Language and Thought
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Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell
Classic. "Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists---is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase---some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse---into the dustbin where it belongs."
Style Guide from The Economist magazine.
"This guide is based on the style book which is given to all journalists at The Economist...Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible." [15 Apr 02]
The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
A classic text on good writing. Many of the details may seem rather distant from clear and critical thinking, but the benefits of the rules and principles described in this book will be immediately clear to anyone who conscientiously applies them. Especially relevant is Section III, Elementary Principles of Composition. [24 Feb 04]
The Vocabula Review - "A society is generally as lax as its language."
Excellent monthly magazine. Recommended for connoisseurs of lucid thought and expression. "TVR battles nonstandard, careless English and embraces clear, expressive English. We hope we can encourage our readers to do as much." Charges a very small fee.
Less Than Words Can Say, by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian
The entire text of Mitchell's excellent book on bad language and its pas de deux with bad thinking. "Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought." [8 Dec 02]
"The largest list of oxymorons (contradictory words) ever collected online!" [Shouldn't that be pairs of contradictory words - or self-contradictory phrases?] [10 May 02]
Lanham's Paramedic Method
This stuff is so important, it needs a section all of its own. There is no substitute for studying Lanham's book, Revising Prose. However these links may help get you started.
Lanham's Paramedic Method
A simple and highly effective way to improve your prose - and in the process, become a better thinker. Numerous websites, such as this one, summarize the method. (If this link goes down, google it yourself.)
Email discussion group for lanhamizing addicts. Swap examples of "official style" prose translated into English.
To Be or Not to Be: E Prime as a Tool for Critical Thinking by D. David Bourland
The general idea here is that writing without use of the verb "to be" in any form improves critical thinking. Skeptical? Give it a go. I think you'll rapidly see that there is something to this. Has some overlap with Paramedic Method.
Minto's Pyramid Principle
Another classic book in the better thinking/better writing genre is Barbara Minto's The Pyramid Principle. It would be the closest thing to a how-to-think Bible in business and management consulting circles. Unfortunately it seems there are precious few online resources on the Minto approach; if you want the good oil, you have to buy the book (or pay dearly to attend a Minto seminar). However I did come across a couple of very succinct overviews, here and here. [Updated 17 Nov 05]
Bad Writing Competition by Philosophy & Literature
"The Bad Writing Contest celebrates the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years. Ordinary journalism, fiction, departmental memos, etc. are not eligible, nor are parodies: entries must be non-ironic, from serious, published academic journals or books. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread." This competition ran for a few years and now seems to have stopped. Pity, though it seems the point had been made and the amusement factor was wearing off... See also Language Crimes, where contest compere Denis Dutton tells us what he makes of it all.
Is Bad Writing Necessary? by James Miller, Lingua Franca
"Must one write clearly, as Orwell argued, or are thinkers who are truly radical and subversive compelled to write radically and subversively--or even opaquely, as if through a glass darkly? That is the question."
Empowering or Cowering, by David Williams
"Those who insist on the plain style, and who insist that politicians and professors speak in a language that we can understand, are the heroes of democracy. Some professors actually argue that the complex language of Cultural Studies "empowers" students when it actually belittles them. It makes them feel stupid. True empowerment comes, as Luther and the Reformers knew, when the peasants are taught to read and write in a language they can understand."
Orwell's Orphans by Jonah Goldberg
"In Orwell's day, the fog of jargon was a smoke screen to conceal real horrors; today the jargon is just so much smoke, to hide the fact that there's no fire... Today's intellectual elite — the stars of Harvard and Berkeley — speak in such gibberish precisely because if they spoke plainly, clearing the smoke from their ideas, we'd learn that their views cover the spectrum from boringly unoriginal to sand-poundingly stupid."
A Reader's Manifesto by B.R. Myers. Target: literary critics.
Scathing attack on the sloppy thinking behind the pretentiously literary style of today's acclaimed fiction, and on the goggle-eyed idiocy of critics who applaud it. "Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern "literary" best seller...Clumsy writing begets clumsy thought, which begets even clumsier writing. The only way out is to look back to a time when authors had more to say than "I'm a Writer!"; when the novel wasn't just a 300-page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket." [24 Jun 03]
What are Editors For?
A scathing, critical review of Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses
Diagramming Sentences - or, Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, by Kitty Burns Florey
Interesting essay on the rapidly disappearing art of producing diagrams displaying the grammatical structure of sentences. See also this tutorial on how to do it [14 Oct 04]
Giving clichés short shrift by Robert Fulford
Nice little diatribe against clichés. "Clichés deaden prose but also deaden information, discussion, and the people who use them. They limit and enclose thought, forcing it down predetermined channels." True, but a better essay would have cut a little deeper: how exactly do clichés limit thought? Why are they not like metaphors and analogies, which make thought possible? And how, in practice, can we avoid deploying clichéd language? On the plus side, the essay resurrects an insightful distinction between clichés and "voguisms". [16 July 02]
The Philosophy of Punctuation, by Paul Robinson
Delightful, insightful reflections on the relationship between punctuation and good thinking. Sample: "Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple. They force the writer to express his ideas directly, to eliminate unnecessary hedges, to forgo smart-aleck asides. They also contribute to the logical solidity of a piece of writing, since they make us put all our thoughts into words. By way of contrast, a colon can be used to smooth over a rough logical connection. It has a verbal content ranging anywhere from "namely" to "thus," and it can function to let the writer off the hook. Periods and commas, because of their very neutrality, make one an honest logician." [7 Jun 02]
The End of Linguistics by Mark Halpern in The Vocabula Review
"There's only one thing that everyone knows about language — that it's a living, growing thing — so it seems particularly unfortunate that it should be false. It is a metaphor that may once have served some useful purpose; today it is a noxious cloud whose effect is to stifle rational discussion of language..." Discusses the Fallacy of Linguistic Autonomy, the Fallacy of Pedantic Persecution, the Fallacy of the OED, and the Fallacy of Linguistic Nihilism.
The Tyranny of Nicespeak by Deborah Cameron
"Such examples suggest that we need to move beyond George Orwell's mid-20th-century analysis of what ails our public language. Orwell's main concern was the ideologically motivated use of words to conceal the truth; the remedy he proposed was plain English, a prose style as clear and transparent as glass. The problem with today's public language, however, is not so much that it represents reality inaccurately or dishonestly, but that it does not set out to be a representation of anything at all."
Maybe It's Your Platitude by Philip Kennicott
"The need to talk about art -- and to write about art -- seems as basic as the need to experience art... But we talk about art -- and write about art -- so poorly... The following is a list of 50 truisms, half-truths, blatant lies and childish wishes, fundamental to the way we think about art, and none of them very useful."
The Professor of Parody by Martha Nussbaum in The New Republic
Almost a classic. One globetrotting celebrity philosopher dresses down another, showing that the postmodernist emperor really has no clothes. "When Butler's notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don't go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument... Judith Butler's hip quietism is a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realizing justice in America. But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better."
Writing as a Block for Asians by Emily Eakin, New York Times
Discussion of William C. Hannas' book The Writing on the Wall, in which he argues (according to Eakin) "because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity." I don't know whether Hannas is right, but it is an interesting idea. And if true, it would help explain the apparent "scientific creativity gap" between the West and East without reference to different intrinsic abilities. In that sense, it is anti-racist thesis. Nevertheless, it is amusing to see the PC-squirming of various people quoted in the review. [9 May 03]
Bad Comma by Louis Menand
Review of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Truss's screed urges us to take care with our punctuation; Menand's review turns her own fussiness back on her book like a blowtorch. I haven't read the Truss book, but Menand's review makes it seem almost as poorly thought that other recent and appalling work, Watson's Death Sentence (see the review by Austhink's Paul Monk). Both books were popular hits. Readers seem to lap up intellectual slop when it is sloppily casting aspersions on the linguistic sloppiness of others. [22 June 04]
"Stripping the bull out of business." This program works like a spell-checker, but helps you remove consultant-speak (leverage, mindshare, etc.) from your documents. From Deloitte Consulting, who were partly responsible for creating the problem in the first place. At least they're giving it away free. [14 Jun 03]
Last updated: 21 Jun 2007