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Effective Signposting

By Erika Suffern

Signposts are words or phrases that help articulate the structure of a piece of writing and ensure that readers don’t get lost. Signposting will flag the most important parts of an argument, signal transitions, and clarify the stakes of an argument.

Here are some examples of helpful signposts:

“This essay examines biblical symbolism in Moby-Dick . . . ” This signpost states the focus of the essay.
“After a review of recent scholarship on biblical symbolism, I consider how Melville relates funerary symbolism to both death and rebirth . . . ” This signpost clarifies how the author’s focus is distinguished from previous scholarship.
“My purpose in focusing on Queequeg’s coffin . . . ” This signpost clarifies the stakes of the author’s argument.

Single words and short phrases can be useful signposts, such as additionally, consequently, however, also, in contrast. But make sure to use these words correctly. However should be used to pivot to an opposing idea or to acknowledge another side of an argument, and consequently indicates that an idea is a result or consequence of a previously discussed idea or point. Signposts that identify the sequence or direction of your argument can also be effective: for example, first, next, then, finally; or first, second, third, and so on.

Using signposts can improve your writing by giving it structure and direction, but excessive signposting creates unnecessary wordiness and can give the impression that you don’t trust the reader’s ability to follow your argument or that you’re grafting signposts on to compensate for a poorly articulated argument. Here are some signposts that may do more harm than good:

It’s important to note that Melville’s treatment . . . ” Show, don’t tell, what is important.
What I want to call attention to in this passage . . . ” Skip the wordy opening; lead with “In this passage . . . ”
I will now turn to the pulpit of Father Mapple . . . ” If you’ve signposted your essay’s structure at its beginning, you don’t have to give directions throughout.
As I argued in the previous section, the symbolism of the white whale . . . ” If the point has been well made, your reader will remember it. Summarize it briefly, but you don’t need to mention the earlier section.

Early drafts of an essay are likely to include some extra signposting, because you may be developing and revising the essay’s structure as you write. For this reason, it’s a good idea to read the final draft of a piece of writing with an eye toward its transitions and signposts, to make sure that they support and clarify your argument. At this stage of revision, you can eliminate any wordy or excessive signposts.

Published 30 March 2017

Don’t Bury the Lede

By Erika Suffern

A lede is the most newsworthy part of a news story. Journalists are taught to keep it front and center: a story should lead with the lede. A writer “buries the lede” when the newsworthy part of a story fails to appear at the beginning, where it’s expected. Say, for example, that two people die in a house fire. The lede is buried if the reporting mentions the location, time, or cause of the fire before the deaths.

The idea of leading with a lede can be extended to types of writing other than journalism. Putting your main point at the end of a long sentence asks readers to hold on to the other ideas in the sentence until they reach the lede. If you habitually bury the lede in your sentences, you may eventually test the patience of your readers. Here’s one example of a buried lede:

Known for her unmatched skills as a hostess—after all, she had been a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations—Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director.

The main subject, “Mary,” is hinted at with “her” in the first clause, but readers don’t connect Mary’s hostessing prowess to the museum’s fund-raiser until reaching the end of the sentence. Take a look at what happens when we lead with Mary and the fund-raiser:

Mary felt right at home discussing her plan for the summer fund-raising luncheon with the museum director; after all, as a debutante who became a socialite whose husband sat on the boards of half a dozen of the city’s most prestigious cultural organizations, she was known for her unmatched skills as a hostess.

Mary and the fund-raiser are introduced first, and Mary’s social qualifications follow to contextualize her role with the museum and its fund-raiser.

You don’t have to slavishly avoid burying the lede. Variety in your sentences keeps you and your readers from becoming bored. And sometimes you may want to bury the lede for a rhetorical effect. In this example, the lede is dramatically delayed until the end of the sentence:

To her chagrin, Mary realized her worst nightmare coming to pass: after she had spent months drawing up lists, meeting with caterers, choosing stationery and flowers, calling donors, and planning the most elaborate garden cocktail party the museum had ever imagined, the forecast called for rain.

So be on the lookout for buried ledes, especially in long sentences.

Published 23 March 2017

Contemporary as a Kind of Janus Word

By Michael Kandel

The word contemporary is commonly used as a synonym for modern—definition 2b in Merriam-Webster—the sense being that something is contemporary with us, readers today. An example is seen in Herbert R. Coursen’s discussion of modern-day Shakespeare adaptations: “contemporary Shakespeare in any format,” he contends, “makes the script ‘relevant’ but only by ignoring much of what the original contains (xxi). Contemporary also means, more literally, “at the time of” something in the past, per definition 1 in Merriam-Webster. An example would be the statement that Shakespeare was a contemporary of Ben Jonson. Context usually makes it clear which meaning is intended, as Theodore Bernstein and Claire Kehrwald Cook both observe. But it’s not that rare, unfortunately, that the word can be read either way. (It can also happen that a writer will carelessly, inelegantly, use definition 1 in one sentence and definition 2b in another nearby.)

In your writing, do be mindful of the possibility of the past-present ambiguity of contemporary.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

“Contemporary.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contemporary.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Coursen, Herbert R. Contemporary Shakespeare Production. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Published 16 March 2017

The Danger of Deploy

By Michael Kandel

Deploy is not a good synonym for use, utilize, or employ, because it has a narrower sense and specific associations. The word appears in the context of military preparation (“deploy troops”); suggests a purposeful arrangement, often spatial, to make something possible (“deploy a parachute”); or stresses instrumentality, making use of something to achieve an end (“deploy resources”). See the definitions and examples given in Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries.

Caution: if you choose a term that blurs or compromises your meaning for the sake of sounding more learned, important, or scientific, you run the risk of falling into the embarrassment of “windyfoggery” (Bernstein 480–82).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1985.

“Deploy.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deploy.

“Deploy.” Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford UP, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/deploy.

Published 8 March 2017

It is . . . that; or, How Not to Edit Jane Austen

By Barney Latimer

The formula it is . . . that is one of the most common rhetorical tics in academic writing. This formula also provides a great opportunity to edit for concision, since it can usually be removed easily from a sentence without changing the meaning.

Often, one can simply remove “It is” and “that” and leave the sentence otherwise untouched.

Original:

It is this ambivalence that gives the poem its power.

Edited version:

This ambivalence gives the poem its power.

Sometimes, it may work better to place the phrase that follows “It is” at the end of the sentence.

Original:

It is in the light of this discovery that we should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems.

Edited version A:

We should reexamine our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s early poems in the light of this discovery.

Some sentences, like this one, lend themselves to a more radical overhaul. Here is one way to make this sentence even more concise and dynamic.

Edited version B:

This discovery compels us to look at T. S. Eliot’s early poems in a new light.

This formula, however, is not intrinsically bad. Used sparingly, “it is . . . that” can be an effective rhetorical tool. A writer can use it to pluck an otherwise unremarkable phrase from the surrounding prose and unveil it before the reader with a flourish. Jane Austen comes to mind:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Few readers have ever wished that Austen had begun Pride and Prejudice this way instead:

We all know that a single man with a lot of money must need a wife.

Published 8 February 2017

MLK Day the MLA Way

By Jennifer Rappaport

Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? MLK Day? There seems to be no consensus on how to style the name of this federal holiday, established to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In deciding how to treat the name of the holiday, you should consider your audience and the purpose of your reference.

Consider also the consistent treatment of King’s name in your work. Both “Martin Luther King Jr.” (without a comma before the suffix) and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (with a comma) are acceptable variations, but in MLA style, a comma always precedes Jr. (read more about suffixes and names in an earlier post).

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Archives calls the holiday “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” following the federal policy to use “the name designated by the law” that established the holiday (“Federal Holidays”). If your goal is to consistently and accurately refer to the text of the legislation, for legal, historical, or archival reasons, use this version.

Martin Luther King Day

Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary both omit Jr. in the name of the holiday, calling it “Martin Luther King Day,” but not in their entries for the man whom the holiday commemorates. If you want to avoid a discrepancy between King’s name and the holiday celebrating his birthday, you might use a different treatment. Treating the suffix as a parenthetical in the title of the holiday (e.g., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day”) would not be acceptable—this formulation not only looks awkward but also illogically muddies the distinction between a personal name and a holiday name.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Chicago Manual of Style, used by many book publishers, lists the holiday in its “Holidays” section as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” If you can handle inconsistency in the treatment of personal names and holidays, use this formulation to refer to the holiday—even when styling King’s name with a comma before the suffix, per MLA style.

MLK Day / MLK Jr. Day

Apparently the federally run Corporation for National and Community Service, which uses “MLK Day” on its Web site about King’s birthday, didn’t get the same memo as the National Archives about using the name designated by law for federal holidays. That’s OK: the goal of this site is community outreach, not documenting archival records. In casual contexts, you might use either of these formulations (note: see the title of this blog post).

However you style the name of the holiday, take a moment to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or find one of the many opportunities for community service taking place to commemorate him.

Works Cited

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017, www.archives.gov/news/federal-holidays.

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch08/ch08_sec088.html.

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/king.

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 992.

“Martin Luther King Day.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/martin%20luther%20king%20day.

“Martin Luther King Day.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 1104.

Published 13 January 2017

Former and Latter

By Barney Latimer

There are many stylistic sins worse than using former and latter. But if you’ve ever had to stop and reread a sentence or passage to figure out what former and latter point back to, you know why it’s best to avoid them. Making readers pick their way back through the text will surely frustrate them and delay or inhibit their ability to understand your point.

The following is a good example of a passage that relies on former and latter to create a bridge between two sentences:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—the former was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, the latter an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

So what’s a writer to do? One possibility is to repeat the two things that former and latter refer to so the reader no longer has to scan back over the text:

The Congress of Paris was announced in Comœdia and L’ère nouvelle. These ideologically different venues—Comœdia was a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, L’ère nouvelle an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

Doing so, however, introduces the clunky repetition that the writer was looking to avoid in the first place.

A solution will often reveal itself when you look beyond the obvious, quick fix. Step back and try looking at the passage as a kind of puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet. By assembling the pieces in different ways, the picture will become either more or less clear. This can be an empowering and even liberating way of thinking about revision.

This approach of reconfiguration means that the writer is not locked in to a choice between the two alternatives above. Let’s dig a little deeper and ask, Does the author even need to refer to each periodical more than once? Can we rework the prose to obviate the need for repetition? When we look again at the passage with these questions in mind, a solution reveals itself:

The announcement of the Congress of Paris in two ideologically different venues—Comœdia, a snobbish daily catering to the Parisian artistic scene, and L’ère nouvelle, an “organ of the allied left”—revealed the congress’s inclusive goals.

This revision allows the names of the periodicals to take the place of former and latter. And, as sometimes happens when you identify one problem and find a creative solution to it, another aspect of the passage improves as well. In the original, “These ideologically different venues” are described as “reveal[ing] the congress’s inclusive goals.” However, it’s not exactly the venues themselves—but, rather, the fact that the congress was announced in two different places—that revealed the congress’s inclusivity.

This kind of happy accident is surprisingly common. When you look beyond the quick fix and approach the passage you are revising as a whole composed of many movable parts, reconfiguring the parts to remove one weakness can yield a structure that is stronger overall.

Published 30 November 2016

Critique versus Criticize

By Michael Kandel
Claire Kehrwald Cook, in her Line by Line, noted that critique as a verb “has not yet won full acceptance.” That was more than thirty years ago, and nowadays a great many scholarly writers use critique as a verb routinely and without blinking. But Cook also observed, though in passing, that the meaning of critique, “to give a critical examination of,” differs from that of criticize or review (174). The difference is important. Merriam-Webster defines the noun critique as “a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)” but points out its overlap with criticism:
Criticism usually means “the act of criticizing” or a “remark or comment that expresses disapproval,” but it can also refer to the activity of making judgments about the qualities of books, movies, etc. (as in “literary criticism”). Critique is a somewhat formal word that typically refers to a careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.
The overlap notwithstanding, here is a reasonable example of why maintaining a distinction matters: On the one hand, “The ballet instructor critiqued the dancer’s pirouette” could mean that the ballet dancer performed an excellent pirouette but that the teacher gave the dancer pointers to make it dazzling. On the other hand, “The reviewer criticized the dancer’s pirouette” means that the reviewer regarded the dancer’s performance unfavorably. The formal prose required in scholarly writing can make writers hesitant to use simple, down-to-earth words, lest their authority appear questionable. But the preference for critique in academic writing often erases the valuable difference between the two words.

Works Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

“Critique.” Merriam-Webster.com, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary /critique.

Published 17 October 2016

Liberate Those Verbs!

By Barney Latimer
Like pink slime mixed in with real beef to plump up a hamburger, some phrases in English lengthen a sentence while adding nothing to its meaning and diluting its rhetorical force. Two common culprits are in the process of and serves to. Both phrases precede verbs that usually do better on their own. Take the following example:
She is in the process of writing a book that serves to illuminate the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
When the filler phrases are omitted, the sentence conveys its meaning more swiftly:
She is writing a book that illuminates the role of poetry in Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Sometimes, too, a needlessly long verbal phrase can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will put its emphasis on the success of the school’s writing program.
In this sentence, put its emphasis on can be replaced by a single verb:
The newsletter will emphasize the success of the school’s writing program.
Don’t fear simple wording. Sometimes writers reach for filler phrases because longer, more complex sentences seem more sophisticated. But there is nothing more sophisticated than being understood. One way to achieve this is to look for opportunities to liberate verbs from sluggish phrases.

Published 15 October 2016

A Regrettable Shortcut: The Pseudo Conjunction With

By Eric Wirth

The use of with as a pseudo conjunction weakens prose. To understand how, recall that prepositions govern nouns (as in the first example below), while subordinating conjunctions govern clauses, containing a verb idea (the second example):

The nation struggled with a deepening economic crisis.

The nation struggled as the economic crisis deepened.

A nation can struggle with a crisis—one thing with another. But a nation doesn’t struggle with a crisis deepened. The verb idea (“deepened”) calls for the switch from with to as.

Merriam-Webster and American Heritage present with as a preposition (“With”; “With”). Nevertheless, when writers need to tie together two clauses in a sentence, they sometimes use with as a patch between them:

With the economic crisis deepening, employers cut back on hiring.

Here with is made to serve as a subordinating conjunction (Quirk et al. 9.55). It is stripped of its prepositional meaning (since we can’t understand employers with the crisis deepening), but it has no meaning as a conjunction. With before a clause serves only to mark the clause as describing a vague, free-floating condition.

The pseudo conjunction with is pervasive in journalism:

Part of the port is still a construction site, with work to begin soon on a second grain berth. (Gillet)

Some countries, notably Italy, are worried that shutting the Greek-Macedonian border might only open up new migration routes, with the most likely being a sea crossing from Greece or Albania to Italy. (Pop and Troianovski)

His announcement followed a surge of families opting out of state exams in reading and math last spring, with state data saying about one of five eligible students skipped them. (Brody)

But with the drought turning soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco. (Park, Cave, and Andrews)

In the last example above, there is no grammatical relation—hence no explanatory connection—between the drought’s effects on soil and trees and the fire’s advance. One way to establish the relation is to introduce a term that can modify “the fire”:

But, aided by the drought, which has turned soil to dust and trees to tinder, the fire, still smoking, has consumed a swath of national forest roughly the size of San Francisco.

After this revision, the sentence ties its ideas together: the fire is aided by the drought.

Many commentators on usage advise against with as a pseudo conjunction. Bryan Garner calls it a “sloppy construction” (865). Wilson Follett covers it in a larger discussion of the ways that writers misuse with “to bring attendant circumstances into a sentence without analyzing or making clear their relation to the central fact” (363).

Works Cited

Brody, Leslie. “New York Education Task Force Report Expected This Month.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 3 Dec. 2015, on.wsj.com/21KZpEL. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, Hill and Wang, 1966.

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2009.

Gillet, Kit. “Time-Worn Village in Moldova Springs Back to Life, Thanks to Port.” The New York Times, 2 Sept. 2015, nyti.ms/1hyCHdm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Park, Haeyoun, Damien Cave, and Wilson Andrews. “After Years of Drought, Wildfires Rage in California.” The New York Times, 15 July 2015, nyti.ms/1V3luZa. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Pop, Valentina, and Anton Troianovski. “Europe Chokes Flow of Migrants to Buy Time for a Solution.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, 31 Jan. 2016, on.wsj.com/20bFusm. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Quirk, Randolph, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Longman, 1985.

“With.” Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/with. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

“With.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=with. Accessed 4 Mar. 2016.

Published 29 February 2016

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