On, overdoing; it–with punctuation (and such).

As you know, I like to keep you up to date from time to time on the debates that we at The Economist have internally about style. That’s because these debates can improve your writing too.

This has ranged from the use and abuse of single words (such as like) to the good and bad use of direct quotes and the benefits of disdaining reader expectations.

After our last issue closed, we had another round of these invariably edifying and witty debates. It was kicked off by our doyen of style, who sent this missive:

The paper would be easier to read if we used fewer brackets, dashes and semi-colons. These are all fine in moderation, but not in profusion. Brackets are often unnecessary. Try taking them out. Dashes can be confusing, especially if you have more than one set in a paragraph or, worse, in a single sentence. They can usually be replaced by commas. And semi-colons, particularly when used in narrow columns like ours, tend to make readers feel they are struggling through one interminable sentence. They are usually better replaced by full stops.

Another annoyance is the use of “the former” and “the latter”. This almost always obliges the reader to stop, go back and work out which is which.

We then had another evergreen debate, also of interest to all writers: How much knowledge should you assume your readers to have? From the same style guru:

Some section editors assume their readers are as familiar with their subject matter as they are. Tom DeLay, Nancy Pelosi and Rush Limbaugh were all mentioned in one piece this week without any explanation of who they were. Explanations can be tedious, especially in columns, and we sometimes strive too hard, describing General Motors, say, as a car company. But remember that not everyone knows as much as you do.

This made me smile, because I’ve often mocked us for saying things like “Microsoft, a large software company” (notice that it is not “the large software company”, since there are other software companies). Why not “America, a large country”?

As I was smirking, a colleague, tongue-in-cheek, pointed us all to no less an authority than our Wikipedia page, where we are taken to task for exactly this:

The newspaper usually does not translate short French quotes or phrases, and sentences in Ancient Greek or Latin are not uncommon. It does, however, describe the business or nature of even well-known entities; writing, for example, “Goldman Sachs, an investment bank”.”

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17 thoughts on “On, overdoing; it–with punctuation (and such).

  1. “……..How much knowledge should you assume your readers to have………..?”.

    When I read this sentence it felt sort of odd. So I read it again, and saw “to” as the problem.

    If, instead of, “your readers”, you had use the plural pronoun, “they”, then your sentence would logically have been “……..How much knowledge should you assume they to have………..?”. But I feel sure you would have omitted “to” in this case.

    Perhaps, then, your sentence might better have read “……..How much knowledge should you assume your readers have……….?”.

    Do you have these sorts of discussions at the Economist?

  2. Andreas:

    As an ex-trial lawyer, I have a parallel problem. I exceeded my lifetime allocation of semi-colons (or is it semi;colon?) ten years ago. Moreover, I am challenged daily to rid my lexicon of the following tiresome lawyerisms (do I put a semi-colon here or colon?, oh well)

    supra (always confused with infra)
    infra (always confused with supra)
    inter alia (among other things I don’t know whether to mention or not)
    axiomatic (the entire world population agrees- schaaa!!!!, I don’t think so)
    Putative statements of truth and consensus:
    clearly… (like everyone has to agree with me)

    It is manifest, obvious or patent… (often times the proposition is not clear at all)

    It is not seriously in dispute (if that was true, there wouldn’t be a lawyer talking about it).

    It is an accompished fact (I have visions of facts in motion or some sort of award-winning fact)

    Latin/legal maxims can also be misleading, like religious dogma.

    eg. Abundans cautela non nocet means abundant caution causes no harm. But overcautious people sometimes can’t even get out of bed and won’t take reaonsable risks. Plus they drive everyone around them nuts, so this maxim isn’t really axiomatic and therefor probably not a maxim at all. On the other hand, the over cautious person could just be an exception to the rule, or Maxim. I guess it is axiomatic that even maxims have exceptions.

    Better stop here, starting to sound like a lawyer again…

    Steve B.

  3. Did the look and feel of the Hannibal Blog’s decor change? Am I the first one to notice? Did it only happen to me? Did Martha Stewart ask you to return her books?

    Re: assuming your reader is familiar with the subject. After being completely baffled by an article in the sports pages one day, I realized that the article assumed that I knew what sport the story was about. Now I like to play a game when I read the sports pages. Does the article ever mention the sport for which the compelling story is written? What elements identify the story with respect to sport? The name of the ‘star?’ The range of points accumulated in victory? etc.

  4. What’s the verdict on the new look, then? A keeper, or back to the books? (I thought of having a poll on it, just because WordPress makes it possible, but thought that would be gimmicky).

    “How much knowledge should you assume your readers to have”: Mr Crotchety, you were supposed to mentally replace “your readers” with “them”, not “they”. As in: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” A direct object. “How much knowledge should you assume them to have?”

    Is it awkward? If so, I’ll change it. I always yield to what the brain perceives, not what the grammar book says. (You noticed in the para above that I split an infinitive.)

    Steve B: “clearly,” “surely”, and so forth are yucky. It’s “show, don’t tell,” in writing. Usually, I find that these words can be replaced by humorous exaggeration ad absurdum that proves the “clarity” or “surety”.

    I’ll add to your list of confusions: “infer” and “imply”. I don’t know why people can’t tell them apart.

  5. As a great man once said, “stay the course.”
    I luv maps. The font activity works much better on my laptop. Maybe after you accumulate a stack of Kindles you could do something artsy.

  6. The previous sight was more like a room where we would meet and share ideas, a library setting perhaps, but comfortable and inviting. The map evokes action, movement and immediacy; (damnit! another semi-colon) and with the posts coming like lightening strikes I feel like I am standing in the train station in Rome, 2 minutes before departure standing next to track 9 and realizing that the train I need to be on is leaving from track 3. When your book is published, will it be like a friend having a baby, where life will be different for all of us and will have to find new friends and activities? Will there be a post-publication site we can go to? We need to think ahead on this.

  7. lol @ Crotchety: those books were a default wordpress layout, although stacks of kindles would be pretty cool, they would definitely increase tech cred.

    Writing style:
    Long live the former and the latter! I listen to all the articles, so there is no opportunity to go back; I have never had any problems with remembering. This makes sense, because short term memory can hold around seven chunks, so even assuming that there is extraneous information between the source and the reference it remains within our capacity to remember.

    Assuming knowledge: isn’t this what hyperlinks are for?

    OK, I know that doesn’t help the print edition, but doesn’t the Economist localize print editions? America would need explanations for foreign language quips (I certainly do) but we know what GM is. Europe might be the reverse?

  8. A lot to respond to:

    Steve B: Hmmm. So I turned this blog from a “comfortable and inviting library setting where we could share ideas” into “a train station” where you are “hit by lightning strikes”. That’s not good. Let’s all get used to the new layout (I’m looking for a more antique map that’s not copyrighted), and then I may reconsider.

    But don’t ever worry about what happens on this blog after publication: The blog will get better because I’ll have more to discuss. (Right now, I’m blogging with one arm tied behind my back, because I’ve been told not to give away too much too early.) And then, I’ll go on and on and on… until I write the second book (with your collective help).

    Jonathan: (What happened to Quantum?) The “seven chunks”: That’s what Gladwell uses in Outliers to make the case that the Chinese are better at numbers: Phonetically, each number is one sound, so they can hold more at a time in their RAM. 177 is five phonetic units in Chinese, eight syllables in English. I’m not saying gladwell’s right; just that he is making this case…

    More importantly: No! We don’t localize editions. We’re unique in that way. We have the same edition all over the world. the only thing different is the order in which the geographic sections appear (everybody gets their own geography first), and sometimes the image on the cover.

    And this is part of the problem: What is common knowledge for the editor in london is obscure for you; what is common knowledge for you is obscure to him.

  9. One hand? Aha!

    With which hand have you been blogging? That reminds me of a Great Story – The Princess Bride.

    Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
    Man in Black: Thank you; I’ve worked hard to become so.
    Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
    Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
    Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
    Man in Black: And what is that?
    Inigo Montoya: I… am not left-handed.
    [Moves his sword to his right hand and gains an advantage]
    Man in Black: You are amazing.
    Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
    Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
    Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
    Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.

  10. I’m not sure what happened to Quantumn, I think I changed a privacy setting on wordpress so now it shows my name, although my blog is still quantumn.blogspot.com.

    • I went to quantum.blogspot.com but it doesn’t look like yours. I went to quantum.wordpress.com and it does look like yours. i asked it in the comments, but explain to all of us how you write Arabic script in your Wordpess blog, please. Very cool!

  11. Ha you caught me there! It is indeed wordpress. I have a different user on blogspot. Just waiting for the day when our online identities will be truly unified!

  12. Andreas:

    I am a loyal trooper and will hop on that train and go. Just glad we aren’t frenetically approaching a blast off of any type. I guess my day is a series of blast-offs all day and I so look forward to the brain work involved in reading the posts. But dude!!!!, I am in for the duration, whereever it takes us, an adventure with fellow cyber-travelers!!!

    Steve B

    PS I opened up comments on my blog-you will see how your posts have given me ideas for my industry. I try to give you credit where it is clearly due.

  13. I’ve always told kids that fine writing is like a salad. Variety helps.

    Who wants to eat an all lettuce salad? I ask rhetorically.

    I do. Me too. I don’t like stuff on my salad, say the little ones, knowing they are sidetracking my analogy.

    Hemingway liked all lettuce salads…

    Forget the salad analogy, I say.

  14. Mr Crotchety: I’m laughing, because I remember that scene in Princess Bride. Personally, I feel as though I were blogging … with my nose tapping into the keyboard. With one hand, I’m holding a metaphorical phone with an editor in London on the line, with the other two children who are tugging at me and taking the crayons to my laptop, and in the middle my nose and I pretend to try to form coherent thoughts.

    Steve: Honored by the enthusiasm! Will try to live up to it. And will check out the blog.

    Cheri: No Martha in Morocco? That = a style downgrade. Bad marks for the new look so far. Hmmm.
    Salad: I’m a lover of richly textured salads myself, but I’m worrying about you on grounds of methane production….

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