Tag Archives: Roger W. Smith

The best way is not always the shortest.


My wife called something to my attention  in the New York Times this morning. She had a problem with the second paragraph in the following story:

“On Eve of Trial, Discovery of Carlson Texts Set Off Crisis Atop Fox”

By Jim Rutenberg, Jeremy W. Peters, and Michael S. Schmidt

The New York Times

April 26, 2023

The second paragraph read:

Private messages sent by Mr. Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments of his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial.

I think I know why the sentence ended up the way it did. Because of newspaper-writing conventions regarding conciseness. The rule or standard is: Get rid of as many words as you can whenever and wherever they can be omitted (without omitting key facts or becoming unintelligible).

But there is a problem here.

comments OF HIS PRIME-TIME SHOW is vague and fuzzy. Were they comments that Carlson alone made (this is implied, but it could also include comments made by guests/interviewees)? Were they comments that he spoke or that were posted on the screen in bullet point fashion? In my mind it’s too vague. And awkwardly worded. It seems that comments ON his prime-time show would be better (sounds better to the ear). But then that’s not clear, because it could be anyone’s comments.

The best way to say it (undoubtedly) is comments made by Carlson on his prime-time show. This adds three words (the phrase made by Carlson on replaces the word of).



My post

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)

regarding Professor Strunk’s admonition, “Omit Needless Words.” (or, are long, complex sentences bad?)

is pertinent here.

I quoted Professor Brooks Landon in his lecture ““Grammar and Rhetoric” (lecture 2, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft”; The Great Courses/The Teaching Company).

Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” … “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense.



My journalism school instructor, New York Times city reporter Maurice (Mickey) Carroll, taught me to tighten up my stories. His editing was invaluable. Here is an example from one of my assignments.


So I understand and appreciate the need for conciseness in newspaper reporting. But I also think Professor Landon’s astute observations should be kept in mind.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   April 27, 2023

Walt Whitman to Anson Ryder, Jr.


Whitman to Anson Ryder, Jr. August


Posted here (PDF above) are two letters from Walt Whitman letter to Anson Ryder, Jr., dated August 15 and 16, 1865.



A good letter mixes the general with the specific.

Emotion — feeling for the person addressed — with material that is of topical and anecdotal interest to both the letter writer and the recipient, creating a conversational-type bond.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  March 2023


See also my post:

A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General

A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General

a genius for simile


Jason Gay wrote:

Baseball [has] a clock [now].

This is how it should be, and how baseball once was. Have pitchers pitch. Have batters bat. How much of your existence have you already surrendered to this maddening game, which dawdles like an oblivious customer in an airport Starbucks–a tall is the small one, right–as your flight announces its final boarding? [italics added]

— “Thought Baseball Games Were Too Slow. Now They’re Too Fast?,” By Jason Gay, The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2023


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2023

“She was like, no.”


Walking on East 28th Street today, Sunday, I passed a bagel place. Two young women were chatting at a table outside, One said (talking about a third person not present), “She was like, no. I was like … ”


The use of like — how would one define it grammatically? an intensifier? — has become common among a younger generation; is something new, in terms of idiomatic usage.

Well how about my generation? I grew up in the 50s.

Cool and square. Can you dig it must have sounded strange to our parents’ and grandparents’ ears.

Like is used to signify something without being specific. She was like, angry. She was like, I can’t stand this. She may have actually said this, or said this in essence but not in these exact words.

English lends itself to flexibility and inventiveness. Think of Shakespeare, Chaucer.

This grammar purist wholly endorses like. Or at least doesn’t object to it


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 5, 2023




Like here seems to function as an intensifier, but that may not be the correct grammatical term. Perhaps there is no precise term to classify it.

intensifier — a word, especially an adverb or adjective, that has little meaning itself but is used to add force to another adjective, verb, or adverb: In the phrases an extremely large man and I strongly object, extremely and strongly are both intensifiers.



Addendum, March 10, 2023

A friend of mine has pointed out that the grammatical classification of like is not so simple.

Let’s say one hears said: I got a C minus on my paper and I was, like, in a state of shock.

This is an example of an exaggerated statement that is almost parodies the words used. Because what the speaker is saying — means — is that they were surprised and not happy to get such a low grade but they by no means mean to imply that a state of shock was an actuality – the situation was actually a lot less bad.

“The language police come for the word ‘field’ ”


‘The language police come for the word field’ – Boston Globe 1-17-2023


After all, as that memo from the Practicum Education Department points out, “Words are powerful, but even more so is action. We are committing to further align our actions, behaviors and practices with anti-racism and anti-oppression, which requires taking a close and critical look at our profession — our history, our biases and our complicity in past and current injustices.”




“The language police come for the word ‘field’ ”

By Joan Vennochi

The Boston Globe

January 17, 2023

We all know the basic meaning, origin, of the word field. But think of all the meanings, connotations, it has assumed. From the basic concept of a plot, an area, comes the idea of something abstract: domain, area. And this concept gets generalized. Unified Field Theory. His field of study is anthropology.

And baseball and football fields. And fielder. The left fielder occupies that position on a baseball field. An outfielder is stationed far from home plate and an infielder the opposite.

A politician fields a question. This usage may have come from baseball: the verb to field (the shortstop fielded a grounder).

Harmless enough, would you not say?

And here we have an issue being made (at UCLA) of the word. This is preposterous. Academics are engaging in entirely needless, ridiculous language policing – what seems to be an exercise in “virtue signaling.”

Is it reasonable to assume that descendants of slaves who happen to be students or staff would be “harmed” or cannot handle the word field? Can anyone be offended?

As an example, consider the word rope. Should it be banned? Ropes were used to lynch blacks in recent history. How about tree? Or the noun (or, for that matter, the verb) post? They are things and words that were no doubt were used in lynchings and in accounts of lynchings.

In the Boston Globe article. reference is made to a list of words complied by Globe editors that writers have been instructed to either avoid or “be careful with.”

Some expressions to avoid entirely because of their roots in violence against Black people, Indigenous people, or other marginalized groups, or their appropriation from Indigenous cultures and customs, include “grandfather clause”; “on the warpath”; “too many chiefs, not enough Indians“; powwow”; “long time, no see” and “no can do”; “mumbo jumbo”; and “chink in the armor.” We should also be careful with “sherpa” if we’re not referring to the Tibetan ethnic group; “guru” if we’re not referring to a spiritual leader or teacher with that title; “hysteria,” especially if not talking about a cisgender male; “crazy,” “insane,” “schizophrenic” or other mental health terms if used to describe unrelated things; and language relating to physical disabilities, such as “blindness” or “deafness,” to mean cluelessness, heartlessness, or unwillingness to listen; or “lame” to mean “undesirable” or “corny.”

Most of these recommendations (re usage by Globe staff) seem sensible and worth alerting writers to. Times do change. Think of racist insults and slurs that were once common.


Getting back to the word field. Abbie Findlay Potts, in her monograph Wordsworth’s Prelude: A Study of Its Literary Form, discusses the poetic vocabulary of the young William Wordsworth (with a consideration of things such as abstract versus concrete words). She observes:

Man-made things noted, typically more than actually, are paths and walks, fields of war and listed fields, cell, dome, mansions, roof; gold, dye, chariot, fetters, sword, lance, ring, and lyre; design, book, page, and song.

Note the use of the word fields. Should an English professor refrain from teaching Wordsworth because of this?

And what about the following:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

— Blake, ”London”

My goodness! Manacles were used to restrain slaves – as can be observed in pictures of slave auctions. What is to be done? I hope this favorite poem of mind doesn’t get banned.


— Roger W. Smith

  January 2020

This is writing!


Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge.

And this is Dorlcote Mill. I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it, though the clouds are threatening, and it is far on in the afternoon. Even in this leafless time of departing February it is pleasant to look at,—perhaps the chill, damp season adds a charm to the trimly kept, comfortable dwelling-house, as old as the elms and chestnuts that shelter it from the northern blast. The stream is brimful now, and lies high in this little withy plantation, and half drowns the grassy fringe of the croft in front of the house. As I look at the full stream, the vivid grass, the delicate bright-green powder softening the outline of the great trunks and branches that gleam from under the bare purple boughs, I am in love with moistness, and envy the white ducks that are dipping their heads far into the water here among the withes, unmindful of the awkward appearance they make in the drier world above.

The rush of the water and the booming of the mill bring a dreamy deafness, which seems to heighten the peacefulness of the scene. They are like a great curtain of sound, shutting one out from the world beyond. And now there is the thunder of the huge covered wagon coming home with sacks of grain. That honest wagoner is thinking of his dinner, getting sadly dry in the oven at this late hour; but he will not touch it till he has fed his horses,—the strong, submissive, meek-eyed beasts, who, I fancy, are looking mild reproach at him from between their blinkers, that he should crack his whip at them in that awful manner as if they needed that hint! See how they stretch their shoulders up the slope toward the bridge, with all the more energy because they are so near home. Look at their grand shaggy feet that seem to grasp the firm earth, at the patient strength of their necks, bowed under the heavy collar, at the mighty muscles of their struggling haunches! I should like well to hear them neigh over their hardly-earned feed of corn, and see them, with their moist necks freed from the harness, dipping their eager nostrils into the muddy pond. Now they are on the bridge, and down they go again at a swifter pace, and the arch of the covered wagon disappears at the turning behind the trees.

— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  December 2022



I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,–and our first thought, is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays, First Series (1841)

Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form which is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty, as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan, to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less is the latter the germination of the former. So in regard to other forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition. Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence; and even the poets are contented with a civil and conformed manner of living, and to write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience. But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it. And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time, and its creatures, floweth, are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, to the means and materials he uses, and to the general aspect of the art in the present time.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844)




he “throws his thoughts out”

pell-mell, into the air

they are interesting and provocative

But you, the reader, have to figure out what he is saying

This is a violation of what I consider to be fundamental principles of good writing

one of which is that an accomplished writer does the work for the reader … makes his meaning and the thrust of the piece clear … makes clear, through organization and coherence, whatever are the key points and which ones are ancillary

An essayist such as Samuel Johnson does this, while writing dense prose with long sentences

On the surface, one would be inclined to think Emerson’s prose is clear

It is not



What the writer is saying should be apparent

The reader should not have to extract “buried” meaning from oracular, gnomic prose

Clarity is not inimical to depth or profundity of thought

Emerson’s writing is (on the surface) simple: too simple

He does not take the pains to make his meaning clear

He is saying something

in a roundabout, allusive way that frustrates the reader



An often neglected feature – a desideratum – of good writing is what my high school English teacher specified as emphasis

the weight of a piece has to fall somewhere: key points at the beginning, In certain places

a skillful writer can do this subtly …one does not need to hit the reader over the head with sledgehammer (I begin my essay: “Capital punishment is wrong!”) .. the key, salient points can emerge

But …

What are Emerson’s key points? … he does make them, implicitly, and some would say, strongly and effectively … but, I would say that the reader has to extract them … the writing is a mishmash of thoughts



Is spontaneity a virtue in writing?


Samuel Johnson urged would be writers to get their thoughts down fast. This he himself did. Many of his essays were written within a very tight time frame.

I find that some of my best and original. writing is done this way. Something occurs to me; and I think, get it down on paper (or, in my case, it is often in the form of an email written to myself on my cell phone … I do a fair amount of writing on park benches and in subway cars and taverns).

But, even in this case, as an experienced writer, I have a sixth sense about where I am going with a piece. I am very focused on maintaining a logical, coherent flow.

I have been praised by no less a critic than my wife for my readability and (as she puts it) the fact that it is always eminently clear what I am saying.


— Roger W. Smith

  December 2022

“The tone is college admissions essay.”


“The tone is college admissions essay. Typical sentence: ‘In an environment of maximum pressure, I learned to ignore the noise and distractions and instead to push for results that would improve lives.’ ”

“Every political cliché gets a fresh shampooing. ‘Even in a starkly divided country, there are always opportunities to build bridges,’ Kushner writes.”

— Dwight Garner, review of Breaking History: A White House Memoir, By Jared Kushner, The New York Times, August 17,. 2022

Generic writing, aka boilerplate.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2022

Walt Whitman, ‘Slang in America”


Walt Whitman, ‘Slang in America’ – North American Review, November 1885


Posted here (PDF file above):

Walt Whitman, ‘Slang in America”

North American Review

November 1885


“Language, be it remembered, is not an abstract construction of the learned, of of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity. ….”


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  August 2022