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John Leo
The Office of Assertion
Some thoughts on writing well
21 May 2007

At my local recycling center, the first bin is labeled “commingled containers.” Whoever dreamed up this term could have taken the easy way out and just written “cans and bottles.” But no, the author opted for words out of the bureaucrat’s style book, and chose the raised-pinky elegance of a phrase distant from normal English. He also added poor spelling (“comingled,” also a correct spelling, would have been clearer) and pointless redundancy (the concept of “co” is already embedded in the word “mingled”). How did they pack so many errors into two words of modern environmental prose?

At the beginning of his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made clear that he thought the language had become disheveled and decadent. Intending shock, Orwell offered five examples of subliterate prose by known writers. But these selections don’t look as ghastly to us as they did to Orwell, because language is so much worse today. Consider some recent usages.

In plain English, what does it mean when students “achieve a deficiency” or reach a “suboptimal outcome?” It means they failed. A “suboptimal outcome” is even worse in a hospital. It means the patient died. The airline industry sometimes speaks of a “hull loss.” What it means is that a plane just crashed. Here’s more twisted language: your doorman is now known as an “access controller,” and a receptionist is a “director of first impressions.” Hospital bills can be filled with such language. How about a “thermal therapy unit”—an ice bag—or a “disposable mucus recovery unit,” also known as a box of Kleenex?

But the institution that wins the coveted convoluted-language award is the government—any government, in any country. A U.S. document speaks of “ground-mounted confirmatory route markers.” Translation: road signs. In Oxford, England, city officials decided to “examine the feasibility of creating a structure in Hinksey Park from indigenous vegetation.” They were talking about planting a tree to get some shade. Joyce Kilmer’s famously awful non-poem reads: “Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree.” Today, Kilmer might have to write: “Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal arrangements are fashioned by people of alternative intelligence such as myself, but only the divine entity, should he or she actually exist, can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material.”

The words of bureaucrats may twist tongues, but language on today’s college campus can truly twist minds. Many prominent people, particularly academics, have invented new ways to torture the English language. My friend Denis Dutton, a philosophy professor who runs the Arts & Letters Daily website, launched a bad writing contest to honor these masters of gobbledygook. The grand prize winner was Judith Butler, a well-known professor at the University of California–Berkeley who wrote this impenetrable sentence: “The move from a structuralist account . . . marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony . . .” The sentence rattled on that way for 94 words. Another well-known professor, Martha Nussbaum, has said that Butler’s prose “bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on.”

Other professors have defended Butler on the grounds that English specialists, like technical analysts, are entitled to use private language that’s foreign to nonspecialists. Think about that: these professors are taking pride in prose that readers can’t comprehend. Remember when NYU professor Alan Sokal submitted a nearly impenetrable article to the postmodern magazine Social Text, arguing that gravity was a social construct? The magazine printed it as a serious piece, so Sokal had to explain his hoax to the editors. If you think gravity isn’t real, he said, I invite you to walk out my window and test the theory. I live on the 21st floor.

Several kinds of writing heresy are thriving in the universities. One is that the ability to write is so unimportant that it should be expected only in humanities departments, maybe just in English courses. Another is the romantic notion that rules, coherence, grammar, and punctuation are unimportant: what counts is the gushing of the writing self. One adherent of this school of thought told me that we should no longer talk about misspellings, but personal spellings. The self decides what is right and wrong. Writing in The Public Interest, City Journal contributing editor Heather Mac Donald has reported that “students who have been told in their writing class to let their deepest selves loose on the page and not worry about syntax, logic, or form have trouble adjusting to their other classes—the ones in which evidence and analysis are more important than personal revelation or feelings.”

Grammar and clear expression are under another kind of attack as well. Rules, good writing, and simple coherence are sometimes depicted as habits of the powerful and privileged. James Sledd, professor emeritus of English at the University of Texas, writes in the textbook College English that standard English is “essentially an instrument of domination.” If proper English is oppressive, what could be more logical than setting out to undermine it? English Leadership Quarterly ran an article urging teachers to encourage intentional writing errors as “the only way to end its oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers.” The pro-error article, written by two professors at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, actually won an award from the quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. So you can now win awards for telling the young to write badly.

Some campuses have evolved a separate tongue, marked in large part by stretching the meaning of words to make speech sound like punishable action. Simple criticism, for example, emerges as “intellectual harassment,” or perhaps “semantic violence.” And if funding for mostly black schools is too low, that’s “intellectual genocide.” When Lani Guinier’s controversial plan for proportional voting drew protests, she accused her critics of “non-traditional violence.” “Non-traditional” is a common weasel word these days. “Non-traditional students” refers to older students. One feminist referred to a friend who was having an affair with a “non-traditional man.” She meant that he was not a member of the chattering classes: he was a plumber.

Political speech is a mess as well, larded with euphemism and evasion. In 1990, I was startled to learn that GOPAC, the Republican political action committee controlled by Newt Gingrich, was shipping words to Republicans around the country so that the speeches of local politicians would sound like Newt. GOPAC supplied positive words to use when referring to the GOP: courage, moral, children, choice, and personal, for instance, and ugly words to pin on Democrats, including bizarre, collapse, red tape, sensationalists, and anti-flag. These words presumably could be combined in any order—“collapsing anti-flag sensationalists,” for instance, or “morally courageous pro-flag children.” Out of curiosity I looked up Newt’s last major speech, delivered to the Heritage Foundation, and found that it really wasn’t a speech at all. It was a collection of 238 GOPAC buzzwords, lightly connected by a few ordinary nontoxic words.

One cause of bad language is the influx of intentional ambiguity from the world of advertising. What was the meaning of Nike’s famous slogan, “Just Do It”? Did it mean, don’t procrastinate, don’t debate your options endlessly, just seize the moment and act? Or did it mean, forget about scruples and conscience, go get what you want?

This kind of ambiguity shows up in the prose of the right-to-die movement. Take the phrase “aid in dying.” Does it mean moral support for a dying person, help in committing suicide, or putting a sick patient to death without consent? It means whatever you take it to mean. All around us is prose intended not to convey meaning, but to mask and distort.

Many awful expressions of the day emerge out of misguided compassion. An example is a long New York Times discussion of a famous writer’s plagiarism. The Times could not bring itself to use the P-word, but talked delicately of “unacknowledged repetitions” and “inappropriate borrowings,” since it did not want to hurt the plagiarist’s feelings. The idea of offending or hurting feelings can lead to the greatest corruption of language. It can undermine the straight, simple prose that communicates ideas, images, or yes, even feelings, to a great number of people.

So how should we write and restore the integrity of good English? Candor, clarity and sincerity are important keys. All of us are weary of writers who dance around their subjects, protecting friends, bending facts to push a cause. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. “When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”

Further, our minds are clogged with the clichés, idioms, and rhythms of other people, and we have to work to avoid them. Paul Johnson says, “Most people when they write, including most professional writers, tend to slip into seeing events through the eyes of others because they inherit stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichés and literary conceits. This is particularly true of journalists.”

Kurt Vonnegut has said that a writer’s natural style will almost always be drawn from the speech he heard as a child. Vonnegut grew up in Indiana, where, he said, “common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin.” He wrote: “I myself find I trust my own writing most and other people seem to trust it most, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”

When I started my column in U.S. News & World Report 18 years ago, I decided to write in a conversational style. This meant I would never use words such as “nonetheless,” “moreover,” “albeit,” and “to be sure,” because they are in nobody’s speaking vocabulary. It also meant that I wrote as though I were addressing each reader personally, talking about something that interested us both. My model here, believe it or not, was John Madden, the football announcer. Madden is the most famous TV football analyst not because he knows the most, though he may, but because he sounds like a friend on the next bar stool watching the game and sharing his thoughts with you.

After a month or so, I realized that readers of columns don’t just follow the words. They listen to the background music too. Readers want to know who you are. Is the writer consistent and fair? Does his take on the world relate to me? Is he humorless or playful? Do I want to spend time with him? Is he in the pocket of some cause or political party?

A few years ago, I taught a summer class in nonfiction writing at Southampton College on Long Island. I was very impressed by the students’ abilities, but they had a group flaw: they wanted to write primarily about their own feelings. One day I said: Write me 2000 words on any subject, but don’t use the word “I.” Many in the class balked at this and wrote their essays with great difficulty. Confusing an opinion with an argument has one big advantage. The text is uncriticizable, since the writer can always say, “It’s my prose and I’m entitled to my opinion.”

But writing isn’t a personal or private enterprise. It’s an attempt to change consciousness and change the world. In his book The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver says that the right to utter a sentence is one of the world’s greatest freedoms. It is the “liberty to handle the world, to remake it, if only a little, and to hand it to others in a shape which may influence their actions.” Speech and writing constitute what Weaver calls “the office of assertion,” a force adding itself to the other forces of the world. Writing is power. If you write well, you can have an impact.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered at Ursinus College. The full text is available at johnleo.com.

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More by John Leo:
The Power of One
Girl Crazy
Columbia’s Rebel Reunion
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