Sentence of the Week: Week 6

Five minutes later the bow-chaser, neatly slung by its train-loops, side-loops, pommelion and muzzle, floated gently over the Sophie’s fo’c’sle within half an inch of its ideal resting-place.

Oh, I do so love a good sea yarn, and the Patrick O’Brian series of Jack Aubrey novels is among the best. You may know it better from the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Cover Photo from Master and Commander
A fabulous, jargonful book.

This sentence is pulled at random from the novel and completely indicative of two countervailing issues. First, this guy O’Brian knows his nautical stuff. Second, the reader digging into this world can be at a loss about what the exact heck is going on here.

Let me ask a few questions.

  • Do you know what a bow-chaser is?
  • Do you know what train-loops are? (I’m not even certain I should put that sentence in the plural.)
  • Or a pommelion?

On other nearby pages, I ran into these words:

  • Puddening. Definition: A bunch of soft material to prevent chafing between spars (you know what those are, right?) or the like.
  • Breeched. Definition: Something you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that I’m still uncertain about, but it does not involve pants or slacks.
  • Frapped. Definition: Another thing you do to cannon on a sailing vessel that is hard to explain but clearly very specific and definitive. I know this word from earning my Pioneering merit badge in Boy Scouts. Is it the same thing?
  • Sweeps. Definition: Oh. Oh. I got this. Oars.
  • “Trice up. Lay out.” Definition: A command given to the crew that involves raising the sheets — sails to us land lubbers — and something else that I can’t figure out.

Okay, that was fun, but my point is to talk about jargon in communication, and there is no other environment more jargonly than sailing. Who else would call rope a “line?” By the way, “larboard” is what we now call “port.” Forgive me. This game could go on forever. And ever. Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to a Wikipedia  entry for nautical terms that has nearly 900 entries.

So, what’s a poor writer in 21st Century America supposed to do?

Rule #1: Avoid jargon.

Rule #2: Avoid jargon.

Rule #3: Avoid talking about sailing. Except to sailors. And they just love this stuff. The longest dinner of your life will be the dinner you sit next to someone who loves sailing. The second worst dinner companion is a carpenter. Who really wants to hear about “S4S?”

Here’s my suggestion for those of us who have to communicate with the real world. Just after you complete your hunt for cliches, set sail on a jargon cruise. Hoist high the sheets, let the braces do something or another, and let out the blah, blah, blah.

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Sentence of the Week: Week 5

“…is thought to work by…”

If you have read, seen, or heard a drug company promote its products recently, you’ve heard this phrase. Watch this commercial from Pristiq, an anti-depressant from Pfizer. The phrase occurs at the 26-second mark.

Pristiq is not alone in this trend. Check out Avastin for colorectal cancer; Abilify for depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia; Lyrica for diabetic nerve pain; and Lunesta for insomnia. They all are “thought to work,” “believed to work,” or “may work” in specific ways. But the marketers never claim any of them “definitely work,” “actually work,” or are “proven to work” in any way whatsoever.

When I first heard “Pristiq is thought to work by affecting the levels of two chemicals in the brain: serotonin and norephinephrine,” I sat up and said, “Huh?”

You may have had a more erudite response, but I just couldn’t imagine that Pfizer’s lack of conviction about how their product worked could lead to any level of consumer confidence in its efficacy. Isn’t this the first rule of sales? You have to believe in the product to sell it? How can you believe in a product when you don’t even know how it works?

Imagine if you read the following statement in a press release: “The new Caterpillar D Series Mini Hydraulic Excavator, model 305D CR, is thought to have heavier counterweights that may enhance machine stability and might allow increased lift capacity.”

Are there any products that undergo a more rigorous testing procedure than drug products? But every other product makes a far more definitive claim than these do.

The whole thing makes me want to join Tom Cruise and the other nutcases over at the Scientology lab, who disbelieve in any drug therapy apparently because they flunked chemistry in high school. The only reason I don’t join up, of course, is these stupid drugs actually work and help people, in spite of what they tell you in their own commercials.

Oh yeah. Don’t even get me started on the passive voice in this sentence.

Sentence of the Week: Week 4

“The coolest thing about Google TV is that we don’t even know what the coolest thing about it will be.”

Apparently, I’m working a theme. Over these last couple of posts, I’ve developed the “I-don’t-know-where-the-heck-we’re-going” theme. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Google Ad
My future begins with coffee and the paper. Every morning.

 I found this sentence in an ad for – you guessed it – Google TV. (The complete copy is at the end of this post.) It represents something that corporate America seems to have lost sight of, which is the need for undirected research. My experience of the corporate world is that the only lever managers really work is cost control. Creating value, adding service, and building something new are difficult and risky, and in an era of tighter budgets and higher profit and loss accountability, few managers want to risk creation. Instead, they control.

Google and a few other companies support innovation. They do so by giving their employees the time to pursue their passions without direction. Consequently, we get breathtaking advances that we never could have anticipated. (Please know that I’m not putting Google TV in that category. For all I know, the ad copy may be better than the TV.)

The sentence I chose this week represents the uncertainty of the future and the desire to do things for the sake of doing things. But what I really like about this sentence is its simplicity and repetition. (I’m a sucker for repetition.)

The phrase, “the coolest thing about” opens and closes the sentence. In between, the word “Google” repeats the sounds of “coolest,” offering center to the balance. “TV” rhymes with “be,” creating end rhymes that are not obvious but still delightful. If this sentence were the front elevation of a building, you would find the equanimity of massing and repetition of elements to be very pleasing visually. The same is true of the sounds.

Read it out loud. It’s not poetry. It doesn’t scan, but it is fun.

Let’s be truthful, though. It is not a brilliant sentence. It is honest, though, and a good honest sentence at the end of some ad copy is worthy of notice.

My only complaint about the sentence is that it is not the last sentence of the ad. One other sentence follows: “Learn more at google.com/tv.” That sentence – the call to action – blows and undermines what could be a very powerful finish to the copy. Oh well. Nobody’s perfect. Not even Google.

Full Ad Copy

“Kids again.

We haven’t been this excited about TV since Saturday morning cartoons.

Not only are TVs the center of our living rooms, but five billion of us use them. That’s more than the number of people who use mobile phones or computers.

Knowing how the web radically transformed those devices, we wondered what it could do for the most ubiquitous screen in the world. Which is why we’ve been busy geeking out on how to make TV as awesome as possible.

The result, coming shortly, is Google TV.  It’s an adventure where TV meets web, apps, search and the world’s creativity. Like Android, we will make Google TV an open software platform. From the start, it will be able to work with any TV. And before long, anyone will be able to build applications for it.

The coolest thing about Google TV is that we don’t even know what the coolest thing about it will be. Learn more at google.com/tv.”

Sentence of the Week: Week 3

“On October 30, I’m holding the march to Keep Fear Alive, unless the sun explodes incinerating half the earth and casting the other half into eternal night, which many scientists could say might happen.”

Stephen Colbert famously created a new word for our times: “truthiness.” Even though it’s a nonsensical term, I feel its meaning in my gut. Colbert uttered our sentence of the week on his September 28 broadcast. The sentence and especially that last phrase capture the idea of truthiness completely.

Colbert Poster
Experts say the march could be a huge success

The sentence hangs on the audience’s understanding of an epidemic of bad journalism that is sweeping the country. Name newspapers and high-caliber TV news organizations have joined the sorry masses of schlock journalists in a scourge of poor research, misrepresentation, and talking-point reporting.

News watchers can identify the blight by the use of certain phrases. “It has been reported…” “Some say…” “Experts have noted…” Colbert’s audience knows that when those phrases appear an unsubstantiated “fact” will follow, and news will sidle over into opinion with barely a whisper.

“Which many scientists say might happen,” with the “could” removed, would be welcomed on the nightly news broadcasts and cable politics shows. In fact, it may be a direct quote. The information would have the backing of the authority of the news organization, which people trust. (Although that trust is declining rapidly.) In truth, the many scientists might number 15 while the scientists in disagreement could number thousands. That fact would not be reported because the information would not fit the perspective of either the reporter or the news organization. As Mark Twain said long ago, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And as people are fond of saying these days, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

By inserting “could” Colbert tweaks both the sentence and the news organizations that have fallen into such poor form. Those of us in the know feel just a little smarter and better about ourselves. Truthiness, indeed.

I almost forgot. It’s funny, too.

Sentence of the Week: Week 2

“It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.”

In this sentence, Cormac McCarthy describes a train passing across the plains as a young cowboy watches. The passage appears near the beginning of All the Pretty Horses, which is one of my favorite books.  This sentence is, by any measure, a breathtaking description that defies rules yet delivers with power and emotion. It builds with the rush of the approaching train, and you can almost feel the flashing energy as it passes, then fades quickly to the distance. I like to think that the train runs on the rails and ties of the sentence itself.

I offer this sentence as atonement because I’m ashamed of that sorry excuse for a sentence from the New York Times last week. You deserve better. But even worse, I think I left you with the perception that I’m a hide-bound stickler for grammar and syntax. I’m not.

Words matter, and this great big huffing and puffing run-on sentence communicates on so many levels that no reader can be left untouched. Read it out loud, and you will love the way it makes you feel, how deeply you feel the train’s passing. If you could connect with your audience with such emotion, wouldn’t you be willing to break the rules?

Detail from Picasso's "Guernica"

But in order to break the rules, you have to be competent in the vernacular. Picasso, who painted and drew some of the most outlandish, inartistic visions we’ve seen in the 20th Century, was an accomplished artist, capable of refined sketches and classically composed paintings. He chose to explode those conventions by taking pieces of our visual perceptions, breaking them apart, then putting them back together to create something new. Simple, effective, and completely new. His paintings made us approach art and our understanding of the world in new ways.

McCarthy does the same with his writing. I call it “fly-on-the-wall” fiction, because as the reader you feel you’re just a fly observing the scene. No internal dialogue is going to tell you what the characters are thinking or what motivates them. You have to discern it entirely from what McCarthy shows you.

If the dialogue is in Spanish, don’t count on a translation. However, McCarthy controls the language so adeptly that you begin to learn Spanish as you read, because the context of the story illuminates it. That’s what the best communicators do. They teach you how to read their writing as you’re reading it. Consequently, you get to explore new experiences and new understandings of the world around you.

Achieving that is rare though and requires complete control and mastery of the craft.

Sentence of the Week

“In polls leading up to Sunday’s vote, the referendum was split nearly 50-50, with signs lining the streets here and vans with microphones driving around and politicking for each side.”

Turkish FlagThis sentence appeared in the New York Times Monday. It refers to a referendum in Turkey on 26 proposed changes to the constitution. Interestingly, the sentence appeared in a sports story about the world championships in basketball.

Consider these issues:

  • A microphone won’t do anything unless it’s connected to a loudspeaker.  So, the writer should have chosen “loudspeaker.”
  • Signs and vans can’t politic. People can, but they’re curiously absent from this sentence.
  • Microphones can’t drive either, and at first glance, that’s how I read the sentence. In truth, the author grouped the words correctly, but the whole thing is so awkward that it just reads wrong.
  • The referendum was not split 50-50. The polls were split. The polls actually represent voters, or likely voters, or partisans or something. That detail is missing. Again, so are the people.
  • It’s passive voice. Stop it NY Times. You should know better.

So, how would you write this? Here’s my stab.

“Polls leading up to Sunday’s vote showed voters split nearly evenly. Supporters for both sides lined the streets with signs and drove vans with loudspeakers throughout the city, politicking for their cause.”