Monthly Archives: September 2013

What the Unabomber taught us about usage

I’ll never forget the way they caught the Unabomber.

For 17 years, he used home-made bombs to terrorise people who worked at universities, airlines and other organisations that represented the “industrial-technological system” that he hated. Then, in 1995, he sent a manifesto to the New York Times and said that he’d stop the bombing if they printed it. The Times talked to the FBI, who agreed – largely in the hope that someone would recognise the Unabomber from his writing.

Someone did.

David Kaczynski found the attitudes and the language alarmingly similar to those of his brother Theodore, who he reported – leading to arrest and conviction. One of the manifesto’s phrases in particular had stood out: “you can’t eat your cake and have it”.

Most of us say it the other way round, so Theodore Kaczynski’s version stuck out like a sore thumb.

But, if you think about the succession of events that’s often implicit in phrases of the form “do X and do Y”, it makes sense. “I’m going to eat a cake and bake it” sounds odd in a way that “I’m going to bake a cake and eat it” doesn’t.

The logic was spelled out by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in 1711: “As ridiculous as the way of children, who eat their cake, and afterwards cry for it. They shou’d be told, as children, that they can’t eat their cake, and have it.” And the earliest example known to the OED, from John Heywood in 1562, also has it this way round: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

For his use of the phrase, Kaczynski had history and some logic on his side; you could argue that this was the correct version. I myself used to argue this. But usage changes: “you can’t have your cake and eat it” has been in the ascendant since before Kaczynski was born.

The moral of the story (apart from ‘don’t be a terrorist’) is that if you refuse to follow commonly accepted usage, your language will attract attention – and judgement. This might just make your message more powerful and memorable, but it might instead be a counterproductive distraction.

When choosing your words, don’t obsess about what’s ‘correct’. Think about what’s effective.

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My 11 Top Tips For Writing A List Of Top Tips

  1. Make the first tip short.
  2. Make the second tip longer, with a few polysyllables and a subordinate clause, perhaps even a second sentence. This will create a sense of development and give readers the impression that your tips are carefully thought through.
  3. Then chillax with some slang and an exclamation mark, to show that tips are fun!
  4. “Base one tip on a dubious quote from someone like Einstein or Gandhi,” as Shakespeare said.
  5. Paradoxically, if you begin a tip by suggesting it’s going to be complicated, you can get readers to swallow any old tripe as they won’t want to think they’re stupid for not getting it.
  6. Tips that contain statistics make readers 74% less likely to think you’re just making it up.
  7. Are you a person? A question to which the answer is yes will keep readers feeling involved.
  8. “It’s all about having the right attitude” is a must for any list of tips, because the right attitude is a focus on attitude rather than ability. Nobody with ability will be reading.
  9. Social media bring new opportunities but also new obligations. So you can safely follow a zeitgeisty mock-profundity with a non sequitur.
  10. Everybody will skim over the penultimate tip, so you can say anything you like and I’m not wearing any pants.
  11. Ten is a suspiciously round number, so adding an eleventh tip will stop you looking like you’re a cynical self-publicist who’s just dashed off a gimmicky list of worthless drivel.