A Quote from William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

This quote comes from William Zinsser’s 1976 book “On Writing Well” and is mentioned in this week’s New York Times article on Zinsser who, besides having written this now-classic guide to writing, has been a teacher of writing for decades. At 90, he still teaches even though he is blind and has to listen to, rather than read, what his students have written. The quote underscores Zinsser’s call for cutting excessive words and eliminating jargon in an attempt to write simply and clearly.

A Quote on Editing from Robert Silvers

The fundamental point is that if a writer has something interesting to say, you have to ask, sentence by sentence, if it is clear as it should be or could it be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point.

Robert Silvers is describing the essential task of an editor. He should know what he’s taking about since he is the founding editor of the New York Review of Books, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—and he stills edits the magazine. The quote comes from a long interview with Silvers in the April 15 issue of New York magazine.

Taking a Hike Plaque and Keeping up with the Jones’

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 5.46.23 PMAs it does occasionally, The New York Times in a recent article asked twenty questions about advertising, the media, and popular culture. Here are two questions about ads in 2012 that caught my attention:

  • Do any of the copywriters who crafted the ads for the Crest Pro-Health Clinical Line of oral-care products sold by Procter & Gamble realize that the way they punctuated the headlines, which read “Take a hike plaque, and don’t hurry back,” suggests that consumers ought to get their hands on a “hike plaque,” whatever the heck that might be?

  • Will any English teachers who wear the Jones New York clothing sold by the Jones Group scold the copywriters who came up with the headline “Keeping up with the Jones’ ” for the brand’s ads?

Clearly, the Crest ad is missing an important comma after “hike,” a comma necessitated by the fact that the sentence is addressing plaque, telling it to take a hike. The comma is necessary here just as it would be in a sentence such as, “Go to the office, Bob.” Since this mistake is frequently made in advertising, my guess is that even in an example like this, the writers would not have known that they needed a comma.

The Jones ad leaves one asking, “Keeping up with the Jones’ what?” Clearly the writers meant to say “Joneses,” meaning to not fall behind in the competition to own as many possessions as your neighbors, whose last name is Jones. But by adding the apostrophe instead of the “es,” they made the name possessive, and so it requires an object, such as car, which is, perhaps, speeding down the road, and you are trying to catch up with it. Or maybe it could refer to lifestyle, which would be appropriate in this case, but even then “lifestyle” would have to be added to the sentence, so the reader does not have to guest what it means.

You can read the other 18 questions from the article at http://ow.ly/gJP2A .

An Apostrophe Where It Shouldn’t Be


What is it about apostrophes that makes people want to insert them into places where they have no business being placed?

I first noticed this sign, “Voted Best Sub’s By Our Customers,” with its glaringly wrong apostrophe several months ago, and have been waiting to see if someone would catch the mistake and correct it.

No one has.

It’s hard to see how the misuse of this apostrophe was overlooked by the owner of the restaurant or the painter of the sign, regardless of their education levels or disinterest in grammar. Could it be that they have never really looked at the sign, or that they simply don’t care? Could it be that not a single customer has mentioned the mistake, or that in hearing about it, the owner just passed the comment off as being unimportant?

Cleaning Ducks

shutterstock_32632351The phone rang the other day. When we picked it up, a computer voice said, “This is Dave from Cleaning Ducks.”

He was calling to see if we wanted our “ducks” cleaned.

Since we don’t have any ducks, and probably wouldn’t want them cleaned, anyway, we hung up.

Come to think of it, we don’t have any chickens, turkeys, or any other kinds of fowl, either. And if we did, I’m sure we’d have a bowl of water big enough for them to clean themselves, if for some reason, they felt they needed to spruce up a bit.

I’m certain Dave, whoever he is, has a legitimate business and makes a good living cleaning air-conditioning and heating ducts in houses around the suburbs. But one has to wonder why—if his business is sophisticated enough to have a computer-calling system—he didn’t take the time to listen to what it said, and to correct the pronunciation of “ducts.”

Ducts—not ducks—are the main focus of his business. Certainly the word should be pronounced correctly.

Photo: Shutterstock/WilleeCole