One of the worst features in newswriting is the turgid abstraction. Dense and arcane phrasing can be found anywhere in the media, but it’s a particular problem in specialized subjects – business, science, medicine, education, etc. It’s as though we offer ourselves more latitude to write poorly when the subject is challenging. But that’s the very time we must be at greater pains to simplify and clarify.
We might read, for example: “The CEO said that financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” Now, the CEO might have said exactly that, but the value of the paraphrase is that we can translate such gobbledygook into English. How would that sentence read if it were plain instead of fancy? The CEO said the company had to cut costs.
Turgid writing causes misunderstanding. When the message is obscured by verbal smog, the readers don’t, in fact, get the message. They don’t read, or they misread, or they misunderstand. The wasted time and effort as well as the cost of mistakes and misunderstanding make fuzzy writing an expensive habit.
Given its cost, what explains the appeal of bloated, pretentious language? Or should I ask: “What elucidates the proliferation of indecipherable terminology and superfluous syllables?” How does “he left his car and ran” become “the perpetrator exited his vehicle and fled on foot”? How does a banana become an “elongated yellow fruit”?
We could probably do a dissertation on the answers. But it’s enough to say that in trying to sound learned, to elevate our diction, we instead merely inflate it. Maybe we confuse simplicity with the over-simple. Maybe we think simplicity means “Run Dick Run.” But simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively,interestingly clear.
Sometimes we slip into gobbledygook when we’re trying to soften the message. But clarity needn’t – and shouldn’t – mean brusque. In any case, gobbledygook doesn’t soften. Rather, it makes readers suspicious – they wonder what the truth is behind those slippery words. Simple words seem more sincere and therefore soften best.
Turgid writing also can be a subconscious attempt to fudge. In an editing session, a reporter once told me regarding a simple and direct rewrite of his lead: “If I’m going to be that clear, I’d also better be that right.”
But being “that right” is always part of the job.
Should we avoid all long words and abstractions? No. It wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. As Albert Einstein advised: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” A long word is the right word if it’s the best word. What damages clarity is piling up long and abstract words when short and concrete words are readily available. It’s writing “utilization” instead of use. Or “pursuant to” instead of concerning or regarding. It’s “initiate” and “terminate” instead of begin and end, or “contingent upon” instead of depends on, “personal visitation” instead of visit, “telephonic communication” instead of phone call.
Meaning slips away when it’s wrapped in jargon – as in the following passage:
This equity account was not immune to the effects of the market’s negative growth because of its broad, benchmark-centric investment approach.
Or: This fund lost money. Or, more specifically: This fund is down almost 60 percent. The linguistic travesty “negative growth” is a contradiction in terms that actually means decrease, reduction, or decline – growth that is “negative” is not growth at all. Journalists who pass on such euphemisms are not doing readers a favor.
The passage also misleads in its ploy of saying what something is not rather than what it is. The fund was “not immune.” Sounds relatively benign. In fact, the fund was ravaged. And “broad, benchmark-centric investment approach” sounds sort of OK.
Sometimes writers fret that small and simple words might suggest their vocabularies are small and simple as well. “What’s the use of knowing lots of fancy words,” they fret, “if you’re not going to use them?” We can consider that notion the Diamond Jim Brady theory of communication. James Brady was an American financier and philanthropist in the 1800s. He rose from humble beginnings to amass a fortune selling for a railroad supply company and investing his profits. But money didn’t nullify his crude beginnings. Diamond Jim became known – and named – for his tasteless display of jewelry. When asked why he was so bedecked with gems, he is said to have responded: “Them as has ‘em wears ‘em.”
The newly rich Brady didn’t understand the fallacy of ostentatious display (excess is vulgar) or the paradox of good taste (less is more). Good taste shows restraint and simplicity: Them as has ‘em wears just one or two – but the right one or two. The rest stay in the safe for another occasion.
It’s the same with words. Owning many words informs and enriches our communication even when we leave most of them in the safe. And the more words we know, the surer and freer we are to choose the plainest, simplest words. After all, having knowledge is useful only if we can convey it clearly and briefly – and that means translating the complex into the simple. That can’t happen when we write, as Virginia Woolf said, “as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.”
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.