Research: MLP: Now you too can write good

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Editor’s note: While Mrs. Language Person recovers from a broken wrist — no, not from wagging her finger too forcefully — we revisit some of her more memorable linquistic lectures.


What joy to be affirmed! To see Mrs. Language Person’s lifelong passion, her raison d’etre, adopted by officialdom! Elated is she upon discovery of “PlainLanguage.Gov,” a federal website devoted to effective communication including — brace yourselves, fellow linguists and nitpickers — rules, tips, and tools for writing clearly.

Yes, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) focuses on government-citizen communication, not preservation of language or grammar as such (sniff, sniff). Yes, its primary focus since inception in the 1990s, bolstered by executive order in 2010, is to ensure that federal agencies and regulations are comprehensible to the average American (query, will these be “dumbed down” to accommodate our declining literacy?).

No, the U.S. has not yet followed France’s lead to create a department devoted to the preservation of proper English. Yet simply to know that someone in officialdom still cares … Sigh.

And so MLP was (perhaps disproportionately) delighted to see there this tongue-in-cheek classic for writers of all kinds: Frank Visco’s “How to Write Good,” originally published in the June 1986 edition of Writer’s Digest. Your MLP has committed not one of these sins, certainly not in this carefully constructed column:

1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.

2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

4. Employ the vernacular (i.e. keep local for yokels).

5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary. (MLP never uses parentheticals. Neither does she generalize nor use one-word sentences. Ever.)

7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

8. Contractions aren’t necessary.

9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

10. One should never generalize.

11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” (Journalists excepted.)

12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

14. Profanity sucks.

15. Be more or less specific.

16. Understatement is always best.

17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

18. One word sentences? Eliminate.

19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

20. The passive voice is to be avoided.

21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

Wait, Dear Reader; there’s more! Next time, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire’s “Rules for Writers.” Is your breath befittingly bated?


Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network. Contact them at

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