Writing Advice

How America saved old-fashioned English grammar

17 October 2019

From The Economist:

IS AMERICA RUINING English or giving it new life? Most of this old transatlantic debate concerns words. Is elevator an improvement on lift? Why say transportation when transport will do? Sometimes it involves spelling, specifically the American reforms that made British centre into American center. Pragmatic change or dumbing down? And, of course, the quickest way to tell a Yank from a Brit is by pronunciation.

But the differences between British and American English go beyond words, sounds and spelling to grammar itself. Here they can be subtle, but they are many: the index of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” mentions regional differences in 95 places. America being the parvenu, most people assume that any variations between the two countries result from American innovation, to the (sometimes mock) horror of Britons. In reality, America has often been the conservative one, and Britain the innovator. When British speakers borrow American habits, they are sometimes unwittingly readopting an older version of their language.

The subjunctive had also been on its way out in America, but started to reappear in the mid-to-late 19th century, as Lynne Murphy, a linguist, recounts in “The Prodigal Tongue”. No one knows why; theories include greater Bible reading (which would have kept Americans acquainted with older grammar) and immigrants who spoke subjunctive-filled languages. Whatever the reason, the subjunctive stuck out as a Yankeeism, irking British commentators such as Kingsley Amis, a novelist: “Be careful with any American writings, which often indulge in subjunctive forms.”

. . . .

Stereotypes often have a grain of truth. Americans have indeed innovated extensively with English, as with other things. But language never sits still: the British variety itself went on changing after 1776, as all living languages must. Americans, for their part, eagerly import fashionable British slang. Instead of bemoaning new-fangled Americanisms, British observers could spare a thank you to the old colonies for keeping traditional English safe.

Link to the rest at The Economist

If you would like more about the “subjunctive mood” you can check out a Wikipedia article on the topic. PG didn’t know that verbs had moods, but, as he considers it, why should they not?

‘Fuzzy-Profound’ Words Cause Mental Rot

16 October 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

What are “qualia”? I stumbled on the word recently in the Times Literary Supplement, where a review of novels by Neal Stephenson and Don DeLillo observed that both authors “are much concerned with qualia.” I looked up “quale,” the singular, in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “the property or quality of a thing; Philosophy a quality or property as perceived or experienced by a person; (also) a thing having certain qualities.”

This definition is as clear as mud. Does quale refer to something objective or to something subjective?

The OED gives 11 examples of how quale or qualia have been used, the first dating from 1654. Here are two recent examples. Philosopher A.J. Ayer: “So far as anything can be, qualia are pre-theoretical.” I have no idea what pre-theoretical means. The second is from an essay in the Philosophical Quarterly: “It is possible to hold that certain properties of certain mental states, namely those I’ve called qualia, are such that their possession or absence makes no difference to the physical world.”

The sentences suggest that quale refers to a subjective experience, which is what the philosopher Daniel Dennett says: Qualia is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us.”

I get it! Just as Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” is surprised to learn that he is speaking prose, so I am surprised to learn that my daily life is filled with qualia.

Quale and qualia are what I would call “fuzzy profound” words or phrases. They give the appearance that deep thinking is going on, but usually it isn’t.

Contemporary intellectual life, Saul Bellow implies in “Herzog” (1964), is filled with fuzzy-profound terms. Herzog writes to Martin Heidegger: “I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”

. . . .

Perhaps the best-known fuzzy-profound word is “modernity.” The OED’s second definition is “an intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism).”

. . . .

Some writers deem the present “late modernity”—and also, believe it or not, “liquid modernity.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG was reminded of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language:

MOST PEOPLE WHO BOTHER with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language−−so the argument runs−−must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half−conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad−−I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen−−but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth−century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. PROFESSOR HAROLD LASKI (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

(2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder. PROFESSOR LANCELOT HOGBEN (Interglossa)

(3) On the one side we have the free personality; by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self−secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? ESSAY ON PSYCHOLOGY in Politics (New York)

(4) All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty−bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. COMMUNIST PAMPHLET

(5) If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may lee sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream−−as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school−ma’am−ish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens. LETTER IN Tribune

Link to the rest at PublicLibrary.UK

PG doesn’t recall reading or hearing the term, “lee sound,” as included in paragraph (5) before.

He searched online and found a reference to “geddy lee sound,” on a website called TalkBase.com which evidently is a place where rock guitarists gather.

He further learned that Geddy Lee Weinrib is “vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist for the Canadian rock group Rush” but doubts base guitars was the image which the author of the Letter to the Tribune meant to evoke by using the term, “lee sound.”

(Although PG must acknowledge that “ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place,” a phrase also included in the Letter in the Tribune, could be talking about a base guitar riff if Langham Place, (“a short street in Westminster, central London, England”) was hosting Geddy Lee rock concerts in 1946, when Politics and the English Language was first published.)

Unfortunately, the creator of the Geddy Lee sound was born in 1953, so that possible explanation fails. Additionally, PG was not able to find anything linking Mr. Lee’s guitar performances to “effete languors”.

How I Write About Anything — And I Get Paid For It

9 October 2019

From Medium:

One of my best-received articles ever was about cigars, written for a highly specialized magazine. I knew nothing about cigars, I’d never smoked one, and I was utterly clueless about them right until the day I took on the assignment.

Five days later, I delivered a story so well-crafted, informative, and inspiring, that they accepted the article and hired me on the spot. I never told them that five days ago, I could not tell the one end of the cigar from the other. They congratulated me, and I got paid.

Over the years, I’ve written hundreds of articles for printed magazines and online publications about:

  • Technology and gadgets
  • Economy and commerce
  • Startups and business
  • Self-help
  • US politics and international relations
  • Health and fitness
  • Environment
  • Sex advice
  • History
  • I’ve also worked for a TV documentary series.

I’m not an expert by profession in any of these fields. I hold no college degree. All I have is my curiosity, and the ability to turn large pieces of information into easily consumed chunks of every-day wisdom.

. . . .

Step 1: Find a subject that appeals to you

It’s much easier to write about something that inspires you. Only your interests can boost your curiosity. I once wrote a how-to story about scuba diving in the Greek islands. I knew nothing about scuba, but I love snorkeling and marine life. The connection was already there.

Step 2: Research

It’s the Internet age; everything is one click away. Start reading articles, essays, and book summaries. Watch TED talks, keep notes, highlight content. Put an asterisk on terms or ideas you don’t understand.

For my cigar story, I read several magazines and online articles. I made a list of applicable terms that would make me appear as an expert. I interviewed the owner of a cigar shop with carefully crafted questions. And I googled everything to death.

Step 3: Ask an expert

Most people love to share their wisdom. Find an expert in the subject and pick her brain. But do your homework. You don’t want to appear silly or clueless. They will appreciate it if you arrive prepared.

Take notes, highlight terms, use whole sentences, and attribute them to the expert. Your information needs to be valid and verifiable. Your audience needs facts, not just your opinion.

Step 4: Connect the dots

With all the information in hand, start making connections. For me, it’s all about comprehension and interpretation. A successful columnist is the one who can find hidden relationships between seemingly unconnected items.

Your readers will be delighted to discover unexpected connections that, in hindsight, look perfectly explainable. Where everyone sees a cooking pot, you will show them the Ursa Major.

Step 5: Explain it to a child

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The online audience has the attention span of a six-year-old, and you need to keep their attention long enough to continue reading.

. . . .

Step 6: Wrap it like a present

Everybody loves gifts. Your readers will be delighted to find hard-collected information with profound meaning, in easily consumed paragraphs and a scannable format.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG thinks the OP explains a lot about the quality of much of the information he finds online.

Writing is Thinking

8 October 2019

From Steph Smith:

If you told me 5 years ago that I would one day lead a 20-person Publications team or have a personal blog that’s read by hundreds of thousands, I would’ve laughed in surprise. Yet somehow, I’ve found myself in that reality. Here we are.

People often ask how I approach writing, so I decided to share this piece to sway the self-conscious writer inside each one of us. I hope it encourages others to develop a practice that enables them to write with confidence, by simply sharing how I’ve designed my own.

“Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.” – The War of Art

. . . .

Anyone that struggles with writing (or any creative pursuit, really) knows that when it doesn’t feel right, it’s not something that you can force. And if you do, you end up with a blank slate covered in word vomit.

But what most people don’t realize is that the resistance to writing is not unlike the resistance to other skills. And the antidote? Practice. Exposure. Iteration.

Practice makes any seemingly impossible task familiar. You can learn to write.

So since the days of braces and locker accessories, I’ve learned to write in a way that isn’t so scary. And the more I write, the more I feel the flywheel effect in action. I hope this article inspires the writer inside each person reading this, through the understanding that writing is a skill that can be acquired through continuous effort, easily accessed by creating a process with less friction.

. . . .

The first step to becoming “a writer” is acknowledging that no metric defines someone as “a writer”. And that anyone unabashedly claiming to be an expert, is likely far from it. You know what makes you a writer? Writing.

Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete. Each time you encourage your employees, you are a leader. – Atomic Habits

Writing, just like all else, is a muscle that can be flexed and built up into a habitual process that eventually flows. Because at its core, writing is simple: it’s a method of sharing your thoughts.

Link to the rest at Steph Smith

PG was about to share some thoughts, but decided not to do so.

Perhaps it’s because he’s really an attorney, not an author.

Attorneys tend to share opinions. Should you have any doubts about that, Mrs. PG can allay them.

Chekhov’s Gun: The Importance of Follow-Through in Fiction

6 October 2019

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, also wrote short stories, essays and instructions for young writers. Probably his most famous writerly advice is this admonition:

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

In other words, remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she’d better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

. . . .

Yeah, but what if that longbow is there to show us what her apartment looks like? It’s good to show her décor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends. Yes, we do want to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters. Ruth Harris told us all about that in her post on using details to create memorable characters.

But the key is how you stress those details when you first present them. If there’s a whole paragraph about those archery trophies, or the characters have a conversation about the Mongolian  horse longbow, you gotta shoot some arrows. But if there’s just a cursory mention, “her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and exotic weapons” then you can leave them on the wall.

. . . .

Wait just a goldern minute, sez you. I write mysteries. Mysteries need to have irrelevant clues and red herrings. Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true. But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings. If the deceased met his demise via arrow, probably shot by a Mongolian horse longbow, then Missy Mild-Mannered Reporter is going to look like a very viable subject to the local constabulary.

But of course she didn’t do it because she’s our hero, so the longbow and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be “fired.” Maybe not like Chekhov’s gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with. Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to “borrow” the longbow in order to make Missy look like the murderous archer.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

The difference between creative and critical voice

3 October 2019

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

We spend a lot of time at workshops discussing the difference between creative voice and critical voice. When I teach, I really want to nurture the creative voice. But I do need to give guidance, and some of that sounds critical. Because we’ve all been through decades of schooling, we also hear the voice of the teacher as “the authority.” I do what I can to mitigate that, in that, I don’t want my students to think my voice is the correct one, particularly when it comes to their vision.

I might have misunderstood their vision. I might not know exactly what they’re trying to do. Or, in some ways, worse, I might not like the kind of fiction they’re writing, and that seeps out in some of my comments.

So I’m constantly thinking about the difference between creative and critical voice during workshop weeks. I’m also monitoring myself, because if I’m not careful, teaching can make me too critical of myself.

I thought I had escaped that part. I love teaching romance. Even though it’s the hardest genre to write well, it’s also the happiest. A happily ever after ending is an essential part of the genre. And so, instead of looking to the worst of humanity, when we write romance, we write about the best.

. . . .

The next morning, I woke up with my own voice in my head, repeating a line from the KIckstarter script I wrote: Because I couldn’t help myself, I wrote two of the longer stories, and an entire novel.

And then I stomped around the condo, because I realized that—dang it—the critical voice had been there all along.

You see, I’ve been whining that 2019 isn’t as good a writing year as I want. I wanted to get to a big project that I’ve been looking forward to, but I need to finish a few things first. And I’m nowhere near finishing those things.

I also had to drop a lot of work because we had a crisis at WMG when Allyson Longueira had emergency brain surgery. We’ve had some tough years the past few years. I was the emergency in 2018; Allyson in 2019. I’m hoping that 2020 is much, much better.

So I lost writing time. A lot of it, as I took on other projects that needed finishing.

. . . .

But that sentence from the Kickstarter script—Because I couldn’t help myself, I wrote two of the longer stories, and an entire novel—kept coming up in my brain all day Friday. I noodled over that sentence.

Because I had been telling myself, severely and somewhat angrily, that I haven’t been doing enough. I haven’t been writing enough. Not enough new words.

Even though, I did the two novellas and that novel from March to August, while doing other things. And I finished some big projects in January and February in prep for the even bigger project that I haven’t gotten to.

None of that counts the work I’ve done here, on this business blog, because that’s nonfiction, and I don’t count nonfiction. Just like I don’t count editing, because none of that is new words of fiction, which is all I do count.

And yes, I’ve had to take some time away, but Holy Carpal Tunnel, Batman, I have been doing a lot of fiction writing just the same. I had thought of it as things that either got in the way (some promised fiction for anthologies/other people’s projects), the stories for the Holiday Spectacular, and the novel that I had started thinking it was a novella.

If I total my words, I’m down a bit from pre-2016 levels, but not much. And I’m better than I was in 2018 by a long shot.

So the critical voice, for me, had moved from what’s wrong with the fiction to what’s wrong with production. And it had been lashing me, hard, in ways that I would never allow an actual person to do.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper

28 September 2019

From Nature:

For the past two decades, Cormac McCarthy — whose ten novels include The RoadNo Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian — has provided extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico. He has helped to edit works by scientists such as Harvard University’s first tenured female theoretical physicist, Lisa Randall, and physicist Geoffrey West, who authored the popular-science book Scale.

Van Savage, a theoretical biologist and ecologist, first met McCarthy in 2000, and they overlapped at the SFI for about four years while Savage was a graduate student and then a postdoc. Savage has received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy on several science papers published over the past 20 years. While on sabbatical at the SFI during the winter of 2018, Savage had lively weekly lunches with McCarthy. They worked to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points so that it could be shared with everyone. These pieces of advice were combined with thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh and are presented here. McCarthy’s most important tip is to keep it simple while telling a coherent, compelling story. The following are more of McCarthy’s words of wisdom, as told by Savage and Yeh.

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember. This theme and these points form the single thread that runs through your piece. The words, sentences, paragraphs and sections are the needlework that holds it together. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph. Each paragraph should explore that message by first asking a question and then progressing to an idea, and sometimes to an answer. It’s also perfectly fine to raise questions in a paragraph and leave them unanswered.

. . . .

  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant. Your paper is not a dialogue with the readers’ potential questions, so don’t go overboard anticipating them. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section. Don’t say both ‘elucidate’ and ‘elaborate’. Just choose one, or you risk that your readers will give up.
  •  

    And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.

  • With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.

Link to the rest at Nature

The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms

18 September 2019

From The Millions:

“A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.”
Friedrich SchlegelAthenaeum Fragments (1798)

“I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.”
Italo CalvinoSix Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

From its first capital letter to the final period, an aphorism is not a string of words but rather a manifesto, a treatise, a monograph, a jeremiad, a sermon, a disputation, a symposium. An aphorism is not a sentence, but rather a microcosm unto itself; an entrance through which a reader may walk into a room the dimensions of which even the author may not know. Our most economic and poetic of prose forms, the aphorism does not feign argumentative completism like the philosophical tome, nor does it compel certainty as does the commandment—the form is cagey, playful, and mysterious. To either find an aphorism in the wild, or to peruse examples in a collection that mounts them like butterflies nimbly held in place with push-pin on Styrofoam, is to have a literary-naturalist’s eye for the remarkable, for the marvelous, for the wondrous. And yet there has been, at least until recently, a strange critical lacuna as concerns aphoristic significance. Scholar Gary Morson writes in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel that though they “constitute the shortest [of] literary genres, they rarely attract serious study. Universities give courses on the novel, epic, and lyric…But I know of no course on…proverbs, wise sayings, witticisms and maxims.”

An example of literary malpractice, for to consider an aphorism is to imbibe the purest distillation of a mind contemplating itself. In an aphorism every letter and word counts; every comma and semicolon is an invitation for the reader to discover the sacred contours of her own thought. Perhaps answering Morson’s observation, critic Andrew Hui writes in his new study A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter that the form is “Opposed to the babble of the foolish, the redundancy of bureaucrats, the silence of mystics, in the aphorism nothing is superfluous, every word bear weight.” An aphorism isn’t a sentence—it’s an earthquake captured in a bottle. It isn’t merely a proverb, a quotation, an epigraph, or an epitaph; it’s fire and lightning circumscribed by the rules of syntax and grammar, where rhetoric itself becomes the very stuff of thought. “An aphorism,” Friedrich Nietzsche aphoristically wrote, “is an audacity.”

. . . .

[A]phorism is rife in the pre-Socratic philosophy that remains, from Heraclitus’s celebrated observation that “You can’t step into the same river twice” to Parmenides’s exactly opposite contention that “It is indifferent to me where I am to begin, for there shall I return again.” Thus is identified one of the most difficult qualities of the form—that it’s possible to say conflicting things and that by virtue of how you say them you’ll still sound wise. A dangerous form, the aphorism, for it can confuse rhetoric for knowledge. Yet perhaps that’s too limiting a perspective, and maybe its better to think of the chain of aphorisms as a great and confusing conversation; a game in which both truth and its opposite can still be true.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG did some quick hunting for aphorisms and discovered the following:

  • There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.
    Edgar Allan Poe
  • Who would venture upon the journey of life, if compelled to begin it at the end?
    Francoise d`Aubigne Marquise de Maintenon
  • There are no solved problems; there are only problems that are more or less solved.
    Jules Henri Poincare
  • Life isn`t hard to manage when you`ve nothing to lose.
    Ernest Hemingway
  • It takes a woman twenty years to make a man of her son, and another woman twenty minutes to make a fool of him.
    Helen Rowland
  • In school, every period ends with a bell. Every sentence ends with a period. Every crime ends with a sentence.
    Steven Wright

 

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