Tag Archives: diction

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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Clear Writing Requires Use of Correct Idioms

Use of a faulty idiom is another writing fault that will impede your ability to write clearly. A faulty idiom is an expression which, although using correct grammar and reflecting a correct meaning, nevertheless combines words in a manner that is contrary to accepted usage. “Ann enjoys to shop” is wrong, not because the combination of words offends logic or grammar, but because it is incorrect usage. “Ann enjoys shopping” is better. Also in the same category is the statement, “I know Pete for many years”; it is better to say or write “I have known Pete for many years”.

Other commonly used idioms include the following examples:

Faulty / Correct

listen at listen to

different than different from

in the year of 2012 in the year 2012

possessed with possessed of
ability ability

independent from independent of

comply to comply with

enamored with enamored of

plan on plan to

try and try to

There are no rules to follow for correct idioms; they simply must be learned. A good approach is to make a list of them and memorize them as you would memorize new words. Also, training the eye to be alert for the correct use of idioms (as you can train the eye for correct word association in learning good grammar), repeating aloud, writing, and visualization, are also useful for memorizing specific expressions that give you trouble.

In many idioms, the meaning is controlled by a preposition. A verb, adjective, or phrase must be used with the right preposition. Sometimes, however, even using the right preposition can result in an incorrect idiom. A very commonly misused phrase is “with regard [not regards] to.” But “as
regards (a matter)” or “with kind regards to (a person)” is correct.

Another very common mistake is to write (or say) “I’m waiting on (someone or something)” when you should write or say, “I’m waiting for (someone or something).” If you’re a baseball fan, you will recognize that this particular poor usage of words will, unfortunately, show up repeatedly during a game when an announcer describes a hitter as “waiting on the fastball (or other pitch),” instead of saying he’s “waiting for the (pitch).” Also, often heard in baseball parlance is an announcer describing a player’s action as “if he’s catching that ball,” instead of saying, “if he had caught that ball …” It is regrettable that many people will write this way, because they will assume it is correct usage.

Also heard all too often is, “Listen up,” when simply “Listen here, ” or “Listen to me,” is better. Many television advertisements rely on the giveaway phrase, “It’s for free,” when “It’s free” will do nicely.

Here is a short list of correct prepositional idioms:

accused of charge for
(a crime) (a purchase)

accused by charge with
(the police) (a violation)

agree with convenient to
(an individual) (a person)

agree to convenient for
(a proposal) (a purpose)

correspond to part from
(things) (a person)

correspond with part of
(a person) (a thing)

in accordance with the position of

angry at (a condition)

angry with (a person)

Another common fault is to mix idioms by using the first half of one idiom and the second half of another.

Wrong: Stalin had no hesitation to use force.

Right: Stalin had no hesitation in using force.

Also right: Stalin did not hesitate to use force.

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

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Summary of Clear Writing Guidelines and Techniques

Many clear writing guidelines and techniques have been covered on this blog site over the past several months. They have been summarized in my book “The Art of Clear Writing,” available on amazon.com/ Kindle Books and in print. In order to facilitate reader review, I have quoted this portion of my book below.

“This book introduces fundamental guidelines and techniques necessary to develop clear writing skills. The guidelines and techniques discussed in this book may seem obvious to some readers and appear to be common sense to others, but they are important, time-tested approaches to developing a writing style that will lead to the creation of a final, clearly written document.

Writing is no different from any other undertaking in life: you have to start at the
beginning to master it. All art is created through the exercise of a craft such as painting, sculpting,
etc. Every craft must be taught and learned, including writing. Clear writing is an art form because it can be learned through the craft of writing. Almost everyone can write to some degree, but to write clearly is a goal worthy of achievement. The long hours and hard work it may take to get there are tasks eminently worth the effort. Remember that a clearly written document will speak well of the author and the purpose it seeks to advance.

Develop and maintain a strong belief in your ability to write clearly. You can do it if you train yourself to do it, but it takes dedicated effort and continued practice.

The five fundamental guidelines discussed in this book should apply to any writing project, no
matter whether you are writing in English or any other language. Here is a summary:

First, develop confidence in your ability to write clearly by writing every day. Read extensively and study the writing style of experienced writers.

Second, learn to recognize clear writing. You will know it when you see it. A clearly written document should flow smoothly, be easy to read, and be visually attractive.

Third, get organized. Thoroughly plan your writing by organizing your thinking. Prepare a mental blueprint of what you’re going to write, then, prepare an outline that closely reflects your
blueprint. This is, perhaps, the most important step of all to improve the clarity of your writing.

Fourth, know your reading audience. If you don’t know who you are writing for, you may as well not write at all.

Fifth, know your subject matter. Become a maven on the content of your writing. You need expert knowledge to write with authority on any subject. If you try to fake it, your reader will see right through you. Take the time to research your subject matter thoroughly. The result will be high quality content, a vital ingredient for any successful writer.

Develop the many writing techniques discussed in this book by continuous practice. Dedicate yourself to writing every day. Build your vocabulary so you can find the right word when you need it. Be concise in your writing, use shorter sentences, carefully edit all writing before using it, and, most importantly, eliminate all spelling errors.

Also, read good books, magazines, and newspapers. Expose yourself to experienced writers whenever and wherever you can. Learn from their style. Make a list of all new words, learn them, and learn how to use them. Become familiar with all punctuation marks and their application. Train your eye to learn grammar by word association rather than by definition. This is your homework, so to speak. The more thoroughly you apply yourself, the clearer your writing will be.

As a final thought, the creation of a paper trail, as discussed in the introduction to section two, will go a long way towards helping you achieve clear writing success. It’s good practice to memorialize all deadlines in writing as well as confirm all past and future events to prevent misunderstandings. Follow up important letters and emails with a letter and/ or memorandum to the file.

Keep your writing objectives in full view at all times. Clear writing is not easy to achieve. It’s hard
work, very hard work. But when you’re finished writing, dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, rewritten and revised the document for the umpteenth time until you can’t look at it anymore, then, like an artist, you can sit back and admire your work with the knowledge you’ve given it your best shot.

At this point, assuming you have been diligent in applying the guidelines and techniques discussed in this book, you should begin to notice a definite improvement in your writing. This improvement may not be noticeable overnight but will be over a period of time. Keep working on it!”

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

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Lessons From the Past – Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, And The Declaration of Independence

My book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com at Kindle Books and in print) contains several historical vignettes to illustrate the flexibility of different kinds of paragraphing and the correct use of punctuation.   I’ve focused on Thomas Jefferson in this blog to illustrate two writing lessons:  one to show the use of  different kinds of punctuation, and the other to show how powerful concise writing can be.  Here’s the first:

“Engineering The Louisiana Purchase – A Look Back

It was the hallmark of President Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophy that the Chief Executive should not have excessive power.  Yet, in 1803, when faced with the opportunity to purchase from France the vast, unexplored, Louisiana Territory that bordered on the western side of America, he cast that belief aside and signed the agreement to buy the territory for $15 million.

Jefferson’s visionary act removed a potential threat to America’s national security.    One option was to take no action at all, thus leaving Napoleon, builder of empires, in possession of the territory.

But Jefferson, taking the advice of American Commissioners abroad, decided on the purchase.  Paving the way for this historical event was the work of Jefferson’s predecessor, John Adams, in securing peace with France during the so-called “Quasi War,” which ended in 1800.

There was considerable doubt as to the constitutional power to make such a purchase. But when the identical issue came before the Supreme Court in 1828 in a  different case, Chief Justice John Marshall, speaking for the Court, ruled that “the Constitution confers absolutely on the government…, the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty.” (See:  John Marshall, Definer of a Nation,335, Jean Edward Smith, Henry Holt & Company, 1996, quoting from American Insurance Co. v. Canter, 1 Peters 511, (1828), a case involving the purchase of  Florida, but where the issue was the same as that involving the Louisiana Purchase.)”

As to the second lesson, writing with conciseness, my book devotes an entire chapter to avoiding faulty diction.  The choice of correct, clear and effective words is defined as diction.  One of the pitfalls of faulty diction is the use of excess language, or failure to be concise.

Holding your reader’s attention after getting the reader’s attention can be a challenge.  The best way to do this is to avoid the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to expressan idea. Tautology, the needless repetition of an idea in different words, is a fancy word for it, but it’s nothing more than sloppy writing.  Dense, wordy paragraphs and long, rambling, disorganized writing is certain to cause reader discontent and exasperation.  Such writing amounts to pomposity, which will turn your reader off.  Use familiar words.  Write in a conversational and welcoming tone, not stilted or artificial.

Be attentive to every word you write.  Much of the force of your presentation will spring from its conciseness.  Use words judiciously, economically and at a level the reader can understand.  Don’t make the reader grope for a meaning – it may be an unintended meaning.  Less is usually more.  Try to accomplish this result by “squeezing”  your writing until all needless words have been eliminated.  Question the need for everything that appears in your writing.  Due diligence on the issue of wordiness will put you squarely on the road to writing concisely.

Patriotism aside, there is no finer example of the power of  concise, effective writing than the following timeless words from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These memorable words, expressing the maximum in political sentiment in the minimum amount of space, the embodiment of powerful but utter simplicity yet profound in their implication, earned Jefferson a well deserved lasting place in American history.

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

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Clear Writing Requires Use of Correct Diction

We have previously discussed the need for an effective vocabulary on this site.  But, having words at your disposal is of little use unless you know how to use them effectively.   The use of correct, clear, and effective words is defined as diction.

Words, the basic building blocks in any writing, should fit together evenly like bricks in a wall.  Properly used words should allow your sentences to flow smoothly like an unobstructed stream of water.  This will avoid having the reader stop and look back to see how your ideas “hang together.”

Learn the meaning of words that can help you; then learn how to write with them.  Nothing will make your writing come alive faster than use of the right words in the right places.  Precise word usage will help elevate you in the eyes of the reader and convince the reader that you’re an accomplished writer.

Your writing should not be complex or obtuse like many government regulations and instructions, such as those accompanying the Internal Revenue Code.  Nor should it be like reading an autopsy report – a straight-forward recitation of facts with no emotion.   On the other hand, you are not writing the great American novel either.  It’s usually inappropriate to use picturesque or flowery expressions unless you are writing fiction.  Use of the right words will help you achieve an effective balance in your writing.

Study and use a good unabridged dictionary and thesaurus.   Not only will these resources help you find and use the right words and acquire a keen eye for language, necessary steps to develop an effective vocabulary as previously covered, but they will also help you in achieving correct diction.  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) is a wonderful writer’s resource that contains sections devoted to explanation of signs and symbols used in writing, basic elements of style including punctuation, capitalization, italicization and other styling conventions, documentation of sources, and forms of address.

Faulty diction takes many forms.  To write concisely and avoid major pitfalls in diction requires close attention to several areas.   In the first place, be aware of words easily confused, such as affect and effect, accept and except.  Don’t use words such as ain’t, bursted, or drownded.  Avoid dialectal phrases such as right smart,  and a ways back.

Be concise,  Avoid use of excess language.  Be attentive to every word you write.  Much of the force of your writing will spring from its conciseness.  Use words judiciously, economically, and at a level readers will understand.  Don’t make the reader grope for a meaning – it may be an unintended meaning.  Less is usually more.  Try to accomplish this result by “squeezing” your writing to eliminate all unnecessary words.  Question the need for everything that appears in your writing.  Due diligence on the issue of wordiness will put you squarely on the road to writing concisely.

 As any experienced bridge player will tell you, the traditional opening lead in playing bridge calls for leading from your longest and strongest suit.  The same thought applies to writing.   Capturing the reader’s interest from the outset is most important.  Therefore, begin writing with a strong opening paragraph, appropriately captioned.  This approach will capture the reader’s attention and less likely result in reader distraction.  After getting the reader’s attention, the next challenge is  to hold it.  That’s where good diction comes in.  The best way to hold the reader’s attention is to avoid the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea. Keep your writing tight.  Tautology, the needless repetition of an idea in different words, is a fancy word for it, but it’s nothing more than sloppy writing, which will cause reader distraction or boredom.  Either way, you lose the reader.

Dense, wordy paragraphs and long, rambling, disorganized writing is certain to cause reader discontent and exasperation.  Such writing amounts to pomposity, which will turn your reader off.  Use familiar words.  Write in a conversational and welcoming tone, not stilted or artificial.

Patriotism aside, there is no finer example of the power of  concise, effective writing than the following timeless words from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain       unalienable rights, that among these are life,  liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These memorable words, expressing the maximum in political sentiment in the minimum amount of space, the embodiment of powerful but utter simplicity yet profound in their implication, earned Jefferson a well deserved lasting place in American history.

Don’t clutter your writing with excess ideas and language.  A skilled writer will never use two words when one will do. Avoid this pitfall by eliminating superfluous words that have the same meaning.  A strong sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a valuable painting contains no unnecessary brush strokes or a modern building contains no unnecessary beams.  Alternatively, you can distribute the ideas over several sentences.

Last, don’t shortcut sentences by inadvertently omitting necessary words.  This can happen through laziness or carelessness.

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

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Finding the Right Word Is Critical to Correct Diction

Last week’s blog emphasized the need to have correct diction, the choice of correct, clear, and effective words, as a step towards clear writing.  There are several pitfalls to avoid. Being concise in your writing and eliminating excess language is part of this process.  Having a powerful vocabulary is also necessary to achieve this goal.  But a strong vocabulary will also help to avoid another pitfall on the road to correct diction – failure to use the exact word.

Searching for, finding, and using, the right word is a process I’ve learned to focus on as part of my ongoing writing experience.  Many years ago I was head of the legal defense team responsible for defending Doris Day’s lawyer, Jerry Rosenthal, against legal malpractice charges.   I came away from that case impressed with Rosenthal’s writing skills, and in particular with his penchant to find and use the exact word he needed to precisely express his thinking, whether in writing or speaking.  He had a fixation on word selection, and an extensive vocabulary to go with it.  He 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.  My involvement in this case and the writing tips I picked up are discussed in more detail in my eBook, “The Art of Clear Writing,” available at amazon.com/kindlebooks, soon to be available in print as well.

The lesson I’ve learned is not to settle for approximations of my 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 U.S. Government has attempted to encourage the development of better writing in the Plain Writing Act of 2009, which inspired some of the ideas used in my eBook.  This legislation is an attempt by Congress to enhance citizen access to government information by mandating that government documents issued to the public must be written in plain English.  But as pointed out in the Acknowledgements for my eBook, the government’s use of the term “plain writing” is not as accurate as the use of “clear writing” would be, because the former is somewhat ambiguous.   What is “plain” writing?  Is it “plain” because it is not fancy, because it is not written in some esoteric script, or for some other unknown reason?  The mental discipline of searching for and finding the right word will pay huge dividends for you in developing a clear writing style.

The use of the word “cool,” greatly overused in today’s society, is a good example of a word which has no precise meaning.  It has little place in formal writing.  Use of precise words to describe exactly what you see in a certain locale is one example of where specificity is greatly needed.  Generalization here will fall flat. 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.

If you were writing a review of a machine and you simply wrote that it is a “bad” product, this description is far too general.  “Bad” is an overworked word and not very specific in this context.  But if you wrote that the machine requires far too many repairs to meet acceptable consumer standards, this is an obvious gain in specificity.

An overly general choice of words is frequently the mark of a lazy mind. Sharpen your word selection by resorting to an unabridged dictionary and a thesaurus.  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.”

Write every day to sharpen your writing skills and to gain confidence in your writing.  Also, read extensively to broaden your vocabulary and to learn how experienced writers put words and sentences together.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rightrs reserved.

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Correct Diction Is A Sure Path To Clear Writing

Today’s blog will be my last chance to communicate with you before next Tuesday’s election.  I want to use it to emphasize a point I’ve been stressing recently, i.e., learn to write clearly as part of your contribution to the skilled work force needed to help improve the economy, as urged by Mitt Romney.

Finding and using the correct word in constructing sentences is not just a function of vocabulary building; it’s also a vital ingredient in using good grammar.  To become an accomplished writer, you must learn to avoid faulty diction, which refers to the correct choice of words.  This subject is covered in my eBook “The Art of Clear Writing,” (available on amazon.com/kindlebooks, but soon to be available in print as well).

My blog site has repeatedly stressed that good grammar can be learned by using word association, learned through extensive reading and continued practicing of your writing.   It’s an approach also espoused in my eBook.   I am living proof that this approach works, and, if it has worked for me, it can work for you.

Without regard to learning good grammar by word association, it’s also helpful to know which words to use in a given sentence and to have these words at your fingertips.  The more you can recognize how to use them, the faster your clear writing skills will improve.  In order to help move you along in this learning process, I have devoted this week’s blog to illustrating use of some of the more commonly misused and confused words which seem to cause writers problems.

One problem area is principal and principle.  These words are commonly confused.

Examples of the correct uses of principal are as follows:

Mary is the principal of the school.

The principal balance of your mortgage will be reduced with every monthly payment.

The correct uses of principle are as follows:

The principle point of his speech is not to raise taxes.

Not to allow any discrimination is a matter of principle with him.

Another troublesome area is the difference between effect (to accomplish), and affect (to influence).

For example, higher gasoline prices have a discouraging effect on driving.  But higher gasoline prices also affect everyone who drives.

Accept and except also causes problems.  Accept means to receive while except means to exclude.  Here are some illustrations:

I accept your gift with gratitude.  Your offer to buy my car is accepted.

This example uses both words to contrast their usage: Except for all the obvious shortcomings of this location, I agree with your description and accept your kind offer to sell me your business.

Also, here’s another form of except: There are exceptions to every rule.

Another set of words commonly misused is already and all ready.   The movers are already here.  In this usage the word means beforehand.  All ready means everyone is ready. The assembly is all ready to start.

Similarly, altogether and all together are often confused.  Altogether means entirely.  The committee was altogether satisfied with the report.  All together means collectively.  The committee was all together in rejecting the proposal.

Allusion and illusion are also frequently confused.  Allusion means a reference.  Your allusion to my poor habits is unacceptable to me.  His allusion to the fiscal cliff is too vague to be meaningful.

Illusion means a deceptive appearance, such as an optical illusion.  His sighting of water in the distance was just an illusion.

Further and farther are also words often and easily misused.  Farther means to a greater distance, to a greater extent.  Example:  I refuse to act any farther in this plan.  If you can’t hold up any farther, say so.  Further describes quantity or degree.  I can provide some further instances.  It’s not safe to go any further in the darkness.  I am not going to pursue my studies in literature any further. This word is usually found in the word, furthermore.

These are only a few examples.  Many more could be provided.  There is no easy way to overcome any propensity you may have to confuse these and other words.  Diligent application by extensive reading and studying of the troublesome words to learn their correct use is the best answer.

My last words for today are simply these:  Begin working on the improvement of your writing now and don’t give up on it.  Stay with it and be persistent!   Remember, persistence and determination are omnipotent.  Improvement of the economy is everyone’s responsibility.  It deserves your best effort.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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