Thursday, 31 December 2015

book review: Clear and Simple as the Truth

Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner.
Clear and Simple as the Truth: writing classic prose: 2nd edn.
Princeton University Press. 2011

I recently read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. He discusses classic style, a particular style for writing clear, compelling prose, and recommends Clear and Simple as the Truth for those interested in finding out more. I was definitely interested, so bought it, read it, and am now reviewing it.

The authors describe this particular style, in use since ancient times, thus:
[p37.] The idiom of classic style is the voice of conversation. The writer adopts the pose of a speaker of near-perfect efficiency whose sentences are the product of the voice rather than some instrument of writing. … Classic style models itself on speech and can be read aloud properly the first time. In speech, an expression is gone the moment it is spoken, and has only that one instant to enter the mind and attain its place in memory. Since classic writing pretends to be speech, it never requires the reader to look forward or backward; it never admits that the reader is in a situation to do so. Each phrase is presented as if it has only one chance—now—to do its job. Of course, a reader may in fact go over a passage of classic prose many times. But the classic writer never acknowledges that possibility either explicitly or by implication.
Their whole book is written in classic style, becoming one large example of what they are describing. Try reading the quoted paragraph out loud. It is easy to do so; significantly easier than much writing one comes across.

Being easy to read, whether aloud or not, does not imply being easy to write. Thomas and Turner contrast two sentences, the first written in classic style, the second most definitely not.
[p15.] La Rochefoucauld’s sentence was of course difficult to write, but it looks easy. The writer hides all the effort. [Samuel] Johnson’s sentence was clearly difficult to write, and its writer wants to display it as if it were a trophy won through his personal effort.
Here we learn something not acknowledged in other books on writing style: style is not singular. There are different styles, each suited to different uses. Other books cover only the one style, implying it is the only one. This books acknowledges the existence of other styles; classic style is not style, it is a style.
[p67.] What Strunk and White recommend is meant as good advice for the one style they have in mind; what Williams and Colomb recommend is good advice for the one style they have in mind.
Style here means the style of deep structure of the prose, not the grammar police style concerned with relatively trivial surface marks. The authors have it in for Strunk and White in particular, repeating their withering paired sentence structure in a further contrast:
[p78.] The best-known teachers of practical style are Strunk and White, in their ubiquitous Elements of Style. The best teachers of practical style are Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb, in Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and a series of academic articles and technical reports.
This kind of sentence pairing is an exemplar of classic style, of assuming the reader is competent, and so can draw obvious conclusions without needing them hammered home.

As well as describing what classic style is, the authors characterise it by describing what it is not, by contrasting it with other styles. Classic style is not plain style, where the writer is addressing an audience, reaffirming simple unchallenged truths; in classic style the writer is speaking to a single person, and the truth, while clear, is sophisticated. Classic style is not the self-conscious reflexive style; in classic style the writing is a transparent window through which the reader regards the presented truth. Classic style is not practical style (although it is the closest) where the writer has the job of educating an audience, with the purpose of satisfying a need or solving a problem (a utilitarian style suitable for reports and instruction manuals); in classic style the writer is speaking to an equal, is presenting information for its own sake rather than to address the reader’s need, and their work cannot be skim-read. Classic style is not contemplative style, where meanings are presented as the interpretation of the writer, and the process of writing is a hesitant process of discovery; in classic style, the writer presents the unhedged finished product of prior thought as uninterpreted truth, or at least passes off their interpretation as such. Classic style is not romantic style, which is a mirror on the writer’s thoughts, sensations and emotions; classic style is a window on the world. Classic style is not prophetic style, which depends on abilities or insights available only to the chosen few; classic style expresses truths that can be verified by all. Classic style is not oratorical style, where a leader or candidate is unsubtly persuading an audience to an action or agreement; classic style is disinterested and nuanced.

Classic style is not perfection, however. Often the writer does have an agenda, and the truth is rarely clear and simple. Towards the end of the Essay section, the authors describe some “trade secrets” on how the classic stylist can cope with such situations, whilst maintaining the advantages of the style. They also dissect a Museum-full of samples written in the classic and non-classic style. But explanations and examples are not enough to gain writing proficiency.
[p189.] Once we had written the Essay and the Museum, we thought we had finished our book. Anyone who wanted to acquire the style, we assumed, had everything necessary at hand. All we had left out was the work involved in acquiring the style. Classic style pretends there is no work in writing, and we had happily skipped right over all the stages we had gone through ourselves in acquiring this most versatile and useful style.
This second edition includes a Studio section: exercises for learning writing in the classic style. Many of these exercises involve no writing, only speaking; the classic style is conversational, so the student is encouraged to learn the style through conversation, and only later write it down.

Writing in classic style does not make everyone sound the same. There is room for personal style within classic style. The Museum examples each have their distinctive voice. The Pinker that sent me here is in classic style, with a lightness of touch. Clear and Simple as the Truth is also in classic style, a smooth, relaxed read, and yet with an underlying thump-thump-thump to the prose. Apart from a few places, such as the Strunk and White put-downs, there is a monotonous tone to the work, and no sparkle. However, the prose is indeed transparent, and so the thumping is ignorable, and the lack of sparkle not an impediment. Nevertheless, Pinker is the better stylist.

My takeaway message: if you have to write a manual or report for a specific purpose, use practical style, and follow the excellent guidelines in Williams’ Style; if you want to write a piece for general interest, use classic style, and follow the excellent advice here.



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Friday, 25 December 2015

full moon

It’s the first full moon on Christmas day since 1977, and it won’t happen again until 2034.

It usually happens once every 19 years, but we skipped one.

See wikipedia’s “Metonic cycle” entry for an explanation (and enjoy the difference between sidereal and synodic months!)



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sequestering carbon, one Christmas at a time III

Here's what we got each other for Christmas.  Lots of reading for the New Year!


the centre cannot hold

I have just wrangled the larger-than-usual turkey into the oven.  Removing the neck from the body cavity always invokes Alien flashbacks.

Having a whiteboard in the kitchen is useful for the project plan.


I could program these individual times as a series into my phone alarm.  But that would be excessive.  Instead, I just update the single cooking alarm with the next scheduled event at each stage.

Some of the items are procured pre-prepared and so come with instructions.  On reading these instructions, especially for the stuffing and the sausages, which are marketed for Christmas dinner, I was amused to read in all of them: place on a baking tray at the centre of a pre-heated oven.  The centre, like most of the rest of the oven, is currently full of turkey…

Thursday, 24 December 2015

love is not transitive

Here’s a thing.  Whenever Jo Walton reviews a book or movie she loves, and that I love too, then her review brilliantly explains to me exactly why I love it.  But if in that review she mentions another book she also loves, that I haven’t read, and I go and read it, I often don’t like it as much as she does.



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A turkey isn't just for Christmas

Tesco’s had run out of “small” turkeys, so we had to go for a “medium” one.  Which claims it “serves 13”.  So it will last us 6.5 days, then…



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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LV

So, the last lot wasn’t the final batch before Christmas; a few more managed to sneak in under the wire.


A new Robin McKinley that I didn’t know about!  Yay!

And some classic Systems Theory books, second hand and hence afordable.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

book review: The Sense of Style

Steven Pinker.
The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century.
Viking. 2014

Steven Pinker has written several popular science books in his areas of expertise: language and cognition. These books deliver profound insights, and they are also tremendously readable, delivering those insights with style and verve. In this latest offering, he moves from presenting research results in a readable manner, to presenting advice on how to write readably, fittingly also in a readable manner.

Writing well is non-trivial. Pinker describes his own process.
[p76.] Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.
The book is divided into six meaty chapters, each capturing a different aspect of good writing. This is not about picky little examples, held up by those anxious grammar police as the epitome of style; rather it covers the deeper structure and content of prose. This means that simple rules of thumb, such as "avoid the passive voice", should not be used indiscriminately: although the passive often has the effect of moving attention away from the guilty agent (such as yourself), sometimes it is needed to focus attention onto the important agent.

First, Pinker introduces good writing in general, dissecting examples of good, and bad, prose, pointing out where they work, and where they fall apart. I did not always spot which were the poor examples until that subsequent dissection made it clear; I am perhaps too used to reading inelegantly written text for it to sound out of tune to me.

Next, Pinker discusses classic style, a particular style for writing clear, compelling prose, eschewing obfuscation. He summarises it thus:
[pp28–29.] The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the readers gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it. That is because the reader is competent and can recognize the truth when she sees it, as long as she is given an unobstructed view. The writer and the reader are equals, and the process of directing the reader’s gaze takes the form of a conversation.
That passage itself, along with most of the book, is written in classic style. Pinker then takes many examples of convoluted, turgid academic prose, and shows how to rewrite them in a clearer, comprehensible, livelier style.

In chapter 3, Pinker covers The Curse of Knowledge: the writer knows a lot more about the subject matter than does the typical reader, and can bamboozle them if they are not careful. It is hard to get the right level, between confusing and patronising the audience. Pinker provides a few tips.

Next we get a chapter on an area of Pinker’s expertise: grammar. His aim is to show how an understanding of grammar can not merely make sentences grammatical, it can also help prevent grammatical ones from being difficult to parse and potentially ambiguous. From this chapter it is clear that English grammar has changed from what I was briefly taught in school many years ago. Then it was all nouns and verbs, sentence subjects and objects; now it appears that there are different categorisations, and finer distinctions:
[p86.] Modern grammatical theories … distinguish grammatical categories like noun and verb from grammatical functions like subject, object, head, and modifier. And they distinguish both of these from semantic categories and roles like action, physical object, possessor, doer, and done-to, which refer to what the referents of the words are doing in the world. Traditional grammars tend to run the three concepts together.
There are lots of good examples in this chapter, and Pinker uses grammatical theory to demonstrate why they are problematic, and how use of grammatical structure can improve them. With his usual lightness of touch, Pinker distinguishes ways to advertise a pair of panel discussions:
    1. A panel with four professors on sex
    2. A panel on sex with four professors
    1. A panel with four professors on drugs
    2. A panel on drugs with four professors
In the first case, formulation I avoids a potential mis-parse; however, in the second case, formulation II is the unambiguous one. There is no simple rote solution to be employed. This is the toughest chapter in the book, and Pinker occasionally falls prey to the Curse of Knowledge himself here.

In the next chapter, Arcs of Coherence, Pinker moves up from discussing single sentences to addressing the overall structure of a piece of prose. This includes advice about stating the topic early on, to give the reader something to hang the rest of the text on, and then to present the rest of the text in a logical order that makes sense to the reader. These potential platitudes are enlivened through a great choice of examples.

The final chapter reverts to grammar police style: rights and wrongs. Pinker subverts the usual prescriptive style, however, taking time to explain why most of the grammar police edicts are flat out wrong. But at the end, even he cannot resist his own list of preferred and problematic usages.

This is an excellent guide to clear writing, and I would recommend it, along with Williams’ Style, to all aspiring communicators.



For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Friday, 18 December 2015

It all depends on the spin...

The radicalization of Luke Skywalker: a Jedi's path to jihad 
Obi Wan — a religious fanatic with a history of looking for young boys to recruit and teach an extreme interpretation of the Force





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Thursday, 17 December 2015

spring is early

I’m not saying it’s mild here, but there’s a magnolia tree around the corner coming into flower.



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Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Dead rat lures escaped owl roaming city

I saw a headline on the BBC news:
Dead rat lures escaped owl roaming city
(The text article has a less compressed headline.)

I had a hard time parsing this, as I kept wanting to make lures a noun, but then couldn't get any further.

grumpy eagle owl
I backed up a few times before trying lures as a verb, and realised the headline means: “a dead rat was used to lure an escaped owl which was roaming the city”.

But then I realised, I could parse lures as a noun successfully (albeit getting a different meaning): “lures made from dead rats were overlooked by an owl which was roaming the city”.

So now I feel happy.

more nice train food

In June I found some surprisingly great food for sale in the Brussels Eurostar departure lounge.  Yesterday I was there again, but they were sold out of that particular baguette.  Pity.

However, I can just as heartily recommend the individual-size bacon quiche.

The chicken and bacon bagel, not so much.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Finnish income

An experiment to watch with interest:
Finland considers basic income to reform welfare system


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Friday, 11 December 2015

perverse incentives

There is an article on the BBC News today about the huge number of sofas being thrown away, rather than reused.  In order for a second hand sofa to be sold, or even given away for use, it must have a fire safety label, demonstrating that it has been treated with fire retardant.

On the one hand, this is a perfectly sensible regulation: I remember horrific stories of people killed by the choking black smoke from burning foam in their furniture.

On the other hand, perfectly good, and fire retardant, sofas are being dumped, because they have no label.  People tear the label off.  The Beeb reports bemusedly that:
The labels often appear to be a haphazard afterthought, loosely and carelessly stuck in random positions, flapping about in a way which seems to almost invite customers to cut them off.
There’s also a quote from someone looking at sustainable sofas:
It’s clear that many furniture companies have not really given much consideration to encouraging a future life for their sofas once their customers have finished with them
I’m bemused by the bemusement.  Maybe the placement isn’t an afterthought, and maybe furniture companies have considered the future life of their products.  After all, what incentive is there for manufacturers to encourage reuse?  For every person who gets a second hand sofa, that is a potential loss of the sale of a new sofa.



Thursday, 10 December 2015

don't wreck the net

I've just filled in the EU survey on Regulatory environment for platforms, online intermediaries, data and cloud computing and the collaborative economy.

After slogging through it, even with the help of this linked website, I had to vent my frustration in one of the text boxes:
This is truly one of the worst designed questionnaires it has been my displeasure to complete.  Questions are loaded and poorly worded, options are overlapping, explanation boxes only exist for the "desired" answer. 
If this is the level of your internet/web/cloud technical competence, you have no business thinking of regulating others!



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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

hard SF

Another great James Nicoll-ism: his definition of hard SF:
SF that provides enough technical detail that the reader can be certain that various mechanisms and events couldn’t work the way the author has them working.


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Monday, 7 December 2015

learning experience

James Nicoll is famous in SF fandom both for his book reviews, and for his somewhat exciting and hair-raising anecdotes.  The latest anecdote had me in snorfling:
I don’t know if there are literally a thousand stars in the Thousand Stars or if a thousand stars is just the local version of “many.” I do know that if you get into a dispute with a teacher over whether the milli in millipede is literal or figurative, teachers want a heads up before you pour a bag of millipedes onto their desk so you can count legs together. I mean, I know that now.


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Sunday, 6 December 2015

sequestering carbon, several books at a time LIV

The last batch before Christmas.  Brown cardboard covered parcels now entering the house are being hustled away to a variety of secret locations, awaiting the grand reveal later in the month.


Friday, 4 December 2015

peer review

Another great post from Sabine Hossenfelder.  Not about the content of science this time, but about the process of doing science.



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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Hawking radiation

Another nice post by Sabine Hossenfelder:
If Hawking’s book taught me one thing, it’s that sticky visual metaphors that can be a curse as much as they can be a blessing.


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