Writing tip #2: Missing Links

Attributing Info / Sources

Less is More was slated as Writing Tip #2, but another shiny object popped out of my coronavirus feed. Less didn’t just dwindle to zero; it’s coming later. My current concern, though, involves a writer’s relationship to readers, and the bulwarking of evidence. These writing tips have no natural order anyway; they’re recursive (like language itself).

This newest inspiration came from a Giles Tremlett piece in last week’s Guardian: “How did Spain get its coronavirus response so wrong?https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/spain-coronavirus-response-analysis 

Tremlett writes plenty about Spain, and while I don’t always agree with him, he often provides keen, provocative insights. I’ve even used his book “Ghosts of Spain” in my English classes.

The headline grabbed me because I live in Madrid, and three weeks (a million years) ago, it felt like the government moved pretty quickly to lock us down [more on that below]. Reading through the article, though, a couple of attributions –or lack thereof –bothered me.

The first one came when Tremlett reported, to my surprise and dismay, that local Chinese shop owners had closed down “to avoid a racist backlash.” 

Now, I live near a couple of Chinese-run shops whose owners I’m friendly with. So this was concerning. I wanted to know more, but there was no more. No mention of how many cases this was based on, or what exactly happened in those cases. Did the information come from another published source?

I really needed some facts, as a reader, to get any notion of scope and magnitude. Maybe this was just a lapse, or Tremlett felt other items deserved more attention. Anyway, the omission left me miffed and unsatisfied –but did lead to the current writing tip.

Showing evidentiary origins respects readers and solidifies a case.

These two related functions apply not only to journalism –where citing sources is a long-held imperative –but to other types of writing as well. Really, all writing involves building a case. Even ostensibly non-persuasive prose asserts its own relevance and value, and that push relies on some kind of evidence.

The good news is showing it has never been easier. Drop a link to other texts, images, audio or video. Copy and paste some relevant quote. It’s all right there at a writer’s fingertips.

And your readers will appreciate it. They may want to do additional research. Or satisfy doubts about a source’s reliability. For scientists, knowing where a study first got published is huge. We might also be curious about sample size or experimental conditions, maybe the original descriptors used.

If writers trust me to judge source material for myself, showing that respect, I’m a lot more likely to trust them in return. It boosts their credibility. This relationship between writer and reader (narrator & narratee, roughly, for fans of reader-response theory) is key to guiding our message toward the kind of landing we hope for. When you feel respected as a reader it’s a good feeling and fit.

Curating Links

As easy as linking information has become, care need still be taken. In the Tremlett article, for instance, the following highlighted sentence intrigued me: “Yet no-one expects a return to normality,” Like probably everyone else, I’ve been wondering how much the new normal (as opposed to the current normal) will resemble the old normal –once this damn thing ends. But the link brought me to an article saying nothing about that. Takeaway: make sure those links actually fill the bill.

Copyright and Ethics

Legal and ethical considerations are probably the original raison d’être for source citing. All I can say about that is, don’t steal. Use.

On the ground (grounded) in Spain

I’ll end with a brief timeline of how things have gone down here in Madrid, to show you why the heavy-handed headline snagged me, and because you might just be interested anyway.

It’s easy to remember when, not long ago, Spain had only three reported coronavirus cases, two on different islands and another somewhere down south. Seville? At that time, the problem was mostly Italy (apart, of course, from much earlier reports from far-away Asia). There was some concern over certain individuals who’d been to that country. My wife had a co-worker whose husband had returned from a trip to Milan. A case was rumored to have appeared in a business park building alongside another where colleagues of my students worked.

In my English classes, we’d been joking about the virus. I remember offering as an example of a conditional sentence: “if there are 500 cases in Madrid, I’ll start to worry.” Whoops.

Flying did seem like a valid concern. A couple of students who’d booked vacation trips for themselves –or in one case as a present for his mother –wondered what to do and whether they could get refunds if they chose to cancel.

Shortly thereafter, a small cluster of cases appeared in San Fernando, a neighboring town.

Then, on the evening of March 9th, word came that Madrid would be closing its schools for two weeks. I walked into my language academy to find the owner and another teacher with their heads in their hands. We had the mistaken impression the edict was for the next morning but we ended up getting that day to prepare ourselves. Wednesday, March 11th was –and remains –our kids’ last day of school. I fretted, like everybody, over how to go to work with the kids at home. But that turned out not to be a problem. In very short order, all my classes –all paid work –were indefinitely cancelled. The local equivalent of pink slips flooded my phone.

So it felt sudden enough. But after the Tremlett article last week, I heard people criticising Spanish politicians’ lack of foresight. Indeed, the very next day, the Guardian published a story headlined “Spain defends response to coronavirus as global cases exceed 500,000,” without, though, referencing the Tremlett piece. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/spanish-coronavirus-deaths-slow-as-world-nears-500000-cases] CNN chimed in after the weekend with their own take, “How Spain became a hotspot for coronavirus.”

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/28/europe/spain-coronavirus-hotspot-intl

As of today –Friday –that particular blamestorm has apparently calmed. Growing global numbers and measures are the new(s) media fronts. At home, we’re all just chillin’. It’s not a bad time to get some writing done. More tips to come!

Writing Tip #1

Writing Tip #1

Eliminate “extra” words. Consider this sentence posted yesterday on CNN’s website:

“But his past recent record of overselling government action raised doubts over whether his commitments would be delivered.”

[https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/23/politics/donald-trump-coronavirus-politics-economy-congress-stocks/index.html]

A good rule of thumb is that when a locution draws attention to itself because it feels like the writer was struggling to find the right words –thus distracting a reader from the text’s content –it’s badly written.

Our grand deception, the magic trick of writing, is to hide the machinery. All the sweat and hair-pulling that went into forging a good piece of writing goes invisible.

A friend of mine, Janet Wilson, Director of Bilingual Publications at Oxford University Press in Spain, once told me that if she finds herself thinking about the writer while reading, something’s wrong. In fiction, those awkward spots can even “interrupt the dream,” as some writers term it.

In the above CNN quote, the bit that snared me was “past recent record.” Maybe the collocation makes it jarring. “Recent past” sounds more natural than “past recent.” Would that sequence have been as viable (or more) without altering the meaning? Is this something the writer or editor troubled over? Looking at it and trying to decide, the solution –maybe obvious –came to me. Just delete “past.” It’s redundant. The idea of “past” is contained in both “recent” and “record.”

“… his recent record… ” is a normal, smooth locution that says it all without the dissonance. It’s also a great example of the Less is More principle, the second of the Three Cs of Writing (Be Clear, Concise & Concrete). I’ll discuss that principle more fully in Writing Tip #2. Meanwhile, the clean surgical removal of unnecessary words is an excellent way to make writing more streamlined and impactful.

Last note, sometimes in the laudable rush for journalists and others to get information out, mistakes and inelegant phraseology inevitably and understandably slip by. We’re all susceptible to that, even as we guard against it.

Fixed and Semi-fixed Expressions or Cliches?

Students are rightly encouraged ro learn fixed and semi-fixed expressions, like the two sides of the same coin found in the Site Intro. Serious writers, on the other hand, avoid cliches like the plague. Is there a double-standard at work here? Should there be? Are learners (including children in their own tongue) condemned to absorb this massive database of prefab lexical chunkage only to later shun it? Is there a line to be drawn somewhere between common, useful expression and cliche? Where then lies this line and how are students expected to see it? I have no ready answer, but it feels worth worrying about.  :)  Comments?

Language Etc Now Has a Video Channel

I’ve uploaded some videos to the new Language Etc Video Channel!

Link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC25IcZ4CW4-expYekeqXDVQ

So far, I’ve put up a series of short videos on Phone English, but more will be coming soon. This series contains some tips regarding register & intonation, as well as some common expressions. It’s mostly business English. I figured learners who use the phone to talk with friends probably already have an established rapport with those friends and don’t need particular help. If I’m wrong about that, please let me know and I’ll see if I can address whatever queries you have. For these Phone English vids, I imagined a hypothetical worker at a car rental agency (“Ride Right”), but they’re meant to be useful for any learners having to do business over the phone. Please leave any questions or thoughts you have in the comments section, either here or on the Youtube page!

Formal Debates

Formal Debates in the EFL Classroom

This is an activity I’ve found useful over the years. It gives sts an opportunity to experiment with different registers and try their hand at less-interactive speaking, so it’s good practice for public speaking and presentations. In larger classes, it also provides a way to get shier sts to have a full turn at speaking. If you try it with your own classes, please let me know how it went in the comments. Here’s how I do it:

The ideal size for teams is about 6 sts, fewer is no problem, but 8 is probably about the maximum. Since each st is going to have an argument, or sub argument, of their own, coming up with more than 6 or 8 of them for a given topic could be quite difficult. This means that for just about any high school class, the debating will have to be done in Continue reading

Forked Speech

Capture

Acclaimed author Javier Marías found plenty of agreement last spring with his opinion piece attacking Madrid’s educational system for offering Natural Science in English. (the column, in Spanish)  Cyberspace and real space buzzed –blazed even –with assenting voices following its publication in El País, just a week before local elections. I know this because Madrid is where I live, and my work here happens to include training teachers of Natural Science in English.

The syncophony (no, the word doesn’t exist) echoed from many respectable corners. This surprised me because the article presents its case without any evidence, or even reasoned argumentation. In fact it strays so far from the tenets of effective persuasive writing that I’m tempted to stick it in the Teaching Writing section [here] as an example of what not to do. It’s all heat no light.

It follows then that many readers came to it with already set opinions about Spain’s bilingual programs. The experiences Continue reading

False friends: Law and unrest

Crime includes shoplifting and even littering, not only murder

Artifact is not the usual word for a bomb.

Organizing a riot, scandal, etc. sounds about as undoable as controlling time, as they’re usually pretty chaotic.

Homicide is the department that investigates murder. Manslaughter (soon to be personslaughter?) is something else. And don’t even ask me to translate nocturnindad.

Chicken Flight (Gapped)

Messing with my students’ heads, [1]_________ it real or [2]_________ it is you’d [3]_________ what I do, I asked classes the following question:

Which of the 5 senses is the greatest threat/enemy to the illusion of time?

The answer, of course, is smell.

It hit me when I was walking [4]_________ Bravo Murillo one night and listening to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse 5 on the Ipod. In the (audio) book, the author seems to milk the metaphor of memory as time travel enough to warrant the category of science fiction. To be [5]________ , he does throw [6]_________ some flying saucers and aliens, though sparsely. Vonnegut, like Frank McCourt and many other writers, puts a high premium on personal experience —on memory —as fodder for fiction. It’s a good way to steer [7]_________ of the great common mound of cliché and rehash, if nothing [8]_________ .

And there is a time travel element to remembering, to be [9]________ . So it was [10]_________ of ironic that it hit me while I was mentally traveling along that particular narrative. My feet, [11]________ , were carrying me toward a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had won [12]_________ amid several roughly equidistant competitors in a complex calculus of taste, price, healthiness (imagine the competition!) and portability (Metro eating, ideally).

The thing is, I’m walking and listening, minding my own business on a crowded Madrid street, when I must have caught a tiny [13]_________ of that KFC chicken. Instantly, [14]_________ before registering the smell, I was rocketed back to Shattuck and Virginia, in Berkeley, at the age of 8 or 9 –maybe even earlier –and to the KFC that [15]_________ to be there. Though the space/time dimension of this teleportation was keen, overriding it was another feeling. Or rather a feelings mix. All [16]_________ the same micro instant came a layering of feelings from several visits to that KFC, from many times and thus from no particular time. Continue reading

Chicken Flight

Messing with my students’ heads, keeping it real or whatever it is you’d call what I do, I asked classes the following question:

Which of the 5 senses is the greatest threat/enemy to the illusion of time?

The answer, of course, is smell.

It hit me when I was walking down Bravo Murillo one night and listening to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse 5 on the Ipod. In the (audio) book, the author seems to milk the metaphor of memory as time travel enough to warrant the category of science fiction. To be fair, he does throw in some flying saucers and aliens, though sparsely. Vonnegut, like Frank McCourt and many other writers, puts a high premimum on personal experience —on memory —as fodder for fiction. It’s a good way to steer clear of the great common mound of cliché and rehash, if nothing else.

And there is a time travel element to remembering, to be sure. So it was kind of ironic that it hit me while I was mentally traveling along that particular narrative. My feet, meanwhile, were carrying me toward a Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had won out amid several roughly equidistant competitors in a complex calculus of taste, price, healthiness (imagine the competition!) and portability (Metro eating, ideally).

The thing is, I’m walking and listening, minding my own business on a crowded Madrid street, when I must have caught a tiny whiff of that KFC chicken. Instantly, even before registering the smell, I was rocketed back to Shattuck and Virginia, in Berkeley, at the age of 8 or 9 –maybe even earlier –and to the KFC that used to be there. Though the space/time dimension of this teleportation was keen, overriding it was another feeling. Or rather a feelings mix. All in the same micro instant came a layering of feelings from several visits to that KFC, from many times and thus from no particular time. Continue reading

The Virtue of an Open Mind

Growing up in Berkeley in the 60s & 70s, a with-it young dude could hardly point to a more laudable trait than open-mindedness. It was as if all the previous generation (hip oldsters excepted) and their occasional brainwashed offspring had to do was shrug off the square traditions and prejudices that were the root of all evil, and everything would be possible: utopia, the Garden regained, the age of Aquarius.

It’s hard to overstate the power of that open/closed-minded dichotomy, maybe the closest we came to a good vs. evil worldview. As a teen I lofted it up, or back, a couple of generations for consideration. My Kentucky grandmother exclaimed “Your mind is so open, sometimes I worry it’s gonna fall right out!”

I took that as a compliment, as far as I could grasp its metaphorical logic, or, if you will, get my mind around it. I later put it to my step-grandfather on the other side in some context like how good or important it was to find, perhaps at the university, equally open-minded friends. This had probably come to me as a sort of obvious litmus test. Jo, a conservative Republican whose past had led him from a Polish palatial childhood to a professional life in the biology lab, replied that as he saw it the real friends one found were not open-minded, but close-minded in the same way as you.

That sounded wrong, very even, at the time, as I took it to mean a kind of ideological partner in crime, someone sharing the same messed-up prejudices. Reflecting now though, I wonder if he wasn’t onto something.

After all, who is the most open-minded among us? Babies, certainly. But knowledge and experience gradually encroach upon that openness, and who would have it any other way?

Judgmentality gets a bad rap, while judgment is wisdom, just as we may seek to retain some child-like freshness without being childish. To what extent does glorifying open-mindedness amount to exalting intellectual immaturity, a kind of ignorance is bliss bs? To regain the garden then, but knowing what’s what.

The Virtue of an Open Mind (Gapped)

Growing up in Berkeley in the 60s & 70s, a with-it young dude could hardly point ______ a more laudable trait than open-mindedness. It was as if all the previous generation (hip oldsters excepted) and their occasional brainwashed offspring ______ to do was shrug off the square traditions and prejudices that were the ______ of all evil, and everything would be possible: utopia, the Garden regained, the age of Aquarius.

It’s hard to overstate the power of that open/closed-minded dichotomy, maybe the closest we came to a good vs. evil worldview. As a teen I lofted it ______, or back, a couple of generations for consideration. My Kentucky grandmother exclaimed “Your mind is so open, sometimes I worry it’s gonna fall right out!”

I ______ that as a compliment, as far as I could grasp its metaphorical logic, or, if you will, get my mind around it. I later put it to my step-grandfather on the other side in some context like how good or important it was to find, perhaps at the university, equally open-minded friends. This had probably come to me as a sort of obvious litmus test. Jo, a conservative Republican whose past had led him from a Polish palatial childhood to a professional life in the biology lab, replied that ______ he saw it the real friends one found were not open-minded, ______ close-minded in the same way as you.

That sounded wrong, very even, ______ the time, as I took it to mean a kind of ideological partner in crime, someone sharing the same messed-up prejudices. Reflecting now though, I wonder if he wasn’t onto something.

After all, who is the most open-minded ______ us? Babies, certainly. But knowledge and experience gradually encroach ______ that openness, and who would have it any other way?

Judgmentality gets a bad rap, while judgment is wisdom, just as we may seek to retain some child-like freshness without being childish. To what ______ does glorifying open-mindedness amount ______ exalting intellectual immaturity, a kind of ignorance is bliss bs? To regain the garden then, but knowing what’s what.

Longer False Friends Intro

Learning a language is no small thing. Doing it well amounts to no less than partitioning your hard disk (coconut?) and installing a new operating system there.

This is less apparent to the beginning learner, but becomes more evident over time in what is a never-ending, never completely achieved process. I’m speaking from experience here, as someone who, after decades, has acquired a serviceable and fast Spanish (I guess this shouldn’t be countable, in English. I’ll try to get something up on countable/uncountable, maybe under concept division), if not a rich and beautiful one. I think that for people learning their first foreign language and moving into it from the frame of a firmly embedded mother tongue there is a tendency to assume the new language is essentially the same as the old one, simply with different graphic and phonetic signs following a slightly different syntax. The feeling is that all thoughts and ideas are perfectly translatable. At this stage one may well conceive of communication as the transmission of universally human propositions like this steak is too well done (though not demasiado bien hecho —we Spanish learners [I’ll try to make a note somewhere including yourself in utterances like Los profesores tenemos] have plenty of false friend problems too!), the table is downstairs or I like octopus. Indeed, this viewpoint has its psychological value, keeping the task manageable and easing the transition.

Exceptions to this framework are perceived initially as curious anomalies, bits of exotica. Like the Uno de enero song, ¡San Fermín!, or raining cats and dogs (section on proverbs and idioms coming soon), or for a German learner saying the equivalent of please when one means thanks.

This illusion breaks down as one internalizes the language more and more. An apter metaphor would be that of a dancer, say Flamenco or square, going to Africa to learn some tribal dance. Really feeling the desire to express please, I have to assume, when one feels thankful, is quite another matter.

By talking about false friends I intend to take what was already a metaphor and extend it further, so that its purview becomes anything –not only single words but grammar, culture or whatever else –that presents particular difficulties in moving from one language system to the other.

False Friends Intro

False Friends, for me, has come to mean basically anything that creates translational interference when shuttling between Spanish and English (for example), not just the standard definition of false cognates. The good news is that between these two languages there are many true friends, but of course that’s where the problems starts. What’s the Spanish expression about trust (confianza, in this case) leading to problems? (It’s actually closer to generating disgust, isn’t it?). Anyway, I’ve tried to break the false friends down by category and serve them up in bite-sized posts. Enjoy.  :)

False Friends: Oft Confused Time expressions

In the (not this) moment is a good place to be, a la carpe diem, but if you just mean now (which in English means now, not in a few minutes or a few minutes ago) you probably mean at the moment.

Soon/early (both translate as pronto): Potentially tricky concept division here. Soon is generally in reference to now, while early usually means before an understood or arranged time. I’ll get it done soon would mean that you won’t have to wait long, but you talk about being early for an appointment/date (not exactly the same thing) /class/interview, etc. If you get up early (Sorry, no single-word equivielnt for madrugar), it means compared to normal or what one would assume (not asumir) to be normal. Continue reading

False Friends: Bureaucracy (competent organisms?)

In the USA, the Internal Revenue Service is who you file your taxes (not make the declaration) with. Whether or not (those last two words are pleonastic, but I like them here) they are a competent organism depends entirely on (not of) your opinion. And it would be strange if they were called the Ranch and the official program for preparing your taxes (not the rent) were called Father.

You don’t discount things on your tax forms, but you can deduct them.

Rest is what you do after you get your taxes in. It doesn’t mean subtract.