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Best. Correction. Ever.

No wonder our 酸辣豆 came!

No wonder our 酸辣豆 never came!

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RHETORICAL TROPE #6: Anthimeria

These days, the use of “anthimeria” is so common that its existence as a specific trope goes almost as unnoticed as the term itself. We do it whenever we use an adjective as a noun, or a noun as a verb, and so on.

Tinserthe most common form of anthimeria, by far, is the verbification of nouns. (There! I did it! Did you notice?) Case in point: “impact.”

Years ago, for example, the word “impact” was nothing more than a good, old-fashioned noun. Events had impacts; impacts were the result of actions. However, at some point in the recent past, “impact” became a verb and rather than wonder what global impact would arise from the Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes breakup (hint: none,) people began instead to ask how that divorce would “impact” the world (another hint: not at all.)

“I didn’t just pencil you in… I inked you.”

To be sure, there was much torn hair and gnashed teeth over the matter, but the verb “to impact” wormed (yes, “to worm” is a verb) its way eventually into the lexicon and, today, crying foul for such usages as “this weather is impacting on my schedule” only gains one a reputation as a language snob.

Having won the “impact as verb” battle, however, the unruly pioneers on the borderlands of language usage, went on to establish its use as an adjective, as in the recent Forbes magazine article that asks the question, “Are You an Impactful Leader?” Should we brace ourselves for a follow-up article with an accompanying questionnaire that will allow the reader to determine their “Impacticity Quotient?”

Whether “impactful” becomes widely accepted or not will be determined by future generations who will eventually find themselves wrestling with words such as “impactfully,” “impactitude,” or, dare I suggest, “impactitization,” which currently garner 154,000, 334 and – thankfully – no hits at all on Google, respectfully.

As we often note, real creativity in writing arises from the selective bending or breaking of rules. Proper usage can be boring. It’s so much more exciting and memorable to note that US athletes medaled 104 times at the 2012 Summer Olympics, than merely having won all of those signs of excellence.

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Infographic on How a Book is Published

Author Mariah Bear prepared this chart for the blog at Weldon Owen Publishing. The original post, and the resulting comments, made be found here.

HOW A BOOK IS PUBLISHED

HOW A BOOK IS PUBLISHED

Our own contact in the book publishing world informs us that this is, in fact, a very accurate – if over-simplified – descripution of the realities of getting a book onto bookstore shelves.

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Great Video “The Power of Words” from Andrea Gardner for her Book “Change Your Words, Change Your World”

We’ve watched this video several times. It’s beautifully produced and photographed, and it makes its point clearly and simply. It should make people think.

Part of what impressed us is its demonstration of how rhetoric – because that what this is about – can be used to influence people to ends other than political or commercial. This art of rhetoric, of using language to elicit behavior, has a bad reputation. Many consider it manipulative, devious, even inherently evil, occasionally dismissing a speech or essay as “mere rhetoric.”

POWER OF WORDSIt’s true that language can be moved to inspire people to buy things they don’t need, do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but we can point out similar aspects of other technologies, arts and skills. If there is something that cannot be subverted to selfish or ulterior ends, we haven’t heard of it.

This is why we like this video so much. The writer depicted could have tossed a few coins into the man’s cup. Instead, she changed his sign to a message she knew would bring a more powerful response from other passersby.

The genius in the revised sign is this. Where the first one was simple and to the point, it is also relatively common on city streets and this makes it very easy for pedestrians to tune out.

In contrast, the revised sign opens with an objectively truthful statement, one that is, although novel, doesn’t raise a reader’s defenses. It then switches to the subjective portion about the man whose sign it is. And – bam! – the message goes right to the hearts of most readers, evoking the desired emotion. And, even without an explicit request, the pedestrians react as would be hoped.

There is another, perhaps less attractive, perspective from which to view this video and that is its being another example of how a negative message is more powerful than a positive one. Acres of tree stumps, seabirds covered in oil, starving children all have produced more donations for their respective interest groups than do forests, healthy wildlife and happy children at play. That’s human nature and little can be done about that.

But bravo to the filmmakers; this one’s a keeper.

Learn more about Ms. Gardener’s book, “Change Your Words, Change Your World” at the publisher’s website. The author’s own website is here.

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COGNITIVE BIAS #122: Attentional Bias

When we reach a decision or conclusion without considering all of the contributing factors and possible outcomes, attentional bias has been allowed to influence our deliberations.

A simple example of this bias (as well as a tool for avoiding it) is demonstrated with the use of a matrix to enumerate all the possibilities of a situation. Consider the political slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” intended to induce participation by inspiring guilt in the listener. Its effectiveness is dependent upon the audience not considering all the possibilities when evaluating it.

The matrix below illustrates all the possibilities of being part of either “the problem” or “the solution.” (At least those which exclude the partial options such as being slightly part of the problem and mostly part of the solution, but we digress.)

While the slogan suggests that being part of the solution or not is inversely related to being part of the problem or not, the matrix demonstrates that the two factors might be independent of each other and that there are two other possibilities to consider.

The cells in green are those offered by the slogan: either one has joined nobly the side of the solution while having no part in the problem OR one has remained part of the problem having dodged their responsibility to be part of the solution. There are no other possibilities.Yet, there are other possibilities excluded by the slogan and these are enumerated in the cells in salmon: one can be part of neither the problem nor its solution OR part of both the problem and the solution.

To express this in a more concrete way, consider a building on fire. Either one has started it (accidently, we hope) or not AND then has the choice either of helping to put it out or not.

Just as with the political form of this construction, we can see that all the options are possible, even as some are more admirable than are others.

The use of attentional bias to persuade is a powerful tool in advertising; think of the many blind taste-tests we’ve witnessed on television, the ones in which only two options are given. Perhaps there is a truly amazing cola out there and neither Coke™ nor Pepsi™ would be the subject’s preference if given the chance to try a third. However, their attention is directed to only two cups of brown, sparkling beverage to try and they have to make their choice from that limited field.

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RHETORICAL SCHEME #57: Perissologia

Strictly speaking, perissologia (from the Greek περισσολογία) is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of excessive wordiness, of prolixity, garrulousness, verbosity, of superfluity or redundancy in speech or writing, of belaboring a point or beating a dead horse. It’s also a fault of indirection, of circumlocution, evasiveness, of beating around the bush or skirting the issue.

Whew! That’s actually exhausting, but there will be a point to creating that paragraph, we promise.

While wordiness is common in a lot of writing, it’s not always a fault.

First, it’s a standard technique in writing to get as much as possible out onto the page at the start and then edit by selective deletion. At least that’s how we do it; create a mass of verbiage and then cut, cut, cut and then cut some more until all that’s left is the barest skeleton of text that’s needed to express the point effectively.

Wake us when he runs out of adjectives.

Second, repetition is a powerful way to emphasize a point. Great writing and speeches abound in redundancies and over-editing would only reduce their rhetorical power. A little goes long way; the trick is to find that “Goldilocks” zone of just enough words to both inform and inspire the listener.

Was the prophet Isaiah being verbose with the following?

 “…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Both their “swords” and their “spears”? Would that really be necessary?

Was Winston Churchill with this?

“Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

How about the credo of the US Postal Service?

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

While it would be possible to edit these familiar statements down to the bare minimum, they would then not be as well known as they are.

The Post Office’s motto would be reduced to:

“Our couriers complete their rounds as swiftly as possible regardless of weather or time of day.”

(It doesn’t say anything about actually delivering the mail.)

Winston Churchill would have said:

“Never give in on anything other than convictions of honor and good sense.”

Where’d he go? Churchill was right here a minute ago, we swear!

The Bible passage would read:

“…and they shall convert their weapons into farm implements and there won’t be any more wars.”

Concise, but totally devoid of conviction.

On the other hand, sometimes redundancy is a virtue, as in the case of legal writing in which every possible circumstance and interpretation must be addressed. For example, consider the legally imposed superfluity in the copyright warnings we encounter regularly:

“This content may not be copied, scanned, duplicated, reproduced, replicated, posted, broadcast, transmitted, distributed or downloaded, in whole or in part, in any form, for any purpose.”

Do you think they’re covering all the bases with that? Any wriggle room left at all?

Whatever the legal implications, they certainly sound like they mean business. But, if we edited it down to the bare minimum, we’d be left with:

“Don’t copy or distribute this.”

While this might not actually be leaving any doors open to infringement, it certainly is neither as memorable nor as scary.

But what about our first paragraph? How about editing that down to cure it of its bad case of perissologia?

We can trim much of the excess verbiage and yet retain the essential meaning and that’s a good thing to do:

From this:

“Strictly speaking, perissologia (from the Greek περισσολογία) is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of excessive wordiness, of prolixity, garrulousness, verbosity, of superfluity or redundancy in speech or writing, of belaboring a point or beating a dead horse. It’s also a fault of indirection, of circumlocution, evasiveness, of beating around the bush or skirting the issue.”

We get this:

“Strictly speaking, perissologia is not a tool of expression or persuasion; it is the fault of wordiness in speech or writing. It’s also a fault of indirection.”

The second paragraph is only 27 words long while the first is 61. That’s 34 words fewer, almost 55%. Yet all the meaning has been retained, and no one even had time to fall asleep.

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COGNITIVE BIAS #1: Introspection Illusion

Carved into the stones of the temple of Apollo at Delphi were three proverbs. These include “Μηδέν άγαν” or “Nothing in excess” and ”Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη” or “Make a pledge and mischief follows.” But the most well-known is “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν” or “Know thyself.”

Which is easier said than done, according to psychologists.

As it turns out, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We believe we have an intuitive and accurate understanding of our thoughts and actions.  The reality is that we’ve created an explanation the same way we would when reflecting upon the thoughts and actions of other people.

We might know ourselves only slightly better than we know other people and that’s only because we spend more time with ourselves than with others.

Specifically: If one is asked to explain why he or she is especially fond of strawberry ice cream, their answer is no more likely to be correct than would be an explanation for the same preference in another person.

It might not matter if our answer is quick and automatic or the result of careful reflection when we say that our mother or father loved strawberry ice cream and eating it brings back pleasant memories of our childhood. We could explain another person’s preference in a similar way with the same degree of accuracy.

As clearly and accurate that we might be able to identify memories of incidents, people, place or objects, we are comparatively lost when it comes to knowing how we thought about those same things or why we acted a certain way. We’re much better at understanding the content of our minds than their processes.

Most of what passes for self-knowledge is constructed less to understand ourselves than to avoid the discomfort of not knowing why we think, feel or behave the way we do.

We might consider it a very intimate preference, but that list of what we look for in a potential mate – their height, build, color of their hair or eyes – are mostly guesses made after the fact; these are attempts to explain the attraction after experiencing it.

“Hmmm…,” we might think to ourselves after meeting someone to whom we’d felt a strong attraction. “I really do like redheads.” Or tall people or people with green eyes…

Even when a subject’s choice is surreptitiously replaced by an alternative – when selecting photographs of attractive people, for example – more often than not they accept the alternative without question and provide a reason for having made a selection they didn’t actually make.

I know what you’re thinking…

We’ve all seen how this mechanism is used by a salesperson or speaker, especially in large groups. They need only ask a question, the answer to which is predictable, and then provide the answer the speaker wants:

“You’ve been feeling pretty frustrated and unhappy these days, am I right?

This is a common situation at any time and likely to get a positive response. The point, however, is how people explain the feeling they’re having. As we’ve been saying, people’s ability to explain their feelings is not as accurate as they think. Furthermore, in many cases, previous conclusions can be overridden without the listener’s noticing.

“You know why that is? I’ll tell you why that is. You’re feeling that way because taxes (or gas prices or mortgage rates or whatever) are too high, isn’t it?”

“Yeah! That’s right! I’m frustrated and unhappy because inflation is too high!”

Which is a bit of a dirty trick, putting thoughts into people’s minds right where we know there is a weakness. Rhetoricians and others in the “persuading” business have an ethical responsibility not to use devious means to accomplish their goals. At the same time, listeners need to be savvy to how their minds work and watch out for attempts to manipulate them.

Another way this illusion manifests is in the sense that we ourselves exercise greater free will than do others. It’s easy to believe that we are in full control of our own behavior while the actions of other people are largely the result of various forces outside of their control.