Backstory: My daily bus-ride into town from Danby serves as a forum, a sort of running commentary, where people join and leave conversations based on how much road noise there is and whether the heater fan is blowing. One of those forums—call it “students are lousy writers”—sparked my topic. As you listen, know that I didn’t make up these words—acadamese and bureaucratese—or their pronunciations, ak-uh-duh–meez and byuh-ruh-krah-teez.
My title—How to say it—is fitting, given this was my fourth speech project (How to Say It) from the Toastmasters Competent Communicator workbook. If you enjoy it, check out this website—you can make a fun party game from this jargon generator.
College students can’t write worth beans—agreed? A sweeping generalization, but say it’s true. Say it shows too early an acquaintance with drugs and alcohol, the downside of big-box schooling, or waaaaay too much TV.
Very well. Where else do we demand skill as proof of intelligence? Take art. Say I can’t draw a straight line. Music: say I have a tin ear, no rhythm—are those such liabilities? Say I can’t derive the prime root of nine or define atom versus molecule—you might be charitable because maybe you can’t either.
Writing is different—so the argument goes—because clear writing can be taught. More—it’s a direct reflection on our ability to think. Yet I say the disdain we heap on sloppy, inept writers is ill placed. Whether it’s academese or psychobabble, biz-speak or bureaucratese, yes—poor writing makes my skin crawl. But it says little about a person’s creativity, wisdom, or intelligence.
Of course, I’d be a fool to suggest thinking and writing don’t overlap or that notwithstanding our strengths in straight lines, great rhythm, or prime roots, you ain’t gonna get that dream job if you can’t string nouns, verbs, and the occasional modifier together—and have it make sense, or a semblance thereof.
But those poor sods pounding out papers at 2 a.m.—they suffer, not just from sleep deprivation, but from a hidden yet glaring defect in how we learn to write, from grade school on up.
Indeed, half their teachers can’t write worth beans either. (As a science writer, I make conservative estimates.) Call it the cult of literary obscurity. A cult that venerates smart-aleck one-word clichés like disintermediate and deligitimate and definitize and… calls it intelligent discourse.
Discourse, maybe, but intelligent? Oh, but I’m on a roll: Enhancements. Deliverables. Methodologies. Significancies. I made that last one up. Then … I googled it and ogled it, because darned if it isn’t a real word.
Even common words go into orbit when overused to the nth degree. On special this week, as it has been every week for more decades than I dare imagine, this word we misuse all the time, favored by copycat marketers worldwide along with anyone who’s got a report or proposal due… unique.
Unique’s a fine word, but if I were it, I’d have deep-sixed myself long ago, given the trivialities we subject it to—using unique as a fancy-pants word for different or new. Meanwhile, we’re this close to losing unique’s unique meaning, and no other one word could replace it.
And remember this if nothing else: you can no more be rather unique than you can be rather pregnant or rather dead.
So. Let’s roll the dice. Will it be academese? Biz-speak? Bureaucratese? Psychobabble? It hardly matters, because if we’re cycling through the same ostentatious, officious, or merely overused words, we’re not really writing.
Of course, this towering babel is nothing new. We’ve had so many centuries to perfect this art, if art it be. No one’s at fault: not your professor types and wannabes, your CEOs or industry flaks, not the effusively poetic or genteel schoolmarms—certainly not the schoolmarms.
How curious, though, that so few in the education biz have noticed anything’s amiss. Rudolf Flesch did in The Art of Readable Writing, as he recalled chatting with a hosiery manufacturer smitten with this new slogan: “dimensional restorability.”
Flesch was flabbergasted, but his thoughtful probing did nothing to move that gentleman’s mind. So enamored was he of “dimensional restorability,” none other would do.
Patricia Limerick did in a New York Times essay. Just picture the paragraph that set her teeth on edge (or as she wrote: Is there a reader so full of blind courage as to claim to know what this sentence means? Remember, the book … was a lamentation over the failings of today’s students, a call to arms to return to tradition and standards in education. And yet, in 20 years of paper grading, I do not recall many sentences that asked, so pathetically, to be put out of their misery.
Theodore Bernstein did in The Careful Writer … and I’ll leave you with this, because if any single sentence can help us write as well as we think, or better, this is it: Ask yourself if you are using the exact word or merely making an important sound.