There’s an age-old question out there: Is it better to be a “nice” leader to get your staff to like you? Or to be tough as nails to inspire respect and hard work? Despite the recent enthusiasm for wellness initiatives like mindfulness and meditation at the office, and despite the movement toward more horizontal organizational charts, most people still assume the latter is best.
The traditional paradigm just seems safer: be firm and a little distant from your employees. The people who work for you should respect you, but not feel so familiar with you that they might forget who’s in charge. A little dog-eat-dog, tough-it-out, sink-or-swim culture seems to yield time-tested results and keep people hungry and on their toes. After all, if you’re a leader who seems like you care a little too much about your employees, won’t that make you look “soft”? Won’t that mean you will be less respected? That employees will work less hard?
New developments in organizational research are providing some surprising answers to these questions.
“Tough” managers often mistakenly think that putting pressure on employees will increase performance. What it does increase is stress—and research has shown that high levels of stress carry a number of costs to employers and employees alike.
Stress brings high health care and turnover costs. In a study of employees from various organizations, health care expenditures for employees with high levels of stress were 46 percent greater than at similar organizations without high levels of stress. In particular, workplace stress has been linked to coronary heart disease in both retrospective (observing past patterns) and prospective (predicting future patterns) studies. Then there’s the impact on turnover: research shows that workplace stress can lead them to look for a new job, decline a promotion, or leave a job.
Is it any better with “nice” managers? Do their employees fare better — and do kind bosses get ahead?
Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy and her research partners have also shown that leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.
Such a culture can even help mitigate stress. While our brains are attuned to threats (whether the threat is a raging lion or a raging boss), our brain’s stress reactivity is significantly reduced when we observe kind behavior. As brain-imaging studies show, when our social relationships with others feel safe, our brain’s stress response is attenuated. There’s also a physical effect. Whereas a lack of bonding within the workplace has been shown to increase psychological distress, positive social interactions at work have been shown to boost employee health—for example, by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and by strengthening the immune system. In fact, a study out of the Karolinska Institute conducted on over 3,000 employees found that a leader’s qualities were associated with incidence of heart disease in their employees. A good boss may literally be good for the heart.
Taken together, this body of research shows that creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation may help create a culture that is happier, in which employees help each other, and (as a consequence) become more productive in the long run. No wonder their nice bosses get promoted.
But what constitutes a compassionate leadership style and workplace exactly? That is a trickier question. Many companies try to offer well-being “perks” such as the ability to work from home or receive extra benefits. A Gallup poll showed that, even when the workplace offered benefits such as flextime and work-from-home opportunities, engagement predicted well-being above and beyond anything else. And most of the research suggests that a compassionate workplace fosters engagement not so much through material goods as through the qualities of the organizations’ leaders, such as a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness, and self-sacrifice.
What is clear is that we’re going to have to start valuing kindness at work more. One depressing study out of Notre Dame suggests that for men, the more agreeable they are, the lower their pay rate. Because agreeableness does not impact women’s salary, the researchers theorize that when we don’t conform to gender norms, we’re punished. The answer is not for men to be cruel, but for us all to help change the norms. With a little skill, there are ways to be agreeable while not being a pushover or a softy. And then maybe we’ll all be a little bit happier at work.
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. She obtained her BA from Yale, her MA from Columbia University, and her PhD in Psychology from Stanford University.
“Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.”
“Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” While baking and brewing undoubtedly have their place in culture, it is writing that has emerged as the defining record of our civilization — our most enduring and expansive catalog of thought, of discourse, of human imagination. And yet our insatiable hunger for advice on writing suggests that it remains an unnatural act — even legendary Mad Man David Ogilvy knew this when he penned his ten commandments of writing a century after Darwin, prefacing them with this simple statement: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”
I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind? It’s all the more captivating to someone who seeks to explain these fields to a wide readership. I think about how language works so that I can best explain how language works.
Indeed, Pinker — arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist— approaches the question of style not only as an aesthete who cherishes the written word, but also as a scientist, applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding, blindly followed dogmas about writing:
We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.
Pinker’s broader point echoes the caveat John Steinbeck issued alongside his six rules of writing, as well as Virginia Woolf’s admonition about honoring the aliveness of language — an assurance that language is not a set of static doctrines but a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, speaker and listener, and as such renders any rigid rules limiting and unnecessary:
Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.
To that, Pinker adds a gladdening aside about “the illusion of the good old days” and writes:
Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.
You remember those days, don’t you? Back in the 1980s, when teenagers spoke in fluent paragraphs, bureaucrats wrote in plain English, and every academic paper was a masterpiece in the art of the essay? (Or was it the 1970s?) The problem with the Internet-is-making-us-illiterate theory, of course, is that bad prose has burdened readers in every era.
His own intention, then, is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence,” so that we can learn to apply these insights mindfully rather than robotically and begin to counter the mindless momentum of language George Orwell lamented. He enumerates the three main reasons style matters, and matters today:
First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…
Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…
Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.
Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash… The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.
He offers some words of assurance to those entering the craft:
An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.
Every writer faces the challenge of finding a superlative in the English word-hoard that has not been inflated by hyperbole and overuse… Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.
In championing the importance of honoring such a dedication to finding the perfect word, Pinker offers some witty and wise advice on the best use of the dictionary:
Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there ifthe word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again. (You can probably do without maieutic, propaedeutic, and subdoxastic.) I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.”
Donning his psycholinguist hat, Pinker considers the difference between speaking and writing, and what that reveals about the secret of style:
Speaking and writing involve very different kinds of human relationship, and only the one associated with speech comes naturally to us. Spoken conversation is instinctive because social interaction is instinctive: we speak to those with whom we are on speaking terms.
We enjoy none of this give-and-take when we cast our bread upon the waters by sending a written missive out into the world. The recipients are invisible and inscrutable, and we have to get through to them without knowing much about them or seeing their reactions. At the time that we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualize ourselves in some kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy, and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.
The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.
We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand ” to “I understand ,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…
You also want to be conversational. Too many people are trying to impress others and sound smart.
…a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1–3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.
Research shows things that are easy for our brain to process feel more true than concepts that require work.
Think of the writer as an equal. If you’re trying to impress, at best you will make the reader feel dumb. And nobody likes to feel dumb.
Classic writing with this assumption of equality between a writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.
Imagine you’re telling a friend who is as smart as you are something they don’t know.
…imagine that you are in a conversation with a reader who is as competent as you are, but happens not to know some things that you know. And you orient the reader so that they can see something in the world with their own eyes that you have noticed, but they have not yet noticed… A symmetry between reader and writer. A conversational, informal style. A determination to be visual and concrete. An excitement about showing the reader something in the world that the reader can see for themselves, rather than concentrating on the activity of the people who have studied that thing.
(To learn more about what the words you use say about you, click here.)
Those two simple things — be visual and conversational — can instantly take your writing to the next level. But they’re not the #1 obstacle you face.
What’s the biggest reason your writing doesn’t shimmer and shine? Here’s where we get into some very interesting cognitive science.
2) Beware “The Curse Of Knowledge”
The main reason your writing isn’t clear is not your fault at all. Seriously, your brain isn’t wired to write well. It’s actually working against you.
Once you know something you assume others do too. It’s human nature. And that leads to bad writing.
…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge.” Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know.
Ever hear someone say, “Explain it to me like I’m 5 years old”? That’s an attempt to get around the curse of knowledge.
So what’s the best way to avoid the number one problem in writing? Do what writers have done forever:
Have someone else read your work and tell you if it makes sense to them.
…show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them. That’s why professional writers have editors… Your reviewers needn’t even be a representative sample of your intended audience. Often it’s enough that they are not you.
(To learn more about effective storytelling from a UCLA Film School professor, click here.)
So you got yourself an editor (even if that just means your friend Larry is reading it for you.)
What do you need to do to make sure your reader is with you from the start?
3) Don’t Bury The Lead
Yeah, it’s an old saying from journalism. What’s it mean? Tell the reader what your point is. And tell them early.
What I didn’t know was that this isn’t just an old journalism saying — it’s also backed by research.
People need a reference point so they can follow what you’re saying. Without it they’re lost.
Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, “Don’t bury the lead.” Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say.
Feel like that will kill the suspense? Again, stop trying to be clever and just be clear.
Suspense isn’t useful if people have no idea what you’re talking about and quit reading after the first paragraph.
A lot of writers are reluctant to do that. They’re reluctant to say something like, “This paper is about hamsters,” or whatever the paper is about. Because they feel that kind of spoils the suspense. But unless you’re a really skilled mystery writer or a really good joke teller, it’s good not to try to build up suspense and then have a sudden epiphany where it all makes sense. The reader should really know where the writer is taking them as they proceed.
How soon should you say what the topic is? Soon. Really soon. Not too far from the beginning.
The exact place in which the point of a text is displayed is less important than the imperative to divulge it somewhere not too far from the beginning. There are, to be sure, stand-up comedians, shaggy-dog raconteurs, consummate essayists, and authors of mystery novels who can build up curiosity and suspense and then resolve it all with a sudden revelation. But everyone else should strive to inform, not dumbfound, and that means that writers should make it clear to their readers what they are trying to accomplish.
(For writing tips from a staff writer on Family Guy, click here.)
So you’re not trying to be smart and clever and you told the reader up front what your point is. Awesome. Can you be clever now? Occasionally, yes.
4) You Don’t Have To Play By The Rules (But Try)
We all know those people who are sticklers about who andwhom, and who ain’t very happy when you say ain’t.
But what these people forget is that when it comes to the “rules” of English, the lunatics are running the asylum.
Dictionaries aren’t rulebooks. They follow language, they don’t guide it.
That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly.
Should we follow rules as best we can? Do they make our writing better on average? Absolutely.
But creative license is encouraged. Languages can, should and will change and that’s great. To be a great writer, know the rules before you break them.
There is no tribunal. There’s no rules committee when it comes to English. It’s not like the rules of Major League Baseball which are exactly what the rules committee stipulates them to be. That would just never work with language. There are hundreds of millions of English speakers and they are constantly adding new terms to the language. They’re constantly changing shades of meaning.
Do you want to live in a world where James Brown would be forced to sing “I Feel Well” instead of “I Feel Good”? Hell, no.
(To learn about all the positive effects writing can have on your life, click here.)
So you gotta learn the rules to break them. What’s the best way to learn those rules that doesn’t feel like 4th grade English class all over again?
5) Read Read Read
Many great writers have never read a book about writing. Ever. So how did they learn?
By reading and reading and reading. Writing guides are excellent tools but anyone who wants to improve their writing needs to read a lot.
I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.
So you’re reading. But there is one last thing you need to do with everything you write and, frankly, it makes all the difference.
6) Good Writing Means Revising
Being a better writer doesn’t mean that the words come out perfect immediately. It means you spend time to hone them.
The way the ideas initially pour out of your head is not the best way to get them into someone else’s. That takes work.
You need to beat those words into submission. Roll up your sleeves and wrestle with them. Make time to revise.
Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.
It’s all in the editing. Think that texting, email and social media are destroying the written word? Wrong.
Christian Rudder points to research showing Twitter might actually beimproving people’s writing by making them edit and be more concise.
Twitter actually may be improving its users’ writing, as it forces them to wring meaning from fewer letters— it embodies William Strunk’s famous dictum, “Omit needless words”, at the keystroke level… The linguists also measured Twitter’s lexical density, its proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns, and found it was not only higher than e-mail’s, but was comparable to the writing on Slate, the control used for magazine-level syntax. Everything points to the same conclusion: that Twitter hasn’t so much altered our writing as just gotten it to fit into a smaller place. Looking through the data, instead of a wasteland of cut stumps, we find a forest of bonsai.
(To learn the ten rules for communicating effectively, clickhere.)
All ready to stop reading and do some writing? Let’s round up what we’ve learned and put it in perspective.
Here are six of Steven’s tips for good writing:
Be visual and conversational. Be concrete, make your reader see and stop trying to impress.
Beware “the curse of knowledge.” Have someone read your work and tell you if it makes sense. Your own brain cannot be trusted.
Don’t bury the lead. Clarity beats suspense. If they don’t know what it’s about they can’t follow along.
You don’t have to play by the rules, but try. If you play it straight 99% of the time, that 1% will really shine.
Read Read Read. The English language is too complex to learn from one book. Never stop learning.
Good writing means revising. Never hit “send” or “print” without reviewing your work — preferably multiple times.
Rules, rules, rules. There is a science behind these words but as Steven makes clear, language is ever-evolving. It’s organic and alive.
So don’t forget to have some fun with writing, too. As Oscar Wilde said:
A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.
It’s amazing how tuned out we become to the motor of the air-conditioner and refrigerator — the sudden silence is a startling reprieve. Likewise, we become numb to the buzz of our technology saturated world.
Smartphone users check their device every 6.5 minutes, which works out to around 150 times a day. Silence is replaced with a cacophony of communication, and solitude is replaced with social media.
Indeed they’re an endangered species: silence and solitude; yet great revelations and benefits are found in them. Here are ten:
1. Bypassing Burnout
Too often, our culture assigns self-worth with productivity. Whether it’s asking what your country can do for you, or what you can do for your country, the question remains — what can be done? It’s a one-way ticket to burnout.
Solitude allows for a break from the tyrant of productivity. And rather than being in opposition, doing nothing helps with doing much. Promega is a company with on-the-job “third spaces” where employees are able to take solitude breaks and meditate in natural light. The health benefits have resulted in improved productivity levels for the company. And will do the same for us.
2. Heightened Sensitivity
For many, attempting ten days of silence would be akin to walking on water. Vipassana silent retreats are exactly that; participants are instructed to refrain from reading, writing, or eye contact.
One hundred scientists went on a retreat for research and noted that shutting off the faculty of speech heightens awareness in other areas. Beginning with breathing, that focus and sensitivity is then transferred to sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions.
3. Dissolving Tomorrow’s Troubles
Alan Watts argues that our frustration and anxiety is rooted in being disconnected — living in the future, which is but an illusion.
Silence brings our awareness back to the present — where concrete happiness is experienced. Watts makes the distinction between our basic and ingenious consciousness; the latter makes predictions based on our memories, which seem so real to the mind that we’re caught in a hypothetical abstraction. It plans out our lives with an abstract happiness, but an abstract happiness is a very real disappointment.
The future falls short of what the present can deliver. Silence and solitude pulls us out and immerses us back in the present.
4. Improves Memory
Combining solitude with a walk in nature causes brain growth in the hippocampus region, resulting in better memory.
Evolutionists explain that being in nature sparks our spatial memory as it did when our ancestors went hunting — remembering where the food and predators were was essential for survival. Taking a walk alone gives the brain uninterrupted focus and helps with memory consolidation.
5. Strengthens Intention and Action
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal says during silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.
Intentional silence puts us in a state of mental reflection and disengages our intellectual mind. At that point McGonigal says to ask yourself three questions:
“If anything were possible, what would I welcome or create in my life?”
“When I’m feeling most courageous and inspired, what do I want to offer the world?”
“When I’m honest about how I suffer, what do I want to make peace with?”
Removing that critical mind allows the imagination and positive emotions to build a subconscious intention and add fuel to our goals. McGonigal explains, “When you approach the practice of figuring this stuff out in that way, you start to get images and memories and ideas that are different than if you tried to answer those questions intellectually.” 6. Increases Self-Awareness
The visceral reaction of cussing at a loved one or over-disciplining our children often comes with regret. It happens when we’re completely governed by actions, and absent of reasonable thought.
In silence, we make room for the self-awareness to be in control of our actions, rather than under their control. The break from external voices puts us in tune to our inner voices — and it’s those inner voices that drive our actions. Awareness leads to control.
Practice becoming an observer of your thoughts. The human will is strengthened whenever we choose not to respond to every actionable thought.
7. Grow Your Brain
The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. UCLA research showed that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence, and mentally rest, improves the the “folding” of the cortex and boosts our ability to process information.
Carving out as little as 10 minutes to sit in your car and visualize peaceful scenery (rainforest, snow-falling, beach) will thicken grey matter in your brain.
8. “A-Ha” Moments
The creative process includes a crucial stage called incubation, where all the ideas we’ve been exposed to get to meet, mingle, marinate — then produce a eureka or “A-ha” moment. The secret to incubation? Nothing. Literally; disengage from the work at hand, and take a rest. It’s also the elixir for mental blocks.
What’s typically seen as useless daydreaming is now being seen as an essential experience. Professor Jonathan Schooler from UC Santa Barbara says, “Daydreaming and boredom seem to be a source for incubation and creative discovery in the brain.”
9. Mastering Discomfort
Just when you’ve found a quiet place to sit alone and reflect, an itch will beckon to be scratched. But many meditation teachers will encourage you to refrain, and breath into the experience until it passes. Along with bringing your mind back from distracting thoughts and to your breathing, these practices during silence and solitude work to build greater self-discipline.
10. Emotional Cleansing
Our fight/flight mechanism causes us to flee not only from physical difficulties, but also emotional difficulties. Ignoring and burying negative emotions however, only causes them to manifest in stress, anxiety, anger, and insomnia.
Strategies to release emotional turbulence include sitting in silence and thinking in detail about what triggered the negative emotion. The key is to do so as an observer — stepping outside of yourself as if you’re reporting for a newspaper. It’s a visualization technique used by psychotherapists to detach a person from their emotions, which allows you to process an experience objectively and rationally.
Of all the grammar concepts we have, “plural” seems to be one of the most straightforward. You got one thing? It’s singular. Got more than one thing? It’s plural. But alas, language is always less straightforward than we expect. The way we conceptualize something—as one thing or many things—doesn’t always match up with the way our word for it behaves. There are some nouns that only have a plural form, regardless of how we think of them. They are known as pluralia tantum, Latin for “plural only.” Here are 11 of them.
Scissors has a plural verb agreement. We say, “the scissors are over there,” not “the scissorsis over there.” Scissors likes to hang on to its “s.” We can say “give me a pair of scissors,” but not “give me a scissor.” True, there is a sense in which scissors are two objects, two blades, being used as one tool, and many similar tools are also pluralia tantum: pliers, tongs, tweezers, forceps. But not all such tools are plural. A clamp, a bear trap, and a flat iron are also tools made of two joined parts, and they are singular.
Goggles, glasses, and binoculars only show up in the plural. They are also generally conceived of as unitary objects, though they are made up of two connected parts. When new words are coined for things that function in front of the eyes, they will usually inherit the grammatical plurality (Blue Blockers, RayBans), but not always (see View Master, Google Glass).
In the rarefied world of fashion reporting, you may see “pant” show up as a singular noun (“a floral pant is a must-have for spring”), but for the rest of us “pants” is strictly plural. The tendency toward plural forms for clothing that provides separate enclosures for the two legs is strong: shorts, jeans, bloomers, tights, leggings, trousers, chaps, etc. The tendency for new such words to be coined with plurality is also strong: bell bottoms, skinnies, capris. We even say things like, “Levis are popular,” even though the brand name is actually not plural, but possessive—“Levi’s.”
The word “underwear” is a mass noun that takes singular agreement (“your underwear is showing”) but there are a cluster of pluralia tantum underwear words. In addition to panties, we have drawers, boxers, briefs, and tighty whities. Interestingly, the thong is singular (perhaps because leg enclosure has little to do with it?), and so is the bra (though it shares the shape characteristics of glasses and goggles).
Pluralia tantum are often objects that involve some kind of connected pairing of two identical things, but they can also be terms for large collections of dissimilar things. Clothes, for example, can be shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, or underwear. Manners can be ways of talking, eating, or greeting. Pyjamas are the top and bottom taken together.
There are a number of pluralia tantum that refer to possession or ownership. In addition to riches, there are furnishings, belongings, earnings and valuables.
There are also a few pluralia tantum having to do with mood or feelings. You can have the blues or be in the doldrums, but not have a blue or be in a doldrum. Likewise, jitters, willies, and heebie-jeebies always come in groups.
Words for activities that might be individually very different in their specifics but similar in some general aspect will sometimes be pluralia tantum. You may indulge in shenanigans, heroics, or hysterics, or sometimes all three.
There is a small group of pluralia tantum for what’s left after the dust has settled. They may be remains, ruins, or leftovers.
There does happen to be a singular noun “annal.” It means the recorded events of one year. But we almost never see it this way. Most of us use “annals” in the way we use other plurals from set, antiquated phrases, pluralia tantum like alms and amends.
Suds is a strange one. Usually a word for a mass of stuff made of of teeny, tiny individuated parts will be a mass noun. For example, rice, sand, sugar, and salt are all mass nouns. Mass nouns have singular verb agreement (“the rice is cooked”). Suds is a plural noun and has plural agreement (“the suds are everywhere”). Does this mean we care more about individual soap bubbles than individual grains of rice? Probably not. Is that what a “sud” even is? A bubble? It doesn’t matter anyway, because we can know what suds are without knowing what a sud is. That’s the beauty of pluralia tantum.
Many of these words have an s-less form as attributive nouns, i.e., when they are acting like adjectives (scissor kick, panty raid, pyjama day). This is not the same as having a singular form.
They say that children learn languages the best. But that doesn’t mean that adults should give up. We asked some of the polyglots in TED’s Open Translation Project to share their secrets to mastering a foreign language. Their best strategies distill into seven basic principles:
Get real. Decide on a simple, attainable goal to start with so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. German translator Judith Matz suggests: “Pick up 50 words of a language and start using them on people — and then slowly start picking up grammar.”
Make language-learning a lifestyle change. Elisabeth Buffard, who in her 27 years of teaching English has always seen consistency as what separates the most successful students from the rest. Find a language habit that you can follow even when you’re tired, sick or madly in love.
Play house with the language. The more you invite a foreign language into your daily life, the more your brain will consider it something useful and worth caring about. “Use every opportunity to get exposed to the new language,” says Russian translator Olga Dmitrochenkova. Label every object in your house in this language, read kids’ books written in it, watch subtitled TED and TEDx talks, or live-narrate parts of your day to an imaginary foreign friend.
Let technology help you out. Dmitrochenkova has a great idea: “A funny thing like resetting the language on your phone can help you learn new words right away,” she says. Ditto for changing the language on your browser. Or you can seek out more structured learning opportunities online. Dutch translator Els De Keyser recommendsDuolinguo for its gamified approach to grammar, and Anki for memorizing vocabulary with its “intelligent” flashcards.
Think about language-learning as a gateway to new experiences. To Spanish translator Sebastián Betti, learning a language has always been about focusing on the experiences that the new language would open up, from “visiting theme parks, attending air shows, enjoying cowboy poetry and folk-rock festivals, to learning about photo-essay techniques.” In other words, he thinks of fun things that he wanted to do anyway, and makes them into a language-learning opportunity. Many of our translators shared this advice. Italian and French translator Anna Minoli learned English by watching undubbed versions of her favorite movies, while Croatian translator Ivan Stamenković suddenly realized he could speak English in fifth grade, after years of watching the Cartoon Network without subtitles. So the next time you need a vegan carrot cake recipe, find one in the language you’re trying to learn.
Make new friends. Interacting in the new language is key — it will teach you to intuitively express your thoughts, instead of mentally translating each sentence before you say it. Find native speakers near you. Or search for foreign penpals or set up a language tandem online, where two volunteers help one another practice their respective languages.
Do not worry about making mistakes. One of the most common barriers to conversing in a new language is the fear of making mistakes. But native speakers are like doting parents: any attempt from you to communicate in their language is objective proof that you are a gifted genius. They’ll appreciate your effort and even help you. Nervous about holding a conversation with a peer? Try testing your language skills with someone a little younger. “I was stoked when I was chatting with an Italian toddler and realized we had the same level of Italian,” recalls German translator Judith Matz. And be patient. The more you speak, the closer you’ll get to the elusive ideal of “native-like fluency.” And to talking to people your own age.