A major secret of effective writing

I’m in the process of editing a document for a technical project that is intended to be an introduction for newbies to certain fairly complex issues. While requesting feedback on the project mailing list, I realized that I had accidentally revealed a major secret of really top-grade writing, exactly the sort of thing that put The Cathedral and the Bazaar on the New York Times best-seller list.

I see no reason not to share it with my readers. So here is the relevant part of my request for feedback:

Please fix typos and outright grammatical errors. If you think you have spotted a higher-level usage problem or awkwardness, check with me before changing it. What you think is technically erroneous may be expressive voice.

Explanation: Style is the contrast between expectation and surprise. Poets writing metric poetry learn to introduce small breaks in scansion in order to induce tension-and-release cycles at a higher level that will hold the reader’s interest. The corresponding prose trick is to bend usage rules or change the register of the writing slightly away from what the reader unconsciously expects. If you try to “fix” these you will probably be stepping on an intended effect. So check first.

(I will also observe that unless you are already an unusually skilled writer, you should not try to replicate this technique; the risk of sounding affected or just teeth-jarringly bad is high. As Penn & Teller puts it, “These stunts are being performed by trained, professional idiots.”)

88 thoughts on “A major secret of effective writing

  1. Good advice, although I am afraid ti will take some time for me to reach a level where I can actually put it to use.

    But it is clear, to be predictable is to be boring, to be unpredictable is to be incomprehensible. There is a fine line in between where you are both interesting and comprehensible.

  2. @Michael Hipp: Most of esr’s blog posts. The Cathedral and Bazaar is filled with it I know about the technique; it’s one that’s taught in English composition classes, at both the secondary and at the collegiate level. I don’t always take advantage of it mostly because I’m lazy. :)

  3. I would like a “find the adverb” mode in emacs, or, really, any editor.

    Steven King wrote in his book, “On Writing”, which ironically is a better listen than read:

    “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

  4. @Morgan
    > Most of esr’s blog posts. The Cathedral and Bazaar is filled with it I know about the technique; it’s one that’s taught in English composition classes, at both the secondary and at the collegiate level.

    I guess I was looking for the equivalent of a “Hello World” code snippet.

    College English was a looong time ago and finding it in Eric’s writings would be easier if I knew what I were looking for. Thanks.

  5. I always learn at least one new word from every ESR post. This time it was “scansion”.

    I write these down and use them in my own writing. Become the master, and all that.

  6. The Elements of Style – William Strunk, Jr., 1918

    Write clearly and simply. Punctuate clearly. Throw away all of the useless stuff and get to the point. This book can revolutionize your writing, and you will never be able to read a corporate memo again without laughing. It is written itself in a spare, direct style.

    Jeff Atwood at CodingHorror says this book is a great guide to technical writing and programming, and quotes Donald Knuth about Literate Programming (pdf).

  7. >I guess I was looking for the equivalent of a “Hello World” code snippet.

    OK. Reread the OP and notice what happens when you reach the last phrase, “trained, professional idiots!”

    You read trained…professional… your brain is half-consciously set up to expect “stuntmen” or “writers”, or some category of expert related to either writing or Penn & Teller, and then *THWACK* the word “idiots” jumps up and surprises you. Your expectation was not met. What does this do?

    Well, it certainly got your attention, didn’t it? That’s good in itself; sting in the tail is a well-established technique for increasing your reader’s recall of the piece later. Moments of emotional arousal are anchors for memory. And your mind is now in a state of tension between the “writer/expert/stuntsman” you were expecting and the “idiot” you got.

    Your resolution of that tension might be “Ha! ESR is being amusingly self-deprecating after what could be interpreted as an arrogant representation of his own skill!” *DING* I win!

    Or it could be “Writers. Stuntmen. Idiots. Yes, something in common there. ESR, you snarky bastard!” *DING* I win!

    Or it could be “That sounds like Penn & Teller, yep. Should have known ESR would be hip to them.” *DING* I win!

    There are other plausible resolutions, quite a few less complimentary to yours truly. It almost doesn’t matter. The central act here was a word choice that changed the speech act from having one, flat, denotative meaning to multiple meanings in tension. The experience of resolution gives the reader pleasure.

    The higher level of this trick is to model reader response accurately enough that each of the entire gamut of resolutions is fitted to the meaning and tone of the piece, and they sort of superpose on each other in the reader’s mind like components in a wave function. That takes more work than I was going to invest in a throwaway bit like this one.

    Mediocre writers do this sort of thing by accident. Good ones do it consciously on purpose. Great ones have assimilated this hack so thoroughly that they generate them automatically and correctly. I hang somewhere between the latter two categories, mostly conscious production except when I’m at top of game.

    For extra credit, correctly identify a use of register shifting in this reply.

  8. You read trained…professional… your brain is half-consciously set up to expect “stuntmen” or “writers”, or some category of expert related to either writing or Penn & Teller, and then *THWACK* the word “idiots” jumps up and surprises you. Your expectation was not met. What does this do?

    It’s a pattern interrupt. Like reaching out to shake someone’s hand but then withdrawing your hand.

  9. For extra credit, correctly identify a use of register shifting in this reply.

    “It almost doesn’t matter. “

  10. Eric, as I’ve noticed from his other work and posts in this blog, is a writer who takes his pre-publication duties very seriously: I think this may be, in part, because he can understand and recognise, from a programmer’s point of view, the inherent limitations of the magic spell-checker/grammar ju-ju button, and the damage over-reliance on this handy and ever-present crutch can wreak on a writer’s copy and intention. It seems proper, rigorous proof-reading, either by authors or their (paid) editors, is on the point of dying out – and some of the biggest modern writers and their publishing houses are guilty of some shockingly slovenly final copy.

    One example, that really set my teeth on edge, occurred in a serious, scholarly book about the social background to the build-up to WWI, where the author described a minor protagonist as being typical of the arrogant jaegar class of German society: the endnote glossed the word as “semi-slang term for a scion of a landed, aristocratic family, equivalent to ‘Young Sir’ in English”.

    Jaeger merely means “hunter” in German. The word the author meant (and that the endnote described), of course, was Junker. The book went back to the public library the next day; I actually felt embarrassed for its writer. I couldn’t take his work seriously after that.

    Typos, misspelling and superfluous spaces can be digitally spotted and corrected, but the dreaded homonym, and a lot of other howlers, malapropisms and gaffes, can only be noted and redacted by slow, careful re-reading of your work. Linux’s Law (can you see what I did there?) that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” should be taken as a warning for professional writers, as well as a piece of sound advice for programmers.

    Holy Christ, Eric, why are there 5-dimensional beetle-lizards crawling up my legs???

  11. Something I have noticed:

    When I did a lot of writing, it seemed my spelling got worse.

    Words that I knew I knew how to spell, I would be typing them out and start to doubt the spelling. The more I wrote, the worse it seemed to get.

    Also, your tense should not change in the middle of a sentence. And avoid sentence fragments, they are very sloppy writing. A sentence should be able to stand on it’s own, independent of the paragraph; if it makes no sense on it’s own, it’s a fragment.

  12. >Eric, as I’ve noticed from his other work and posts in this blog, is a writer who takes his pre-publication duties very seriously

    The reasons you give for this are all somewhat true, but the real reason is that I’m too frickin’ proud to ship dirty copy. I don’t know where I picked this up, but I have this internal iron law that only writers who are lazy, worthless shits do that. Shocked me quite a bit when I learned how common it really is.

    Related point. I do not misspell things. Ever. But I am prone to typos, sometimes homonymous typos that make it look like I have slipped. I find detecting one of these latter more mortifying than I would having my pants fall down in public. No, I’m not kidding.

    You know, thinking about it, I do wonder how I got this way. Did I have a really fierce English teacher I’ve forgotten?

  13. darrencardinal wrote:

    Also, your tense should not change in the middle of a sentence. And avoid sentence fragments, they are very sloppy writing. A sentence should be able to stand on it’s own, independent of the paragraph; if it makes no sense on it’s own, it’s a fragment.

    I love irony. Furthermore, sentence fragments are acceptable when you’re an elocutionary punctuationist.

    @esr

    Related point. I do not misspell things. Ever. But I am prone to typos, sometimes homonymous typos that make it look like I have slipped. I find detecting one of these latter more mortifying than I would having my pants fall down in public. No, I’m not kidding.

    That’s generally true for me. If you see me misspell things, it’s a typo. I also never make grammatical errors in formal writing; but on the Internet, especially in comments, you’ll find me slipping up quite a bit. I know better, I’m just always paying that much attention to what I’m writing when I’m firing off a quick comment.

  14. C’mon, admit it, Eric -could it just be that you find correcting your galley-proofs something of an -ahem – turn on, rather than an ungratifying chore? The rustle and rough-cut of the newly debauched paper as it ssliiiides out of the envelope into your impatient hands, a pristine, bitter scent of printer’s ink rising into your flared nostrils as you score your copy, by pen, with arcane hieroglyphic sigils understood only by the maven few and their typesetters… You’re an Old Print Guy! You know what ‘Stet’ means, and how to write it – twice -, and in which margin!

    Once you’ve been through that first galley-proof, I reckon, you automatically start looking at the ‘padding’ between your HTML headers through different, more cautious eyes – if you’re lucky enough that that initial buzz of first-time ink fumes never wears off, that is. I think it’s something to do with the mythological and perceived permanence of the printed word, as opposed to the pixellated – you tend to write ‘for the record’ when someone else is taking care of the print-run and its distribution. It’s a shame that that ethic and practice seems to be losing out, even in the world of serious paper publishing, to the e-mail aesthetic, but what can you do, apart from take care over your own copy?

    I’m no programmer, half a page of simple Python is all I’m able to write or comprehend, but I can – sort of – half begin to picture how difficult it would be to write an application that could even approach the ability of the dumbest human proofreader. Has anyone even tried, without going crazy? One thing’s for certain – most books typeset after the advent of word-processing, compared with product from, say, a hundred years ago, aren’t going to show our level of human intelligence in a very good light, if someone manages to crack the homonym algorithm!

  15. @ Andrew Garland: Oh, no, not Strunk & White. Their specific advice is so bad they don’t even take it themselves, as the linguists at Language Log Plaza point out on every possble occasion. For instance, Geoff Pullum wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the 50th anniversary of publication:
    “The treatment of the passive is not an isolated slip. It is typical of Elements. The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.”

  16. >could it just be that you find correcting your galley-proofs something of an -ahem – turn on, rather than an ungratifying chore?

    I laughed my ass off reading that. But the inconvenient truth is that the last time I corrected a galley proof on paper was so long ago I barely remember it. You almost manage to make me sad about this.

  17. >Did I have a really fierce English teacher I’ve forgotten?

    Robert Heinlein? I seem to remember a mini-rant in one of his juveniles about this, but can’t remember which one. Also see his article on E E Smith in Expanded Universe (though that was much later). This seems to be not uncommon in late 1940s to early 1980s science fiction writers; for example the “Pendarvis Theory of Technology” in Fuzzy Bones that I submitted to this month’s Rationality Quotes page on Less Wrong.

    One thing spell-checking is pretty good for is catching typos, very few of them are accurate mis-spellings of the wrong word.

  18. Please fix typos and outright grammatical errors.

    As Penn & Teller puts it,

    Here’s an outright grammatical error. “Penn & Teller” is a plural subject (although Teller rarely speaks, when phrased this way, the compound subject is grammatically plural even if logically singular):

    As Penn & Teller puts it,

    If you want the singular,

    As Penn Jillette puts it,

  19. The reasons you give for this are all somewhat true, but the real reason is that I’m too frickin’ proud to ship dirty copy. I don’t know where I picked this up, but I have this internal iron law that only writers who are lazy, worthless shits do that. Shocked me quite a bit when I learned how common it really is.

    They’re also completely inconsiderate of their audience. Even if you buy the common “anti-grammar-nazi” excuse of “Oh, you know what I meant (you pedantic prick)!”, that unpacks to “I can’t be bothered to take a couple of minutes to proofread my writing for obvious spelling/grammar/usage errors; I’d rather every single one of my readers waste their time trying to puzzle out what I was getting at.”

    But I say it goes farther than that. Defending sloppy writing based on the notion that the reader can tease some meaning out of it implies that the primary purpose of language is communication. It is not. For ideas that venture just a bit beyond raw perceptions, we think in a language (or many languages). Even when our ultimate goal is communication, we first must form the idea in our own minds in whatever language we intend to use. But many times, we think, using language inside those minds, with no intent to communicate at all. The use of language is an inherent part of reasoning. And sloppy language promotes sloppy thinking.

    It never ceases to amaze me how computer-literate people (whether they consider themselves “programmers” or not) who
      · understand how important it is to rigorously define what they want a computer to do, rooting out ambiguities in their human natural-language descriptions of algorithms lest any flaws translate into bad code;
      · when operating at a command prompt, realize that DWIMNWIS rarely works, and that if they’ve constructed the wrong command/switches/arguments they are lucky if the command interpreter rejects it as a syntax error (because a syntactically valid command that does something other than what they want can be far more destructive)
    somehow, when communicating with other, tech-savvy humans, who presumably share this same understanding of the importance of using the language correctly, think that taking a tenth part of the effort used to make themselves understood to a goddamn machine is too much effort to make for humans.

    When I see a glaring error such as “I must of [sic] done that wrong”, I’m not certain whether the writer is stupid, inconsiderate of his readers, or both. But any of those three options means I have better things to do with my time and attention than read the rest of what they have to say.

  20. “Highlight all adverbs” would be nice, but an incremental search for “ly” helps a lot. Not all adverbs are -ly and not quite all ly combinations are adverbs, but it’s a good start. I’m still trying to integrate this one into my own writing path.

  21. @esr

    >OK. Reread the OP and notice what happens when you reach the last phrase, “trained, professional idiots!”

    What does it mean, then, when I read through that, chuckle, then move on? As if it were expected or almost required? I have to wonder if being a life-long reader of sci-fi, where that idiom seems more prevalent, has conditioned me to expect it.

  22. “Holy Christ, Eric, why are there 5-dimensional beetle-lizards crawling up my legs???”

    Five dimensional creatures would have no need to crawl up your legs. They could reach your pride and joy directly through hyperspace.

  23. What Eric is describing here isn’t so much effective writing, but the Fundamental Structure of Comedy.

    Most people think that comedy consists of two parts (set-up/punch line), but there really are three:

    1) Set up
    2) ???
    3) Punch Line

    Step 2 is invisible. It happens inside the minds of the audience. The set-up builds an expectation in the mind of the listener/reader. The punch line has to do two things to work correctly.

    3.1) It must oppose the expectation that has built up.
    3.2) It must be delivered during the window between when that expectation is built, and the listener/reader has a chance to expect the punch line. It’s OK if they are just starting to get to the punch line on their own, but it’s absolutely necessary that they get to the opposing expectation first, and that it is still the dominant idea in their minds when the punch line arrives.

  24. Many years ago, I was assigned a paper for one of the theoretical computer science journals to copy edit. It was, of course, very mathy. But it also had several points where the author did something informal, and occasionally even contrary to the official style of the journal. I remember, for example, that just before one of the key theorems he wrote “(Trumpets, please!)” So I went to the woman whose job was dealing with style issue and asked, “Can I just leave all this as it is?” And happily, she said yes, of course.

    I dearly love to roll back my mental sleeves and get covered in syntactic grease fixing an author’s substandard prose. But I think knowing the difference between substandard and intentionally nonstandard is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a copy editor.

  25. I give five pieces of advice to fiction writers.

    1) Write an outline first. Have an idea of what the final scene will do, but don’t be afraid to discard it if you think of something better.

    2) Write from the outline – go from the beginning of the outline to the end of the outline before you start copy editing.

    3) Throw away your first five pages without reading them. Anything that doesn’t make sense without information revealed in these five pages can be fixed in a rewrite.

    4) Do a find and replace for “*ly” and “very” – replace them with two nouns that will never make sense in the context of your writing. I recommend “poodle” and “pineapple”.

    5) Reread your piece starting from page 6 and marking out – with red pen – any place where there’s an extraneous poodle or pineapple. Make notes for expansion of context when needed.

  26. To Linda Seebach above,

    You would think that The Elements of Style was the Devil’s book, after reading Geoffrey K. Pullum’s article at the link you provided. But, neither you nor he gives an alternative which you like better. Element’s has the great value of being brief, and mostly good. Duplicating Pullum’s career studying grammar is not a practical option.

    Here is an example of Pullum’s supercilious tone. He has much fun criticizing a work that has some flaws. Where is his own helpful advice? He has spent his life studying grammer in a serious way. He has no quick recommendation to enable the peasants to improve their writing.

    === ===
    So I won’t be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I’ve spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.
    === ===

  27. The sum and substance of good writing in my opinion is to know your target market (readership) and write in a language and style they can relate to. Everything else is secondary, including grammatical perfection. I don’t believe there is any way we can define a universal standard for “effective writing” that is guaranteed to engage every type of readership.

    I think that approach sums up your writings anyway, but I would add here that the subject matter is far more important than style or grammar. If I find the subject incredibly tiresome or uninteresting, no amount of stylish writing will tempt me to read.

    And, might I mention the role of humour? Humour never fails in establishing initial reader interest, but it cannot be used as a crutch to cover up an uninteresting or tedious subject.

  28. In saying that Strunk & White is *worse* than useless, neither Geoff Pullum nor I incurs an obligation to suggest an alternative. A doctor is not obliged to know how to cure cancer before being permitted to argue against the use of a worthless quack remedy. (Also, it isn’t what the Chronicle editors asked him to do.)

    However, Pullum has elsewhere recommended Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which I too commend to your attention. It’s rich with both good and bad examples. Also useful to have available for reference are the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and [Bryan] Garner’s Modern American Usage.

  29. @The Monster:
    “Here’s an outright grammatical error. “Penn & Teller” is a plural subject”

    Penn & Teller is a book, thus singular. And books can speak.

    @The Monster:
    “Even if you buy the common “anti-grammar-nazi” excuse of “Oh, you know what I meant (you pedantic prick)!”, that unpacks to “I can’t be bothered to take a couple of minutes to proofread my writing for obvious spelling/grammar/usage errors; I’d rather every single one of my readers waste their time trying to puzzle out what I was getting at.””

    In cannot spell right in English. And if I do, I am always puzzled which English it is, US or GB. I really need a spelling checker to even get the English readable. So your “couple of minutes” is a major of undertaking for a second language writer. A somewhat less condescending attitude would be polite.

  30. @hari:
    “The sum and substance of good writing in my opinion is to know your target market (readership) and write in a language and style they can relate to.”

    You are refering to the Ideal Reader (see Umberto Eco “Lector in fabula”).

    Before you write, you should make a model of your reader. What should a reader of your piece know, what books has he read, what films and TV shows seen. How did he meet his first love, how does he spend his days. Then use references to words, movies, books, and places your Ideal Reader knows, and play with them. Use language your ideal reader uses etc.

    So, for this blog I can use a phrase “There is no place like…. 192.168.0.1″. My ideal reader knows about network addresses, knows the proverb “There is no place like Home” and the geek T-shirt text “There is no place like 127.0.0.1″ and now is trying to figure out why I used the default router address instead of the home address. So this could mean I was referring to the Internet at large, or my front door, or maybe I am war driving and this is me breaking into other peoples wireless routers. The last one would be a turn around of “There is no place like other peoples Home”.

    Outside a blog like this the whole reference of “There is no place like 192.168.0.1″ is incomprehensible.

  31. Feedback: I was so bored by your example that I didn’t even see “idiots” which was supposed to be the payoff. Since I usually find your writing quite readable, I’m inclined to think that you overdid the drab to get contrast. On the other hand, you did get a fair number of people to read to the end.

    I think you’ve got an unprovable hypothesis there, though I grant it sounds reasonable. On the other hand, I don’t know if you could formally check writing for enough variation to predict whether it will be interesting. And, of course, what’s interesting isn’t an absolute– it depends on the audience.

    I suppose one approach would be to compare extremely popular writing of a particular sort to writing of that kind which didn’t especially catch on to see whether the former has more variation, and what sort of variation. Changing register isn’t the only possibility. One that’s notable in modern popular science writing is varying the amount of theory vs. detail.

    Just for a possibly hard case– what did Dan Brown get right in The Da Vinci Code?

  32. @Andrew M Garland:

    I heartily recommend Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, which I much prefer over Strunk & White.
    Warriner also recommends to avoid passive voice — and I think he’s right about this in most cases — but at least his examples actually contain passive voice. Warriner, however, also mentions that sometimes passive voice is preferable for the sake of clarity or style.

  33. Just for a possibly hard case– what did Dan Brown get right in The Da Vinci Code?

    Brown plays on the public’s need and desire to believe the worst about our world’s major institutions — in this case the target is Christianity and the Roman Catholic church. The funny thing is that history itself is far more damning to Christianity than any so-called “historical fiction”could ever paint.

    As a lIterary work, despite widespread criticism which focuses on the novel’s historical inaccuracies, Brown does unfold the plot in a way that’s designed to pique the reader’s interest. Brown combines the rising tension of the modern-day portion of the plot with the careful revealing of the the “historical” details — it’s a classic example of how to write an intriguing historical novel. Getting the historical details wrong and outright plagiarizing his sources spoils the fun for many people who are looking for historical accuracy, however. I tend to disagree — the novel is certainly entertaining, if nothing else.

  34. >Five dimensional creatures would have no need to crawl up your legs. They could reach your pride and joy directly through hyperspace.

    Thanks for that horrifying image LS, you have just rendered the works of H P Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick obsolete for me in two sentences. I feel… tainted!

    Getting back to Style and Grammar, these guides may be Brit-centric, but they’re the Real Deal:

    Hart’s Rules
    Fowler’s Modern English Usage
    Plain Words – Sir Ernest Gowers
    absolutely anything by Eric Partridge (Eric, meet Eric – if you don’t know him already, it’s gonna be love at first read!)

    If you want to Play the Game according to Hoyle, then these are the manuals for you.

  35. The Chicago Manual of Style is considered the standard on this side of the Atlantic. It’s not too bad, but a current copy costs $40 new. OTOH, you can pick up used copies very readily for cheap.

  36. The thing is, I found that Dan Brown’s prose was unreadably awful, and I’m not the only one. There are a *lot* of people who apparently found it unproblematic and charged forward into the story. And more than a few who said that the prose was awful, but they were able to ignore that part of their minds and enjoy the story.

    This suggests that there’s a sort of bad but effective prose which isn’t distinguished from bad and ineffective prose by the usual rules for writing.

  37. The thing is, I found that Dan Brown’s prose was unreadably awful, and I’m not the only one. There are a *lot* of people who apparently found it unproblematic and charged forward into the story. And more than a few who said that the prose was awful, but they were able to ignore that part of their minds and enjoy the story.

    It’s the kind of novel I read just once. It makes a bit of an impression while reading it when I don’t know the full plot, but not the kind of book I would re-read as I do a lot of other books.

    Harry Potter in my view, falls into the same category.

    These authors certainly know their target audience and they are clear about what they seek to achieve: make money.

  38. The thing is, I found that Dan Brown’s prose was unreadably awful, and I’m not the only one.

    Well, Brown is no Ernest Hemmingway or Mark Twain, but “unreadably awful”? I’ve certainly seen worse. Do you have any specific objections to his style?

  39. I’ve noticed enough mistaken homonym usage, both in dead tree and digital media to find the mistakes remarkable. Personally I find I write by listening to the voice in my head, but without the ‘flashbulb’ asides that define the conceptual space I’m using. Therefore I find that I need to go back and buttress xor simplify xor restate concepts or I lose my audience. I don’t really remember ‘grammatical rules’ however I can spot klunky syntax so going back and unklunking is feasibe depending on the amount of time I have(e.g. I need to stop writing and go shower).

    @ winter did you do ti on purpose?

    @ William B. Smith I also thought of the Fuzzy Story. The only R.A.H story I can think of is ‘To Sail Beyond The Sunset’, I can recall several Heinlein writer/teacher protagonists so I not would be surprised at the existence of others.

  40. @Winter

    You do a better job of writing English here than the native English speakers to whom I (implicitly) aimed that jeremiad above. Of course I hold you to a lower standard. If you use a UK spelling, I certainly won’t consider it incorrect. In fact, if you’re a European, I’d expect you to have had more exposure to British English. Given that English is the bastard child of the Germanic and Romance families, and the American branch has felt some influences from assimilating a wide variety of people, English spelling is a mess. Every rule has an exception, including the exceptions themselves. [The astute reader will note that the previous sentence expressed a "rule", and will ponder whether it is its own exception before chasing the idea into a logical hall of mirrors.]

    But anyone writing to a large Anglophone audience (including those whose first language is not English) who wants people to take his words seriously should invest some time proofreading and/or find another pair of eyeballs to help. When writing to an international audience, you’re writing to people who haven’t marinated in the subtleties of English. Deviations from the standards they’ve learned in language classes, or observed in well-edited publications, will affect them far more than it will someone who understands the language well enough to suss out what the writer really meant.

    Example: A native English speaker might figure out what is meant by “Hiking through the woods, a dead deer was found by Campfire group.”, while someone who has less familiarity with the language (and the US-specific proper noun) will wonder how a dead animal could “hike” anywhere, much less close enough to a group of camp fires as to be found (by some unnamed entity). Avoid the dangling participle: change the main clause to active, rather than passive voice, and all is well.

    Outside a blog like this the whole reference of “There is no place like 192.168.0.1? is incomprehensible.

    But inside a blog like this, you’d find enough people who remember that the 192.168.0/24 and 192.168.255/24 networks could have problems with pre-CIDR networking code, and make routing tables hard to read in many OSes, so we reflexively avoid using them. The first thing I always do to a new router is set it to 192.168.[1-254].1, with the DHCP scope to begin at .100, leaving static 1-digit final octet values for any other routers, and 2-digit values for servers, including print servers (unless the network is already set up with some other scheme).

  41. Truly Donovan summed it up well: “Never mess with a writer’s style — assuming he IS a writer, and HAS a style.”

  42. Winter wrote:

    “Penn & Teller is a book, thus singular. And books can speak.”

    Um, no. “Penn & Teller” does NOT refer to a book. Do a Google search and educate yourself.

  43. @Pat
    “Um, no. “Penn & Teller” does NOT refer to a book. Do a Google search and educate yourSelf”

    Indeed, I misunderstood the referrence. Never heard of them. I am used to seeing X&Y as a single referent.

  44. Indeed, Winter. That’s probably where esr erred. It’s correct to write “Kernighan & Ritchie is the definitive guide to the C programming language,” because Kernighan & Ritchie is a book, but “Penn & Teller is hilarious” is incorrect usage. One must write “Penn & Teller are hilarious.” OTOH, esr may actually be correct if here were referring to say “Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End” and the quote were taken from the DVD. Then “Penn & Teller is hilarious” could be correct in the context that “Penn & Teller” refers to the DVD, rather than the performers Penn Jillette and Teller themselves.

  45. It’s correct to write “Kernighan & Ritchie is the definitive guide to the C programming language,” because Kernighan & Ritchie is a book,

    Well, The C Programming Language is a book by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie, published in 1978 by Prentice-Hall. That the title of the book is identical with its subject matter makes “The C Programming Language is the definitive guide to the C programming language” sound tautlolgical if not downright silly, even when quoted and italicized. We have, as a community, come to use the abbrevition “K&R” to refer to that book and the dialect of C it defines, despite the fact that it isn’t even a part the title of the book.

    I assumed that Winter was referring to something like Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic or Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (which doesn’t actually have “Penn & Teller” in its title, but might be known as “P&T” by a process similar to “K&R” above.)

  46. Morgan, when I looked at the book when it was new, it really seemed intolerable– possibly word choice issues. For what it’s worth, I also thought the beginning of Twilight (I kept picking it up in the bookstore because the cover art was striking) was too dull to be worth pursuing.

    Here’s a rant on the subject.

    However, I just looked at the beginning a few minutes ago (thank you, amazon), and it looked tolerable.

    Discussion of word choice, mostly about overly ornate but clueless writing. I think Dan Brown has some of those problems.

    I’m currently reading Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which takes a detailed look at why people like what they like, a history of taste, and discussion of what Dion is doing musically and what’s going on between communities of taste that value ugly music (or at least not flamboyantly polished) and those that value pretty music.

    In a way, the author is writing in the same genre as Graham or Gladwell: a moderately detailed overview for people who want cool ideas and cool details. He isn’t quite as interesting as either of them (though not bad at all) and I wonder if he hasn’t mastered variety quite as well.

    I’ve just come to a bit which seems perfect for this blog:

    To oversimplify wantonly, the disenchantment begins with the severing of visual art and music from their religious role, in which the Church (and rhetorically, God) is the ultimate art critic. After the Enlightenment, art gradually moves from an aristocratic status to a bourgeois one. The Romantics, in reaction, celebrate artistic genius as an autonomous agent of revelation, proudly outside society. Modernism gives that outsider status a harder edge: Art’s mission becomes not just to reveal higher truth, but to attack social falsehood.

  47. I consider the movie of The DaVinci Code to be a stunning masterpiece of novel-to-film adaptation.

    I had read the book prior to seeing the movie. Or, rather, I read the first 160 or so pages and decided that the rest was not worth my time.

    I got to the theater and was stunned. In a medium built around rapid build up and release of tension, a medium built around the flowing motion of actors and lighting and cinematography, Ron Howard faithfully reproduced the sensation of reading Dan Brown’s prose – that of being bludgeoned by a gargoyle embossed with the contents of a thesaurus – on the big screen.

    While it was an unpleasant experience, and possibly an unintended one, as a technical masterpiece of prose-to-screen adaptation, it is incredible.

  48. I haven’t read even 160 page’s worth, but my wife, not a literary critic by any standard, described the most recent one as a whole bunch of running to a place, to quickly find out what next place to run to, terminated by an unsatisfying sooper sekrit revelation. Also this is her third Brown book and she commented it seemed to be the same book three times.

    I haven’t bothered, based on what I’ve seen it hasn’t got anything on The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which has really spoiled me when it comes to conspiracy writing. “Piffle, you call that a conspiracy? Please, you’re not even trying! Where’s the quintuple agent? What, there aren’t even five sides? Boring!”

  49. I’m pleased to read this. I have the feeling that you would enjoy William Empson (1930) 7 Types of Ambiguity, which argues that all good poetry uses a number of techniques, including scansion, metre, and rhyme, to suggest fusions of meaning and achieve condensation of expression.

    “already an unusually skilled writer, you should not try to replicate this technique” – Hmm, I don’t agree. Try them, and get other people to read them and comment on them before you release them to a wider audience. If your friends won’t, freelance editors charge reasonable rates for this kind of thing. Your unusually skilled writers cultivate unusually perceptive readers for this feedback.

  50. ESR,

    “in order to induce tension-and-release cycles”

    So basically you took what you learned while playing music (flute etc.) and applied it to the field of writing style.

  51. I see “Penn & Teller” as a collective noun. So I had no problem with puts. Penn is a person, Teller is a person, Penn & Teller are a group. The group is collective.

  52. Getting back to the change from Romantic to Modern, I’m amazed at the shift from “I bring you beauties beyond what you know” to “I’m here to tell you how ugly you are”. Is it just that WWI dispirited people, or something else?

  53. >I see “Penn & Teller” as a collective noun. So I had no problem with puts. Penn is a person, Teller is a person, Penn & Teller are a group. The group is collective.

    I’ve been watching the various theories of grammatical correctness about this construction mooted here with amusement. In my opinion, they are mostly missing the point.

    “Penn & Teller” is a plural noun. In my usage, it may be “Penn & Teller are” or “Penn & Teller is” depending on whether I wish to emphasize the plurality of the nounness. That is, since I think “trained professional idiots” is to be regarded as a joint utterance of Penn & Teller which it happens Penn is articulating, “puts it” is appropriate. If I thought it were to be regarded as something Penn individually says in his loud-guy role as part of Penn & Teller, then I would want to emphasize their plurality and “put it” would be arguably correct.

    Correctness to formalized rules is the servant. Expressiveness and concision are the masters. It is not only the right but the duty of a writer to jettison rule conformance when by doing so he can make language able to convey finer distinctions. I’ve noted several times on this blog, I not infrequently use the “incorrect” Southern-dialect distinct second person plural “y’all” in my idiolect despite having been born in Boston and having otherwise a speech pattern that is textbook-typical for an educated American from the mid-Atlantic East Coast; the exact same principle is involved.

    Of course, if by choosing an “incorrect” construction you annoy or distract the reader, you are impeding communication and have erred. So my advice to discard rule correctness applies mostly with respect to rules which are vague, disputed, or semi-obsolescent (the plural-noun one qualifies under “vague”). The one about not splitting infinitives is a classic example; it was an attempt to impose a historically unjustified Latinism on English and I treat it with contempt.

  54. I agreed that expressiveness is the master– I’m not dead certain about concision. There’s some amount of redundancy which may help with communication, and I’m not just talking about being pretty much able to read text with the bottoms of the the letters cut off.

    My favorite dictum on criticism is that criticism, at its best, identifies the qualities which seem to accompany success. I wish I had a source for it, but I’m very fond of its modesty.

    Note that the purpose of criticism is not to wallop entertainingly unsuccessful work. And it’s not to buttress a theory of what a critic thinks ought to be successful. Actually, it’s even more modest than what I just said. Criticism at its second best could be a Punch and Judy show or a more subtle effort to gain status– but the really good stuff is an effort to understand art that works, whether for the individual critic or for a larger audience.

  55. Collective nouns are treated differently in UK and US English. US usage depends on the form of the noun: Verbs that take such nouns are conjugated based on whether the name explicitly demonstrates the plural nature. UK English will use the plural conjugation regardless.

    “Sporting Kansas City is building a new soccer-specific stadium a few blocks away from the baseball stadium where they’ve played most of their home games since the renovations at Arrowhead Stadium forced them to move.” (When the club started building the stadium, the name was “Kansas City Wizards”, which would have been construed in the plural.)
    “The New York Red Bulls are playing in Mexico this week.”
    “Manchester United are favored to win their next few games.”

    “The Green Bay Packers are champions of the NFL.”
    “The US Navy is conducting exercises near South Korea.”
    “The Royal Navy are conducting exercises in the North Sea.”

    Under either rule, “Penn & Teller” should take a plural verb form.

    If I thought it were to be regarded as something Penn individually says in his loud-guy role as part of Penn & Teller, then I would want to emphasize their plurality and “put it” would be arguably correct.

    That seems entirely backwards to me. If Penn is the only one speaking, he is singular. But then it would be “Penn Jilette (of Penn & Teller) puts it”.

    “Y’all” (like “youse” or “yuns”) is an attempt to reclaim the distninction between second-person singular and plural that was lost when “thou/thee/thy/thine” was assimilated into the plural form. It is perfectly logical and reasonable to wish to make that distinction.

    ESR’s continuing mission: To boldy split infinitives….

    (I have to admit my early training forces me to want to phrase that “To split infinitives boldly”.)

  56. Hmm. IMO, English, like any other language, is a tool to get meaning across. If you get your meaning across reliably, and without undue effort on the reader’s part, the objective of language has been met. Given the extent and history of the language, I’m surprised there is any “correct” English, or consensus on usage.

  57. “The sum and substance of good writing in my opinion is to know your target market (readership) and write in a language and style they can relate to. Everything else is secondary, including grammatical perfection. I don’t believe there is any way we can define a universal standard for “effective writing” that is guaranteed to engage every type of readership.”

    Ditto. While I’ve been enjoying a lot of older books lately (Kindle, free anything over 70 years old), I find them slower going than modern novels. While their language is more “correct” (due to being written closer to when they decided to codify the English language standard), and the imagery they use can be just as, if not occasionally more, engaging, I tend to have to read slower to parse it. I’m sure older audiences could read these just as easily as I can read modern-English novels. It’s partially what words you are expecting to parse, what you have cached.

  58. @The Monster: That should read “To poodle split infinitives…”

    …and then you strike “poodle” depending on whether you think it makes sense in context. I rather like it there myself.

  59. > It never ceases to amaze me how computer-literate people (whether they consider themselves “programmers” or not) who understand how important it is to rigorously define what they want a computer to do, rooting out ambiguities in their human natural-language descriptions of algorithms lest any flaws translate into bad code;

    It doesn’t surprise me.

    Thirty or forty years ago it would have.
    Back then when CPU time was very expensive, much more expensive than developer’s time, programmers had to be very rigorous about desk checking their code. People would even have peers review their code to see if they could spot anything that might cause a compiler error before bringing their ‘cards’ in for compilation, often on a different floor (I wonder if places with elevators had more compilation errors than places where one had to walk up and down stairs to get to the compiler).

    These days it’s easy to rely on the compiler to find the small stuff and unit testing to insure that the algorithm is correct. Is it any wonder that people who have become used to such instant feedback are less likely to review what they’ve written with their own eyes before hitting the send button?

  60. BTW – what do you folks think about this kind of style: “You might find the attached document of interest. By the way, do you happen to have a contract draft at hand I could take a look at in the meantime?”

    The characteristics are:

    1) trying hard not to connect independent and dependent clauses with “that”, “in order to” or some othe glue-word, nor to connect them with punctuation, trying to write them instead as one complex clause (perhaps one could call it a bit latinized style or maybe frenchified style),

    2) slow down the rythm of the sentence by fillers, such as putting “happen” between “do you” and “have”,

    3) use nouns instead of adverbs: “find … of interest” instead of “find … interesting”, “with a certain tone of impatience” instead of “impatiently” etc. etc.

    This style I use very often esp. for business correspondence because as a non-native speaker this sounds “very English” and therefore elegant and in-the-know to me – “very English” in my case means “very un-Hungarian and very un-German, but a bit like Latin”. I think it is fair to say that to a certain extent these are the general characteristics of good English as such.

    However there is a chance I might be overdoing, overstretching it and then the whole thing comes over as something snobbish and pretentious – this is a style I copied from older upper middle class Brits which might or might not be a good thing. What do you think? Do you often write like that?

  61. >this is a style I copied from older upper middle class Brits which might or might not be a good thing.

    The style you describe would still be quite correct for an educated American or Brit in business correspondence or other contexts where a semi-formal register is appropriate. An American would be slightly more likely to omit “happen” and in general use a slightly more clipped style, but this sample is well within the normal American range.

  62. “These days it’s easy to rely on the compiler to find the small stuff and unit testing to insure that the algorithm is correct. Is it any wonder that people who have become used to such instant feedback are less likely to review what they’ve written with their own eyes before hitting the send button?”

    Yes. Back in the days when the Pascal bandwagon was still rolling, Niklaus Wirth wrote about how harmful programming at the keyboard is. He much preferred retreating to a quiet spot with a pad and a copy of the program listing and doing his debugging and programming there. Then he would go to the keyboard and make his changes.

    I like to do that if I can. It greatly reduces the cycle of, “Damn! It STILL doesn’t work! What now?”

  63. “Back in the days when the Pascal bandwagon was still rolling, Niklaus Wirth wrote about how harmful programming at the keyboard is.”

    IMHO it has a lot to do with programming becoming a popular, well-paid _job_, as opposed to a _vocation_ of a small group. I admit to often doing this: make semi-random changes until it compiles, make semi-random changes until it passes the tests, job done, because as an ERP guy I see programming basically nothing but dirty manual work I need to do until I am senior enough to become a project manager and thus begin my real career in being a suit. This approach would greatly offend the sensibilities of real programmers / hackers but in my defense real programmers don’t have to use C/AL and other walled gardens, and don’t write payroll software and suchlike, and thus this subset of programming IS so far removed from real programming and is nothing but dirty manual work indeed, and thus this subset plain simply does not deserve the kind of serious, enthusiastic, vocational, hacker attitude as real programming, say, doing AI in LISP deserves.

    In fact, I think the term “programmer” is too general and it would be high time to split the identities, split the names, because there are people who want to want to write programs and there are people who have to write programs, with the mindset that this is a temporary phase they can graduate out of. This does not only apply to wannabee suits: I know a young physicist who rather disliked having to write C++ code in order to analyze experiment results during his PhD course at Stanford, he similarly saw it as a temporary dirty manual work phase which he can graduate out of and become a real physicist. I think this group needs a new name, a name different from programmer, but a non-insulting one.

  64. IMHO it has a lot to do with programming becoming a popular, well-paid _job_, as opposed to a _vocation_ of a small group. I admit to often doing this: make semi-random changes until it compiles, make semi-random changes until it passes the tests, job done, because as an ERP guy I see programming basically nothing but dirty manual work I need to do until I am senior enough to become a project manager and thus begin my real career in being a suit.

    You don’t want to be a project manager. Project managers don’t make crap. You want to be sytems analyst or a systems architect. Systems analysts and systems architects make much, much more money. Anybody who can fog a mirror can do project management.

  65. >You want to be sytems analyst or a systems architect.

    Indeed. That’s me if I were in industry – senior systems architect. Trouble with this advice is that it is difficult to train to be one of those. Some talent and lots of practice refactoring systems is the only way I’ve seen anyone get there.

  66. I know a young physicist who rather disliked having to write C++ code in order to analyze experiment results during his PhD course at Stanford, he similarly saw it as a temporary dirty manual work phase which he can graduate out of and become a real physicist.

    This is somewhat interesting to me. I’m an engineer trying to learn more advanced physics on the side, and have always had a programming hobby. I can’t imagine being able to do certain kinds of math *without* being able to program. Though, as some posts on my new blog show, for me programming can be a pain at times when the preliminary math part goes fast, and bug-hunting goes slow. Still, programming has afforded me a kind of mathematical freedom – I don’t need anyone’s software to work out the numerical consequences of just about anything.

    PS – I wonder if a compiler that has some sort of lenience for programming typos would be useful? If a variable or token is misspelled, find the closest one in scope and treat it as equivalent. If your brackets aren’t balanced, auto-balance them, that sort of thing. It could lead to faster compiles, but might lead to confusion during bug-hunts (though presumably you would find and correct your auto-corrected statements first in such an effort).

  67. > @Aaron2 you are thinking of Do What I Mean. It tends to fail spectacularly.

    +1

    One need only look at the state of HTML after a few years of MSIE’s reign.

  68. You can do DWIM right, you know. The trick is in recognizing that WIM is often the same thing, possibly with minor variations. So implement the common thing, and make the variations possible albeit with a bit of manual twiddling, and you should save time in the long run.

    If the common component is large, your finished program will look more like a simple Unix filter. If the varying component is large, then your finished program will look more like a text editor and compiler.

  69. Shenpen: Technically, the alternate version of your hypothetical sentence “You might find the attached document of interest/You might find the attached document interesting” does not contain an adverb. The underlying construction is “You might find the attached document [to be] of interest/interesting.”

    If the subordinated element were broken out as an independent clause in a separate sentence, it would be “The attached document is of interest/interesting.” That’s a predicate adjectival sentence with a linking verb; “interesting” is an adjective (a present participle in origin, but by now the word “interesting” has taken on independent life and is no longer parsed as the participle of “interest”), and “of interest” is an adjectival prepositional phrase. The grammatical identity of “interesting” as an adjective does not change when the sentence that contains it is subordinated; the grammatical change that does this affects the verb, which is first put into a non-finite form and then elided.

  70. @Paul Brinkley

    You can do DWIM right, you know.

    Your description reminds me autocorrect, (maybe NSFW, depending on where you W) especially as implemented on smartphones. At least autocorrect has humor value. :)

  71. “> @Aaron2 you are thinking of Do What I Mean. It tends to fail spectacularly.”

    Oh, well. I figured it had to have been tried before, and that hackers would be the people to know about it, including whether or not it is/was a good idea.

  72. > Your description reminds me autocorrect, (maybe NSFW, depending on where you W) especially as implemented on smartphones. At least autocorrect has humor value. :)

    > Oh, well. I figured it had to have been tried before, and that hackers would be the people to know about it, including whether or not it is/was a good idea.

    It still is, given the right implementation.

    I like autocorrect / command completion in Office, Chrome and various IDEs. All we really need to make DWIM work is a command line interface which can throw a high contrast squiggly line under your individual command line element, plus a command line element completion list you can pick from with the mouse or keyboard. There are lots of keyboard command line completion interfaces which are nice. I like the Korn vi one, since I use it alot.

    Says the guy who doesn’t plan on coding it. Consider it yet another internet wish.

    Yours,
    Tom

  73. > DWIM is not possible.

    Given an interface which is actually like autocorrect / command completion? I don’t see why not. Then it’s really Guess What I Mean And Do It If I Pick The Guess. Which is demonstrably good enough for me.

    Yours,
    Tom

  74. Gonna go with Tom here. It sounds like command completion is enough to get Aaron2 roughly 30% of the way to less painful programming. So is an autoindent feature to make bad brackets stick out more. In other words, Aaron2 needs Eclipse.

    Another 30% of the road is probably going to be practice. Write enough code and your fingers get better at following your brain’s instructions.

    At some point, you also will need to get used to text editing macros or something equivalent. You should never really have to type this verbatim:

    for (int i = 0; i < sizeof(myArray); i++)

  75. > In other words, Aaron2 needs Eclipse.

    Call it IDE Shell and build it into an SSH / SQL / any other command line client. It may require a special client on the server end if you are completing a command or file name.

    Hey, that’s actually a nice brainstorm style idea for a tool mash up, if I may say so myself, and another internet wish, particularly if built into Eclipse, which I use on occaision.

    Oooo! Add a remote file editor client, so I can edit my files on the server directly using Eclipse.

    Now tell me why they are stupid so the wishes can get better!

    One variety of stupid is to say: Here’s the project, go contribute. :)

    Yours,
    Tom

  76. @Tom
    > One variety of stupid is to say: Here’s the project, go contribute. :)

    The sorts of things you’re suggesting have kinda been SOP in Plan 9 for a while, particularly the Acme editor/environment. If you don’t know Plan9Port (as it suggests, a port of much of the Plan 9 system to other OSes), I’d recommend giving it a look-see, if only for fun.

  77. The choice of “hello world” snippet was interesting. Without it, I would never have known what you were getting at. When I think “scansion,” I think of the flow and enunciation of syllables treated as a separate entity from meaning. So I thought you were suggesting that the enunciation of prose should be missing a beat every once in a while (a common technique in music.)

    While I definitely recognized that broken *expectations* are what make the Penn and Teller quote so effective, I didn’t think to put that in the same category as broken *rhythm.*

    So, does this mean I should be treating rhythm as an extension of comprehension? Should I try to sync the two together in phase? (This is just from someone who wants to improve his own writing.)

  78. >So I thought you were suggesting that the enunciation of prose should be missing a beat every once in a while

    It should, yes. The best writing uses speech rhythm – and deliberate breaks in it – as ways to set up tension/release episodes.

    >While I definitely recognized that broken *expectations* are what make the Penn and Teller quote so effective, I didn’t think to put that in the same category as broken *rhythm.*

    Whereas that is precisely what I am urging you to do. Moments of broken rhythmic expectation and of broken semantic expectation have the same function and (in the hands of a skilled prose stylist) are used in the same way.

    >So, does this mean I should be treating rhythm as an extension of comprehension? Should I try to sync the two together in phase?

    Works better if you have them sort of beating against each other, creating a polyrhythm.

  79. “You don’t want to be a project manager. Project managers don’t make crap. You want to be sytems analyst or a systems architect.”

    I think I grok what you are getting, but these titles are getting more and more fuzzy. If PM means a person who asks another person when will X be done and updates a Microsoft Project file accordingly and sends it out to everyone in an e-mail, and with that the job is done, then I will be no PM. On the other hand, the term “architect” sounds very technical and I think the No. 1 rule of business software is that it is not about technology, it is about people and processes and I always say that I could design the same system for paper forms and filing cabinets if was born 1-2-3 generations ago.

    On a more general note, in the first half of the XX. century job titles, job descriptions were very literal, in the second half, they got inflated and pompous, and in the XXI. we are experiencing a third direction, that of increasing fuzziness and disinterest in titles and job descriptions. This is exactly the case of the job I will be starting in a month, they told me I can call myself inhouse consultant, developer, project manager or whatever, does not matter at all, what matters is that they shit is rather chaotic and want it got together. And part of it will be high-level stuff like persuading a subsidiary to buy into a centralized database, and part of it will be simple coding, more of a vertical job than a horizontal one.

    I think many jobs are getting vertical instead of horizontal.

    Horizontal: “I am an programmer and can program anything”, “I am a manager and can manage anything”, “I am a bricklayer and can build anything”, “I am a civil enginer and can design any building”.

    Vertical: “I am a hotel building expert, and can and are willing to do anything to get a hotel built from discussing a whole vision with a customer and performing engineering calculations down to getting my hands dirty and laying bricks myself if and when the need arises. Or even do marketing for the hotel or even implementing software for it. Anything to get that fucking hotel running.”

    Do you see a similar trend?

  80. Late to the party, but I see what Shenpen’s talking about. As organizations flatten, jobs are going to get vertical because the same stuff needs to get done, there are just fewer layers for it to sift through. And fewer people to do it. That means that instead of programmers wandering around looking for something to program or whatever, it’ll be people in places where stuff needs to get done and they do it because, well, they happen to be the ones who are there. This creates messes when there’s more to do than can be done, or people are getting stuck with responsibilities they lack training, background or understanding for. But it also allows for productivity gains because instead of employees looking, horizontally, for something else to do at their level to keep busy, their look at what they can do up one level or down one level to get the thing they’re actually trying to get done accomplished. As such, work is no longer about waiting for the next level up to decide what to do and the next level down to do it and report, it’s about making sure things happen so that the person who asked for something to be done yesterday isn’t back asking where it is tomorrow.

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