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Plain Writing 

Gobbledygook is a thing of the past

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I was once a writer of gobbledygook—a purveyor of pretentious, polysyllabic, ponderous, purple prose. I kept a thesaurus next to my typewriter. Thus, what I wrote was not merely “wordy” but “characterized by prolixity.”

I was in the Army at the time, assigned to a small, overseas installation where I enjoyed a certain status as a writer. “A bullshit artist,” the personnel officer joked, but definitely the go-to guy when justifications for achievement medals were needed. Although the Army paid lip service to brevity in writing, it held to a different standard when deciding who got peacetime medals. Two double-spaced pages might get approval for a basic Army Achievement Medal, but without eight pages, the more prestigious Meritorious Service Medal was beyond reach.

It might take a day or two, but I could hammer out eight or more justifications. I credit a liberal-arts education for the ability to embellish. Sparing neither adjectives nor adverbs in the process, I had a knack for transforming any sentence into a paragraph. For example, I could inflate the sentence, “Every soldier in Capt. Jones’ unit passed the physical fitness test with a score of 90 or above” like a hot-air balloon. My ballooning version might begin: “By dint of stellar leadership and managerial acumen, Capt. Jones single-handedly transformed a merely ‘capable’ unit into one whose hallmark was high-order combat readiness, the measure of which was evident in such diverse metrics as marksmanship and performance on the biannual physical fitness test.” And on and on—you get the idea. The prose was so impenetrable, I doubt anyone at higher headquarters actually read a justification from beginning to end. The calculation, I think, was that if anyone were willing to write eight or nine pages, the medal was probably deserved. My approval rate was better than that of most others.

I don’t think my experience is that uncommon. A distinctive writing style is an expression of corporate culture. When new people arrive on the scene—as I did in the Army—they are socialized to a point where they either fall in step or fall by the wayside. Language use varies in organizations, professions and subcultures. We have labels for some: legalese, journalese, computerese, geekspeak, Faulknerian, etc. Each puts syntactical spin on its documents. Contracts, Ph.D. dissertations and IRS instructions are examples that come to mind. The University of Utah maintains a style guide to “address common questions about U of U and higher-education terminology.” Groupon uses language to attract readers. Its stable of 20-something writers, 400 strong, crafts ad copy to be sassy and funny. We Utahns write in our own “hyperappreciative locutionary style” as documented in these very pages by D.P. Sorensen. Our love of adjectives keeps company with affection for pistols, Jell-O and doctrinaire politicians like Michael Waddoups.

The New York Times is the only institution I know to monitor its use of language. An associate managing editor keeps a weather eye open for grammatical errors, stylistic stumbles and word fads. I enjoy following the rise and fall of fad words and phrases. I believe “serial” is ascendant and “traction” still has traction. “A cautionary tale” is on the wane, as is “herding cats.” Mitt Romney resurrected one in April when he accused the president of “throwing Israel under the bus.” My first memory of that was during the 2008 campaign when Obama said he would not throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus. But the clause lost traction and was gone before the inauguration. Another 2008 coinage, “existential threat” (as in “Jason Chaffetz’s candidacy is an existential threat to Orrin Hatch”), is doing pretty well. It has appeared almost 100 times in The Times, perhaps because of the irresistible cachet of French intellectualism. I am sure it will have a good run in Utah if for no other reason than it embodies Utahns’ love of the adjective-noun coupling. Look for congressman-wannabe Carl Wimmer to lambaste the federal government as an existential threat to the sovereignty of our beloved Beehive State.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, writers are emerging from their cubicles to read the handwriting on the wall. Gobbledygook is illegal! The Plain Writing Act of 2010 is more than an existential threat to gobbledygook; the newly enacted law is intended to be the coup de grace. Now outlawed is any prose that isn’t “clear, concise and well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.” Come October, federal agencies must communicate with the public in readable prose.

I predict mixed results. Many agencies will jump on the bandwagon. Others will merely go through the motions. Some will stonewall. It won’t be the writers in the trenches who resist; it will be the mid-level supervisors. These are men and women for whom language is the means by which they try to impress others or deflect blame. They believe that fancy words and phrases impart at least as much status as a Brooks Brothers suit. And when they get into trouble, they take refuge in the passive voice. “Mistakes were made” provides more cover than the active-voice variant, “I made a mistake.”

I have made my share of mistakes. I am embarrassed to admit to gobbledygooking. I feel the same about a pair of purple bellbottoms I once wore. I was too compliant too often. But the purple pants are long-gone, as is the purple prose. The thesaurus collects dust on the shelf. Dressed in chinos, I spend some part of every day trying to put the best words in the best order, as Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised. 

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