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Two recurring lines of defense of bad writing make me cringe. One is to offer the foolish credo that “if your reader has understood you, then your writing is successful”. Another is to toss the charge of “prescriptivism” at any critic of bad writing. This little essay addresses both these ubiquitous sophistries. The first of these is outright wrong, and the second is all-too-often a subtle indicator of laziness – to wit, why should anyone bother learning to express oneself clearly?

The arguments herein are intended to apply to all communication, but when the direction of the communication is at issue I use the short terms “writer” and “reader”, where the former should be taken to mean the creator of the piece (the writer or speaker) and the latter, the consumer of the piece (the reader, listener, audience, watcher). So…

Writing is motivated by two factors. The first is to convey something in the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. The second is to generate a reaction in the mind of the reader. Any particular piece of writing mixes these two factors in proportions that accord with the motivations and skills of the writer as well as the writer’s perception of the environment where the piece is to be read, or consumed.

My opening salvo is really offered in the context of what I call “business writing” – to wit, the business environment (and its subsets) – where I really mean any environment in which it should be of first priority that one’s writing be accurately understood, and moreover, that it be “resistant” to misunderstanding or misinterpretation, even where this be willful! I believe that, in such an environment, writing can be objectively judged for “correctness”, or something akin to it. I shall also touch on business writing’s ideological opposite, “creative writing”.

Purely creative writing has aims that may have little to do with clarity and instead may be at establishing a mood, a taste, a bias, an atmosphere, or so on. Such writing may intentionally ignore, or even subvert, clarity in favor of creating indignation, of fomenting fury, of currying favor, of seducing, of appeasing PC trade-winds, of diverting attention from the truth, of surreptitiously advancing an agenda, etc. A sentence such as “As George crept furtively up to the dark house, he realized that the cold grip on his heart was not due solely to the dank and misty morning”; or “Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together” (Psalm 98); or “Cruelty must be whitewashed by a moral excuse, and pretense of reluctance” (Shaw) … and the environment in which they are offered, are largely beyond the scope of my comments (either here or elsewhere in this forum) on “correctness” of the writing.

So, in judging correctness of a piece of writing, I shall remain firmly in the context of business writing – to wit, the environment where the aim should be to transfer accurately an idea from writer to reader with minimum transmission error and - as a corollary of this - with maximum simplicity. It should also create a minimum of “artificial” disturbance in the reader’s mind (this might be construed as “transmission error”); ergo, it should be respectful and, to the extent possible, pleasing. Of course, some business writing might contain very disturbing information (eg, “We are sorry to inform you that your son is still unaccounted for after the battle.”), but this last requirement of business writing suggests that nothing be added to the message beyond the content of the message itself. So, letters to and from a company, a company’s product introduction announcement, an advertisement, a pamphlet, a letter to your insurance company, or a description of an accident you witnessed, a note to your child’s teacher, a petition to your Councilor, a complaint to your bank manager, and so on, are all “business writing” in the sense I mean it: accuracy first, and creative second. In such an environment assessing good and bad language usage (and maybe even, correctness) can be fairly objective.

The fact that I have included advertising into what I comprehend under “business writing” certainly demands some explanation. But even advertising, at the creative extreme of business writing, must be meticulously accurate in anything it states as fact, and it is this latter matter that I assess as “business writing”! Advertising professionals know to stay well away from facts, and this is why advertising contains little or no real information! For example, “Guts. Glory. Ram.” or “Vorsprung durch Technik”. These car slogans (for Dodge Ram pickups and Audi, respectively) claim nothing whatsoever! Walmart’s slogan “Save Money. Live Better” is a great notion that says nothing. For example, it does not claim, or even hint, that Walmart saves you money, or even that it tries to. This communication is purely creative! Indeed, I offer the jocose aside here that your communication has failed if your audience has understood you (to wit, that your “communication” is no more than a set of manipulative grunts, gulps, glottal stops, hiccups and yammering – or its written equivalent – that says nothing about anything)!

So, creative writing is free to do what it wants with accuracy, and so, a writer had better be sure that the environment and audience is suitable for airing such writing! A business environment (in the wide sense I introduced it here) is not such a place, and many people do not know this simple truth! Of course, that said, even in business writing there is room for artistry, creativity and style – and these “creative effects” are not nugatory, for good business communication, at the very least, should be inoffensive. Indeed, the best business communication is smooth and pleasing to the extent possible. So, “Your ignorance here is colossal!” may well be accurate (and might accurately transfer the message), but this might be better expressed as “There several additional issues that have not been considered here.”

Within the context of business communication, then, let’s deal first with ubiquitous misconception that a piece of writing is, willy-nilly, successful if its audience understands it. This is a ridiculous measure of good writing, because, first, whether its audience understands it or not is unknowable (and unmeasurable), and someone’s offering this dreadful justification for a piece of bad writing reduces to little more than “I understood it (and, maybe, my neighbor understood it), and therefore, so everyone else should, too.” Audiences are extremely varied, and what is clear to one section of the audience may not at all be clear to another (I once ran a department of 18 people in Toronto, and only 2 were born in Canada). Second, such justification is often no more than an acknowledgement that it matters not whether the piece of writing in question is correctly understood or not. Third – a subset of the second - such a measure of a piece of writing’s quality takes no account of whether the reader is inclined to interpret the piece correctly, and whether this matters.

So, the sentence “Paul Bernardo admitted that he raped Jane Doe in court this morning” – as I heard some years ago on 680News radio - is ridiculous beyond belief, and it is fatuous attempting to defend it as a piece of even passable writing. Here, this statement was delivered to a neutral audience (radio listeners) where its being correctly interpreted was of no importance, and so, it can be allowed to stand with impunity. But it remains intrinsically bad writing, and indeed, so ridiculous that an interested audience is required to disregard what it says, and to cast about for what it meant to say. Here, that meaning is readily at hand, to be sure, but the writing is easily correctable to “In court this morning, Paul Bernardo admitted to raping Jane Doe.” So why get it wrong, and why in heck would anyone defend it when the alternative wording exists so readily? With a neutral audience, its shortcomings do not matter, but its sister abuses, delivered to non-neutral audiences may be less benign, and this is an intrinsic fault of the wording! Frankly, I expect better of any public communications professionals, into which group I include news-people, reporters, editors, speechwriters, help-text authors, corporate communications staff, corporate or government spokespersons, sports commentators, and others active and paid for writing for public and “semi-public” forums.

You have probably all seen samples of insurance claims that are worded so badly as to be funny. Things like "The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him." (see http://www.businessballs.com/insuranceclaims.htm) These are all bad – and to this extent “incorrect” – as I use the term.

I mentioned in another thread that I once, at my company’s behest, conducted a “clear writing” or business writing course for employees of a big Canadian insurance company. The attendees were mostly employees working in various line service departments (in customer service, mortgage management, marketing/sales, IS, and others). The attendees rather rapidly acquired the fairly simple techniques of good, or “correct” writing – as I mean it here. A new attendee at the course had to be pried loose from his inevitable experience with the bloated drivel that is the constant of modern business communication; it is very easy to assume that this is the way one should write. After all, if everybody does it, who am I to do differently? But by far the stickiest notion that every new attendee had to jettison before being able to move on was a pathological belief that a piece of writing is good enough if it is understandable. NO, NO NO! That is indeed a necessary condition, but it is NOT a sufficient one!

It is not sufficient because the reader is often well-motivated to misinterpret the piece to his own advantage, particularly in the strictly business environment. Indeed, there is an expensive and ruthless profession ready and eager to assist one in making such misinterpretation, and in helping one milk it to the full! I have been frequently involved in business cases where everyone in the room is well aware what some “central” written or stated piece (business letter, agent’s comment, contract, brochure, advertising, announcement, etc) means, but where common sense was being trumped by a cleverly advanced piece of manipulated “misunderstanding” of the piece. It is worth noting, in passing, that customers who challenge wording in this way typically are not ones who misunderstood, but rather, are ones awake on every suit and very alive to the advantages of the misinterpretation in question. On another post (“Judge rules…”), Kalleh gave a pretty good example of this kind of thing.

When the likelihood is low (or is open to question) that the piece of writing accurately transfers what is in the head of the writer to the head of the reader, or it is "maliciously misunderstandable", the writing is poor. Where this is serious enough, the writing is outright incorrect. So, if a piece of writing is intrinsically ambiguous or is [vaguely] interpretable in multiple ways, it is, willy-nilly, poor – even “incorrect” - writing. Of course, the best writing is that which is incapable of being misinterpreted – a Utopian aim, to be sure!

So, in my arguments on one thread that fruitlessly suggested that “house” (and not “home”) be used when one means “house” was based on the simple idea that “home” has multiple meanings that are larger than “house” - and so, using “home” WILL introduce unwanted (and certainly unnecessary) lack of clarity when all that was ever meant was “house”. At least one example of this was offered on that “home” vs “house” thread, with all the ambiguity there for us to argue about! Indeed, on the other side of this coin, I suggested that this lack of clarity (and desire to drag in a whole set of desirable intangibles) is exactly why real estate agents talk of selling “homes” when they are actually selling “houses”! And it is no accident that whole real estate industry always talks today of selling “homes”, never “houses”.

The point is that isolated passages of ambiguity, poor phraseology and gratuitous prolixity within in a piece of writing can accumulate to produce a ridiculous or very nebulous result in the whole piece. I once watched a marketing Executive Director in court (during discovery) defending a letter she wrote that was central to the issue. That letter began with the time-honored bit of business jabber “During a recent review of our records we discovered that ...” The opposing lawyer wanted to know what had predicated the review, and how extensive it had been, and whether the review had turned up cases similar to the one on the table, and how they had been settled. The ED explained that this phrase was simply a general opening remark that wasn’t meant so literally, to which the lawyer responded “so you didn’t really mean it. What else in the letter did you not really mean?” … etc.

The other defense of poor writing – branding a critic of it as prescriptive – is an argument I often hear from those who communicate carelessly (my opinion, based on the notions of clarity enunciated here). What underlies a charge of prescriptivism is something along the lines that language usage is king, and so, “anything goes” in writing, and that therefore, anyone who challenges this is an elitist, a pedant, and a prig!

However, the elephant-in-the-room counter to the “usage is king” argument is the obvious requirement that, for language to be a successful medium of information exchange, it must be understood by both ends of the communication - the writer and the reader! This is fundamental – indeed the very raison d’etre of language - for if both ends of the communication are not in sync, the communication fails on some level. Hence, all we users of the language are duty-bound to establish some agreement about our language – viz, we must have some standards of usage. Moreover, those standards should be as strong as we can reasonably make them. Simply put, we must at best live very uneasily with “usage is king”! Certainly it is moot where adherence to established rules becomes excessive and merely pedantic – and that is among the fit subjects for a language forum, if anything is - but surely no-one should gainsay this basic premise!

The above arguments are why I participate in language forums. Today good clear “business writing” is nearly dead, and customer service communication has dwindled almost exclusively into a deluge of sycophantic billing and cooing. I think this must be resisted. I have elsewhere given a couple of real examples to illustrate this, and I shall post another beauty that I received recently (after I try to rewrite it “correctly” for illustration).

I follow here with several examples of poor language usage (some I have already referred to elsewhere), and indeed, were it important to take from them a strict and clear understanding, these pieces would be execrable. If you read these, I suggest that you look at each as a sample of language usage, and to what extent it suffers from the weaknesses I discussed above. In each I case offer alternative wording only to illustrate how easily their faults can be corrected, thereby suggesting that there is little need to “get it wrong”.

Example 1.

“Police arrested a Vaughan man today for allegedly shining a laser into a police helicopter.”

Comment: “allegedly shining” anything is not a crime.

Better: “Police arrested a Vaughan man today after he allegedly shone a laser into a police helicopter.”

Example 2.

“To our valued customers: ABC Company is closed this coming Monday.“

Comment: Is the ABC Company closed only to its valued customers, or is this sign only to inform its valued customers of the closing, and the rest of us can go hang? What kind of customer am I … a valued one, or one of the others?

Better: “ABC Company is closed this coming Monday” or simply “We are closed this coming Monday”, or even simpler, “Closed Monday”

Example 3:

“The following program may contain material of a mature nature. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Comment: This is arrant drivel. The subject material is not “mature” or aged; this is actually a reference to some [self-selected] portion of the audience. Furthermore, having just advised the viewers, why add the redundant and silly information that “Viewer discretion is advised” as if we didn’t see the immediately preceding advisory?

Better: “The following program may be suitable for mature audiences only.“

Example 4:

“Blethering Air asks that all passengers kindly refrain from smoking while on board this aircraft.” (Aside: I have not heard this particular diction in a long time.)

or

"Blethering Air is pleased to provide a smoke-free environment on all its aircraft. Smoking is not permitted on this flight."

Comment: the first sounds like it may be ignored with impunity, and anyway why is Blethering Air telling its audience that it is asking without telling its audience where that request is being made! Moreover, why is the manner (“kindly”) of the audience’s refraining even broached? In the second why is Blethering Air so pleased to inconvenience its smokers so signally? Anyway, Blethering Air’s being pleased or not is irrelevant to the message. Also, a further consideration in respect to either of these appalling messages is that, by the very nature of where they appear, many of the audience are not native English speakers, and so there is a double requirement to be simple.

Better: “[By law] smoking is not allowed on this aircraft.”

Example 5:

“The Captain has switched on the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign. Please return to your seats immediately and fastened your seatbelts.”

Comment: (a) it doesn’t matter how the sign’s being on has been achieved, and (b) you may already be in your seat, and so, be unable
to return to it.


Better: “Please obey the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign immediately”

Example 6:

Lawyer, to witness in stand: “Was your appearance here today the result of a court summons?”

Witness: “No, sir, I picked something from my closet, and that is what I decided to wear.”

[Aside: I’ll offer no suggested wording, but this is a comical exchange I heard somewhere.]

To summarize, why have we become so satisfied to accept poor writing and poor communication? When did our standards for service communications devolve into this cloying toad-eating mush, and where did this become the de facto standard? Why, when I post on a language forum, mind you some example of garbled written rubbish, does Goofy rush in so eagerly to defend some picayune piece of it that is indefensible as clear writing? What do people see or believe when I recount my experience at a Canadian insurance company, where the VP of Customer Service threatened with being fired any of his line service personal who wrote their own “free-form” letter to a customer? I know that this general topic was very hot among many insurance companies, with some considering passing all communications through their legal departments! Egad! Do you all think I am lying? BTW, the legal department is, in its own way, also incompetent – or let’s say, unsuited - to communicating with the customer, and I’ll explain this elsewhere if necessary. So many years ago my being asked to coordinate a course on business writing actually came about at the behest of many people and departments in the company for whom I had previously handled complaints and customer service issues, some of which arguably arose as a direct consequence of poor writing!

Anyone who bangs on defending poor and “wrong” writing would do well to consider these examples, and reconsider just how much authority can be accorded to “language usage”, and just where a charge of prescriptivism might be a substitute for condoning ignorance. A language forum is one place I would expect to see some value given to language and how to use it “correctly” - or less provocatively, “effectively”. I believe that schools should start teaching again about using language clearly, and for holding up clear writing as a standard for measurement, because this is desperately needed. We generally have to lose this silly attitude that writing poorly is ‘jes fine for us chickens. It isn’t!

That's how I see it.

Cheerio.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: WeeWilly,


"The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying" - Grahame
 
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I have never said "anything goes." I have never read any language or usage criticism that says "anything goes." This is a straw man argument.

The idea that writing can be objectively judged for correctness seems weird. It may be that business writing nowadays is concise and simple, but that might not be the case in the future or in other cultures.

You give several examples of what you consider bad writing, but you don't actually explain why they are bad, other than you personally don't like them. At least that is the impression I get. They are clear to me, and I'm willing to bet they are clear to most readers, unless you have evidence to the contrary. I am baffled by your weird interpretations.

I'm not saying "I understand them, so everyone else should understand them." I am saying that it seems reasonable that most readers will understand them based on my knowledge of how the world works. In your explanations of what these examples supposedly really mean, it seems that you are willfully misinterpreting them.

Example 1: why is using the -ing form "shining" wrong, and the past tense "shone" right?

Example 3: you're right, this seems to be a nonstandard use of "mature". I didn't even notice until you pointed it out. This might be a problem for nonnative speakers. But to call it arrant drivel seems hyperbolic.

I jump in to defend writing for a few reasons:

I consider it defensible.

You write something wrong.

Your critism is way over the top or bizarre.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
 
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quote:
Why, when I post on a language forum, mind you some example of garbled written rubbish, does Goofy rush in so eagerly to defend some picayune piece of it that is indefensible as clear writing? What do people see or believe when I recount my experience at a Canadian insurance company, where the VP of Customer Service threatened with being fired any of his line service personal who wrote their own “free-form” letter to a customer? I know that this general topic was very hot among many insurance companies, with some considering passing all communications through their legal departments! Egad! Do you all think I am lying?


I'm sure you're not lying, but how is this story relevant? What does it have to do with me rushing in to defend things?
 
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Hi Goofy;

I had intended that the essay stand on its own, but I don't like to play "least in sight" if I am questioned on something I write!

You:
quote:
Example 1: why is using the -ing form "shining" wrong, and the past tense "shone" right?
... You are focusing on the wrong thing – or rather, something where I take no issue; the form of the verb is not in question, and there may be - obviously are - other ways of correcting the original. The error in the original is that "allegedly" doing anything is not a crime, and so you can't be arrested for "allegedly shooting" someone, or "allegedly robbing" something, or "allegedly assaulting" someone. In particular, you cannot charge someone, or arrest someone, "for allegedly shining a laser". You can allege that someone has done wrong by shining a laser (or by having shone a laser) where he shouldn’t have so, and then, arrest him, but that someone is being arrested for “shining a laser”, not for “allegedly shining a laser”.

The Example 3 issue to me is not a "nonstandard" use of mature as much as it is an incorrect use of it! The subject matter isn't mature and it’s pretty clear that the writer never intended to say that it is. What he intended was somehow to say that the subject matter is designed for mature audiences. Assessed from the point-of-view of its diction, the whole piece is very poor, as I illustrate by showing how easily and succinctly the notice can be worded to correct its problems. This alternate wording is hardly the stuff of genius (or anything like), and so, there is no need for the long-winded original that is incorrect, repetitive, and long-winded (complete drivel, in fact).

As for your other remarks, you have every right and, on a forum like this, even a duty to take issue with positions and remarks you see as errant or which are open to challenge. Egad, else what is a forum like this for? Of course, you know that. Well, my essay was an attempt to address what I see as very common misconceptions, and so I was executing my duty (if I might so word it) to explain why. I dealt with it in an essay because the offenses discussed are the unwarranted basis of oft-recurring challenges. My use of “unwarranted” in the preceding sentence needed an essay to justify it!

This message has been edited. Last edited by: WeeWilly,


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Hi Goofy;

You and I see things so very differently that I am sometimes completely drawn up short! Your question about the relevance of my experience with customer service is a case in point. To me this is germane – dramatically so – because it is compelling real-world support for my contention that our general language usage is pathologically bad! In short, I am not just arguing some sort of academic position. Therefore the measurements for “bad” or “correct” language may need to be revisited.

So, I am implicitly suggesting that “As a valued Persiflage customer, we are reaching out to you with important information regarding your Persiflage Stolen Vehicle Recovery Unit” contains more than a merely ambiguous and funny misplaced modifier. It has nothing ambiguous about it, for the modifier is modifying the wrong thing, albeit quite clearly. As such, the construction is simply wrong, and it’s time for us to view it as such!

Don’t you see it as some sort of severe condemnation of our general ability to write when a big insurance company asks some chance jerk employee from one of its departments – anyone, in fact, settling on someone who has had no more than a wisp of success at doing this – to hold a course on how to write letters! Big companies do not willfully throw money into wastes of time, and so, surely something significant is at work here. In the years after this, I got to understand how widespread this concern about basic writing skills had become - and this in the most fundamental and practical way.

It’s time to re-think our notion of just how much credence we can give to “usage is king”, and of what we see as language offenses (and their importance).


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You wrote that "a piece of writing is good enough if it is understandable" is not sufficient because the audience might want to misunderstand it. So you have to remove as much ambiguity as possible. The problem is that you can never remove all the ambiguity, and it seems to me that if someone wants to misunderstand something, they will.

It can be argued that ambiguity in language is a feature, not a bug. Ambiguity lets us communicate more efficiently, because we can leave some things unspecified, and context will fill in the blanks. At a certain point, the effort involved in trying to remove ambiguity is not worth it.

Certainly the fact that almost every word has more than one meaning suggests that ambiguity is completely normal.

quote:

Hence, all we users of the language are duty-bound to establish some agreement about our language – viz, we must have some standards of usage. Moreover, those standards should be as strong as we can reasonably make them.


I am not sure what you mean by this. If your rules are not based on usage, then what are they based on?

quote:

Simply put, we must at best live very uneasily with “usage is king”! Certainly it is moot where adherence to established rules becomes excessive and merely pedantic – and that is among the fit subjects for a language forum, if anything is

Excessive and merely pedantic is exactly what you are doing here. That's fine if it's fun for you, but you seem to be saying that if everyone is not as pedantic as you are, something horrible is going to happen. I remain unconvinced.

You wrote that someone threatened to fire anyone who wrote their own “free-form” letter to a customer. I don't see how this is evidence that language usage is pathologically bad. Maybe this is something you have mentioned before that I don't remember?

quote:

Example 1.

“Police arrested a Vaughan man today for allegedly shining a laser into a police helicopter.”

Comment: “allegedly shining” anything is not a crime.

Better: “Police arrested a Vaughan man today after he allegedly shone a laser into a police helicopter.”


So you're saying that "allegedly" is in the wrong place? It should be “Police arrested a Vaughan man today for shining a laser into a police helicopter, allegedly"? Who is going to misunderstand this?

quote:

Example 2.

“To our valued customers: ABC Company is closed this coming Monday.“

Comment: Is the ABC Company closed only to its valued customers, or is this sign only to inform its valued customers of the closing, and the rest of us can go hang? What kind of customer am I … a valued one, or one of the others?


"valued customers" is an appositive modification: our customers, who are valued.

quote:

The Example 3 issue to me is not a "nonstandard" use of mature as much as it is an incorrect use of it! The subject matter isn't mature and it’s pretty clear that the writer never intended to say that it is.

Yes, it is pretty clear what the writer intended. So the problem is...?

quote:

Example 4:

“Blethering Air asks that all passengers kindly refrain from smoking while on board this aircraft.” (Aside: I have not heard this particular diction in a long time.)

or

"Blethering Air is pleased to provide a smoke-free environment on all its aircraft. Smoking is not permitted on this flight."

Comment: the first sounds like it may be ignored with impunity, and anyway why is Blethering Air telling its audience that it is asking without telling its audience where that request is being made! Moreover, why is the manner (“kindly”) of the audience’s refraining even broached? In the second why is Blethering Air so pleased to inconvenience its smokers so signally? Anyway, Blethering Air’s being pleased or not is irrelevant to the message. Also, a further consideration in respect to either of these appalling messages is that, by the very nature of where they appear, many of the audience are not native English speakers, and so there is a double requirement to be simple.


I don't see you offering any reason why this is wrong other than you don't like it, except you say it might be too complicated for nonnative speakers. That's possible.

quote:

Example 5:

“The Captain has switched on the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign. Please return to your seats immediately and fastened your seatbelts.”

Comment: (a) it doesn’t matter how the sign’s being on has been achieved, and (b) you may already be in your seat, and so, be unable
to return to it.


Really?

I don't see the point of complaining about every little thing you can find to complain about. If you think the usage is incorrect, then show me some evidence - show me how it causes confusion.

quote:

So, I am implicitly suggesting that “As a valued Persiflage customer, we are reaching out to you with important information regarding your Persiflage Stolen Vehicle Recovery Unit” contains more than a merely ambiguous and funny misplaced modifier. It has nothing ambiguous about it, for the modifier is modifying the wrong thing, albeit quite clearly. As such, the construction is simply wrong, and it’s time for us to view it as such!


Why? What terrible thing is going to happen otherwise?

quote:

Don’t you see it as some sort of severe condemnation of our general ability to write when a big insurance company asks some chance jerk employee from one of its departments – anyone, in fact, settling on someone who has had no more than a wisp of success at doing this – to hold a course on how to write letters!

I'm not sure what you're talking about here.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: goofy,
 
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So, the sentence “Paul Bernardo admitted that he raped Jane Doe in court this morning” – as I heard some years ago on 680News radio - is ridiculous beyond belief, and it is fatuous attempting to defend it as a piece of even passable writing. Here, this statement was delivered to a neutral audience (radio listeners) where its being correctly interpreted was of no importance, and so, it can be allowed to stand with impunity. But it remains intrinsically bad writing, and indeed, so ridiculous that an interested audience is required to disregard what it says, and to cast about for what it meant to say.

I disagwee entirewy. It is ambiguous because the PP "in court this morning" can be interpreted as complement either verb (I think). There is nothing ungrammatical about either reading. It says what the audience interprets it to mean. You seem to be saying that a sentence's meaning exists on some higher plane independent of how the sentence is produced and understood. I don't see how this makes sense.

quote:

Here, that meaning is readily at hand, to be sure, but the writing is easily correctable to “In court this morning, Paul Bernardo admitted to raping Jane Doe.” So why get it wrong, and why in heck would anyone defend it when the alternative wording exists so readily?

I'm not defending it, I'm saying why get so worked up about it? It's meaning is readily apparent, as you say. So there is no problem.

quote:

With a neutral audience, its shortcomings do not matter, but its sister abuses, delivered to non-neutral audiences may be less benign, and this is an intrinsic fault of the wording!

What?
 
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Wee Willie, for a decade in the '70's/'80's I worked in the procurement dept of an engineering corporation. I did well (for a Fr/Sp major), moving through the ranks from secretary to supervising procurement of engineered eqpt for the construction of a couple of power plants. Much of this success hinged on good writing skills. I got a tremendous amount of mileage out of one summer-long course in business writing. (Reading Hemingway also helped Wink )

In that era of a rather stodgy firm, formal communications were giving way to a free-for-all of interoffice memos. I expect this was technology-driven: laborious typo-corrections in quintuplicate were being replaced by 'Xeroxing' a master. Daily brouhahas ensued from ill-considered IOM's fired off to a large distribution at the drop of a hat. It was a lot like today's explosion of social media gaffes. The ability to write clearly and concisely, without unnecessarily ruffling feathers, went a long way.

My husband still works in that engineering group (name has changed 3 times since, & it's part of a much larger corp). Good business writing is perhaps at even more of a premium than it was in my day. The secretaries who once were editors for tech-types are long gone to cost-cutting; engineers just type and 'send' from laptops.H1(b) visas have made the ESL crowd an even larger proportion of the engrg work force. By far, my husband's biggest burden as a manager is editing poorly-written communications!


By the way, it seems only natural that goofy & others with a linguistics background pipe up when you speak of 'correct' usage. If you replace 'correct' with 'efficient' or perhaps 'productive', then specify your context [e.g., business communications], a more productive discussion can take place.

My particular antennae are raised when you suggest 'we' must agree on 'standards' of usage, unless you provide a very specific context. Who is 'we'? What is [the implied] 'correct'? This is an incredibly pluralistic society [the US, not Canada], and written communications is one of the broadest fields of endeavor one can imagine. My particular interest & area of research is public education. If I had my way, public school students would receive a background in standard English grammar, and practice it within the contexts of business writing, creative writing, expository writing [research-papers], and perhaps journalism. -- And practice it as well within the context of general public speaking and forensics. Like languages, none of these contexts are intrinsically superior; each has a practical application of productive value to the student.
 
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This is a long thread so until now I've been just reading everything. I, like Goofy, am perplexed by some of the examples of "bad writing." For example, Wee Willy says, “allegedly shining” anything is not a crime." Then why is "allegedly shone?"

I also have not heard of the credo: “if your reader has understood you, then your writing is successful." It sounds a bit stupid to me. The whole point of most writing is to be clear. Even with creative writing, while clarity may not be a goal, neither is confusion or misunderstanding.

Bethree, I love your ideas for teaching writing. I agree with the diversity you present, such as journalism, research writing and public speaking.
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
This is a long thread so until now I've been just reading everything. I, like Goofy, am perplexed by some of the examples of "bad writing." For example, Wee Willy says, “allegedly shining” anything is not a crime." Then why is "allegedly shone?"


Wee Willy's complaint has nothing to do with the verb form. His complaint is that you can be arrested for committing a crime, but you can't be arrested for allegedly committing a crime. His correction was “Police arrested a Vaughan man today after he allegedly shone a laser into a police helicopter.” So he was arrested, and the actual reason for his arrest is not specified, but it happened after he allegedly shone the light.

I think it's a very odd complaint.

quote:

I also have not heard of the credo: “if your reader has understood you, then your writing is successful." It sounds a bit stupid to me. The whole point of most writing is to be clear.


Then why does it sound stupid?

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Good point. I was referring to the comment that it is a foolish credo, but I didn't copy that part. Sorry about that. Eek

As for the bad vs. better allegedly examples, I just don't see much of a difference in meaning between the first and second.

I suppose I see the point about allegedly committing a crime, though agreed that it's an odd complaint.

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Oops! "We" means "We users of English", whereby I mean all of us, with our all our diversity and differences, who want to communicate well and clearly within that pool of English users!

I believe there is good and sufficient reason to teach grammar and usage skills in school, and for us to try, as best we may, to "agree on a story" on language usage. In short, we must become less tolerant of poor, ambiguous and unclear writing. When I used to deal with memos from my company's English division (that was as big as our Canadian), I was struck at the clear and succinct style of expression of my British correspondents, as opposed to their Canadian counterparts. Since I doubted (and doubt) that there is any marked difference in ability and intelligence of these two groups, I put this difference in language skills to the British schooling system's considerably greater focus on grammar and language usage.

Cheerio.


"The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying" - Grahame
 
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I agree that teaching grammar and usage skills. However, I think we need to be more flexible and scholarly about them. That is, when there is controversy and evidence to the contrary, point it out. Don't just make a blatant rule, for example, that a sentence can never end with a preposition. That is poppycock - but the stance of my organization.
 
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I don't participate here any more, and I just now came back to this because of an odd work-related thing my daughter ran across (where her Human Resources department was involved). I wanted to recall what discussion had occurred, and inevitably, had to say hello and throw out a few comments...

brethee:
quote:
By the way, it seems only natural that goofy & others with a linguistics background pipe up when you speak of 'correct' usage. If you replace 'correct' with 'efficient' or perhaps 'productive', then specify your context [e.g., business communications], a more productive discussion can take place.


Actually, my essay did explain in some detail the context (exactly that, "business communication") in which I would be using "correct" and "proper". I definitely agree that this is fundamentally necessary, for, with respect to language usage, these terms are else "weird" (as used by another poster who seems also to have missed my explanation) and nearly meaningless!

Moreover, I began my essay by laboring at some length to provide "very specific context" for my ensuing essay (per your suggestion) for this is also utterly required. Anyway, you are not the only one who seems to have missed these points. But I don't blame you; it was a long essay, and who knows whether I managed to do this well or not, after all!

But the whole point of my essay seems to have gone hopelessly awry, and to be poorly understood, but again, maybe this is my fault. This is a language forum, and so, I would hope that talking in detail about language and its use might be germane! Elsewhere such discussion might reasonably be criticized as pedantic, but on a language forum??? The main thrust to my essay was that one need be no pedant - no arcane practitioner of English - to clear ambiguity out of one's writing. It is easily done, and is well within the compass of pretty-well anyone in our society, should this be one's wish. I am lamenting that this latter proviso is not there, and am arguing that it should be.

Lastly, I generally do not understand most of Goofy's remarks, and so, I know not how to address them meaningfully (as I hopelessly tried and miserably failed to do in one thread). They largely seem to me to be non sequiturs, willful misunderstanding, or raising issues that I felt had already been [often] directly addressed. Below I'll give two instances taken from this thread.

The diction "Paul Bernardo admitted he raped Jane Doe in court this morning" is clearly ambiguous, whereas the alternate "In court this morning Paul Bernardo admitted he raped Jane Doe" is not, and so, I contend that the second diction is better than the first. Even Goofy admits that "in court this morning" can be interpreted to complement either verb,and this is the very definition of "ambiguous". Moreover, the second wording is easily within grasp of anyone able to pen the first and where the only thing missing on the part of the writer was the desire to remove the ambiguity. I do not believe that it is pedantry to discuss this on a language forum!

Goofy also states that I gave several examples of bad writing without explaining why they are bad, other than I don't like them. Egad, where is he coming from??? First I say nothing about liking them or not, and anyway, that could ever only be a passing remark to be followed with reasons (that might have something to do with not liking them)! Second I explained in the original essay, for each of 5 of those 6 specific examples (under the added "Comment" in each), exactly where the wording is problematic (or "wrong" in the context I had already labored away to provide), and I suggested simple wording adjustments that eliminate those problems. The 6th sample was a jocose one of ambiguity that I didn't explain, for I hoped (and still hope?) it to be obvious! Again, on a language forum I would expect to discuss these shortcomings without becoming a "pedant"! Each of these "pre-corrected" samples suffers from some combination of ambiguity, prolixity, lack of clarity, or the like - and in each case I draw attention to the specifics (and bless me, I thought that the essay did that fairly well, more fool I). The point is that all that mush is easily obviated - as shown by the example corrections - all without descending into some arcane knowledge of English. The only thing that is missing from having them be "correct" (again, per my context!) is the fact that the writer is satisfied that they contain those problems, combined with his reluctance to correct them.

The very long "home" vs "house" thread was another case in point. We agreed (I think, but who knows?) that "home" can encompass more in its meaning than "house" does, and and so, I went on to opine, one might consider using "house" when that is all that one means - in order to avoid unnecessary ambiguity. What is there to argue about here? What have arguments about general ambiguity of language to do with this very simple concept? Again, with "bring" and "take" we hammered away aimlessly at picayune and very obvious points, to what end? All this leaves little opportunity of tackling really interesting stuff, for we can never get beyond the utterly nugatory.

So, I nearly always have no idea of where Goofy is coming from, for to me, his arguments lose me completely ... unless, they are solely aimed of putting me in my place!

Lastly, the notion that "usage is king" is a fascinating subject. First and foremost, it is a true statement. But an inescapable requirement of language is that it be able to transmit ideas with a minimum of "transmission error" (particularly in the context I have defined). This means we users of the language MUST have some sort of fairly wide agreement on what vocabulary and usage has become general enough to be the current or de facto standard for our language. One person's simply misusing language cannot reasonably mean it becomes part of the standard! Balancing "usage is king" with language rules will surely forever be a blurred matter, and ever open to discussion.

Cheerio.


"The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying" - Grahame
 
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You wrote that the Bernardo sentence is "ridiculous beyond belief" and "instrinsically bad writing". Yes, your corrected version is better. I was reacting to your weird overreaction to this run-of-the-mill ambiguous sentence. It's an ambiguous sentence, and it's easily understandable. I think it's appropriate in a language forum to discuss why it is ambiguous, and also why it is easily understandable.

quote:
Originally posted by WeeWilly:
Goofy also states that I gave several examples of bad writing without explaining why they are bad, other than I don't like them. Egad, where is he coming from???


I assumed you didn't like them, and that's why you were complaining about them. I said you didn't give any explanations because I thought you didn't - you just gave your weird interpretations of what seemed to me to be completely normal sentences.

Alright, you did give explanations. I was wrong to say that you didn't give explanation. But I don't understand your explanations.

quote:
Originally posted by WeeWilly:
The very long "home" vs "house" thread was another case in point. We agreed (I think, but who knows?) that "home" can encompass more in its meaning than "house" does, and and so, I went on to opine, one might consider using "house" when that is all that one means - in order to avoid unnecessary ambiguity. What is there to argue about here?


You could argue, as I think I did, that it makes sense to use language the way the people you are communicating with use language. If your interlocutors use "home" to mean X, then it makes sense for you to do the same, regardless of any potential ambiguity.
 
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Originally posted by WeeWilly:
Well, Goofy, I understood everything you said (wrote?) here, and I abhor making a provocative posting only to then flee the field when questions arise! Also, your post contains some very interesting and germane ideas, IMHO. So...

My arguments throughout all these topics on language usage tends to be firmly centred on the fundamental principle that when we write, WE choose our diction. Ergo, why not so choose that diction as to minimize "transmission error" by economically maximizing clarity, and in turn, when assessing the quality of a written piece (or a prepared piece), we might properly do so in terms of its clarity, lack of ambiguity, and brevity (all things that minimize transmission error). Where the writing abuses the standards of clarity, lack of ambiguity and brevity badly enough, the writing might reasonably be considered "incorrect" or incompetent. Thus I see the original Paul Bernardo example - that was written by a language specialist of some kind, after all - as very poor communication. Not bad enough, perhaps, to be execrable, but bad, all the same. What "saves" the situation in that particular case is that it actually doesn't matter a whit whether the piece is ambiguous or wrong, for who cares whether the audience is confused or not? But we - as language experts and as people interested in language usage - are judging the writing solely on its own merits, and judged on this basis, it it is a near fail. To me, the two real-world sample letters I posted elsewhere on this forum are truly execrable, and in some sense or other, they each brand the writers (or maybe, the organizations in which the writers work) as incompetent. What is germane here is that the standards I described are not normally applied in our NA world and, I contend, they should be! I take it as axiomatic that part of the standards should be that the communication should be "smoothly consumable" - soothing, and not abrasive or rude. After all, making the reader angry or uneasy would introduce "transmission error".

I also mentioned in several postings that experience has taught me that achieving a reasonable standard of clarity, lack of ambiguity and brevity - my "correct" communication - is rather easily within reach of all of us, and that generally what is missing on the part of the writer in attaining those standards is either the desire to write correctly or the realization that there might actually be a correct way. Again, this loaded use of "correct" is only as I defined it throughout this thread! To me, dissecting and discussing these issues is very much apropos a language forum, but writing that contains what I characterize as pedantic drivel would likely be "incorrect" or bad through violating the standards measured in terms of clarity, lack of ambiguity, and brevity.

The context here is what I have always called "business writing" or "business communication" - viz, all that communication that is designed to convey information with a minimum loss of transmission error. Creative writing is a horse of a different color, and my essay did look at that in passing. That said, no writing is strictly either creative or business. Even business writing calls for creativity, and creative writing will sometimes (often?) want to call upon business writing standards in many situations. As is true everywhere, business writers have differing talents and abilities - and there are many many ways of saying something - and so, the need for creativity is never far away from any writing.

Ok, that all said, let's deal with your
quote:
You could argue, as I think I did, that it makes sense to use language the way the people you are communicating with use language. If your interlocutors use "home" to mean X, then it makes sense for you to do the same, regardless of any potential ambiguity.
... Yes indeed, this is very germane to the issue for it may, in fact, be a good way of achieving ready clarity with as few words as possible (meeting the "brevity" aspect of the standard). This may be very reasonable support of using of "home" to mean "house" (why does this sound sarcastic? It is not meant to!). But does the use of "house" introduce needless "transmission error" in a "in situ" communication - error that can be avoided by using "home" instead? I am not convinced that it does, but I agree that this is moot!

So let's try this on one of my examples of "incorrect" diction:
quote:
The following program may contain material of a mature nature. Viewer discretion is advised.
vs
quote:
The following program may be suitable for mature audiences only.
...I am suggesting that we should prefer the second alternative because it is signally satisfies the standards, and what don't you understand of my explanation about the reason for this? As for the first "incorrect" version, I maintain that accuracy is a major component of clarity, and the material in question is not necessarily mature, or at least, that was not what is intended to be described or it has no bearing on anything. Secondly, why does it first advise us about the material, and then go on to say that it advises us? What?? didn't we see the advisory? So the first is silly, inaccurate, prolix, and in fact, rather pedantic! Given the second "correct" example of what the diction might have been, the first is poor - and since it has been penned by a putative language expert of some sort - in my eyes it comes perilously close to being incompetent. My "correcting" example can even be bettered as "The following program is for mature audiences only" PERIOD ... but, oh well, I do not list perfection among my qualities!

So, my quest - if I might so word it - is to have a new standard applied to business writing, and to have the old discarded, this all to get away from the vague and prolix tripe that utterly inundates that world (per my sample letters posted elsewhere on this forum). If a piece of business writing contains "This new initiative is addressed at enabling line workers" or "This program needs to be taken to the next level", then it needs revamping (ie, "correcting"), for no-one can have any idea of what they mean!Roll Eyes

Lastly, we must make judgements about what tolerance anything we write should have towards ambiguity and the other sins I suggested above. I contend that all my samples of poor writing are "corrected" by the suggested alternatives at no cost to the message! On the other hand I would probably accept the ambiguity in the announcement "Big Tent Sale" because being more explicit verges on the silly, and so would only resort to "Sale on Big Tents" in instances where I couldn't live with that ambiguity, if you see what I mean!

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I'm not convinced that lack of ambiguity minimizes transmission errors, because "[I]nference is cheap, articulation expensive, and thus the design requirements are for a system that maximizes inference". It's worth making trade offs: ignoring some potential ambiguity when the chance of real confusion is low.

https://motivatedgrammar.wordp...uity-not-to-bury-it/

"He walked to the bank." Is ambiguous because "bank" has more than one meaning. Is it unclear? I'm willing to bet that the reader can always use inference and knowledge of context to figure out which kind of bank I’m talking about. I don't need to spend time and more words to make it explicit.

Similarly I'm willing to bet that most readers would be able to use inference and real world knowledge to figure out the meaning of the Bernardo sentence.

I'm not convinced that brevity minimizes transmission errors, because there is always noise in the signal - people don't pay attention, they read too quickly, whatever. Redundancy compensates for this. So with your viewer discretion example it might make sense to advise us and then repeat that we are advised.

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Inference is cheap, articulation expensive
... stop with the platitudes already! Again, this is a non-sequitur - correct perhaps, but nothing to do with the issue at hand. Look at my examples, PLEASE! One of their major - AND KEY - thrusts is that "correcting" diction is often readily at hand, and so, is not expensive, whether measured in verbiage or thought. Look at the sample letters and suggested corrections, and note how signally they fly in the face of this platitude you have included in your last post. Please think before you spout out stuff that is almost always utter non-sequitur! You keep rebutting arguments that I am not making!

Your bank example says nothing substantive, or at least I have no idea of what you think it illustrates! Of course, it ONLY has meaning in context - and is incomprehensible gibber-jabber in its absence, where only a moron would write it under such circumstances. If there IS context to let the reader know what kind of bank, then only the same moron would encumber the sentence with further identifying modifiers (for no other reason than to define the kind of bank at hand). Recall that I did - and do - concede that judicious ambiguity has a place, per my "Big Tent Sale" announcement example. That announcement is ambiguous because a reader cannot KNOW whether we are selling big tents or having a big sale on [some sort of] tents! Nonetheless, I would normally live comfortably with the ambiguity. But I also said that, if I needed real clarity in that announcement, I would pay the price of adding or adjusting it accordingly. This applies your "inference is cheap; articulation expensive" platitude to a "T", don't you think? So what are you rebutting?

Your harping away on the Bernardo example is also NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING! OF COURSE, any reader who is not an abject dolt will weigh out the two possible interpretations and select the most likely - and perhaps be correct- but ONLY because the other is very unlikely! I was dealing with the sentence on its own merits - as an example of poorly used language - and with how EASILY it could have removed the ambiguity! All that was missing was the desire, on the part of the writer, to get it correct. In passing, note that if the sentence was actually describing the less likely occurrence (where the shooting of Jane Doe occurred this morning at the court), it would have been wrongly interpreted by everyone.

However, all in all, this last post of yours - and particularly its summarizing paragraph - is about the most foolish justification for bad writing that I could imagine - where the modifier "that I could imagine" applies to "foolish justification" and not "bad writing" - and does much towards providing context to your general position, and helps me understand where you have been coming from. Egad! No wonder I was always at sea.

Bad writing is endemic in NA, and so you have lots of company and plenty of support - even if very few, I hope, would justify it with this very silly sophistry of yours.

But to each his own, and I wish you all the best. Cheerio.


"The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying" - Grahame
 
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quote:
Originally posted by WeeWilly:
quote:
Inference is cheap, articulation expensive
... stop with the platitudes already! Again, this is a non-sequitur - correct perhaps, but nothing to do with the issue at hand. Look at my examples, PLEASE! One of their major - AND KEY - thrusts is that "correcting" diction is often readily at hand, and so, is not expensive, whether measured in verbiage or thought. Look at the sample letters and suggested corrections, and note how signally they fly in the face of this platitude you have included in your last post.


As I keep saying, your sample letters are completely unobjectionable to me. I mean that I'm pretty sure that most readers will have no problem interpretIng them based on context and their knowledge of how the world works. Your corrections are unnecessary. "Inference is cheap, articulation expensive" is completely relevant.

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"Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated."

~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

One of the reasons I have not said much here is that I get lost in all the words - or, not meaning to be rude, pontification.

To me, the beauty of language is saying/writing with clarity, which often infers brevity as well.

I admit feeling a little defensive about Wordcraft with this comment:
quote:
But the whole point of my essay seems to have gone hopelessly awry, and to be poorly understood, but again, maybe this is my fault. This is a language forum, and so, I would hope that talking in detail about language and its use might be germane! Elsewhere such discussion might reasonably be criticized as pedantic, but on a language forum???
As an excellent language board, we enjoy words/ language in a variety of ways. Talking in detail about language certainly is germane. However, listening to other perspectives here, as well as anywhere, is a must. And even then, we all may not agree. We have people here who tend toward prescriptiveness and then those who are more descriptive in perspective. We listen to each other and are respectful of their thoughts and ideas. That's the essence of this board.
 
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One of the reasons I have not said much here is that I get lost in all the words

Agreed.

There is a useful set of initialisms used in some parts of the internet: "TL;DNR" -that is, "Too long; did not read".


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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Love it, arnie! I hadn't heard that before. (Interestingly, in medicine DNR means Do Not Resuscitate.)
 
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WeeWilly

quote:

Example 1.

“Police arrested a Vaughan man today for allegedly shining a laser into a police helicopter.”

(Followed by discussion of "allegedly" position placement).


I believe the "allegedly" was inserted there for legal reasons. No one would write a sentence that way if it wasn't being published by someone liable for libel (hey! alliteration!). Apparently calling a person holding a fired weapon in a closed room with a dozen victims isn't enough to prevent a lawyer from suing for damages to the (alleged) shooter's reputation.


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
DNR means Do Not Resuscitate.)
T.Rump confuses that with the Department of Natural Resources
 
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Wow, proof. It has been a long time since Wee Willy has been here. That answer was a bit delayed. Wink He did like long posts, didn't he?
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
He did like long posts, didn't he?
Perhaps as compensation for his wee willy.
 
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