As I have written before in this column, I am a word person.
Better to say I have been a student of language ever since I was a kid, and long practice has taught me the value of tracing words from their origins to their use in modern English.
From linguistics and from other writers, I have also learned many things.
Now, what does all this mean?
Well, for one thing it has taught me that decent English doesn’t fire others up like it does me, and as a consequence, rattling on about my favorite subject is likely to cause others to blurt out something like, “Hey, I just remembered, I left my oven on at home, and if I hurry, I’ll still have time to stick my head in it.”
Now, some of you reading this may be on the cusp of nipping off to exercise that oven option, but bear with me for a bit.
Because another thing reading has taught me is that the best way to communicate what we are trying to say is to use as few words as possible and to strip what we’ve written of technicalities.
There’s an old story about a plumber who wrote to the Bureau of Standards that he had found hydrochloric acid good for cleaning out clogged drains.
The bureau wrote back, “The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.” The plumber replied that he was glad the bureau agreed. The bureau tried again, writing, “We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues with hydrochloric acid, and suggest that you use an alternate procedure.” The plumber again said that he was glad the bureau agreed with him. Finally, the bureau wrote to the plumber, “Don’t use hydrochloric acid; it eats the hell out of the pipes.”
An amusing story that makes an important point: for effective communication, use clear, non-technical language.
Now, I would be the first to admit I don’t always get there, and still suffer from bouts of wordiness. But I see too many writers who appear to think that the more syllables they use, the clearer they’ll be.But as we can see in the little story above, it can muddy the waters.
I’ll take my cue from there, and whenever possible strive to write directly and without fuss, feathers and flummery, along the way stripping whatever comes under my nose clean to the shining bone.
In the current atmosphere, I expect a segment of society to be offended someday by the bluntness of the multiplication table, which tells us without the slightest amount of ornamentation, 8 x 8 = 64. I fear the day will come when I pick up a math book and read, “One of the verities of the multiplication table is that the accretion of two and two sums to the number four.”
In the words of one old song, “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Yet that sort of thing happens all the time.
How often do we hear or read phrases like, “The twister left 80 people dead.” If I were to read that in copy, I would strike it out with gusto and rewrite it as, “The twister killed 80 people.” Because that is what happened: people died. Otherwise, the sentence seems to say — to me, anyway — “The twister passed over 80 people who were already dead, and did nothing to restore them.”
Here’s another: “They are experiencing homelessness.” What is that but pussyfooting around to avoid an unpleasant truth? Would it not be better to write: “They are homeless/houseless?” When is the last time you heard anyone say, “John is experiencing poverty” or “Julie is experiencing a headache?”
Another sin: overuse of the passive. That is, when we strip a sentence of the person or people doing the thing. I remember hearing, “mistakes were made” during the investigation that followed the events of of Sept. 11, 2001. Every time I heard it, I’m sure I yelled, “Tell me, who made the mistakes?!” No one in our security services was ever held accountable or lost their job after 9/11, although there were egregious failings. We let the blighters off the hook.
Police are among the worst offenders in this regard, as when they refer to themselves with the inexcusable, “An arrest was made.” Damn it, police, we know an officer made the arrest, why don’t you just say so? Then there are the truly ridiculous entries in the police blotter, such as “an adult female … an adult male.” I once asked an officer why this was, and he said that the department had to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
I replied: “So, if you were to say, ‘a man,’ or ‘a woman,’ someone out there would recognize who that person was whose privacy you were bound not to disclose, but if you say ‘adult male,’ you shield it?” The guy responded, “Yeah, I see your point.”
Of course there are limits. While a writer may know that the word from which we derive “naked,” was originally a participle that meant “to have removed one’s clothes,” and that in a sense it would be incorrect to say “naked as a newborn babe,” as a newborn never had clothes on, it would be stupid to go that far.
That is, we have to learn to distinguish between being precise and just being a flaming ass.
What are some of your least favorite phrasings? Write us, we would like to hear from you.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.