William Zinsser's On Writing Well

This month I conducted a workshop for young scholars on writing for a general audience. In preparation for the workshop I read—or rather reread—William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well. I recommend it to anyone who wants to become a better writer.

Much of what Zinsser says is familiar, such as be concise and avoid clutter and use short, Anglo-Saxon words instead of long, Latinate words. And, yes, such advice is generally correct. But where Zinsser is really valuable is in the advice he gives for writing different kinds of nonfiction essays. Especially insightful is the chapter titled “A Writer’s Decisions,” in which he takes readers through one of his own essays and explains the many choices he made.

Zinsser’s book is as much about a frame of mind as it is about do’s and don’t’s. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.” Be true and be compassionate, and your writing may turn out well in the end.

Turning Technical Writing into Nontechnical Writing

Many companies and organizations produce bulletins, reports, and other documents that are initially designed for technical audiences—insiders who know the lingo, the conventions of the genre, and so on. Yet they often want to convert those documents into ones that are accessible to a general audience. Let’s take a look at how that process might unfold. We’ll use the opening sentence to a macroeconomic research bulletin as an example.

Here is how the bulletin begins:

The euro area sovereign debt crisis, during which many euro area countries had to undergo large fiscal retrenchment to retain access to financial markets, reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies on economic growth.

This sentence is likely to give general readers problems. Why? For one, it begins with a term that most general readers won’t know: sovereign debt crisis. Plain old debt crisis, maybe; but sovereign debt crisis? It sure sounds bad; but what does it mean or look like? Beginning with an unfamiliar term is a good way to lose a general reader. What’s more, there's no historical context that would allow a general reader to situate himself or herself temporally. When did the crisis take place? The sentence gives us no clue.

But beginning with an unfamiliar term is only the first problem. Before the sentence arrives at the main verb, there is an interruption in the form of a clause (during which . . .). That’s another problem, as readers (general or not) usually like to get to the main verb as quickly as possible. To make matters worse, the clause itself contains a term that, again, most general readers won’t know: fiscal retrenchment. Finally, near the end of the sentence, the term fiscal policies may or may not cause a problem. Sure, people have heard of fiscal policies; but do they really know or remember what they refer to? 

Let’s make this sentence more reader-friendly. First, let’s delay the appearance of the unfamiliar term sovereign debt crisis, let’s put a date on it, and let’s begin by reminding the reader of what he or she already knows—always an effective way to begin a disquisition. Let’s begin the sentence like this:

As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis.

Now, we’ve delayed the appearance of the unfamiliar term sovereign debt crisis, making it easier for a reader to deal with it once he or she comes to it: readers like to move from the easy to the difficult, building up momentum before coming to a challenging word or passage. But we haven’t solved the problem that general readers are unlikely to know what a sovereign debt crisis is. So let’s tell them:

As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis, as financial institutions began to collapse and national debts increased in relation to revenues.

Readers should now have a picture of what a sovereign debt crisis looks like.

Note that I have constructed a single sentence without getting to all of the information contained in the original. That was deliberate. Writing for a general audience usually means letting things unfold much more slowly, giving readers time to absorb information. 

Let’s now deal with the clause that mentions retrenchment. Rather than working that clause into the opening sentence (as is done in the original), we now have the space to deal with it in a sentence of its own:

In order to deal with the crisis and retain access to financial markets, many euro-area countries either raised taxes or cut public services or both in a process known as retrenchment.

Three things to note here. First, note how the sentence begins by referring to something mentioned in the previous sentence: the crisis. Beginning sentences with that kind of “old” information is an effective way to build flow and cohesion in your writing. Second, note that the difficult word, retrenchment, appears at the end of the sentence. Again, difficult terms are best left to the ends of sentences, as readers like to move from the easy to the difficult. And third, note that we have now defined retrenchment (retrenchment means raising taxes, cutting spending, or both).

There’s still one more thing to deal with: the part at the end about reigniting the debate over fiscal policies. Let’s do that in a third sentence:

The crisis reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies—the use of taxes and government spending to influence the overall economy—on economic growth.

Note that we begin again with old information (the crisis), which helps the entire passage hang together. Note too that we have defined fiscal policies, thus taking care of any readers who may be a bit unsure about what they are.

Let’s put the three sentences together and compare them with the original.

Original: The euro area sovereign debt crisis, during which many euro area countries had to undergo large fiscal retrenchment to retain access to financial markets, reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies on economic growth.

Revision: As is well known, beginning in 2008 the euro area was faced with a sovereign debt crisis, as financial institutions began to collapse and national debts increased in relation to revenues. In order to deal with the crisis and retain access to financial markets, many euro-area countries either raised taxes or cut public services or both in a process known as retrenchment. The crisis reignited a controversial debate on the impact of fiscal policies—the use of taxes and government spending to influence the overall economy—on economic growth.

You may be thinking, “Well, this is all well and good, but doesn’t it insult the reader? Aren’t you treating him or her like a baby, spoon-feeding what you have to say?” The point, though, is not to flatter the reader but to communicate with him or her. And, really, the revised passage, even though I would argue is much more accessible to a general reader, still contains sufficient complexity. The difficult terms are still there, after all. And the grammar has its complexities. Note, for instance, that only one of the three sentences begins with the grammatical subject. (The simplest writing begins with the grammatical subject.) Note too the parenthesis in the last sentence in which we define fiscal policies. 

Do you agree that the revised version is easier for most readers? Let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

To Make Writing Clearer, Use Flesh-and-Blood "Characters"

Probably the best book on writing expository, professional prose is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph K. Williams and Joseph Bizup. The first lesson is "characters as subjects." What does that mean?

Williams and Bizup explain that readers prefer to read about people rather than things, especially when those things are abstractions. What that means is that if you want to write clearly, your grammatical subjects should normally be people, or as Williams and Bizup put it, flesh-and-blood "characters." 

To see what this looks like in practice, consider the following sentence:

In a situation where the economy is in recession, inflation is below target, and the policy rate has been lowered to its effective lower bound (ELB), macroeconomic stabilization by means of conventional monetary policy becomes more challenging. 

Now, there are a few things that make this sentence less clear than it could be. One is the long dependent clause at the beginning. Another is the grammatical subject. First of all, the complete subject is long: macroeconomic stabilization by means of conventional monetary policy. Second--and relevant to Williams and Bizup's first lesson--the simple subject is not a person but an abstraction: macroeconomic stabilization

The first step to making this sentence clearer is to replace the abstract subject with a flesh-and-blood character. Is there a flesh-and-blood character who conducts monetary policy? Yes: a central banker. Let's make central bankers the subject of the sentence. Revising accordingly--admittedly a more complicated process than I can show here--we might come up with something like this for the opening sentence:

Normally, central bankers turn to conventional monetary policy to stabilize the economy. 

We now have a flesh-and-blood character as our grammatical subject, making the sentence much easier for most readers to understand.

 

 

Writing and the Vice of Elegant Variation

At some point in our education, we were told to vary our writing to avoid monotony. So what do most of us do? We avoid repeating the same word in a given passage, believing that doing so--that using different words for the same thing--will keep a passage from being monotonous. Thus, in a passage about education, we may find education referred to as schooling in one sentence, knowledge acquisition in another, human capital production in a third, teacher output in a fourth, and so on. The writer, terrified at the thought of being boring, strains for ever more ridiculous expressions of a single idea for which there exists a perfectly good word.

Using different terms for the same concept simply to avoid repetition is generally bad advice. It constitutes a writing vice known as elegant variation. We see an example of elegant variation in the following passage, where the author, determined to avoid repeating collective bargaining, changes the leading adjectives in each case:

This paper examines cross-national differences in the development of sectoral collective bargaining . . . The authors seek to explain why centralized, coordinated bargaining institutions were established . . . The authors argue that these outcomes resulted from differences in institutional loopholes employers were able to exploit to avoid centralized bargaining . . . Findings demonstrate the importance of sector-level political dynamics for the construction or erosion of solidaristic bargaining structures . . .

Sectoral collective bargaining; centralized, coordinated bargaining; centralized bargaining; solidaristic bargaining: do all those mean the same thing? If so, far better is to use the same term each time, thus saving the reader from wondering if the author means something different in each case. Readers would much rather be bored than confused.

A footnote: I'm not saying that repetition is always good. There's an art to knowing what is good repetition and what is bad repetition. A case in point is the penultimate sentence of this post. It originally read as follows:

If so, far better is to use the same term each time, thus saving the reader from wondering if the author means something different each time.

In my view, repeating the phrase each time was bad repetition. So I changed the second instance to in each case

Adding Grace to Items in a Series

One of the most elegant lines in The Canterbury Tales occurs in the prologue, in the description of the knight. "He was a verray, parfit, gentil knyght," Chaucer writes.

Chaucer knew something that all good writers know: when it comes to items in a series, three is the magic number. 

We often see, however, series that contain far more than three items. In those series, the writer adds item after item, often with no regard for their number, order, or rhythm.

Take this sentence, for instance, from the abstract of a 2017 article by the political scientist Janice Fine; it appears in Politics & Society:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, domestic worker protections, wage theft laws, “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications, and fair scheduling laws.

She gets "cities, counties, and states" right—three items, and in ascending order of size to boot—but ends the sentence with a list that goes on and on and on. And on. What's more, there is no attention to the rhythm of the list. For in addition to limiting lists to three items, a good list, rhythmically, moves from shortest item to longest item.

How to fix this? Well, one suggestion is to limit the list to three items, arranged from shortest to longest. Here is one solution:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

The author might object that the list is incomplete. OK; add, then, "among others":

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted, among others, higher minimum wages, paid sick leave and family leave, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

Still, what if the author insists that all the items must be listed? Fortunately, there is an app for that: the phrase "as well as." By joining one set of items to another with "as well as," the author can have her cake and eat it too:

Over the last decade, cities, counties, and states across the United States have enacted higher minimum wages, domestic worker protections, and paid sick leave and family leave, as well as wage theft laws, fair scheduling laws, and “Ban the Box” removal of questions about conviction history from job applications.

Now we have a sentence with a long but graceful list.

 

 

 

 

Predatory Publishers: What They Are and Why You Should Beware

Scholars, especially those on the tenure clock, are under more and more pressure these days to publish. Sometimes, the pressure is so great that scholars turn to so-called predatory publishers in an effort to build their CVs. A recent article in the New York Times looks at these publishers and the academics who publish in them.

Predatory publishers pose as reputable, peer-reviewed journals and often have names that closely resemble the names of top journals. But they exist mainly to make money off of fees that they charge authors for publication and hence have an incentive to publish anything that comes their way.

Whereas several years ago scholars were largely unaware of the practices of predatory publishers, the situation is different today. According to the New York Times article, the relationship between journal and author is "less predator and prey" than "a new and ugly symbiosis."

The article suggests that, for now, publishing in predatory journals is actually doing what the authors hope it will do: boost their credentials. But tenure committees are beginning to learn more about predatory publishers and to recognize which journals are serious and peer reviewed and which are not.

Predatory publishers, because they have an incentive to publish anything they receive, will often publish work that simply does not meet professional standards--and that can have harmful consequences. As one associate professor of fisheries at Delaware State University said, "Think about human medicine and how much is on the line. When people publish something that is not replicable, it can have health impacts."

The article was written by Gina Kolata and appears in the October 30, 2017, edition of the New York Times

 

 

 

Get to the Main Verb Quickly

Readers love to quickly get past the grammatical subject to the main verb. For that reason, writers would do well to avoid long grammatical subjects. The occasional one may not be a problem; but if you habitually write sentences with long grammatical subjects, readers will find your writing difficult.

Here is a sentence with a long grammatical subject, which I have boldfaced:

The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

In this sentence, the reader has to get through thirty-two words before coming to the main verb (was). All the while, he or she is casting forward, looking for a finite verb.

How can we fix this?

There are several solutions, but one is to dispense with the reason why and begin with the important element here, Keynesian economics:

Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics, not because his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking but because it brought together . . .

We now have a sentence with a short complete grammatical subject--Keynesian economics--that gets to the main verb quickly.

Now, I'm cheating here a bit, because in the sentence before, the authors had established that reappraising Keynesian economics meant reappraising macroeconomics. In other words, the long grammatical subject repeats the substance of the preceding sentence. I want to be fair to the context, so let me present the entire passage:

Much of the literature on disequilibrium microfoundations, therefore, was about reappraising the Keynesian economics that had come to dominate economic thinking since the Second World War. The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Working now with the original context, let's again revise the sentence, turning the long grammatical subject into a short subject. One solution is to turn it into an interrogative sentence:

Why had Keynesian economics come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics? The answer was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Another is to refer back to the main idea of the preceding sentence with a summarizing phrase, repeating a word (in this case, literature) in the first sentence:

The literature had reached that state not because his book bore no relation  . . .

But there is another way to approach this. Long grammatical subjects are often difficult because they force readers to shift their expectations: readers begin by expecting to come across the main verb quickly; when they don't, they have to reassess and figure out just what kind of grammatical construction they are in the middle of. (Oh, yes, this is a long grammatical subject that I need to get through before coming to the verb.) The extra effort required can be distracting.

So let's tip them off. Let's get them to a place where they can almost anticipate a long grammatical subject.

How can we do that? By inviting them to dwell a bit longer on the first sentence. That can be done with simple interrogatory statements introduced between the two sentences, ones that keep the reader's attention on the first:

But how had that come to be? How had the literature reached such a state? The reason why Keynesian economics had come to dominate macroeconomic theory to such an extent that reappraising Keynesian theory could be seen as close to synonymous with reappraising the foundations of macroeconomics was not that his book bore no relation to previous economic thinking; it was that it brought together . . .

Of course, one could still argue that the long grammatical subject is undesirable. But at least now the reader will likely have an easier time handling it when it arrives.

Writing with Grace

The title of my favorite book on writing is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. That last word, grace, came to mind as I copyedited a book review this past week. The book, I need to tell you, was titled Matter and Form in Early Modern Science and Philosophy; it was edited by someone named Gideon Manning. 

The review began in an ungraceful way:

The volume’s forward, by Mordechai Feingold, notes . . .

Forward is of course wrong—it should be foreword—and when first referring to a book under review, this rather than the is what’s needed (“This volume’s foreword”). But what makes the beginning ungraceful is the use of a possessive right off the bat and, even more so, that it is too shorthand, relying as it does on the template of information that precedes the review itself—the template listing the author’s or editor’s name, the title of the book, and so on.

So let's revise to get rid of the possessive and to give the full title of the work:

In the foreword to Matter and Form in Early Modern Science and Philosophy, Mordechai Feingold notes that . . .

But there is still a problem: Who is Mordechai Feingold, and what is his connection to the book? Why was the foreword written by, of all people, him?

I learned, after a quick search, that Mordechai Feingold is the editor of a series in which the book appears. That needs to be stated in the opening sentence of the review:

In the foreword to Matter and Form in Early Modern Science and Philosophy, Mordechai Feingold, the editor of the series in which this book appears, notes that . . .

Ideally, we would also be told the title of the series. But at that point, we might risk overloading the sentence with information. 

Reading like a Copy Editor

For eighteen years I copyedited a journal about the history of economics. Because of that, most people assumed that I learned a lot about the history of economics. I did--but not nearly as much as one might expect. To understand why, one must understand how a copyeditor reads. A copyeditor does not read like a normal person. A normal person reads to learn about a subject. In contrast, a copyeditor doesn't read as much as encounter: for a copyeditor, a text presents an overwhelming number of decisions to be made. Rather than reading for content, a copyeditor is sensitive to and is preoccupied with a whole thicket of issues that have little to do with the substance of a text. Let me give an example.

I begin a copyediting job, and the very first sentence I encounter reads as follows:

When Baruch Spinoza’s (1632–77) Tractatus theologico-politicus (‘Theological-Political Treatise’) appeared in late 1669 or early 1670, immediate reactions to it were hostile, and the work was soon condemned by members of the Dutch Reformed Church.

This sentence alone confronts a good copyeditor with several questions. Is Spinoza's name spelled correctly? Are his dates correct? Are the dates rendered as they should be? Is it OK to put someone's dates after a possessive? How should the Latin title of Spinoza's work be capitalized? Is the title accurate? Is the English translation of the title necessary, and if so, how should it be rendered? Should it appear in quotation marks? Should it be capitalized as it is? What about the reference to the Dutch Reformed Church? Should it be capitalized as it is? Is its named rendered correctly?

The answers to some of those questions will be determined by the publisher's house style. House style is the set of rules that determine such things as how inclusive dates are presented and how to capitalize the Latin title of a work. Should Spinoza's dates be 1632-77, or should they be 1632-1677? Should the title be Tractatus theologico-politicus, or should it be Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

With all those questions and more to deal with, no wonder a copyeditor fails to register or remember the substance of an article!

 

 

 

Motivating and Framing a Paper

I will be leading a workshop on writing at this week's History of Economics Society conference in Toronto, and to prepare for the workshop I solicited advice from several editors and senior scholars in the field. Their advice can be boiled down to this: Make me care.

As one scholar said, many papers simply report what this economist or that economist said without framing it in any meaningful way. In other words, there is no context that might make a reader care.

How do you make readers care? How can you effectively motivate and frame a paper?

Fortunately, there is a formula, if you will, that a lot of good writers follow. The formula, which is discussed in Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup, contains three steps: establish a shared context; introduce a problem with or complication to the shared context, raising the question, So what?; and respond to the problem by stating your main argument or thesis. Let's look at each one in turn.

Establishing a shared context means telling or reminding your reader of something he or she already knows or can easily accept. Let's suppose you are writing a paper on the physiocrats, the group of eighteenth-century French economists. Establishing a shared context might look like this:

Eighteenth-century France saw rich developments in two important areas, political economy and mathematics. Political economy at the time was of course dominated by the physiocrats, while such figures as Alexis-Claude Clairaut and Jean le Rond D’Alembert stand as two famous algébristes and salonniers. 

So far, so good. What we need now is some challenge to the shared context, a challenge that will create a space for the paper's main argument. Something like this might suffice:

The two communities—political economists and mathematicians—were largely unrelated. But that does not mean that there was no connection at all. As we hope to show here, at least one physiocrat--Charles Richard de Butré, the least-known of Quesnay’s collaborators—was, in two texts from 1766 and 1767, using algebra to explain his theoretical concepts.

Notice the word but that begins the second sentence. Problems with or complications to the shared context are usually introduced by words like but, however, yet, and the like.

OK--so we've introduced a complication. So what? Why should we care that there was some connection between the political economists and the mathematicians? Here is how the paragraph might continue--and how it might tell us why we should care:

As such, Butré’s research stands at the crossroads of these two scientific communities, and in his use of algebra as an aid for economic reasoning, the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics. 

Why should we care? We should care because Butré’s use of algebra helps us better understand the development of early mathematical economics.

Now, is the thesis statement--"the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics"--useful? Well, maybe. If the goal is to establish that Butre’s two texts are important, then this might suffice. If instead the goal is to establish why Butre’s use of algebra matters, then I think not. In that case, to say that something “provides very interesting insights” is vague. What insights in particular? What do we learn about the development of mathematical economics by looking at Butre’s use of algebra?

Here is the paragraph in full:

Eighteenth-century France saw rich developments in two important areas, political economy and mathematics. Political economy at the time was of course dominated by the physiocrats, while such figures as Alexis-Claude Clairaut and Jean le Rond D’Alembert stand as two famous algébristes and salonniers. The two communities—political economists and mathematicians—were largely unrelated. But that does not mean that there was no connection at all. As we hope to show here, at least one physiocrat--Charles Richard de Butré, the least-known of Quesnay’s collaborators—was, in two texts from 1766 and 1767, using algebra to explain his theoretical concepts. As such, Butré’s research stands at the crossroads of these two scientific communities, and in his use of algebra as an aid for economic reasoning, the two texts, we argue here, provide very interesting insights into the development of early mathematical economics. 

I will note, in passing, the economy of the writing. The three steps have been accomplished in a single paragraph.

There are two things you want to accomplish in your introduction: let readers know what to expect so they can read more knowledgeably; and motivate readers so they will read more carefully. To do that, consider constructing an introduction that establishes a shared context, qualifies or complicates the shared context, and responds to the complication by stating its main argument.

 

 

That vs. Who

I've been noticing more and more the use of that as a relative pronoun for a person. An example is, "Here is the man that opened the door for us."

I don't know for sure why that use seems to be on the rise, but I do know one thing: it's wrong!

The correct relative pronoun to use for a person is not that but who or one of its variations such as whom. Thus, correcting our example above, the sentence should read, "Here is the man who opened the door for us."

I suspect that many writers avoid who and use that in order to avoid having to decide if who is actually correct. They may wonder if whom is correct instead; unable to decide, they skirt the issue altogether by using that. The next time I get an opportunity, I'll ask.

In the meantime, use who (or whom, depending on the situation) when referring to a person and that when referring to a place or thing.

With Emails, Begin with the Purpose

The other day, I was writing a work email to a couple of colleagues. I was looking for a document camera, which I had seen in the building a year or so ago but had not seen since. I was emailing two colleagues who, I had been told, used the camera and might know where it was. Here is how I first began the email:

I seem to remember seeing in one of the smart classrooms a couple of years ago a document camera, a type of projector that displays on a screen not a transparency but an actual sheet of paper.

The message went on for two or three more sentences, as I described the camera in more detail and explained what I wanted to use it for. It was only then that I revealed why I was writing in the first place: I wanted my correspondents to help me find the camera.

I quickly realized that that last piece of information--why I was writing in the first place--should appear at the very beginning of the message. Why?

A good rule for writing work emails is to begin with the reason you are writing. Readers should learn in the first sentence why they have been sent the message.

I went back to the beginning and added this sentence:

I’m hoping you can help me locate a document camera that I remember seeing in the building about a year ago.

With that sentence, my two readers immediately knew the purpose of my message.

When to Use Semi-Colons

The semi-colon is often disparaged. I thought I remembered once reading that Virginia Woolf said that they should never be used. But that can’t be, as she used them—a lot.

In any event, I rarely see them being used. But they are the best choice in some cases. One is to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contains a comma. Here is an example:

He loved bread, which he made himself on Sundays; rich stews; and chocolate pudding.

Of course, one could switch the order of the items and seemingly obviate the semi-colon:

He loved rich stews, chocolate pudding, and bread, which he made himself on Sundays.

But there is a problem with the revision: it isn’t crystal clear that which he made himself on Sundays applies only to bread. Keep that order, but separate the items with semi-colons, and the uncertainty disappears:

He loved rich stews; chocolate pudding; and bread, which he made himself on Sundays.

In a similar manner, I especially advise semi-colons when you want to show that one independent clause relates to or extends another. Consider the following passage, which is written without semi-colons:

Scholars have long argued that inflation cycles pose significant threats to reformed communism (or market socialism), since pressure for investment is pervasive (to maintain employment and prop up public firms) but limits on that investment are few. A previous generation of scholarship has advanced two main explanations for how the CCP managed macroeconomic cycles during the first two decades of the reform era. Yasheng Huang emphasized the role of party discipline in restraining investment, whereas Victor Shih focuses on the ascendance of “generalist” versus “technocratic” factions who, respectively, generate and restrain investment. These accounts do well to explain macroeconomic management between 1978 and 1994, after which cycles become milder and macroeconomic control more centralized.

Question: In the last sentence, does these accounts refer only to the studies by Huang and Shih, or does it refer to the entire body of scholarship discussed in the passage? It’s not entirely clear. If these accounts refers only to the studies by Huang and Shih, a semi-colon joining the last two sentences would have made that clear:

Yasheng Huang emphasized the role of party discipline in restraining investment, whereas Victor Shih focuses on the ascendance of “generalist” versus “technocratic” factions who, respectively, generate and restrain investment; these accounts do well to explain macroeconomic management between 1978 and 1994, after which cycles become milder and macroeconomic control more centralized.

Despite what some may say, there is no reason to categorically avoid using semi-colons. They can be helpful, as I hope the examples here show.

 

 

Punctuating Conjunctive Adverbs

Punctuation can be a difficult matter, and probably the most common punctuation mistake I see involves conjunctive adverbs.

What's a conjunctive adverb, you ask? Conjunctive adverbs are conjunctions--hence, conjunctive--that often join two independent clauses. They are more sophisticated than conjunctions such as and and or. Conjunctive adverbs show the relationship between independent clauses--cause and effect, contrast, similarity, and so on. Examples include therefore, moreover, and however, as well as indeed, likewise, and nevertheless

Here's the rule that I see broken more times than not: When a conjunctive adverb joins two independent clauses, a semi-colon, not a comma, must end the first independent clause; then, a comma must follow the conjunctive adverb. Here is an example, properly punctuated:

We included a proxy variable for gender; indeed, that proxy variable will prove to be the most significant.

How do you know that you're dealing with a conjunctive adverb? Perhaps a good way is to ask yourself if the word can appear elsewhere in the sentence. If the answer is yes, then you are probably dealing with a conjunctive adverb. In the example right above, for instance, the word indeed could have appeared elsewhere. Here is one example:

We included a proxy variable for gender; that proxy variable indeed will prove to be the most significant.

Remember: When a conjunctive adverb joins two independent clauses, the first clause must end with a semi-colon, not a comma; otherwise (otherwise being a conjunctive adverb, by the way), your sentence will have a comma splice.

 

"Social Order" vs. "the Social Order"

The article the can often make all the difference in English.

Take the phrase social order. Without the article, it means, to me, peace and lawfulness: a society that obeys the law and has little unrest.

But the social order--now, that's a different matter altogether. The social order means, to me, the prevailing system of institutions and class relations.

So, the question, Would the new law disrupt social order? means will the new law cause rioting in the streets? The question, Would the new law disrupt the social order? means will the new law change our institutions and existing power relations?

New Chicago Manual of Style to Appear Soon

It's an exciting time in the publishing world. The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the three or four major style guides in use today, will soon appear in a new edition.

The edition, which will be its seventeenth, will be the first new edition since 2010. At that time, scholars were just beginning to cite online sources, a practice that has only grown in the seven years since. The new edition, I expect, will provide surer guidance on citing and documenting such sources. Just to take one example: magazines often appear in print as well as online, and in many cases columns, articles, and other features appear in the online version that do not appear in the print version. Should those items be cited any differently from items that appear only in the print version? Should citations of those items appear with the accompanying URL? If so, should the URL come with an access date?

Some forward-thinking changes related to the online world have already been leaked. It will now be email instead of e-mail, and internet instead of Internet

An interesting anecdote from a former colleague: When the current edition, the sixteenth, was being prepared, the lead editor, in revising it, retyped the entire manuscript from scratch.

 

 

Recent Sting Exposes Dubious Practices of Open-Access Publishers

Open-access journals provide their content to readers for free, often funding their operations by charging authors a fee for publication. The average fee is under $500, but a few journals charge much more than that--sometimes $1,000 or more. 

Most of those journals are reputable and peer-reviewed. But many are not and exist solely to make money--which means they'll publish virtually anything someone submits. A recent sting has now exposed the dubious practices of several of those journals, which invited a fake scholar to join their editorial boards. The results of the sting are published in the latest issue of Nature.

 

 

The Serial Comma Is Having Its Moment

Even the least punctuation-aware consumer of the news must have heard in the last several days of the serial or Oxford comma.

It turns out that the serial comma is having its moment.

And none too soon, I say.

I'm a big advocate of the serial comma. It's the comma that comes before the penultimate item in a series of three or more items. I will not eat eggs, bacon, or toast contains a serial comma after bacon. In contrast, I will not eat eggs, bacon or toast does not.

Omit the serial comma, and a writer takes an unnecessary chance--much like a home cook who makes a tomato sauce without wearing an apron.

The chance is a misunderstanding. Consider the following sentence, which does not have a serial comma: I sat with my parents, Bob and Edna. Did you sit with your parents and two other people, whose names were Bob and Edna? Or did you sit with only your parents, whose names were Bob and Edna? The absence of the serial comma makes it unclear.

Actually, in the case just mentioned, the only way to make it clear with whom you sat would be to use a colon, if you sat with only your parents, or to use a serial comma, if you sat with your parents and two other people (Bob and Edna). I sat with my parents: Bob and Edna can only mean you sat with only your parents (and their names were Bob and Edna). I sat with my parents, Bob, and Edna can only mean that you sat with four people: your parents and two other people (Bob and Edna).

Spaghetti, anyone?

 

 

 

How to Write in a Clear Style

Every writing manual tells you to be clear. But very few show you how.

One that does is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by the late Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. 

According to Williams and Bizup, the first two principles of writing in a clear style are as follows: make your grammatical subjects the main "characters" of your "story"; and express key actions in verbs.

To see what they mean, consider these two sentences, each of which says the same thing:

The assessment of the budget on the part of the board led to the recommendation that better management of travel costs was a need.

The board assessed the budget and recommended that we better manage travel costs.

Why is the first version harder to read? For one, the subjects--assessment and management--are not the main characters. Nor do the verbs, led and was, express what's really going on in the sentence.

Look now at the second version. We see that the grammatical subjects, board and we, correspond to the two characters in the story. And the verbs--assessedrecommended, and manage--represent the key actions.

Match characters with subjects, and key actions with verbs, and you will be on your way to writing in a clear style.

Adding Life to a Dull Sentence

What's wrong with this sentence, which is the opening sentence in a recent economics article published in a top economics journal?

Public policies often yield uncertain outcomes.

It has no life: no bit of grammar or syntax or vocabulary just out of the ordinary to give it personality, to give it a spark.

Part of its dullness comes from the word "often," a hedge that undercuts what would otherwise be a sharp assertion.

But a larger part of its dullness comes from its plain style. As Steven Pinker describes plain style in The Sense of Style, "Everything is in full view and the reader needs no help in seeing anything." It doesn't take much work to understand or accept that public policies often yield uncertain outcomes.

What is needed is a distinction or refinement, something that qualifies or disrupts the plainness of the thought and, at the same time, surprises the reader.

Public policies often--some would say always--yield uncertain outcomes.

That "some would say always" is just what the sentence needs. It is the writer poking his head from behind the curtain, reminding readers that a real person is at work here and transforming the sentence from the dull to the quick.