Don’t Quote Me

“Much of the work of natural selection over the millions of years has been to find ‘decisive’ or ‘single-minded’ molecules whose ‘preference’ for their favoured shape is much stronger than their tendency to coil into any other shape.” 

– From Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins


Quotation marks are meant to denote something that someone said or wrote. They indicate that these are the exact words used. They do not add meaning. If the quotation marks enclose something that is not a direct quote, then they are out of place and should not be used. Often people enclose a word or words in quotation marks because they don’t quite know what they mean to say and hope that the reader will somehow fill the vacuum and supply the meaning. In other words, quotation marks are a lazy way of avoiding saying what you mean. In this case, Dawkins fails to explain how the molecule in question is selected. In other words, the sentence fails at its one and only job.

Casting a Spell

Always try to begin a piece by casting a spell. When you tell a story to a little child, you may begin, “Once upon a time….” to induce the magic. With an adult for an audience, you may need a bit more. Here is what I mean by that: 


            I am sitting here now looking out on my back yard and my driveway and my neighborhood of plain brick houses with flags of white steam nearly still in the air above the chimneys. There are more than two feet of snow covering everything, and the towering evergreens are freighted with it, creaking under it, bending low. The temperature is well below zero. Icicles, some of them four feet long, hang from my roof and from the vines that cover my brick house. The sky is a ceramic winter blue that looks artificial, because it’s so cold that there’s almost no moisture in the air. There are no clouds.


            The Mexican guys from the garden store delivered firewood the other day, and now there are logs burning in the grate. Veal stock is cooking on the stove in a great white pot, veal knuckles cut and quartered and even a cow’s hoof in pieces, and the aroma of it fills the house, along with the faint scent of the banana bread that Debbie made yesterday.


           The holidays are over. My daughter Elena is at the library with C.C., her ten-month-old daughter. Elena recently earned her doctorate. Her husband Simon is at home with their four-year-old son Emmett. I took care of the kids this morning while Elena worked on a scholarly book she’s writing and while Simon built beautiful things out of wood in the basement. Then I came back home to read and write.


        The sun is low in the southwest, nearly its lowest point for the year. It bears down on the rooftops and seems to set the houses afire. The light is turning yellow, and long shadows fall across the white snow where a rabbit, half buried, nibbles on a twig. The peregrine falcon that lives in our neighborhood circles some blocks away, and I watch her now as she crosses from south to north, her black body tracing a catenary arc across the blue canvas. I saw her take a pigeon down to the yard next door one day. Peregrine falcons stake out a large territory, so I known it’s her and not another. They’re the fastest animals on earth. She can hit seventy miles an hour in cruising flight, and when she commences her stoop to catch a pigeon in flight, she’ll dive from half a mile up, reaching 200 miles an hour as she hits her prey and breaks its back. She was ripping apart the pigeon’s breast when I opened the window to try to take a photograph, and she lifted off on slow wings, with the limp body in her talons trailing gray feathers. She has no predators, but there’s plenty of prey. Ours is a college town of city pigeons. This world is hers.


        I do not know by what right I continue to walk this earth. I wonder about it all the time. It’s three in the afternoon, and I can continue writing, or I can get up and do something else instead. I could go to a movie or play chess or plan a vacation or call my friends on the phone just to talk to someone. But I have a deep sense that writing is what has kept me here, kept me safe from electron bombardment and dissaray and alien abduction and insanity. Writing is what allows me now to sit on this side of the glass looking out at the snow instead of having things turned the other way around. I don’t know if I chose writing or if writing chose me, but in all the work I sensed nothing heroic. I love to do it–have to do it–and pursuing that path put me here in this spot at this moment. It feels as if it was not my doing. I was just lucky. Very lucky.

32. Persevering (héng). Duration

No blame. Perseverance furthers.


        The falcon disappears behind the houses. A stately American Airlines ship, creamed with yellow light, heaves into view from the northeast and lowers toward the sun, leaving a trail of ice crystals behind it. It’s engines are howling a ceramic ringing song. The falcon reappears, circling back north, watching, taking it all in. What is she doing up there? She can’t eat all day long, yet I see her at all times of the day.


        Just before evening, the crows all gather in a big naked elm with a mange of snow on its flank, and they laugh and jabber with one another. The crows are the really smart ones. They don’t hunt. They listen and watch and wait for others to hunt and then eat what they leave. In this neck of the woods, they eat the squirrels that are run over by cars and the garbage that the squirrels ferret out of the cans and spill in the alleyways. And they laugh at the falcon, so sharp and sleek. The falcon is up there for everyone to see. She doesn’t have to hide. She’s so fast that it doesn’t matter if you see her or if you don’t, she’ll get you either way. The crows. I like the crows. They sit there and take it all in. And then they laugh.

Why You Need the Word “that”

“The tone [of the speech]–too ruminative for a country club ballroom and the sort of good time people were looking for there–didn’t seem at all ill conceived between three and six A.M., as I tried, in my overstimulated state to comprehend the union underlying the reunion, the common experience that had joined us as kids.” 


American Pastoral, Philip Roth


His trouble occurs here: “a country club ballroom and the sort of good time people were looking for there…” If only for the briefest moment, we may read that the people are “good time people,” not that people were looking for a good time. A competent editor should have found this easy to fix: “a country club ballroom and the sort of good time that people were looking for there…” 

Thinking Fast and Slow

Because of modern cognitive science and imaging technology,  we can now pinpoint some of the reasons that writing can fail even when it’s technically correct: It’s because the organism (the reader, the human), at its deepest level, is not responding. Only the linear intellect is engaged. For writing to be most effective, both the intellect and the emotions must be engaged. The writing must appeal to the whole brain and whole body. Because the emotions have to do with the body, they are engaged primarily through the senses.


Writing will seem bland when it tries doggedly to convey information. (And if the writing is technically incompetent, it will frustrate and confuse the reader as well.) Here is a statement from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the School of Natural Resources of the University of Nebraska.


In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.


That passage makes no claims on our emotions. It is possible, perhaps, to read that and ponder it and come up with a suitable emotion. But phrases such as “deficient rainfall,” “insect infestations,” and “increased unemployment,” just to mention three, work hard to keep emotion out of the picture. In fact, the writer created no picture, and if we’re to have any images at all, we’ll have to find them without the help of the writer. Compare that passage to this other description of the same events.


To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weak colonies and grass along the sides of the road so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.


In this vein, John Steinbeck goes on for about 1500 words, and for the most part, he touches on exactly the same information that the Drought Mitigation Center did.


“Agricultural” – “…the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward…”


“high winds” – “Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields.”


“dust storms” – “Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away… During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.”


“physical and emotional hardships” – “The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often.”


The vivid detail of Steinbeck’s prose makes the senses come alive with images. Of course, the first piece of writing is a technical report, and the second is a novel, so it’s unfair to compare them. I do it to make a point more vividly. If the writer in the first case had turned in something like Steinbeck’s description, undoubtedly the boss would have tossed it back at him, saying, “What do you think you’re writing here, The Grapes of Wrath?”


But the two pieces illustrate the difference between engaging the intellect alone in an abstract fashion and engaging the emotions with physical details that appeal to the senses. In the first case, the words are lifeless symbols. In the second case, they create rhythm, texture, color, tactile sensations, and even sounds and smells. To use the old dichotomy, they engage the body as well as the mind. The Cartesian duality in which we have so long been confined is not a commodious thing. It makes us half human. A work of art strikes it down and makes us whole again.

“Enormity” Does Not Mean Big

To pick on Ann Patchett a bit more (see “Only the Lonely”) consider this sentence: “Marina hadn’t understood the enormity of the river until she was on it.” And somewhat later in the book: “The enormity of Marina’s happiness was caught in that light.” 


Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition, Oxford 2009) says, “The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness…. The OED notes that ‘recent examples [of enormity for enormousness] might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” 

Only the Lonely

Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist. Don’t begin one of her books in the evening, because it will steal the night from you. One day at random I picked State of Wonder from a shelf in my house to look at it during breakfast. I didn’t put it down for three days. 


But like so many of us, Ann has trouble with the word “only.” In a book that made me stumble over her words almost never, she had this sentence: “She only comes to town once every few months.” Of course, she meant to write, “She comes to town only once every few months.” And since both “only” and “once” mean “one,” she really meant not to use the demon word at all. This would have been fine: “She comes to town once every few months.” 


Our editors are supposed to help save us from that sort of obvious blunder, but they’re not onto their jobs these days. 


State of Wonder, Harper 2011

The Bug in Your Brain

David Swinney was a cognitive psychologist and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of California in San Diego. Through experiments in his laboratory, he showed that when you read the word bug, for example, even if its meaning is made clear by context, you will also call up other meanings, such as trouble with a computer, a secret recording device that a spy might use, and even the Volkswagen beetle. You will also call up physical (i.e., emotional) associations with those things. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, wrote, “When we recall an object… we retrieve not just sensory data but also accompanying motor and emotional data.” Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, put his finger on that concept when he described semantics as being “about the relation of words to emotion: the way in which words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a sense of magic, taboo, and sin.”


But if you have not read about and stored those meanings, or if you have not had moving experiences of your own to give associations to the words, then what you retrieve will not have that same depth and variety of meaning. Having emotional experiences in life, along with reading a great deal, will forge the connections among words and combinations of words and their underlying emotional meaning. And that is also why effective writing may be characterized as much by what is left out as by what is stated explicitly.


Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, wrote that “Reading is… enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.”


In the act of reading, you must first detect the physical form of a word on the page. You bring those abstract symbols into the visual cortex for processing, and then, as I said, send those symbols to the angular gyrus, where they are decoded into a spoken word. At the same time, the words that have come before it in the sentence have to be held in working memory while all the possible meanings and associations with the new word (memories, emotions, previous experiences) are compared to and integrated with the text that you’ve already read. Since reading is not a linear process, the eye will sometimes shoot forward to incorporate what’s coming next. As Wolf put it, “The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored.”


In other words, what the reader knows will determine how he reads, what he can comprehend, and what impact a given piece of writing is going to have on him. That is why my students’ writing improved when I told them to write whatever they were going to write as a letter to a close friend. At last, they knew who was on the other side of that conversation. They understood how that person would read something, what the associations would be. That knowledge freed them to use their own voices.

Can One Word Spoil a Beautiful Novel?

I love the work of Emily St. John Mandel. I love to get on a plane with one of her books, because then I do not have to put up with modern air travel but can live instead inside of her head. I like living in her head. She writes really good novels. 


One of the best is Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014). And it roars along in dazzling fashion until some two hundred pages in. I hit a couple of clunkers along the way but nothing that would cast the whole project into shadow. 


The central device of the plot is a community that has sprung up in an abandoned airport after an apocalyptic influenza virus destroys most of the human race. It appears that Emily has done quite a bit of research in other areas, so it would seem fair to assume that she researched airports and aviation for this crucial part of the book. 


The pacing of the story is beautiful and the suspense powerful. We don’t actually get to the airport until page 224. And then we begin to stumble into Emily’s confusion. And that confusion persists for another 78 pages while anyone who knows about aviation winces with embarrassment and unease.


The trouble begins on page 233 when she writes, “This was how he arrived in this airport: he’d boarded a machine that transported him at high speed a mile above the surface of the earth.” A mile is 5,280 feet. His flight was scheduled from New York to Toronto, so its cruising altitude would have been at least 25,000 feet or almost five miles. Okay, well, we can shrug and forgive mistake number one. 


But in the very next paragraph, she writes, “Clark… was struck by the variety of planes on the tarmac.” Clark is the character above, a key figure, who arrived at the airport in question. The trouble here is that tarmac does not exist on any airport in the world. No airport has ever embodied any surface called tarmac


According to the Federal Aviation Administration (and to all of us pilots who use airports), the surfaces at airports are called runways, taxiways, aprons, and ramps. No tarmac. Never. No air traffic controller has ever said, “Taxi to the tarmac.” No pilot has transmitted his desire to be on or near a tarmac of any sort. Apologies to all of those misguided journalists who use this mistaken term every day. No tarmac. 


The Oxford English Dictionary says this: 


“Tarmacadam…. A mixed material for making roads, consisting of some kind of broken stone or ironstone slag in a matrix of tar alone, or of tar with some mixture of pitch or creosote.”


It then cites some engineers from the 1800s talking about using this mixture to try to pave “Dustless Roads,” the title of a paper in 1909 by J.W. Smith. He strongly recommends tar as the paving of the future. He was right. Two-lane blacktop roads are everywhere. 


The OED goes on: “Hence Tarmac, the registered trade-mark of a kind of tar macadam consisting of iron slag impregnated with tar and creosote.” This all took place before 1910, at a time when no airports existed as such. And so no airport embodied a component that could rightly be called Tarmac or tarmac. And the lower case version of this word would be in violation of the trade-mark, which today no longer exists. Hence: No Tarmac.


So the sad conclusion that I, eager and enthusiastic, come to on page 233 of Station Eleven, is that Emily didn’t care to research the main location of her story.


I pressed on. Maybe things would get better. 


Alas, page 237: “… parked end to end on the tarmac.” 

238: “…jet on the tarmac.” (A side note: Strictly speaking, modern airliners are powered not by jets, but by turbine engines.) 

239: “Beyond the tarmac…”

241: “…alone on the tarmac.”

243: “…bonfire on the tarmac…”

246: “…a crowd gathered on the tarmac…”

248: “…looking out at the tarmac.”

254: “…armchairs with the views over the tarmac.”  

276: “…from which he could see almost the entire tarmac.” 


How can we know the difference between the regular tarmac and the “entire tarmac?” How can we envision what “he could see” if we can’t define tarmac? So much of a narrative involves allowing the reader see what our characters see. Emily occasionally uses such terms as runway, so she must know that some places on the surface of an airport are NOT tarmac…. Where then is tarmac as distinct from runway? Where did she get the word tarmac? How did this monster zombie grow so large and destructive in her otherwise lovely text?


It gets worse.


277: “Garrett was absorbed in watching two children playing on the tarmac….” 


280: “Thinking of a boy standing on the tarmac….” 


309: “A liquid movement below on the tarmac….” And this instance is particular sad, because the paragraph containing it was otherwise beautiful and fell to pieces on this word alone.


So yes, one word can destroy a book. The last third of her novel was ruined by the fact that she had snatched a word out of common parlance and never thought to ask what (if anything) it meant. George Orwell wrote about this failing in his lovely little book Why I Write. Here’s some of what he said:


“… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.” He concludes by saying that this writer’s “brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”


So you can’t talk about airports and airplanes if you don’t know the words that apply to airports and airplanes, the knowledge of which would allow you to choose to say what you mean instead of gumming together words you simply happened to overhear somewhere. Journalists say tarmac to make it sound as if they know something about aviation when, in fact, they don’t. Emily is relentless in her pursuit of this false delight and seemingly unaware as she does so.


Page 281: “From the tarmac, the concert was a smudge of light in Concourse C.” 


Next page: “…four people with binoculars watching the tarmac….” 


Ahh, one or two tarmacs, perhaps. But this book, ostensibly about a community in an airport, crashes after a hopeful voyage of more than 200 pages on the shoals of the one word by an author who has the potential to be terrific at her craft. 


Yet the injury seems endless. Page 332: “Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac….” 


We can perhaps gain some insight into how the editors at Knopf missed this catastrophe in such a good novel. They also missed the low-hanging fruit in other areas as well. Emily mistakes presently, meaning soon, for at present, meaning now: (page 46) “with the location of the sixth presently in question…”


And on page 191: “a makeshift structure that would cut the wind and hopefully look like a pile of trash….” My conclusion is that no one at Knopf read the book very closely.


Likewise on page 290: “…but she was too nauseous to move.” The mistake is repeated again on page 321: “He felt nauseous.” She means, of course, nauseated. 


Again (page 317) “He’d laid awake until sunrise….” He’d lain awake is correct. 


I make such obvious mistakes myself. All writers do, no matter how skillful. I used to think the word enormity referred to size, not wickedness. We hope our editors and friends will catch and correct us in these blunders. We need eternal vigilance. Writing is not for the faint of heart. We have to look at every word. Look and then look again.





A Galaxy of Errors

NASA has a wonderful web site that will send you a new photograph of something in the cosmos every day. I love it. Sadly, scientists are some of the worst writers in the wider universe. At the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere, I try to help them when I can. But I believe that people would enjoy and trust science much more if scientists would admit that they need that help and stop trying to write their own explanations. Here’s a recent example from NASA’s APOD project.


Explanation: The silhouette of an intriguingdark nebulainhabits this cosmic scene. Lynds’ Dark Nebula (LDN) 1622 appears against a faint background of glowing hydrogen gas only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region. In contrast, the brighter reflection nebula vdB 62 is more easily seen, just above and right of center. LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard’s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion. With swept-back outlines, the obscuring dust of LDN 1622 is thought to lie at a similar distance, perhaps 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, this 1 degree wide field of view would span about 30 light-years. Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images. Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.


Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff(MTU) &Jerry Bonnell(UMCP)


The word intriguing in the first sentence is ill-advised. It usually suggests spying or wrong-doing. The author means to say the object in the photograph is interesting. The sentence itself says nothing, except to point out that in the photograph we find something that is in the photograph and it’s called a “dark nebula.” This is a dead sentence.


The second sentence goes on to name the thing in the photograph: Lynds’ Dark Nebula 1622, which is no more helpful, because we don’t know what it is or the identity of Lynds, perhaps a person. In fact, Beverly Lynds is the source of the odd word, which happens to be her name. She cataloged nebulae, and her compiled work, published in the early 1960’s, forms a standard reference. Hence the number 1622, which is not a date but a reference to her catalog.


We do learn in that second sentence that the lighter background is hydrogen, presumably at some high temperature, since it is “glowing.” The author has the word only out of place. “only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region” should be “visible only in long telescopic exposures of the region.” But since all images on this web site are from telescopes, we have unneeded words. And since we can’t see what’s in the photograph without the photograph being of “the region” at which we’re looking, we have even more unnecessary words. Cut, cut, cut all your nonsense.


Better: “This dark nebula, known as 1622 from a catalog compiled by Beverly Lynds, appears against a background of glowing hydrogen gas that is visible only in photographic exposures of long duration.” 


The next sentence is baffling even to the trained eye: “In contrast, the brighter reflection nebulavdB 62is more easily seen, just above and right of center.” 


Better: “Nebula vdB 62 appears as a brighter spot above right of center.” The author has used an unnecessary comma.


The text gets worse from there, including this sentence that makes no sense at all. I won’t attempt to rewrite it, since we don’t know what many important terms mean.


“LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard’s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion.”


“near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy”

“close on the sky to…” 

“Barnard’s Loop…” 

“complex of emissions nebulae…” 

Confusion mounts. Exhaustion sets in. Why bother with science when it’s so confusing? 


The final sentence:


“Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images. Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”


This is troublesome: “and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images.” It should be: “and have been revealed in infrared images from the Spitzer Space telescope.” 


There is no need to tell the reader what to feel. And we can eliminate redundancy.


“Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”


Eliminating the crackpot word foreboding does nothing to weaken the message and does something to strengthen the sentence. 


Even better: “Still, the appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”

Active is Better Than Passive

“It was in this kitchen where meringues were launched onto seas of créme anglaise, perfectly seared slabs of foie gras were drizzled with fig reductions, and salads of waterecress and endive were expertly tossed with olive oil and sea salt.”


from Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019


This sentence begins with trouble, because it has no subject. The structure “It was in… where…” is awkward if not nonsensical. “Meringues were launched…” makes matters worse by having self-flying meringues with no captain at the helm. And piling up the verbs “to be” afterward merely takes the reader farther astray on the misguided journey.


The author is writing about her mother and her kitchen, so her mother, Malabar by name, presents an obvious candidate to be master of this sentence and to provide its active element. The sentence could actually become beautiful with Malabar in charge. In fact, just a couple of sentences earlier, Brodeur writes, “Here, at the very last house on a winding road to the bay beach, the kitchen was command central and Malabar its five-star general.” So she had her metaphor in hand already when she stumbled.


We writers cannot always see all of our mistakes. That’s what our editors are for. Adrienne Brodeur is a good writer, and someone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt should have been looking out for her.