Start the sentence at the start

A common writing mistake is to keep a key part of the sentence to the end. This makes it hard to see what is going on; often one must read the sentence twice to understand it. Here’s an example from today’s Guardian, discussing Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

Internationally he has made the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, on Vietnam with America, for example) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations a distant memory.

Writing Mistake2The sentence is hard to grasp first time because “made” and “a distant memory” are so far apart. Only by the end of the sentence is its meaning clear. A simple change improves clarity:

Internationally he has made a distant memory of the Canada that begged to differ (with Britain on Suez, with America on Vietnam) and the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and the United Nations.

As I have discussed before, the principle is: make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s guide has many tips and examples.

But even the revised sentence is a bit awkward. I’d probably rephrase it further:

He has made us forget the Canada that was a pillar of peacekeeping and of the United Nations, and the Canada that stood up to Britain on Suez, and America on Vietnam.

Getting rid of comments in brackets usually improves sentences too!

Nat Blau (1928-2010)


Joseph Norman ‘Nat’ Blau

My dad died five years ago today. He was a brilliant doctor, empathising closely with his patients and making thousands of lives better. He was a neurologist specialising in headache and migraine, and co-founded the City of London Migraine Clinic, which gave free consultations to all migraine sufferers. In 1962 he beat Roger Bannister to the post of consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, at Queen Square in London. He used to joke that it was the only time anyone ran faster than Roger Bannister.

Queen's Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

Queen Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

He published over 100 papers in scientific journals, not only on migraine but also on such things as ponytail headache (from tying ponytails too tightly) and sleep-lack headache. He edited a respected textbook on migraine, and his Headache and Migraine Handbook (1986) was written in a straightforward style for ordinary people. He was a superbly clear and concise writer: many of the tips I pass on to my own students came from him.

Mum and Dad's wedding

Mum and Dad’s wedding

He was married to my mother, Jill, for 41 years. He was a caring father to me, my brother Justin and my sister Rosie. He put a lot of emphasis on our education, and inculcated a questioning attitude in us. One of his sayings I still quote is: “If a theory explains all the facts, the theory must be wrong, because some of the facts are wrong.” He disliked the phrase “we now know”, because in his view, some of what we “know” is actually incorrect. His papers would sometimes mention what we don’t know or what his hypothesis could not explain – partly out of honesty, partly as a spur to further research.

He used to refer to “Blau’s Law of 10%”, which was his rule of thumb that only 10% of people have “got it”. He would sometimes follow this up with another comment: “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you haven’t got it, you’ve had it!”

Meeting Princess Diana

With Princess Diana

His preferred version of IQ was the “Insight Quotient”; no one could get to 100% on this scale. He also invented an SQ – a “Sleep Quotient” – referring to the number of people in the audience who were asleep in talks and lectures. His own SQ was almost always zero, I suspect – he was an exceptionally engaging lecturer. He would never get stuck behind the lectern or talk at an audience.

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968. Dad is in the middle of the front row.

He was by all accounts a superb teacher. He taught until he was 80, when his cancer excessively affected his mobility. His students had great admiration and affection for him. He disliked the way that medical students were expected to soak up knowledge without also developing critical faculties.

He was very funny. If we complained of some pain or ache, his answer was always “Talking too much”. In my case, this was usually true.

Dad age 75

J.N. Blau, at 75

Around the age of 75, he started work on a book called Wrong Ideas and No Ideas in Medicine, which he never finished. He had always been fascinated by wrong ideas which held back progress. He published a seering critique of the neurologist Harold Wolff (Cephalalgia 24:3, 2004) which attacked him for “a high degree of obsession, a desire to be on top and to win, and from an intellectual point of view, his dogmatism and ultra-focus on the vascular theory of migraine …. Wolff retarded progress in the understanding of migraine by at least 30 years”. That sums up several things Dad regarded as key sins. He used to say “Listen to the patient: he is telling you the diagnosis.” Wolff’s descriptions of migraine clashed with what Dad heard from the vast majority of his own patients. The one thing worse than a theory which explained all of the evidence was a theory which didn’t even match much of the evidence in the first place!

A black-tie event at Queen's Square, Feb 1965

A black-tie event at Queen Square, Feb 1965

In his day, most medical students came from wealthy backgrounds. He had next to nothing, and if he hadn’t worked hard at school he couldn’t have won the scholarship that allowed him to study medicine. I’m incredibly proud of what he achieved.

I think of him most when I’m very sad or very happy. When I’m sad I wish he was here, and when I’m happy I want to share good things with him. When I won a teaching award in 2013, I had a brief moment of joy and then started crying, because he wasn’t around to hear about this. My brother won a teaching award in the same year and I think my dad would have been prouder about these two prizes than the promotions my brother and I also got that year. Teaching mattered more to my dad than academic standing. When I asked why he wasn’t a Professor, he said: “I don’t profess to know anything.”

I love and miss him very much.

Ambiguity, precision and readability: Mill’s critique of Bentham

J.S. Mill criticised Bentham’s later writings for

perpetually aiming at impracticable precision. … He could not bear, for the sake of clearness and the reader’s ease, to say, as ordinary men are content to do, a little more than the truth in one sentence, and correct it in the next. The whole of the qualifying remarks which he intended to make, he insisted upon imbedding as parentheses in the very middle of the sentence itself. … [Eventually] he could stop nowhere short of utter unreadableness, and after all attained no more accuracy than is compatible with opinions as imperfect and one-sided as those of any poet (Mill, essay on ‘Bentham’).

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Mill’s advice is very valuable. While we should strive for clarity, often we must accept ambiguity in order to stop our writing from becoming unreadably Benthamite, brimming with qualifications, clarifications and distinctions. Making our writing so complicated means that what should be an “aah!” for the reader becomes an “argh!”.

Here’s an example of the late Bentham’s ‘utter unreadableness’, from A Table of the Springs of Action:

Consequences and intentions, – intentions, considered in respect of the consequences, to the production of which they are directed, or at any rate in respect of the consequences which at the time of the intention, a man actually had, or at least ought (it is supposed) to have had in view, – these, together with the acts which the intentions in question are considered as having been directed to the production of, or as having a tendency to produce, – will (it is believed) be seen to be the only subjects to which, in the character of attributives, such adjuncts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can either with speculative propriety, or without danger of practical error, in so far as acts, and springs of action are concerned, be attached.

Yet the essence of this sentence is very simple:

Only acts and intentions can be said to be good or bad.

Bentham should have started with that, then added qualifications in the next sentence if needs be.

I’m not against complexity and precision. I’m against unnecessary complexity and pedantic precision which clouds the meaning of what is written. The late Bentham, alas, is very cloudy.

Against the royal ‘we’? All those in favour, say ‘I’

At school, many of us were taught not to say ‘I’ in writing.

I disagree. Or should that be ‘the present author disagrees’? And that is part of my objection: avoiding ‘I’ can end up sounding pompous.

One example comes from the historian J.G.A. Pocock, on p. 3 of his book Politics, Language, and Time:

The present author, who seems to himself to have been concerned in this transformation from an early stage, here brings forward a number of essays designed to illustrate its character.

This is Pocock, in a book he has written, describing a transformation he was involved in, talking as if he is someone else!

Another example involves the royal ‘we’ – for example, ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’, or ‘we now turn to a second claim’. This is how monarchs often talk: ‘we thank you for your kind message’. To me, this sounds pompous.

The Queen waving

Of course, there are times when ‘we’ is right. For example, in an academic article you might describe Jones’s errors and say ‘we have seen that Jones is wrong; but are these errors fundamental?’. And you really mean ‘we have seen’ here: if you have made your case correctly, then you and your readers will indeed have seen that Jones is wrong.

But unless you are writing with a co-author, many other uses of ‘we’ sound odd, such as ‘we believe that Jones is wrong’. You and who else?

Saying ‘I’ also makes clearer when an argument is yours. This is particularly important in student essays, where good criticism leads to higher marks. If a student has made her own criticism, saying ‘I believe that Jones’s view is simplistic’ makes clear that the argument is hers; saying ‘Jones’s view can be criticised as being simplistic’ is ambiguous.

Avoiding ‘I’ is probably a leftover from a time when academics presented their work as impartial and objective. Apparently this style goes back to ancient Roman historians. But we no longer need to pretend to be objective. Far from it: it is often vital to note when an argument is subjective. Even in firmly scientific studies, we often make subjective judgements and should say so, e.g. ‘this evidence seems unreliable’ or ‘I suspect the interviewee was trying to mislead me’. Scientific judgement is personal.

Style is also personal, though, and I fully recognise that if you have spent years avoiding ‘I’, it may feel awkward and ugly to use it. But if you are nearer the start of your writing career, then you need be told that you are allowed to say ‘I’, and in many cases you should do so. In our opinion.

Make the verb work, not the reader

Marx saw labour as the essence of what it means to be human. But that’s no reason to make our readers work hard to understand what we write.  With careful editing, we can usually communicate difficult ideas fairly clearly.

Here’s an example of an unnecessarily labour-intensive sentence, from the start of Isaac Balbus’s 1984 article ‘Habermas and feminism’. If you can read this sentence without wanting to punch something, well done.

The effort of Jürgen Habermas to reconcile the manifest tension between his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other, has culminated in an evolutionary theory of communicative competence.


Why is this sentence so hard to read? Because it starts at the end. Until the final clause, you literally do not know what the sentence is about.

All Balbus needs to do is turn the sentence around:

An evolutionary theory of communicative competence has resulted from Habermas’s efforts to reconcile the tension between two things: his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other.

That sentence still makes me want to punch something. But not quite as hard.

As with an earlier post of mine, the key is to make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s excellent guide offers lots of tips about how to do this, and lots of examples.

Academic clichés, part 1: Janus-faced

Academics use a very narrow range of metaphors. One of the most clichéd is ‘Janus-faced’. Janus was a Roman god who looked to the past and the future, and academics often use ‘Janus-faced’ for anything which points in different directions. You can see hundreds of examples on this Google Scholar link, and this one.

It’s a neat enough metaphor, and it serves its purpose: when you read it, you know what the author is saying.

But aside from being very hackneyed, it’s a pretty empty claim, because in one way or another, most things point in different directions. Politicians sometimes listen to citizens and sometimes ignore citizens. Janus-faced! Great art can make deep points, but it can also be nice to look at. Janus-faced! Cars can help us get somewhere quickly, but they can also slow us down if we get stuck in traffic. Janus-faced! Janus-faced!  Janus-faced!

So many things point in different direction that I could have got ‘Janus-faced’ into the title of every article and book chapter I have written. For example, my paper ‘Hobbes on Corruption’ could have been called ‘Hobbes and the Janus Face of Corruption’, arguing that for Hobbes, corruption can benefit people in the short-term but not in the long-term. I’d bet that most people in most academic departments could rewrite most of their titles similarly.

Please submit your own suggestion for rewritten titles below!

Here are a few titles to get you started:

Dr Seuss, The Janus-Faced Cat in the Janus-Faced Hat.

James Watson, The Janus-Faced Helix.

Charlotte Bronte, Janus-Faced Eyre.

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Janus Face of Dr Jekyll.

Joseph Heller, Janus-Faced Situations.

Charles Dickens, A Janus-Faced Tale of One City.

Part 2 (here) shows the emptiness of this cliché by rewriting every one of my articles and book chapters with ‘Janus-faced’ in the title.

‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’ (George Orwell)

George Orwell was a clear and concise writer whose famous essay ‘Politics and the English language’ offered six rules of thumb for clear and concise writing. One of these rules is: ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Yet this rule is surprisingly wordy. ‘Cut every word you can’ is shorter. ‘Cut every cuttable word’ is shorter still, but uglier. ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’, adds Orwell.

Orwell cut 2

Here’s a nice example of wordiness from John Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Cambridge. Dunn regularly has his wicked way with the English language, producing a large family of unwanted words.

At the start of his classic 1969 book on John Locke, Dunn writes: ‘The claim that the account given here of Locke’s argument in the Two Treatises of Government is “historical” implies that its status depends upon the adequacy of its identification of Locke’s own meaning.’

This it, literally, verbose – too many verbs. The 33-word sentence has four verbs (‘given’, ‘is’, ‘implies’, ‘depends’) and probably needs re-reading to be understood.

Here is what Dunn could have said: ‘This account of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is historical: it seeks Locke’s meaning.’ 14 words: clear and concise. And nothing important has been cut.