Category Archives: punctuation

Use The Right Word To Achieve Clear Writing

Don’t settle for approximations of your thoughts. Imprecise words and expressions detract from clarity and may cause your reader to question all the other statements you make. Generalities will roll off a reader like water off a duck’s back. Accuracy of word usage is what you are after. The mental discipline of searching for and finding the right word will pay huge dividends for you in developing a clear writing style.

For example, writing that the XYZ machine is a “bad” product is far too general. “Bad” is a very overworked word and not very specific in this context. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed., p. 91, reveals “failing to reach an acceptable standard,” as the first choice for definition of this word. Thus, writing that the XYZ machine requires far too many repairs to meet acceptable consumer standards is an obvious gain in specificity.

“Cool” is another greatly overused word in today’s society. It is often used in everyday conversation to signify the speaker’s acceptance of a thought, description, etc., uttered by another. But it has little place in formal writing.

For example, if you were to write that Murphys, California is a “cool” place to visit, the reader would have little understanding of what you mean and would have no incentive to go there. But if you wrote that it’s nestled in the farmland of the upper San Joaquin Valley, that you must drive through rolling pastoral countryside to get there, that it’s a living remnant of the Old West, and that it’s a shopper’s delight complete with casual dining and a nearby winery, the added specificity will make a visit sound much more inviting.

An overly general choice of words is frequently the mark of a lazy mind. Sharpen your word selection by resorting to an unabridged dictionary. A general word will usually have many definitions to choose from to make your meaning definite. When a shorter synonym for a word is available, use it. Often you will find that the use of a shorter synonym for the word you are using is the best option. Use common words such as “end” instead of “terminate”, “explain” rather than “elucidate,” and “use” instead of “utilize.”

In the last blog I referred to my involvement in the case where Doris Day won a large monetary award against her former attorney, Jerry Rosenthal. As I pointed out, the court found that Rosenthal had many faults in his representation of Day. Nevertheless, he had valuable writing skills.

One writing trait of Rosenthal that I still remember was his penchant – call it a phobia – for using the right word, whether in writing or speaking. Rosenthal boasted to me one day that the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court had advised him that his framing of the issue in a petition he had written was the most clearly worded issue the clerk had ever seen. His fixation on word selection, together with his extensive vocabulary and his flair for writing, piqued my own long standing interest in that subject and caused me to focus on my writing even more readily.

The bottom line is this: take the time to find and use the right words, the precise words, to fully express your thoughts in writing. It will be well worth your time.

I have covered all of this and more in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/Kindle books, and in print.

Copryright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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Leave a Paper Trail Whenever Possible As Part of a Clear Writing Discipline

As mentioned in previous blogs, many years ago I was involved in the case when singer/actress/entertainer Doris Day won a huge monetary award against her former lawyer Jerry Rosenthal. The trial judge found Rosenthal’s representation of Day to have many faults. He also found Rosenthal’s testimony at trial to be non-believable. The judge’s decision was affirmed on appeal.

Despite these shortcomings, I found Rosenthal to have excellent writing skills. One of them was the regimen he followed to keep track of his writings, i.e., creation of a paper trail. His use (some would say “over use”) of this practice is described in more detail in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/Kindle books and in print. For ease of reference I have repeated here what I wrote in my book on this subject.

“In affirming the trial court’s decision, the appellate court tagged Rosenthal as a “notorious note-keeper,” not without considerable justification. (For clarification, it should be noted that I was not involved in the appeal). To this appellation, I would add the adjective “meticulous.” That Rosenthal had a propensity for writing memos and letters was clear from the huge paper trail he left in the case. The record was littered with his writings, often in his own handwriting. He wrote a memo to memorialize, well, everything, and letters to do the same. And every memo was inscribed with, not only his initials, but the date and the time it was created.

The trial judge in his final decision referred to the “patina” of paper created by Rosenthal, which surrounded the case. In other words, her thought that all of Rosenthal’s memos and letters were a cover up to disguise his wrongdoing, to give some semblance of authenticity to his conduct…

As part of this practice, Rosenthal made a dairy entry on May 11, 1956 to memorialize a conversation he had with Doris Day on that date explaining the May 11, 1956 retainer agreements he reached with her and Marty Melcher. In these agreements, Rosenthal was given a ten percent interest in the Melchers’ earnings and investments. Later in 1963, he and Melcher agreed to build a financial empire together using Day’s money as capital, together with Melcher’s business experience and Rosenthal’s legal experience as contributing factors. Pursuant to this “Empire Agreement,” Rosenthal was to withdraw from the practice of law so as to devote all of his time to building the empire and was to be paid a salary of $100,000 per year plus expenses. He would be a fifty percent partner with the Melchers.

The judge did not believe that Rosenthal could explain the May 11, 1956 agreements to Day in 25 minutes, as he testified, and so disbelieved his testimony about everything, including the 1956 fee agreements and the later Empire Agreement, despite finding certain “chicken tracks of irrefutable facts” surrounding the latter. The judge consequently disbelieved Rosenthal’s entire seventeen days of testimony in the case. This ruling was based on the “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” (false as to one thing, false as to everything) doctrine. An interesting doctrine which could have application outside the field of law, e.g., politics, it formed a major basis for the court’s findings against Rosenthal, including the finding that his services to the Melchers over approximately twenty years of time were absolutely worthless.

But, notwithstanding this ruling against Rosenthal, the point to be made is that your writing skills should be applied to pursue the very same “note keeping” practices used by him. Becoming immersed in the vast ocean of records in the case could not help but leave a definite impression on me. It provided the impetus for me to upgrade my own record keeping habits. I increased my efforts to memorialize all telephone conversations by note or memo, and to follow up telephone and other conversations by letter and, later, by email, where appropriate.

Agreements, formal or informal, deadlines, things to do, errands, etc., all deserve to be put in writing. It’s good personal and business practice to leave a paper trail whenever possible, not only as a reminder of deadlines, but so as to avoid any misunderstandings as to who said what, when it was said, where it was said, etc. I still follow these practices today.”

Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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Use The Active Voice; Minimize The Passive Voice.

Using the active voice as opposed to the passive voice has been written about extensively. Much of it is confusing. The secret of the active voice is to simply write more directly. In other words, to borrow the thought from a legendary songwriter, the late Johnny Mercer, you should “Accentuate the positive” in your writing.

More specifically, the active voice makes it clear who is supposed to perform the action in the sentence. When using the active voice in a sentence, the person who’s acting is the subject of the sentence. When the passive voice is used, the person who is acted upon is the subject of the sentence. The active voice eliminates ambiguity about responsibility for action; the passive voice obscures that responsibility. More than any other writing technique, use of the active voice will improve the quality of your writing.

The following examples reflect the difference:

Active – Albert and Bess missed the filing deadline for their tax return.

Passive – The deadline for filing their tax return was missed by Albert and Bess.

Active – A smart shopper buys only the freshest coffee.

Passive – Only the freshest coffee is bought by a smart shopper.

Active – The IRS has proposed new regulations.

Passive – New regulations have been proposed by the IRS.

Active – You need a fishing permit to fish in that lake.

Passive – A fishing permit is needed to fish in that lake.

Writing in the active voice will usually result in the elimination of abstract or vague words and a clearer, easier to understand sentence. Thus,

I purchased the airplane ticket,

is better than,

The airplane ticket was purchased by me.

We appreciated your report,

is better than,

Your report was appreciated by us.

Readers understand sentences in the active voice more quickly because the active voice is not only stronger and saves words but conveys the writer’s thought more directly.

Use the present tense of verbs, their strongest and simplest form, together with the active voice and a personal pronoun, to transform sentences and make them shorter, easier to understand, and more forceful and direct. Writing in the present tense helps to make your point clearly. Avoid the conditional or future tense when possible.

Before – The following summary is intended to assist buyers in understanding the costs and expenses that will be incurred if product A is purchased.

After – This summary describes costs and expenses that you will incur for the purchase of product A.

Another example:

Before – The subscription to the X Journal may be cancelled at any time.

After – You may cancel your subscription to the X Journal at any time.

Even a past event may be clarified by writing in the present tense as much as possible:

Your policy may not cover you
if you did not file a claim within
30 days of the date of injury.

The foregoing information may be found in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/Kindle Books, and in print.

Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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An Open Letter To The President

Dear President Obama:

It has now become clear to the country and the entire world that you do not have any capacity to lead. The fiasco over Syria is only the latest in a whole string of leadership failures on your part. Russia is now the main player in Syria; your staggeringly inept diplomacy has allowed the U.S. to become a second rate power and a laughing stock. Leading from behind, your trademark, is not the answer in this scenario or any other. The details are a matter of record and need not be recounted here. Suffice it to say that you have allowed Russia’s President Putin to seize the moment in this diplomatic power struggle. The point is simply this, that you have been, and are now, unqualified and incompetent to lead this country, and should never have been elected in the first place. But the fault is with American politics, which allows someone such as you with no leadership qualifications but with a gift for talk (empty talk at that)to run for office and get elected. Now the country is paying the price for its folly. The sad part is that the country needs leadership and you are simply incapable of providing it.

Aside from Syria, you have failed after some five years in office to do anything about the country’s high rate of unemployment. The wealth of this country was built on private enterprise, not big government. But this is a truism of history that you simply ignore. The country is drifting in a sea of joblessness with no end in sight. Capitalism, the mother’s milk of economic growth, is being stifled because of your big government policies. For example, as a result of Obamacare, which punishes businesses for not providing full time employees with health care coverage, employers are hiring fewer full time people to avoid the harsh financial penalties for noncompliance. The full financial consequences of this unfortunate piece of legislation are still to be determined. You want to take credit for the Affordable Care Act, but the lack of full understanding of this law and its unpopularity with the public at large again exemplifies your lack of leadership.

You have also failed to lead the way on holding anyone responsible for the 9/11/2012 Benghazi attacks, which took the lives of four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. It is now a full year since the attacks occurred and few questions have been answered. The identity of the person(s) who gave/approved the “stand down” order which resulted in no military assistance being provided to those under siege is still unknown. If Hillary Clinton as then secretary of state is the one responsible for this act of incompetence, it should be revealed. The relatives of the deceased deserve better treatment from their own government. Your failure of leadership is again quite evident.

The Trans-Canada Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, with its attendant economic benefits including job creation is laying fallow because of political devotion to your environmental supporters. Environmental concerns can be overcome and should be subservient to the greater good from enabling of this pipeline project, not the least of which is energy independence and a reduction in U.S. reliance on oil imports from the middle east and Venezuela.

Mr. President, these are but a few of the concerns which need to be addressed because of your leadership failures.

Copyright 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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Techniques For Final Review Of Your Writing

There are several considerations involved in a final review of any writing. One of the most important is the appearance of the document. Writing that appears cluttered and dense will create a negative reaction in any reader. Strive to create well spaced documents with ample margins.

Organization of your writing is also important to help the reader to understand different levels of information. Break up your writing into visually manageable pieces. There should not be more than five to six sections on each page. The use of shorter sentences and paragraphs and grouping related items together will make it easier for the reader to understand your writing.

Be discreet in the use of emphasis. Use bold type or italics to highlight important points but use them in moderation for maximum effect. Don’t capitalize everything or underline too much.

Typeface selection, use of tables and graphics, and layout and color, are also factors to consider.

But nothing is more important than the elimination of spelling errors and the use of correct punctuation. These items are of paramount importance.

This point must be made absolutely clear: misspelled words will cause all of your hard work to sink – fast. So, be forewarned! It is absolutely imperative to make sure your spelling is correct. Misspelled words in particular are the bane of good writing; nothing will undermine your hard work and turn a reader off faster than a misspelled word, particularly if it’s a common one. You must take the time to check the spelling of any word that looks suspicious to you. Resorting to a dictionary for new or difficult words should be the first and ongoing choice.

Many writers shortcut the correct spelling of words either because they don’t know the correct spelling or are too lazy to find out. Spelling “nite” instead of “night,” and “thru” instead of “through” is the result of careless, sloppy, or lazy writing and is disfavored in good writing. Don’t take any shortcuts with your spelling; they will stamp you as an amateur.

Another solution is to record all misspelled words on a separate sheet of paper; the act of writing down the correct spelling should in itself help you remember it. Keep this paper handy for continued reference and add to it on a regular basis. Try to understand why each word was misspelled.

You can also master the intricacies of good spelling through visualization. Good golfers are said to visualize each shot before hitting it. If it works in golf, it can work in spelling. Teach yourself to picture the correct spelling of all misspelled words in your mind. Concentrate on the correct spelling of these words to be sure you see every letter. Then look away, spell the word, and look back for verification. Repeat this procedure on a regular basis until you can instantly recognize the correct spelling of each previously misspelled word.

Clear writing also requires the use of correct punctuation.

To some extent, punctuation has the same use in writing that the use of gestures, pauses, and vocal inflections have in speaking, i.e., for emphasis, or to reveal the precise relationship of thoughts. But the use of punctuation goes beyond what is necessary for emphatic writing.

The use of correct punctuation makes writing more understandable, and aids in the smooth flow and clear presentation of information. Without punctuation, all writing would be a jumble of words. The correct use of punctuation will mark you as a superior writer. This entails knowing how to use end marks, commas, apostrophes,quotation marks, semicolons, colons, dashes, and ellipsis. An accomplished writer will also be skilled in the use of parentheses and brackets, and be able to distinguish between the two.

Copyright 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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The Mysterious Element of Syntax Is the Key to Effective Writing

In my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com/Kindle books and in print), I have devoted several pages to explaining how use of syntax can help your writing to become more effective. Here is what I have written:

“What exactly is syntax? How can it help you to write more clearly? And, how does it differ, if at all, from diction?

To answer these questions takes a little digging. A good dictionary definition provides some help. One definition provided by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Ed., p. 1269, is that syntax means “…a connected or orderly system: harmonious arrangement of parts or elements…” That helps a little bit. The same source provides another definition: “…the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)…” That helps a little more.

So, how does all of this relate to clear writing? Let’s find out.

Good syntax makes good sense. It deals with the orderly arrangement of words in a sentence. Diction, dealing with the selection of the right words, is to be distinguished. So, it can be said that words carry the meaning, the power, but syntax controls their effect on the reader.

We now have a better understanding of what syntax means, but we still need to know how it helps us to write more clearly and how to acquire it.

Syntax involves adding rhythm and color to your writing. These are an indispensable part of clear writing, and should be as much a part of your writing as your heartbeat is to you. Thus, there should be a beat to your writing much as a poet includes a beat to his/her lines. As noted in “The Way To Write,” John Fairfax and John Moat, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 66, Byron used the thunder of horsemen as the meter for his poem,
The Destruction Of Sennacherib:

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf
on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple
and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like

stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly
on deep Galilee.”

The same little booklet, at p. 58, provides another example of what the authors believe is “spectacular” syntax in the following quote from an unidentified Hemingway novel:

“Living was a horse between your
legs and a carbine under one leg and
a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and
the hills beyond.”

The point to be made in all of this comes down to using the story teller as an example. Everyone likes a good story. Bob Sands, a well known copy righter who writes for AWAI (American Writers And Artists, Inc.), emphasizes the point that good copy writing is made even better by a good story. The order of words in the telling of the story is what provides the emphasis, the drama. The drama makes the story. An accomplished writer has a feel for the dramatic and can arrange his words to provide the best impact.

An inexperienced writer may struggle to write a sentence that provides the best effect on the reader. But, once more experience is obtained, a writer will get a feel for the best order of his words. This will result in clear meaning, logical presentation of information, and maximum effect on the reader.

A final example, what Messrs. Fairfax and Moat characterize as “superb” syntax, is provided by no less familiar a name than Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Life’s but a walking shadow;
a poor player,

Who struts and frets his hour upon
the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a
tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and
fury,

Signifying nothing…” (Id. p. 59).

A gift for words may carry with it a gift for syntax. The two may be the same. But, as with other aspects of writing, the gift for syntax does not come gift-wrapped with a ribbon – it must be nurtured and developed, by guidance and constant practice, by developing the ear.”

Copyright 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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The False Promise of Howard Zinn’s Anti-Americanism

An important Wall Street Journal article this week pointed out how Howard Zinn, the Marxist historian, and a former member of the Communist Party in 1949 is making the academic left and Hollywood more influential than ever. This excellent article by David J. Bobb, director of the Hillsdale College Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C., takes direct aim at the “impressive empire devoted to the spread of [Zinn’s] ideas.” Now, this entire movement fostered by Zinn’s relentless criticism of “alleged American imperialism” is in my opinion nothing more than a communist manifesto style of anti-Americanism.

Zinn, who died in 2010, is the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” published in 1980. So far as Zinn is concerned, America is synonymous with brute domination of people that can be traced back hundreds of years. The Founding Fathers were nothing more than “self-serving elitists defined by guns and greed.” This is historical claptrap. According to Zinn, capitalists are villains controlling all basic material goods such as food and housing and that basically everything including healthcare, education, and transportation, should be free to everyone. What Zinn and his followers fail to understand is that communism stifles incentive and where there is no incentive there is no economic growth.

Endorsement of Zinn’s writings by the likes of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and other Hollywood notables is eminently unjustified. Here are two actors who have made millions as a direct result of the workings of American capitalism but who nevertheless are Zinn supporters. As the article points out, both are Zinn family friends. This is nothing more than hypocrisy at its best.

Any supporter of communism who wants to try out its ballyhooed heroic workers glory need only live under it to experience the mass despair and misery that plagues everyday life under that system. One need only to look at North Korea and Cuba, two countries beset by not only economic stagnation but an absence of human rights, to know that this “workers paradise” does not work for the masses. Those who glorify it should go and live in any country where communism is the way of life before preaching its ideals. China also has a communist government but a capitalistic economic system. And how much freedom for the masses is there in China?

Any institution of learning that allows Zinn’s works to be presented should also temper any such presentation with a hard look at present conditions under communism as well as those that were extant under the former Soviet bloc. Those who would cast capitalism as a villain should try going into business where communism exists and not free enterprise. Capitalism may not be perfect – it surely has its faults – but it’s the best system yet invented by man to foster economic growth and wealth as the history of this country will attest. Those who live in this country and enjoy its many freedoms but nevertheless clamor for the “social justice” endorsed by Zinn’s writings
simply ignore the harsh realities of life where our freedoms do not exist.

Copyright 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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