|Is Ferris Bueller a better writer than his teacher? Probably.|
In my previous post (January 28, 2011), I discussed my third rule of good writing: Be precise.
The example of imprecise writing I gave sounded a lot like a teenager: “My teacher is incredible. Her teaching methods are awesome. We can relate to stuff in her class, though sometimes she does weird things.”
As I said before, young people sometimes write this badly not because they lack a more precise vocabulary, but because they lack the time or motivation to think about more precise, specific, and concrete ways of expressing themselves. In my experience, young people actually write pretty well when they care about what they’re writing.
That’s not true of some adults. In fact, much of the worst writing you’ll read comes from the best-educated grown-ups. The sixteen sentences highlighted in red below use language taken from real documents in the world of government, business, and even, sad to say, education. I didn’t make any of this up. You have to work hard to write as badly as what you’re about to read.
[Note to teachers: It’s fun to ask your classes to try to translate these sentences into precise, understandable language. They’re usually pretty good at it and seem to enjoy trying. Then you can discuss what makes each sentence so bad and why people might write this way.]
EXAMPLES OF BAD WRITING
1) “Our company experienced a fourth-quarter equity retreat.”
2) “Two thousand employees underwent a career alternative enhancement program.”
3) “An intellectual property broker was engaged as a strategy to actualize greater positivism about the region.”
4) “Let’s revisit that issue to align our end-state visions.”
5) “Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is.”
6) “He experienced a sudden deceleration trauma as the consequence of a system failure in his aerodynamic personnel decelerator.”
7) “The soldier was discovered with a ballistically-induced aperture in the subcutaneous environment. He had experienced a terminal episode.”
8) “The village was pacified.”
9) “The library has been liberated.”
10) “An expenditure of $35 was initiated for a hundred wood interdental stimulators.”
11) “Your son shows optimal positive emotive response to peer interaction during nonclassroom recreational-agenda time periods.”
12) “Our fixed-wing aircraft visited and acquired the objective. There was minimal incontinent ordnance and therefore acceptable levels of collateral soft-target damage.”
13) “Gridlock occurred due to failure of an electronically adjusted, color-coded vehicular-flow control mechanism.”
14) “The Engineering Department experienced advanced downward adjustments”
15) “Our company produces social-expression products.”
16) “Single-purpose agricultural structures can generate geographically magnified olfactory stress.”
Only someone with a decent education and a broad vocabulary can write as badly as the sentences you’ve just read. Here, in more precise language, is what the writers were actually trying to say (or, in many cases, intentionally not saying):
|Choose words carefully, so your writing doesn't land with a splat.|
EXAMPLES OF CLEAR WRITING
1) “Our company lost money in the fourth quarter.”
2) “We laid off two thousand employees.”
3) “Pittsburgh hired a public relations expert to promote the city.”
4) “Let’s come back to that problem later and see if we share the same goals for solving it.”
5) “Please inform your employees about this and see what they say.”
6) “Your son’s parachute didn’t open, and he died when he hit the ground.”
7) “The soldier was shot and killed.”
8) “We bombed the village until nothing was left alive.”
9) “We burned books, broke windows, and destroyed furniture in the library.”
10) “The Pentagon paid $35 for a hundred toothpicks.”
11) “Your child enjoys playing with other children during recess.”
|Want to hear honest language? Listen to children.|
12) “Our plane reached the target and dropped bombs on it. Few bombs fell where they weren’t supposed to, and not too many innocent civilians were killed.”
13) “There was a traffic jam because a stop light malfunctioned.”
14) “The Engineering Department has laid off ten employees.”
15) “Hallmark makes greeting cards.”
16) “Pig farms can make a large area smell bad.”
These “translation” sentences are clear, precise, and informative. The original sentences are foggy, imprecise, and confusing. They break all the rules of good writing: they have no specifics, no concretes, imprecise wording, passive-voice verbs, and mushy facts.
Were the people who wrote the original, foggy sentences simply incapable of writing better? I doubt it. They knew what they were doing. While pretending to reveal the truth, they were intentionally hiding it inside a cloud of pretentiously imprecise language.
In some cases, the intent may have been well-meaning: Who wants to tell a mother that her son died in a parachute accident or was killed by a bullet? Sometimes we use imprecision as a kindly form of euphemism to inflict less pain on our reader. (But her son is still dead, and she knows it, so what have we achieved by euphemism?)
In most cases, however, the intent of the badly written sentences was more self-serving. A company doesn’t want to admit it lost money or fired employees. An executive hopes his jargon will mask his confusion about a business decision. A general doesn’t want to come right out and say that his planes bombed a village and killed civilians. A student protestor wants to make it seem that burning books and breaking windows is somehow a “liberating” act. A city wants to justify spending lots of money to hire a PR person by making what he does sound important. A teacher wants her students’ parents to think she’s well educated. An industrial farm corporation doesn’t want to admit that its pig farms stink. And so on.
|Imprecise, intentionally foggy writing smells like pig manure.|
Some of the foggiest, least precise writing I’ve ever read was in a few of the books of literary criticism I was forced to read as an American literature graduate student. Most literary critics write well, but some are simply pompous poseurs; they use imprecise, big-vocabulary words to hide the weakness of their ideas. And these are people trained to study language.
Good readers, of course, can see through a writer’s smoke screens. The result is that the writer not only confuses the reader at the start, but, after the reader figures out what he’s saying (or failing to say), the writer loses his credibility. After that, he’s lost all power to persuade.
One of the great essays on this subject is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” (Here's a link.) Orwell makes the point that imprecise, clichéd, jargon-filled, wordy, and pretentious language is not just ugly, but in many cases downright immoral. Good writing is honest. It does its best to reveal the truth as the writer sees it. The bad writing in the original befogged sixteen sentences above is not just a mess, it’s a lie.
|George Orwell was a first-rate writer who hated dishonest language.|