Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Forty years ago, I signed on as a part-time editorial assistant at the University of Arizona. The mother of three, I preferred short workdays and made a little money on the side writing poems, stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story. Still, even with my husband’s income as a country-club golf pro, money was tight, so when I was offered a full-time-editor job, I jumped on it.
At the U of A, I was responsible for production of the general catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box—unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process gobbled up paper and time, requiring arbitrary and redundant levels of approval befitting the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read the stuff before it reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.
I tried and failed to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry while waiting for the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor changes to course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the heady issue of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the parallel phrase surface water.
The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a hot topic might involve “Backus normal form and metalanguages of metalinguistic formulas.” Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus Normal Form” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.
On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.
Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the inflated cost of printers’ ink.
Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending half of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:
History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.
Dash it all!
I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes), eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with obscene circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too. I’d forgotten the purpose of language—to communicate, solecisms be damned.
Over time I learned to pick my battles on the principle that sometimes it’s better to be happy than right. Meanwhile, my work was useful not only in humiliating the most pompous assistant professors but also in taming runaway clauses. To my credit, I was almost always right—tediously so.
I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.
Early on, I had identified two types of hyphen abusers: PAG (point-and-guess) and EOW (every other word). When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who are clueless about hyphens usually call them “dashes.”
(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the phonograph needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratch, often creating another scratch in the process.)
Very special education
Once I accidentally renamed a special-education course via the substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title became “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing with the same course, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale.
Instead we decided to be grownups. It was a matter of catalog integrity. Besides, the special-education folks wouldn’t have been amused. Some of the newer faculty were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.
For the most part, though, I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of feeling superior to people who made gobs more money than I did.
The new rules
I no longer believe that “bad writing” breaks the rules of grammar and syntax. Bad writing disturbs the peace. Its opposite is eloquence, which—according to Ralph Waldo Emerson—”is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”
Written materials produced by organizations are too often not intelligible. The “truth” they purport to convey gets lost in a jumble of jargon and a labyrinth of verbosity. I have come to see these shortcomings as going beyond communication failures. They reflect self-importance, intimidation, even outright hostility. I can fix spelling; I can’t fix a snarky attitude… but I hope I can prove that it damages your writing.
Expressions that confuse and distance readers have infiltrated business, professional, and academic writing so thoroughly that plain writing can seem gaunt and awkward. Even the humblest message has a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by this classified ad placed by a large medical center in search of a building mechanic:
Position description: Under general supervision, the Building Mechanic II position exists to maintain and address the air quality needs of our customer base as it pertains to air filtration and preventative maintenance of major and minor air handling and building mechanical systems. Our customer base includes but is not limited to patients, visitors, staff, researchers, administrators, and coworkers. Areas of responsibility include all building mechanical systems (AHU’s, pumps, exhaust fans, med gas, etc.). Building Mechanic I responsibilities are inclusive to this position. Position is dedicated to achieving excellence through the accomplishment of the medical center’s mission/goals & objectives especially as they relate to customer service. Refer to Required Education and Experience. Refer to Preferred Education and Experience.
The medical-center maintenance managers are looking for someone who can maintain air-handling equipment. Why don’t they just say so? Because “Wanted: Someone to maintain air-handling equipment” sounds flat and unimpressive. But bare-bones writing is easily mended when writers learn to replace obfuscation with grace and courtesy.
Over time, this ad and its brothers, sisters, cousins, and sundry other relatives online, in print, and in broadcast media got under my skin and wouldn’t crawl back out and skitter away. I sensed that I was dealing with something more malevolent than sloppy writing.
After years of research and reading weighty, lifeless prose, I began preparing a revised edition of my 2007 business-writer’s manual emphasizing clarity versus jargon in writing and public speaking. My research indicated that the biggest problem in what I refer to as “communication with a public audience” (any form of public speaking, business writing, journalism, and so forth) goes beyond lack of clarity to subtle hostility, an almost feral show of power, with ramifications at every level and in every sector of society.
My new book addresses writing as a form of personal interaction to which the principles of “social intelligence” (as set forth in Daniel Goleman’s excellent book by that title) should apply, as well as the ideals in Martin Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou. A key principle in social intelligence is to increase the number of people you categorize as “us” and decrease the number you regard as “them.”
Of particular concern to me are memes that slide into public consciousness due to the prevalence of “sweeping generalizations” and the abandonment of other journalism standards. But rather than wagging a finger at communicators and invoking their “responsibility,” I suggest that the public interest and their own would be better served by an inoculation of truth and clarity, which might also allay the antagonism and polarity between groups who disagree so violently that they’ve given up even trying to reach consensus.
Grammarwise, you’re safe with me
This book will not scold you about grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth. This book might gently suggest—if, say, the word adventuresome is part of your vocabulary—that “careful speakers or writers prefer adventurous or venturesome.” This book will whisper such admonitions so as to convey sensitivity to your inalienable right to use adventuresome just for a lark or, alternatively, having given the matter a great deal of consideration and possibly prayer and contemplation, to be a whimsical, spontaneous, devil-may-care sort of speaker or writer… indeed, to be flat-out wrong if that’s what you want and it’s been one of those days and you might just drink a glass of strong ale and begin spewing double negatives in clauses containing the word ain’t and even do something shocking with fricatives if you can recall what they are and isn’t it something to do with Flanders, or are you thinking of frangibles or Frigidaire? …because I now view other people’s writing and public speaking as methods of communicating—not as canvases where I can show off my own writing-and-editing virtuosity—and I evaluate writing according to how well it communicates rather than by its adherence to the old rules of writing that I once took such pains to learn.
Welcome to the new rules of writing:
How may I serve you?
To be continued….
Mary and I entered catalog data on CRT terminals connected with a computer like this DECsystem 10. Since the entire University of Arizona shared time on the computer, during busy weeks such as registration we arrived at work before 7 a.m. to avoid horrific login queues.
The DEC 10’s original processor, the KA10, had a maximum main memory capacity of 256 kilowords, equivalent to 1152 kilobytes. Today’s Galaxy C8 phone has memory capacity expandable to 256 gigabytes—more than 220,000 times greater than the KA10’s.
Photo: Joe Mabel