Go-Back-Again Words

by Mark L. Levinson

I was reading the TiePlumb customer newsletter and was suddenly hit by a vision from my army days.  Said the newsletter, “If your necktie looks wrong for your shirt, or your tie clasp looks wrong for your cufflinks, you may want to change the former to match the latter, or vice versa, respectively.”

Back in basic training one day, they sent us out to pick up ejected bullet casings half-trodden into the baked ground of the firing range.  We stooped and grumbled, eyes to the ground, waddling from glint to glint and colliding with one another in the stagnant heat, and when we had filled a couple of crates, the sergeant said “That’s enough.  Everybody line up by the bus.” 

We lined up by the bus and he said, “Now go back and pick up the cigarette butts.”

I can’t compare the reading of a sentence to the grubby exertion of picking up bullet casings — not most sentences, anyway — but there can be a similar disappointment when you reach the end and you need to go back over the whole thing again.

Any reference to “the former” or “the latter” sends you back.  There can be a good reason, such as making a clear pairing to express likeness or contrast.  Consider these lines from Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” in what Wikipedia quotes as the original edition:  “But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake, / And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.”  I don’t know for sure whether a cake is like or unlike a lulu, but you see how the pairing is heightened.  Still, most of your technical writing can probably do without such flourishes, meaning you’re better off simply repeating words than sending the reader back to find the antecedents for “former” and “latter.”

“Vice versa” sends the reader back to figure out which two items the reversal involves.  For example, “The guitarist added blues to the pianist’s bossa nova numbers, and vice versa.”  Probably it means that the guitarist also added bossa nova to the pianist’s blues numbers.  But maybe the pianist added blues to the guitarist’s bossa nova numbers.  See how hard things can get?  The reader, who should be a couple more sentences ahead by now, is going back over the same ground and even, with a little bad luck, finding ambiguity there.

“Respectively” can seem to save you from some gross repetitive wordiness.  “To pause, continue, or halt the necktie slideshow, click the yellow, green, or red button respectively.”  It seems considerably more elegant than “To pause the necktie slideshow, click the yellow button.  To continue it, click the green one.  To halt it, click the red one.”  But the “respectively” version requires the reader to go back and handle the matching of functions to buttons.  Better to do that work on the reader’s behalf by using separate sentences (or, in a simple case like this one, using a table or illustration).

Even the everyday “etc.” (or English equivalent) can require the reader to ponder your sentence retrospectively.  If you write “TiePlumb, the computerized necktie straightness gauge, works well on solid-color knits, British regimental stripes, American regimental stripes, etc.” then the reader is left to figure out what generalization the series of examples is intended to imply.  Will TiePlumb work well on a houndstooth pattern?  Should paisley be avoided?  What do the examples have in common, and were various other examples excluded by chance or intentionally? 

If examples are intended to present a principle, it’s safest to explain the principle explicitly even if the explanation threatens to run longer than the list of examples.

Comments and questions are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.