Thursday, August 13, 2009

The "Reason Why" Is Too Much

Today's writers, with few exceptions, do not get paid by the word because verbosity is to be avoided not compensated. Accordingly, today's readers prefer brevity -- call it the USA Today approach to literature. Perhaps it's a chronic muscle problem we all have. No one wants to turn a page to finish an article in a newspaper or magazine.

This tendency towards brevity can also be found in the "In Depth" segments on broadcast news programs, which are all of three minutes.

Or notice the decreasing lengths of television advertising - some segments are only about ten seconds long - and fast-paced editing allows three or four scenes in that period. It's simply a global tendency towards ADD. As a species that is the way we are evolving in post-modern society. We no longer take the time to watch the wheat grow.

And yet....some redundancies, such as the "reason why" persist. Write "the reason is" or "here's why" but please do not use them together. It's unnecessary. Possibly the "reason why" is said and written, even by the NY Times, as a crude means of emphasis. I don't know. Whatever the reason, you should take a stand and refuse to participate. Cut out some of these redundancies in your writing and people will absorb what you writer easier.

In my writing seminars I ask students to take an exercise in which they reduce what they have written, or the person seated next to them, or another author by half. It's the "get-to-the-point" exercise that lets you see redundancies in a new lights. You can try this exercise easily on an section of Shakespeare's work. You know how difficult it is for today's modern person to get through Shakespeare. Modern film versions of the bard's works, such as Romeo and Juliet starting Leonardo DiCaprio, use rock music, heightened violence and outlandish costumes so alleviate boredom.

A first step to editing your work, whether it's an email, report, or short story, is to start cutting out unnecessary words and redundant phrases. Once you get into the habit of doing this your writing will improve.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Hopefully" No More!

Successful writing begins with clear language that conveys meaning accurately and effectively. Unfortunately, the evil forces of bad usage unwittingly conspire to obfuscate rules and guidelines upon which good writers depend. Is there hope?

The meaning of "hopefully" is one obvious example. Thank you Barack Obama, Larry King, Anderson Cooper, and every television reporter in America -- with the exception of one Jessica Peres who works for ABC TV in Fresno -- for murdering the meaning of this word thousands of times each day. From this day forward I shall no longer fight hopeless battles with my brother-in-law on how "hopefully" is improperly used.

No matter. William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White are probably tired anyway of tossing around in their respective graves. Their "The Elements of Style" notwithstanding -- the most popular book on writing ever published -- explained this loss long ago on page 48 in discussing "hopefully:"

This once-useful adverb meaning "with hope" has been distorted and is now widely used to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, "Hopefully I'll leave on the noon plane" is to talk nonesense. Do you mean you'll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you'll leave on the noon plane? Whichever you mean, you haven't said it clearly.

The point that Strunk and White is making is not one of grammatical erudition, but rather of sloppiness that leads to ambiguity. That sloppiness is accentuated by the need for speed. The erosion of today's language by the on-demand mass media, whose time for consideration and thought is limited, places more demands on today's writers to convey the meaning they want. Thinking before writing used to be the key to effective writing over off-the-cuff, unorganized talking. But the time factor has been diminished by the need for on-demand information and tools to provide it, such as email, texting, twitter and blogging.

When you write please take some time to think about some of these sloppy words if, in fact, you care about clarity.

Some other common examples: "very unique," "the reason why," and "many alternatives." I won't live much longer if I continue to crindge every time I hear them. The "reason why" is my infamous favorite. You can explain the reason, or why, but you needn't put them both together. It's a redundancy, an "unnecessary redundancy." Like "plan for the future" (as opposed to just planning).

The first step to good writing is good language. If you haven't read "The Elements of Style," stop reading this article, get online, and order one today. You life will never be the same and your writing will improve. -- Rich Peres, August 6, 2009