Declaration of bad writing

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Writer to parody the Words which are written by most others, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that he should produce a representative Sample of the Words which impel him to the Mocking. He holds these Truths to be self-evident:

  • that what follows is bad writing indeed and will make you cringe or smirk,
  • that it is bad not in an egregious (and thus unrepresentative) way but in a small, ordinary, quotidian, commonplace (ie, representative ) way,
  • that it serves as partial proof to the thesis advanced in the previous post about Writing with Fear (although the role of fear as the cause deserves to be developed in a later post).

I) The run-of-the-mill press release/PR email

Below I reproduce, the first PR email I saw in my inbox this morning. It is chosen for being the day’s first, not for being the day’s worst.

Hi, Andreas –

I’m reaching out with a new executive leadership announcement from [COMPANY]. [COMPANY] is continuing its expansion into the [OMITTED] sector with the addition of several new members to its key management team. … [COMPANY] announced today that it has added several key members to its senior management team. …

Exegesis:

  1. For heaven’s sake, stop “reaching out” already. You can ask me, remind me, alert me, tell me, or you can simply … tell me without telling me that you will tell me, but keep your hands to yourself. Reaching out is in 2011 what proactive leveraging was circa 1995. (My colleague on The Economist’s language blog has covered this adequately.)
  2. How is “continuing an expansion” different from “expanding”?
  3. Since you mention the company’s “key management team”, please clarify which management team(s) is (are) non-key.
  4. Thanks for repeating the phrase, thus adding depth. I notice that the “key members” are now being added to the “senior management team”. Are they key but junior? Or key and senior? Are any of the senior ones non-key?

II) Examples chosen by Johnny

The subsequent examples are taken from our Style Guide, which is written by Johnny Grimmond, who has long been both a key and a senior editor of The Economist.

(Johnny has made three other explicit appearances here on The Hannibal Blog — when he clarified like vs as, when he decried bad editing as ‘desophistication’,  and when he busted me for using “co-equal” — and one veiled appearance, when he was just being British as an after-dinner speaker.)

Herewith:

1) Pompous blather

From the Style Guide’s entry for Community (a concept to which I also devoted a post):

If further warning is needed, remember that community is one of those words that tend to crop up in the company of the meaningless jargon and vacuous expressions beloved of bombastic bureaucrats. Here is John Negroponte, appearing before the American Senate:

“Teamwork will remain my north star as director of national intelligence–not just for my immediate office but for the entire intelligence community. My objective will be to foster proactive co-operation among the 15 IC elements and thereby optimise this nation’s extraordinary human and technical resources in collecting and analysing intelligence. We can only make the United States more secure if we approach intelligence reform as value-added, not zero-sum….”

This short passage might be the motherlode of bad expression (“foster”, “proactive”, “optimise”, “resources”, “value-added”, “zero-sum”,…). And yet it is actually ordinary enough still to be representative.

Here is another example, this one from the entry for Jargon:

The appointee … should have a proven track record of operating at a senior level within a multi-site international business, preferably within a service- or brand-oriented environment…

Johnny seems to have found this in a job advertisement by … The Economist Group! I’m guessing that gave him a frisson.

Next example:

At a national level, the department engaged stakeholders positively … This helped… to improve stakeholder buy-in to agreed changes…

This phrase came out of a report from the British civil service.

In the next passage, an esteemed think tank, Chatham House, explained that

The City Safe T3 Resilience Project is a cross-sector initiative bringing together experts … to enable multi-tier practitioner-oriented collaboration on resilience and counter-terrorism challenges and opportunities.

In the next passage, some British policy maker tried to say that teachers who agree to test their students will get money from the government. Here is how:

The grants will incentivise administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the competencies they seek to develop.

Try to guess what this phrase was supposed to express:

A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.

Answer: Go-karting lessons sponsored by the Luton Educational Authority (London).

2) Political correctness

Political correctness has it own entry in our Style Guide, but I will instead quote from the entry for Euphemisms, because I think Johnny just says it all here:

Avoid, where possible, euphemisms and circumlocutions, especially those promoted by interest groups keen to please their clients or organisations anxious to avoid embarrassment. This does not mean that good writers should be insensitive of giving offence: on the contrary, if you are to be persuasive, you would do well to be courteous. But a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners. Political correctness can go.

Female teenagers are girls, not women. Living with mobility impairment probably means wheelchair-bound. Developing countries are often stagnating or even regressing (try poor) countries. The underprivileged may be disadvantaged, but are more likely just poor (the very concept of underprivilege is absurd, since it implies that some people receive less than their fair share of something that is by definition an advantage or prerogative). Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s enhanced interrogation is torture …

33 thoughts on “Declaration of bad writing

    • He’s a niggardly one, that Negroponte. No, I jest, but I will note that all of your examples came from the realm of nonfiction, and my writing experience is overwhelmingly with the fictional realm. I am becoming convinced that you (and perhaps Thomas?) are defining political correctness differently from me. Or perhaps the Guardian is. Because we have, on the one hand, phrases such as “Living with mobility impairment,” which is, no doubt, an absurd noun phrase, but at the same time, you lump that in with such irrevocably political terms as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I wonder if PC is being too broadly defined. Because I maintain that there are still milder forms which I brought up in the previous post (“homosexual,” “black person,” “person with a disability,” etc.), which at least attempt to establish a neutral groundwork of language. Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s my inner hippy trying to come to the surface. I wonder if perhaps the term “political correctness” has come to denote only an extreme form of what I think is an otherwise valid linguistic project. I don’t know. But I would be interested in seeing some examples of fictional language which you find horrendous, because I know that we at least disagree on the subject of minimalism. Are you familiar with the other extreme … “maximalism”?

    • Oooh, by “Guardian,” I meant The Economist … Ha ha … sorry? This is why I should draft everything I write….

    • Fiction. Alright, I set myself the task of finding fictional examples. That will take some time, because I read fiction much less than non-fiction.

      “…maybe that’s my inner hippie trying to come to the surface….”

      I love when your inner hippie comes to the surface, and I do actually think it has come to the surface. I don’t think that “otherwise valid linguistic project” is remotely valid. I think it is destructive. Yes, we can start defining things, as usual, but the basic reality is that a bad habit has crept into, first, academia, then all of the literary fields, including journalism, which is to use language to lie about, evade, and deny reality, rather than depict it as concretely and colorfully as possible, and then set about changing what must be changed.

    • Aha! And, thus, with a single paragraph, you have sent my mind reeling in a dozen directions. This discussion, I believe, is intimately related to other topics you have covered, the few that jump immediately to mind being perception, memory, storytelling, and one Greg Mortenson. (As an aside, I hate my inner hippie and try to strangle him whenever he rears his unwashed head. As a consequence, he tends now to only pop up in topics that are, for me, so labyrinthine and full of pitfalls that he can deftly dodge my attempts to pin him down….)

      We live in a world that is utterly saturated in words, and most of them have been used to sell us something: products, services, especially ideas. Draw the line between a good salesperson and a politician, cuz I can’t. And the thing is we’ve reached a point where our language is so aware of itself as language that you damn well better think twice before you say anything. And I’m not even talking about drafting for clarity or grammar. You talk about reality … here’s an example; I need to get concrete or I don’t know know what I’ll start babbling. I can turn on the TV, and I can flip to a channel that sells itself as the “No Spin Zone,” and everyone knows about it, and everyone knows that that is, in fact, the very place you go in order to get an ideology spun for you. The rhetoric of reality is being used to craft for me a flavor of reality that I’m supposed to eat. And then the people who disagree say, “No, no, no … look at all the spin there” and they are right, and then they finish that statement by saying, “You want ‘no spin’? Here is where you go.” But, again, everyone knows that this other place is a whirling dervish of spin as well.

      But we can’t escape that. When you say “torture” instead of “enhanced interrogation technique,” you are making a qualitative judgment on the reality of the case. It’s probably easiest to see in politics because politicians so desperately need our approval. Pro-choice v. Pro-life (Anti-choice? Anti-life?); Climate change v. global warming; paramilitary v. terrorist. How do you even approach reality when we’re already on guard to this extant over the words that people use? And it’s not like this is new. Thomas Paine called his tract Common Sense, and yet it is structured, not accidentally, like a sermon.

      And that’s not even addressing the problem of truth. Is it the subjective truth of the experience that’s paramount? The facts of the case? The reaction of the audience? How best does one report reality? Especially if one is working to change what must be changed, the questions are thus begged: Who decides what must be changed? Is it your job to convince me that it must be changed? Can you do that without an agenda? And if I know you have an agenda and I’m already donning my cynical iron(ic) armor against what I expect to be a sales pitch, how do you try to meet me on anything resembling neutral rhetorical ground?

      If I sound frustrated or flabbergasted, it’s simply because I have no good answers to any of these questions. What were we talking about?

    • “….. What were we talking about?”

      @Chris: We were originally talking about “writing with fear”, ie “bad writing”, but that almost doesn’t matter now, because you have, in that spontaneous mini-essay, provided the salvation: You write without fear. That’s authentic, vulnerable, human, direct language. Good.

  1. These are indeed wonderful examples of language constructed to hide truth through obfuscation. But, the writings you quote are basically sales pitches on behalf of organisations – so they are organisational tracts. When have organisational tracts ever been truthful and clear?

    One difference between language Now (today) and language Then (long ago) is the type of language used to obfuscate. Now, it is mainly the language of advertising and of sociology; Then, the language was formal and legal-like.

    I put it to you that today’s non-organisational writing is generally clearer Now than it was Then, since there’s well-nigh no censorship Now, and language is much more informal.

    An example of obfuscatory language Then, that you don’t have Now, is in a long-time out-of-print 1926 novel I’ve recently read. It’s by Ludwig Lewisohn, and called “The Case of Mr Crump”. It’s the story of a man ruined through marrying an evil and vindictive woman.

    The early part of the story concerns two teenaged boys growing up. They are described as “……children of recent immigrants with the troubled sex conscience of Northern Europe……..”. Hence “….. In their natures physical needs were easily transformed into moral suffering and during many limpid nights, especially in spring and summer, these lads fought devils of alluring shape, and did not always come off as victors. Then followed days of evil dark depression, of harsh pessimism and a sense of sin. Suffering was lonely and silent……”.

    You need to read this passage three or four times before even beginning to understand what these lads were really doing. In a novel today, such language would be direct and clear. You, as the reader, wouldn’t have to scratch your head with the sort of puzzlement that you have to when reading organisational tracts, of which you gave examples.

    • A thought-provoking example, Philippe.

      I wonder whether Lewisohn was also “afraid” (in the case of breaking a taboo) and therefore “obfuscated” (ie, wrote badly) or whether he in fact danced around, and played with, the taboo by “alluding” (ie, writing suggestively and possibly quite WELL).

  2. As to the preamble to your excellent post:-

    As King of All We Write, Herr Kluth, I hereby you anoint.
    So smooth you are, well read, and not the least disjoint.
    Now, let me see, what’s it you say?
    I gently feel my way.
    It’s quite a task –
    I’ll have to ask –
    D’you really have a point?

    • A question was put, what is your point, sir, pray.
      That point is: don’t let thy language decay.
      Overcome thy fear,
      then write it clear,
      if indeed you have something to say.

  3. Writing for business is its own form of enhanced interrogation! You have covered some of the dreadful language of management and politics (lately the buzzword from on high in my day job seems to be “metrics” which you noted above) but the meretricious words of sales and marketing are even worse. “Easy”, “cash-back”, “as seen on TV”, “free”, and “new” are some of the most frequently used but you can easily find a comprehensive list online (http://www.bigbooster.com/articles/magic_words.html for example) and it reads like a dark map of the hunger and sorrow of humankind. Then put everything in caps and add some exclamation points for full effect….

    • Oh yes, we could compile a list for every genre (marketing, advertising, bureaucracy, “gender”, political autobiography…).

      This marketing guff is so awful that I’ve long tuned it out. They do more damage to themselves than they realize. When my health insurer, after fighting for half a year about some stupid claim, sends me some generalized mailer with pictures of the typical multi-racial family on a picnic blanket and then assaults me with the words your list mocks, does that not make me … hate the insurer more than ever?

  4. I just read a post where the author recommended to take an “extended 20-minute break.” Seems to me, though, that unless we’re moving at close to the speed of light and relativity effects have kicked in, 20 minutes are 20 minutes. In the comment section, I took the liberty to inquire about the difference between an “extended” 20-minute break and just a plain old 20-minute break. (I won’t be surprised if in lieu of a reply, I’ll find myself in that particular blog’s permanent moderation queue from now on.)

  5. @Andreas – You said, ……I wonder whether Lewisohn was also “afraid” (in the case of breaking a taboo) and therefore “obfuscated”……..

    Lewisohn no doubt had to write with fear, so not to offend the censors. Hence heavily allusive passages like the one I quoted. Incidentally, the version of “The Case of Mr Crump” that I read, was Lewisohn’s revised version which could only be published in America in 1947 – over 20 years after the original unexpurgated version was published in France in 1926.

    This all goes to show that writers Then had to write with fear, otherwise their stuff wouldn’t get published in the English-speaking world. Some writers, like Henry Miller and DH Lawrence, didn’t write with fear, hence all their problems with officialdom.

    The great novelists of the past showed that you could write with fear, but also write well. In fact, writing allusively out of fear in order to fool the censors may have added more artistry to the writing.

    It’s only in the last fifty years that writers in the English-speaking world have had the freedom to write without fear. The great writers of the past must be wriggling around in their coffins and trying to get out, so they can resume their interrupted writing careers, knowing they would now write in a mileau of an artistic freedom they could scarce have imagined before they shuffled off their mortal coil.

    • Well, that means we’ll have to nuance the definition of “fear” (as we nuance everything here sooner or later, such as “freedom” in the other thread.)

      Writing allusively to circumvent one particular censor may indeed produce some impressive results.

      But when the censor is a generalized culture, and the fear is of attack from anybody or anything, then the dance of allusion turns into a stumble.

  6. From “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell:

    ‘…I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    Here it is in modern English:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.’

    I’m sure practically everyone here is familiar with this essay, but you can never read it too many times.

    • Despite this famous passage from Ecclesiastes being an example of good writing, too many of us forget what it’s message is, which is that life’s prizes don’t go to those who are gifted or who work hard, but to those who are lucky.

      Is this not an indirect advocacy of SOCIALISM?

      When next you post a piece extolling the virtues of clear writing, you might better quote something other than Ecclesiastes.

    • The Economist published the original version, didin’t they? It occurs to me, as I wait each day to be discovered as a fraud, that the language is so important. The language version that you write will be a template for every endeavor.

    • From the author’s preface to my 1959 Readers Union edition:

      “…Pride of place must go to the editor of The Economist, the journal in which Parkinson’s Law was first revealed to mankind. …”

  7. Sorry, Andreas, I just don’t get it.

    Having little or nothing to say, but writing anyway, that is the enemy of good writing, unless you speak of fear of thinking.

    Fear of the consequences of what you write is not a special case for it is indistinguishable from the fear of battle, say, or the fear of pain or death.

    Again, you place writing on an undeserved pedestal.

  8. DUCHESS OF BERWICK – What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

    LORD DARLINGTON – I think I had better not, Duchess.  Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.   

    Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) – Oscar Wilde

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