Shun Arithmetical Writing

“A full 44 percent of the earth’s land is composed of areas larger than 4,000 square miles that have fewer than two people per square mile.”


from The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon


This is taken from a chapter called “A 10 Percent World.” Most people can’t tell you what percent means, even though the word is common and tossed around in American English as if everyone knew how to use it. Most people can’t tell you, for example, that 20 percent means one fifth. So writing about percentages is a risky business if you wish to be understood. Moreover, most people are not capable of the arithmetical acrobatics that the quoted sentence calls for.


Additional trouble from arithmetical writing comes from its seductive ability to spawn more of itself. Counting is a fundamental trait of humans, so the abundance of numbers seduces the unwary into using them, even where they’re not needed. They are fruit hanging delightfully low. This same writer goes on for page after page with such phrases as “estimated one-fifth to one-third…” and “154 recorded bird extinctions…” as well as “65 percent of its primeval range…” and “5 percent of historical numbers….”


When he’s not being led astray by lists, MacKinnon proves himself to be an excellent writer. One of the worst evils of lists and numbers in writing is that they destroy any elegance the language might offer. Except in technical papers, it’s best to avoid them.



Cuteness Kills

The book I discuss here is called Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet (2021) by Chelsea Wald. It’s publisher is an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It deals with a very important and serious subject, which is how we in the United States and elsewhere, dispose of our human waste and what a disaster that is in so many ways.


The way we dispose of human waste amounts to this: Imagine that you struck oil in your back yard and arranged a pipeline to take it away and dump it into the ocean to get rid of it. Not only would you be squandering a fortune in energy resources but you’d be polluting the environment in a near-criminal fashion. That’s what her book is about.


To make the argument that it is ill-advised to have a toilet of the common flushing kind in our homes and a sewer system of the common kind (draining into waterways) under the ground is a difficult task. It might be compared with arguing that fire is a passing fad. So if you’re to succeed, it is of the utmost importance to be convincing and to back up everything you say with solid research.


Somehow between Chelsea’s own work as an author and Simon & Schuster’s editing as her publisher, a collective decision was made (perhaps unconsciously) to treat the subject as cute and ripe for the presentation of puns, double-entendres, slapstick, tongue-in-cheek jokes, and other tom foolery that would make people more comfortable with a subject that might make them uncomfortable.


Their decision was a very bad one and in effect nullified all the good that could have been done with Chelsea’s excellent research. And she is an otherwise competent researcher, journalist, and science writer. She is actually very impressive, and I can only assume that she came under the spell of an evil person from the Sales Department at S&S. (See:


Because the book is so jammed full of these cuteness mortal sins, I can’t list them all here. But the table of contents does the job nicely of delivering the message that cuteness can kill a well-intentioned work. A few sample chapter titles:


Taking the Piss

Eating Shit

Clogged Arteries

Giving a Crap

Potty Talk

Epilogue: It Hits the Fan


Among section titles in the not-very-long book we find

Gone to Pot

Redesigning from the Bottom Up

It Takes Guts

The Bottom Line

Game of Thrones

Cutting the Crap


And that’s to say nothing of the subheads to the chapter titles, such as “Let’s analyze the shit out of this.” Even the word “urgent” in the subtitle of the book is meant to echo common cliches about the subject.


To take a terrible decision in the design of our society (toilets, sewers)–not to mention a topic that is so difficult to get across to people–and to turn it into a comedy routine (and a bad one) is a very sad squandering of extremely valuable information that Chelsea Wald has gone to the trouble of finding and interpreting.


Sometimes a Word Gets Tired and Needs a Nap

“When our tacos were ready, Ben grabbed them from the window. They came stuffed in red and white checkered cartons. He grabbed all of them and balanced them over his forearms and in his hands.” 


Forever Interrupted, Taylor Jenkins Reid


Taylor Jenkins Reid is a best selling author of novels, such as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. A tremendous hit. Her publisher is Simon & Schuster, also a huge hit. You’d think they could afford an editor.


In her first novel, Forever, Interrupted, Reid uses a form of the word “grab” 89 times in 319 pages, which is to say,  every three-and-a-half pages. Only once, so far as I can tell, does she use the word correctly. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “grab” is a transitive verb that means


“To grasp or seize suddenly and eagerly; hence, to appropriate to oneself in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner.”


So it seems fair to say that when Reid writes, “I saw him grab his jacket,” she does not mean, “I saw him appropriate his jacket to himself in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner.” She means he picked it up from wherever it happened to be. 


The word “grab” has permeated the language like a disease since about the 1980s and has now become completely exhausted in both writing and speech. We don’t usually mean, “Let us appropriate a cup of coffee in a rapacious or unscrupulous manner” when we say, “Let’s grab a coffee.” But that is, indeed, what we are saying. Shame on us for saying it when we don’t understand it. Deeper shame if we write it. And the profound shame of incompetence on our editors, should we have any, when they fail at the one thing they’re hired to do: correct this kind of blunder. 


Simon & Schuster is the publisher of one of my books. I had a real editor at the time in the 1990s. His name was Michael Korda, and he was a demon for stuff like this. Michael, where are you when we need you? 


Retire the word “grab” and make sure that you know what you want to say and which words will say it for you.


And as a general rule, don’t use any one word too many times in one piece of writing. It’s easy to become unconsciously attached to a word and simply repeat it because it is echoing in your head. But writing skillfully means paying attention to each word and recognizing when something is appearing over and over. You have to step back from the canvas to see the painting.



If A Word Is Ambiguous, Look It Up

“Albright is remembered as one of Yellowstone’s great figures, a beloved and heroic administrator, but in fact his legacy is ambivalent.” 


-from Yellowstone by David Quammen, National Geographic, 2016


David and I both make mistakes such as this one. We all do. I like David’s work. But in this case, he means “ambiguous” or some similar word. “Ambivalent” is a word coined by Freud to describe a state of mind of one or another of his patients toward someone or something else. A person can be ambivalent. A legacy cannot. So you could say, “I was ambivalent about going to my mother’s birthday party because I love her but she also drives me crazy.” Or you could say, “When I told my mother I was coming to visit, her response was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know if she was pleased or not.” 

Know Your Stuff

“Roughly 150,000 chimps and around the same number of gorillas are living today, compared to some seven billion humans. Yet humans have less genetic diversity than these monkeys, significantly less.”


From The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean, Little, Brown and Company, 2012


Sam Kean writes about science. His book The Disappearing Spoon, about the periodic table, was a best seller, as was The Violinist’s Thumb. Unfortunately, he does not know the difference between an ape and a monkey. Until the 16th century, the word “ape” was used to refer to monkeys as well as anthropoid apes. The word “monkey” was never used to refer to apes. Monkeys have tails. Apes do not.


It is not clear why a writer of books about science would not know such a basic fact. What is even less clear is why a publisher such as Little, Brown would not notice the mistake and correct it. And yet one such blunder can throw a shadow of doubt over everything else in the book.

Maybe There Wasn’t…

This is from a fellow who won one Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for another. He’s describing a meeting of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983.


“There was Erskine Caldwell, who many thought was dead; there were the elongated granitic features of John Kenneth Galbraith; there was Malcolm Cowley, his face crumped by age, who had known Hart Crane; there were the husband-and-wife teams, seated apart, as at a dinner party; Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren, Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller.”


Making matters worse, Ted Morgan deployed this embarrassment as the first sentence of a 650-page book, his biography of William Burroughs. Such a stumbling opening doesn’t invite the reader to continue the journey.


Few techniques will disable a sentence more effectively than that of beginning with the word “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be.” It makes it nearly impossible to give the sentence a proper verb. 


Once you have set sail on this dubiously constructed vessel, it becomes difficult to change course. The author goes on endlessly in the same style, flagellating the verb “to be” in all its forms.


“It was through Richard Stern that Billy…”


“Another character was James Le Baron Boyle…”


“There was one fellow called William P. Frere von Blomberg…”


From Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs

Ted Morgan, Henry Holt and Company, 1988

Don’t Tread On Me

“The deal announced on Wednesday includes provisions that would protect ViacomCBS in the event that a sale is squashed by authorities. Bertelsmann would pay what is known as a termination fee if the deal does not go through.”


Of course, “squashed” for “quashed” is illiterate. We would expect more from the New York Times. But this is an age of illiteracy, in which common phrases, such as “buck naked” and “set foot in this house” become “butt naked” and “step foot in this house.” 

Tell the Truth

Don’t say “unrest” if you mean that people are killing one another. Don’t say “clash” if you mean that police are shooting innocent people.


Tell the truth. 


Journalistic euphemisms such as “unrest” are terribly destructive to the truth because they misdirect our attention from what is real to some imagined world that does not exist. 


If a policeman shoots to death an unarmed person, that is called murder. It is not some kind of lack of rest that can be put right by a nap, and it is not a clash that can be fixed by using a solid color rather than a plaid. It is simply murder. 


Tell the truth.


“A police officer murdered an innocent person for no reason at all other than the fact that police are being trained to murder people.” 


The new wave of police training–called “Force on Force”–directs officers to kill first and ask questions later. It is a military model, and military models are aimed at killing the enemy. The enemy is anyone who is not you.


Our fellow citizens are not the enemy. 


We have to stop calling police riots “unrest” and “clashes.” And we need to stop calling murder “gun violence.” Not only is that ungrammatical, but a gun cannot be violent. A gun is a tool. So if you are murdered with a hammer, is that “hammer violence?” No, it’s murder. 


Make sure you know what you’re saying, and then tell the truth.

Nouns, Nouns, and More Nouns!

I’ve written about this in another entry. But the trouble is so widespread that I will add to that entry here. The first entry on this subject was called “Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives” and was an attempt to point out a particular sin involving the misuse of nouns. This entry takes another step or two.


The struggle against this pestilence has a long history. H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, wrote, “if a large vehicle fleet were translated into either a large fleet of vehicles or a fleet of large vehicles an ambiguity would be removed.”


Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage (1966) called this sort of trouble, tongue in cheek, a “noun-plague,” using the noun “noun” as an adjective to modify the noun “plague.” (The argument could be made that the hyphen turns it into a single noun, but “a plague of nouns” would be better.)


Follett’s point is a subtle one. Using language well is about exciting the senses to produce meaning. Exciting the senses is about movement. And to the extent that writing is static, it “dulls narrative and description” and produces “an impoverishment of experience.” 


So his argument is generally against using static nouns in place of active verbs. He begins with the simple example of instructions on an envelope to “apply pressure to seal.”


Apply pressure,” he says, “is a weak indirection for press down.” And the more complicated the attempt on the part of misguided writers, the more unwieldy the structure grows.


This sentence, from Fowler, is about testing food. “Strangeness of samples has been shown to lead to relative rejection of products in the comparative absence of clues to a frame of reference within which judgement may take place.”


This is not merely a case of using nouns as adjectives. It amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors against the language. Here the author has constructed great abstractions by compounding nouns. For example, a quantity or thing that we cannot know is created by “Strangeness of samples,” and it somehow leads to a thing called “relative rejection.” None of this falls within the realm of human experience.


In other words, it is incomprehensible nonsense.


In a similar vein, Fowler faults writers for “using a long string of words as a sort of adjectival sea serpent (e.g. a large vehicle fleet operator mileage restriction has now been made imperative.)


So by now you should be able to tell what’s wrong with this: 


“The prediction of the existence of antiparticles was made by P.A.M. Dirac in 1927 and its confirmation was an important reason for the construction of the Bevatron at Berkeley in 1954.” 



Journalistic Descent Into Baby Talk

“These knee-high wool dogs weren’t combed like modern pooches but sheared like sheep.” 


Man’s Best Friend Once Made Nice Wool Blankets, Too

by Lesley Evans Ogden

October 9, 2020, New York Times


This appeared in an article about Tulalip people and other groups in the Pacific Northwest who were breeding dogs for wool in earlier times. One would expect that in an article about dogs the word “dog” would appear frequently. But in a desperate attempt to come up with a synonym and follow some obscure rule from journalism school, the author groped in the dark and found “pooch.” Don’t give in to such dark temptations. Rather use common sense. There is nothing wrong with the word “dog” in an article about dogs.