Tuesday, November 06, 2018

In Recognition of Election Day: Vociferously Obfuscating

When it's time to vote, we might think of the slogans and sound bites of incumbents and challengers. It's time for doublespeak, the term coined by novelist George Orwell in his landmark book to mean language that pretends to communicate but really confuses. 

Numerous examples of doublespeak come to mind, but two resounding ones come to mind. The first is by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for his infamous truth isn't truth comment in defending why President Donald Trump should not submit to testifying to the Mueller investigation team. The second is by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo for calling "inartfulhis statement "We're not going to make America great again—it was never that greatin response to President Trump's mantra.


Keep seeking, dissecting, and reporting examples of doublespeak in the name of plain language. Our freedom of speech depends on it. 
  

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The "I" Understood

Since more examples of I understood keep popping up, I wonder whether this rhetorical device will become an English language standard. 

We learned in elementary school and from hearing everyday speech that you is understood in imperative sentences, so we naturally—and correctly—drop the bracketed you in these sentences:

  • If you have any questions, please [you] contact me.
  • [You] Send the report to the president.
  • [You] Stop when you approach Security.

But dropping I? Here are some examples from official business emails I've received of a dropped I in sentences of various tenses, with the words in brackets omitted by the writer:
  • Past Tense: [I] Spoke with the broker yesterday.
  • Present: [I] Craft speeches for the CEO.
  • Present Continuous Tense: [I am] Completing slides for the presentation.
  • Future: [I] Will inform you by the end of the day.
Chances are people write sentence fragments like these as a gesture of humility, because they want to deemphasize themselves. They also may be attempting to limit the repetitious or selfish-centered use of I

Language is dynamic, especially English, because multilingual speakers of different non-English languages who need to communicate with each other generally default to English. While I understood might seem distasteful, most of us who have not been trapped for decades in a linguistic straitjacket agree that the following sentence is acceptable: [I] Thank you. Therefore, it's normal to muse about whether the other sentences will become standard in contexts where they're clearly understood in this fast-paced age of communication.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Is # a Punctuation Mark, Word, or Some Other Symbol?

Punctuation is changing. Or are words? Depending on how you google a topic, you will get different results by adding the hashtag. For instance, try #lovemusic then love music. The clipped communication world we live in creates a conundrum for disciples of semantics.

What does # mean? As of this date, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster won't touch it, and Oxford does, albeit with the old-fashioned meaning: The hash sign or pound sign, used as a symbol on a phone keypad or computer keyboard before a numeral , or to represent a pound as a unit of weight or mass

I think in internet language # means the whole wide world of whatever it is attached to.

Thanks to Twitter and its brethren websites, we keep adding subtleties to the meaning, or sense, of words and symbols. Think about the layered meanings of 😉,😊, and😞, among many other emojis. In communication between two close friends, one of those emojis can have an entire paragraph of meaning. We intuitively know what these symbols mean, or at least think we do. We are not making the machine more intuitive; we are becoming the machine.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

In or Out? Those Crazy Quotes

A common question in my writing courses is whether to place commas and periods inside or outside quotation marks. If you read both American and British publications, you'll surely be confused because they follow different rules. The American Psychological Association (APA) Style Blog and the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Center offer helpful viewpoints on this topic. 

When quoting verbatim, the American method works well enough: place the punctuation inside the quotes, as in:
Barry said, "We will have a meeting."
"Will it be tomorrow?" asked Harry.
"Yes," said Larry. 

But the American method can cause problems, as this acceptable sentence includes punctuation marks within the quotes although they are not part of the poems' titles: 
While I was reading Sylvia Plath's villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song," she was reading Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle "One Art."
The application of this rule doesn't bother me, as I have far greater problems to concern myself with when writing. Here is a solution for those who do not like the rule: Create your own organizational style book that breaks the American standard.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

BOOK BRIEF: The Choices That Summon Us—"Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage" by Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman’s Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage surpasses its restrictive subtitle. Of course, the 57-year marriage the author describes could only be hers, but her narrative transcends an exposé of the life of two individuals made one unbreakable couple, even when separated. Schulman’s tome is a tribute to writer friends, deceased and still thriving, who compose a veritable who’s who among the literary establishment. It is a testament to the remarkable healing power of poetry. It is a psalm to music, indeed the soundtrack of her life of the mind. Ultimately, it is her ode to love, a love song in itself about her remarkable life and union with virologist Jerome Schulman, who passed away in 2016. And it is even more—an opportunity for all people in a deep relationship to reflect on the kind of partner they have been and could be.

Schulman’s prodigious achievements include the Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry. Beginning her writing career as a journalist, she became poetry editor of The Nation for 34 years and director of the 92nd Street Y for 22 years. She remains Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, where she has inspired students, including me, for more than four decades.

Reading Strange Paradise is much like experiencing Schulman’s poetry. She continually steps into the fresh air after an encounter with her husband, a friend, a colleague, or her work to capture the turning points of her life. Consider some of these lyrical gems: upon choosing between a long-term relationship and her freedom: “My love was losing me the resolve to go my own way.” About learning to write better poetry from her dear friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Marianne Moore: “I woke to her verbs.” Of her youthful, bold border crossings in Israel to the Arab village of Qalkilya: “Borders summoned me.” When she and her husband visited Greece before their marriage: “In Hydra we looked death in the face. Or was it life at its highest elevation?” Of her many choices: “Despite its happy sound, freedom is terrible because of the entire responsibility for each choice among alternatives.” Reflecting on the death of her husband: “However close your union, you live apart, alone. Your freedom of choice, terrible in its way, is existentially important.” And of the finality of loss: “My walks through the city and country were not cures but bandages.”

Yet Schulman’s spirit summons us to triumphs in the depth of despair: “I’ll go through a normal morning when suddenly grief arrives in a high whitecap wave: after another lull, the comber rises and flattens me. Still, I find the breaker’s aftermath a place for work that clarifies. In the northeaster at sea a dinghy comes, splintered, in need of repair. I climb on board and try to bail it out. I go on.”

Schulman’s life-affirming book reminds us of the binary existence in which we find ourselves, not an either/or, but an acceptance, an appreciation of the pleasures, pains, joys, and sorrows that we must embrace if we are to live a life worth living.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 14: Keeping the Door Open

For this final installment on tone tips, I will not recount the numerous suggestions that I made in this series, but I do encourage you to review them. My thanks to the many people who have liked these tips on Linked In, Twitter, and Facebook. Heeding the advice in these posts will keep the door open to your readers. I close this series with three new recommendations that will cultivate and cement enduring relationships.

1. Check in. Staying in touch isn't always easy when you're bombarded with countless e-messages, yet it is a sure way to stay connected. Here are possible openings to emails that your readers might find endearing if they are well-timed: "Glad to hear from Charlie that your project is progressing smoothly" ... "I just returned from New Orleans and was thinking about your great advice to make the business trip a hit" ... "It's been a while since we last communicated, so I want you to know that we are continuing to look for ways to bridge the gap between our services and your needs." 

2. Acknowledge. Never let an opportunity pass to congratulate or simply thank someone. Examples: "I'm excited but not surprised about your recent, well-deserved, and long overdue promotion" ... "Without a doubt, your support on this project made it a success for countless reasons" ... "I greatly appreciate not only your diligence on all your assignments but the respect that you have shown all your collaborators." 

3. ReferYou can forward a useful article: "I thought you would be interested in this piece about succession planning, which I know has been at the top of your agenda." You can connect two people: "Anita and Zhou, I am sure that with your mutual aims in bioinformatics, you will benefit from knowing each other." Or you can write a commendation for a promotion, award, or program acceptance: "Brenda Gross is worthy of recognition as Employee of the Year for her creative, efficient, and ethical approach to all she does."

Checking in, acknowledging, and referring will go a long way toward gaining forgiveness if you unintentionally breach some of the best practices posted in this series. More importantly, it will keep the door open to the people who matter most to you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tone Tips, Part 13: Preferring Language to Emojis

Most people who email me use emojis, but that doesn't mean I have to. While I do not find them silly or offensive, I know some of my clients see using them as unprofessional. They see it as an excuse not to use language to express what they mean.

I agree with those critics, even if you might think they take their work and themselves too seriously. That's why I avoid using emojis. Instead, I let my words do the talking. Yes, they can get me in trouble just as emojis can, but I want to cultivate my communication skills.


So how do I express emotion? Thinking a bit longer about how I want to congratulate you for a recent promotion rather than just throwing a smiley at you will touch you more. And expressing a subtle reaction in words over dropping in a wink gives me an opportunity to sharpen my writing skills and you the chance to reflect more on the situation.