotation.

In the last episode, I talked about two instances in which non-native English speakers used a word they were able to find in a dictionary, but which I’d never heard a native speaker use.

Today’s story is about a word that changed its connotation at almost the very time a writer decided to use it, spoiling his poem for all posterity.

Time, you thief… How changing usage ruined a good poem


John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier – Boston Public Library – Flickr

John Greenleaf Whittier was a 19th century American poet, best-known as a leading voice of the abolitionist cause. He also wrote on religious and spiritual matters, and he wrote some historical poems. He was once challenged by a woman friend to write a love poem. She said she doubted he was capable of producing one. To a nationally famous poet, this was something like a double-dog dare.

He went home that night and penned a pretty nice little love poem.

The piece deals with the love of a squire or a groom—in any case, some sort of servant—who is deeply in love with the high-born lady he serves. This servant speaks of the irony that, although she’s untouchable because of her lofty station, yet, precisely because she doesn’t even notice him, he has a delicious intimacy with her:

Oh, proud and calm! she cannot know

Where’er she goes with her I go;

Oh, cold and fair! she cannot guess

I kneel to share her hound’s caress!


The hound and I are on her trail,

The wind and I uplift her veil;

As if the calm, cold moon she were,

And I the tide, I follow her.

His intimacy with her, in fact, is greater than that of the noblemen who come to court her:

Gay knights beside her hunt and hawk,

Faithful servant with his lady's hawk.

Photo by Brent Flanders (proforged on Flickr)

I rob their ears of her sweet talk;

Her suitors come from east and west,

I steal her smiles from every guest.

And yet, a faithful servant in every way, he will never dream of taking any sort of advantage of the closeness he enjoys:

World-wide apart, and yet so near,

I breathe her charméd atmosphere,

Wherein to her my service brings

The reverence due to holy things.


Her maiden pride, her haughty name,

My dumb devotion shall not shame;

Within the world’s rigid class structures he can’t possibly rise above his station. Yet he feels, inwardly, that his very servanthood, so faithfully expressed, ennobles him:

The love that no return doth crave

Medieval lay on horseback

Jonnie3 – Flickr

To knightly levels lifts the slave,


No lance have I, in joust or fight,

To splinter in my lady’s sight

But, at her feet, how blest were I

For any need of hers to die!

How to title your poem for oblivion

As I say, a nice little love poem. Not a great one, perhaps, but not bad. But here’s the punch line that history, not Whittier, tacked onto this poem.

The title of this poem is “The Henchman”. I repeat. The title of this poem is “The Henchman.”

I live in the United States. It’s just possible that I have to explain this to English speakers overseas. Perhaps you in the UK, or Australia, or New Zealand or South Africa, don’t hear the word henchman the way we do here. Perhaps you hear only the same, very old, meaning that Whittier heard, which is virtually synonymous with groom, a servant who handles and cares for horses, or page, an attendant who travels on foot waiting on a noble. But there’s another definition, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a stout political supporter or partisan” or, especially in the U.S., “a mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another.” The first instance of this use in America that appears in the OED is in 1875, two years before Whittier wrote this poem. It’s possible that Whittier never heard this usage. Alas for his poem, though, as if mercenary and venal didn’t sound sinister enough, in America the word only got nastier. Al Capone had henchmen. Hitler had henchmen. So deeply has the word been overtaken by sinister connotations that the verb “hench” appears on urbandictionary.com with the definition:

the act of doing assorted tasks whilst dressed in a uniform similar to one’s peers, usually in the service of an egomaniacal villain

Freelance Henchmen

“freelance henchmen” by den_of_thieves – Flickr

Or, in other words, to hench is to do what a henchman does, and what a henchman does is usually criminal. This meaning, with its increasingly nasty connotations, has absolutely swamped any earlier definition of the term henchman. This swamping was probably quite well along within two decades after this poem was published, and was certainly complete by the 1930s. I have to say, I feel sorry for Whittier and his pretty nice poem. How is his work to be taken seriously with that title? Here, I’m going to read you a stanza I’ve already read; notice how much more like a stalker this persona sounds now that he’s been labeled a henchman!

The hound and I are on her trail,

The wind and I uplift her veil;

As if the calm, cold moon she were,

And I the tide, I follow her.

Every move your poem makes, I’ll be there to break its legs

Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, oh, how I’ll watch and watch and watch you…

Ahem. Alas for this poem, it’s been spoiled forever. And alas for Whittier. He thought he knew English, but one day he woke up and found her a stranger. His poor heart aches.

As I say, this was a case of linguistic change sneaking up on an author after the fact and spoiling his work for posterity. But writers who use words without knowing how the English-speaking culture actually hears them will spoil their own work in the same way. The very day it’s written, the work is already poisoned.

Garner's Modern American Usage front cover

A very useful book.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I say that the writer’s most important English language reference is not a dictionary, but Garner’s Modern American Usage. No, it can’t keep you safe from every possible faux pas you might be tempted to commit as a writer. But Garner focuses on the issues in usage that are most likely to cause trouble, and gives excellent advice for keeping out of that trouble. Also, Garner frequently notes how American usage differs from British, making his book valuable even for English-language writers beyond America’s shores.

Resources for writers

I hope you understand that, by recommending Garner even over a dictionary, I’m not saying dictionaries aren’t important or helpful. In fact, I believe that if you’re serious about developing strength as a writer or speaker, you’ll do well to gather and use a wide variety of resources. Podcasts can be very helpful, and I hope you’ll make a habit of listening to mine.

Grammar Girl devotee official badge

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl

I listen to Mignon Fogerty’s “Grammar Girl” podcast every week. And even after the many years I’ve worked as a writer and editor, I’m still sometimes surprised to learn something there that I’d overlooked. And I’m always grateful to be reminded of what I already knew, because English is so complex that if we’re not careful, we can sometimes forget the good things we know. Besides the content, I appreciate Grammar Girl’s presentation. Her explanations are carefully thought through and wonderfully clear.

There are many other resources I recommend. You’re probably better off going to my blog to find a complete list rather than listening to it on the podcast. I will repeat something I said last week, though. If you want to buy a book on English, check to see what editions are available. If a book is used in classrooms, the latest edition is likely to be overpriced, and not much different from earlier editions. In these cases, you’re better off paying the lower price for an older edition. I’ll go so far as to say this: if you have eighty dollars burning a hole in your pocket, rather than spend it on the latest edition of the Little, Brown Handbook, excellent as that is, I think your money would be better spent on a used compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I prefer the older ones in 2 volumes. They’re costing about $65 these days, and that will leave you enough to buy an older edition of Little, Brown to fill in your library.

I’ve given a few examples of how we can get ourselves in trouble with unfamiliar words. Next week we’re going to climb up to a higher elevation, and start to talk about a whole approach to language that will help you strengthen your writing and speaking.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week and effective communication.

Thanks for listening to Word Shots. Our theme music is “Cue the Moose”, by Gary Paul Bryant, and is used by license.

Good-bye now.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

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Episode #003: Yes, It’s a Word, But Is It One You Should Use?

In this episode, we look at how two non-native English speakers damaged their writing by using perfectly “legal” English words that no English speaker ever heard.

Listen to the episode here:

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Full transcript (headings aren’t in audio):

unabridged dictionary

Scott Robinson – Flickr

Last week I talked about who gets to decide whether something that might be a word is in fact a word. And I suggested that the right answer is not the makers of dictionaries, but the best writers.

Are Dictionaries Valuable?

Now, that may have prompted the question whether I believe dictionaries are valuable at all. The answer is that I’m sure they are valuable. Reference books on words and grammar and usage are valuable. Some are more valuable than others, of course, because some are better than others.

This week I’m going to talk about two specific instances in my career as a writer and editor in which a dictionary did not provide the right solution to the problem I faced. First, though—spoiler alert—since I’m going to tell you that you can possibly do without a dictionary, I’m going to tell you what one book you really ought to have on your shelf if you want to attain to great heights as a wordsmith.

That book is Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner. I recommend the third edition, published in 2009. The last time I looked, it cost only about $26 at Amazon.

Now, a couple of issues to discuss.

Usage and Grammar Guides: Don’t Pay Classroom Prices

First, why do I recommend the third edition? Well, let’s reverse that and ask why I wouldn’t recommend the most recent edition of a book. And that is an excellent question.

There are a number of books that I recommend, but not necessarily in their lastest editions. The reason is that many of these books are used in classrooms. And in nearly every case in which a book is commonly used in the classroom, that book is reissued too often.

Why? Because when your professor puts a book on a reading list, students are expected to buy the specified edition. This makes all kinds of sense. When the professor in class says, “Let’s turn to page 72 and look at the chart there,” it really helps if that chart is in fact on page 72 for everybody. This isn’t very likely if students are using different editions.

Now, if you’re a book publisher, and you publish a new edition every ten years, then during several of those years you’ll see your annual sales decreasing steadily, even though the same number of students are being assigned your book every year. This happens because with every passing year, the number of used copies of your book increases, and students will happily pay less money on the used market than for the new copy, since they get the same book either way. So, if your goal is to maximize profits, you’ll want to issue new editions fairly often, since each time you do so, you make the used copies of almost no value to current students; they have to buy the new.

Garner's Modern American Usage front cover

A very useful book.

For example, the Little, Brown franchise publishes a very good book called The Little, Brown HandbookI bought a copy some years ago, and I was very impressed with it. The first edition of the Handbook came out in 1980. It’s currently in its 12th edition, published in 2011. This means the book has been updated roughly every two and a half years. The current edition lists for $73.49. Used copies of older editions can be had for under ten dollars. Thus, this book is one that I recommend, but unless you’ll need to read the same materials with the same pagination as a group of others, in other words, unless you’ve been assigned the book for a class, I don’t recommend paying the huge price for the latest edition.

Get the Latest from Bryan Garner

Why, then, do I recommend buying the latest edition of Garner’s usage guide?

First, because the changes since the previous edition are considerable. There’s simply a lot more material than there was before. More importantly, Bryan Garner added a new feature to the third edition that I and many others find very valuable. It’s the Language-Change Index, which is a scale of one to five, by which Garner gives you his best estimate of the degree to which a disputed usage is currently regarded as acceptable. On this scale, a score of one means that the usage (or spelling or whatever) is regarded as acceptable by virtually no careful writers. In other words, it’s flat-out wrong. A score of five means that this usage is fully accepted.

Now I’m about to make my boldest statement of all in recommendation of Garner’s Modern American Usage: It’s simply the most important book you can buy if you write in English for American readers. And I say that not even knowing whether you own a dictionary. Yes, that means what you think it means: I’m saying that owning Garner is more important than owning a dictionary.

To explain why, here’s today’s story.

Carmen’s Unabridged Diction

In episode 1, I mentioned that I’ve had some success writing fund-raising letters. One of the few times I’ve done this, it was for a wonderful Salvadoran woman, living in California, who supported women’s cooperatives in El Salvador. Besides raising funds for her, which involved writing a letter in my own name, I also edited her own English-language newsletter, which she sent out periodically to her supporters.

Carmen Broz of El Salvador and California

Carmen Morán Broz

This was after a period of terrible troubles in El Salvador, and as those troubles were passing, she wrote about the challenges faced by the country. One of these was that there was considerable corruption in the military. So, Carmen wrote that the cleansing of the military was among the projects the country would have to perform in the near future. But, in the draft of the newsletter I was asked to edit, Carmen didn’t say “the cleansing of the military”. What she wrote instead was “the depuration of the military.”

I’m not sure I ever got a straight answer to my question where she had learned this word. I did learn that she was confident it was a perfectly good English word, which I would find in my Webster’s Third Unabridged.

If this had been the age of Google, my quandary wouldn’t have been very acute. But it was before not only Google but the World Wide Web, so I had to use my old-fashioned paper dictionaries. The word was in an unabridged dictionary, but not in any collegiate dictionary I owned, and so I suspected that, while it may be a perfectly good English word, it was probably one very seldom used. In a case like this, the best choice is to find a word that is actually in common use. Since “depuration” means “cleansing” or “purification”, the substitution would have been easy, except that one possibility nagged at me: that depuration might be a technical term, might in fact be exactly the term used when the cleansing being discussed is taking place in a military organization.

I can’t even remember how I resolved the issue. My point is that now, given the Web and Google, it would have been easy to learn what I needed to learn. Not only will Google show that the word is seldom used, but also that it has no special military associations. In other words, there’s no good reason to use it.

The more general point, then, is that the web provides not only most of the common information that a paper dictionary provides, but even more. It can provide a quick and broad sampling of how a word is actually used by writers. Now, clearly, these aren’t necessarily the more careful of writers; to look only for those, you’d want to consult a corpus, but even these exist online.

I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Some years later, I had exactly the same problem with another non-native English writer. I was editing for a management consulting firm, and a very intelligent man from Israel used the word “elusory” in his writing. The word was not “illusory”; that word begins with an I and is the adjective associated with “illusion”. Nor was it “elusive”, which begins with an E and is the adjective built from the root “elude”. Instead it was a cross between the two: E L U S O R Y. Turning to Garner, we read that this word I just spelled out is indeed a word, but is a needless variant of elusive. Once again, I had a non-native speaker of English tell me that a word was a perfectly good English word because it could be found in a dictionary, even though one might spend many decades among well-educated Americans and never hear the word. Nor would you see it in print in those same decades’ reading.

What's another word for thesaurus - Steven Wright

Ray MacLean – Flickr

In other words, yes, it is a word. But that’s not sufficient reason for using it. To do so is to send your readers to their own dictionaries only to learn that you’ve used an obscure word for which there was a perfectly common substitute handy.

What’s worse, your reader may never be sure whether you meant elusive or illusory. I was never able to learn it from my Israeli writer. Fortunately (or not), the entire paragraph was a tangle, and the paper didn’t seem to require it, so I cut it entirely.

How Not to Use a Thesaurus

I never did learn, in either of these cases, where my writer had found the questionable word. I suspect the thesaurus. This book, handy though it is, is responsible for too many poorly chosen words. These kinds of problems can often be prevented by this simple rule: use a thesaurus only to jog your memory. Never use a word that you met there for the very first time. You don’t know where it’s been. You don’t even know whether it’s been anywhere in recent decades.

I’ve mentioned Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I’ve talked about the limitations of dictionaries. In the next episode, I’ll tell one more story about how a writer got in trouble that a dictionary couldn’t have kept him out of. After that, I’ll start a short series of podcasts that will explain my overall approach to verbal communication.

Until then this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week, and effective communication.

[This episode does not include Max’s usual call for comments. But please let us know what you’re thinking.]

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Word Shots Episode #002 — Who gets to decide what’s a word?

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Word Shots Episode #001 – Graduate From Grammar

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