Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Bad Writing: To Lean More

Here’s a sentence written by someone who has writing problems. I read it recently in an advertisement. Do you see anything wrong with it?

To learn more about the program, we’ve set up a web site at www.website.com.

The problem: The sentence tells you that the advertiser learned more about a program by setting up a web site. It seems likely that the advertiser intended for readers to learn more. The sentence should either mention that readers can learn more from the web site, or it should explain the real reason the advertiser built the web site.

The solution: Here are some alternative statements that deliver on the advertiser’s intent:

To learn more about the program, visit our website at www.website.com.

To provide more information about the program, we’ve set up a web site at www.website.com.

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I’m convinced that the greatest of all writing problems is laziness. People simply don’t listen to the words they write, and they publish nonsense. Worse, people hear bad writing, and indiscriminately repeat it in their own projects. This exposes more people to the bad writing, and some of them repeat it, and so on. Eventually, the writing problems of the original hack writer become writing problems of us all.

If You Want to know More

I’ve heard this awkward announcement hundreds of times: More information is available by calling this toll-free number…

Radio newscasters often end public service announcements with such a sentence. They shouldn’t. The sentence is nonsense. It begins by telling us More information is available by calling… This is weird. Who or what is calling? The information certainly isn’t calling. Information can be available from a source, at a source, through a source… but not by an action.

By the same token, you can get information by carrying out an action: by reading, by listening, by asking, by making a phone call…

Write a Real Sentence

Here are four grammatically correct expressions that convey the desired message:

Get more information by calling this toll-free number…

To get more information, dial this toll-free number…

More information is available. Get it by calling this toll-free number…

Call this toll-free number to get more information…

As easy as it was to think of these, it awes me that so many people so often spew the nonsensical More information is available by calling… Don’t be one of those people.

 

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Be Clear About Who is Who

There’s a class of writing problems that are very subtle. They arise when you lose track of the person about whom you’re writing. Simple statements become, at best, silly, and at worst, gibberish when you make this type of writing error.

A classic example of these writing problems has been running in a television advertisement lately. The announcer says something like, Do you have a problem with intangible digiplasitosis? Talk to your doctor. I did. It’s pretty clear what the announcer meant, but what the announcer said is that she talked with my doctor: Talk to your doctor. I did.

Keep Track of Who’s Who

I hope the announcer never talked with my doctor. She could reassure me by suggesting: Talk to your doctor. I talked to mine. Her mistake was that she started talking about my doctor, then switched to talking about hers without telling me about that switch.

You’ve probably heard someone at least as confused expressing concern for you or others. People say such things as: As your boss, tell me what you need so I can get it for you, or the much more subtly incorrect, As your friend, let me help you with your writing problems.

Consider the first example. We’ll assume the person talking is the boss, so saying As your boss, starts the sentence talking about the boss. But the phrase, …tell me what you need… isn’t about the boss; it’s about you. Putting the two phrases together, the sentence begins by establishing you as your own boss: As your boss, you tell me what you need…

The boss should have said, As your boss, I want to know what you need so I can get it for you. But don’t stop with fixing only writing problems. There’s also an ego problem in the boss’s statement. Simplify and add humility so it reads, Please tell me what you need so I can get it for you.

The second example unravels the same way. In that sentence, who is whose friend? The confusion is subtle, but at the word let, the speaker switches from talking about himself or herself to taking about you—without telling you about the switch. The error becomes clear if you change the sentence to read As your friend, you let me help you with your writing problems.

Any number of rewrites can fix the mistake:

  • As your friend I want to help you with your writing problems.
  • I’m your friend. Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me, as your friend, help you with your writing problems.

Fix These Writing Problems

Each rewrite makes it clear who the sentence is talking about at every moment. The only way to eliminate writing problems involving who’s who is to stay vigilant. Make sure it’s clear who you’re taking about so your readers don’t think you’ve been visiting with their doctors.

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