the wake of 9/11, we’ve scrutinized government memos in the
intelligence and defense fields. Memos and reports were written,
rewritten, deep-sixed, read, revised, acted upon, ignored,
and dismissed. Often a chasm opened between the writer’s intent
and the reader’s understanding. People died as a result.
Shortly before the attacks, FBI agent Colleen Rowley pleaded
with superiors in Minneapolis to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui,
an alleged plotter. By some accounts, authorities didn’t understand
her request, which had been revised by intermediaries. Of
course. Rare is the direction, or request or idea or finding,
that gets across in a bureaucracy. Memos and reports never
state a point; they express a political consensus where the
original idea has been reworked into the ground and something
else entirely—or, preferably, nothing at all—is reported.
The same happens in corporate, research and academic circles.
Nothing new there, perhaps. But as a journalist who works
part-time in government, research and academic circles, I
am surprised by the intransigent forces promoting the fog
Some of the verbal pasteurizing makes sense. Bureaucracies
provide continuity and create consensus. They smooth out uncertainties
that otherwise bedevil society and the economy. And like the
secret password for a children’s tree house, technical terms
and redundant usage reassure members of a professional guild
that they are up to something important. But none of these
groups speak only to themselves. Each talks to the public
about health, education, safety, public policy, finance and
research. Clarity and common sense count all the more.
The sins are many, the motive the same. It’s fear: fear of
sounding unprofessional, of being blamed, of being clear.
This fear hovers in texts like the low-grade anxiety that
has distorted public life in an age of terror.
First is fear of subjects. No one does anything. Things just
happen, or should happen. Last year I wrote much of a federal
research grant proposal. I explained what we wanted to find
out, why and how. My journalistic style betrayed my inexperience.
A colleague advised that I remove mentions of “I” or “we.”
I did, and it sounded more scientific. Instead of saying,
“We will question people,” we wrote something along the lines
of “Subjects will be interviewed using a lightly-structured
protocol and their answers to these questions will be ascertained.”
I cringed at my complicity.
Then there is a fear of verbs. Since no one does anything,
events only come to pass. All sentence construction is passive
and indirect. Counselors don’t help clients; clients benefit
from interaction with a counselor.
People also fear using a concrete noun, often out of sensitivity.
In the field of addictions—oops, make that “substance abuse”—one
rarely hears of addicts or alcoholics. We read of “a person
with a substance abuse disorder.” So when advocates in Albany
or Washington, D.C., mount their annual awareness campaigns,
the average citizen cannot connect the need for more treatment
of “substance use disorders” to their uncle the alcoholic.
Similarly, when experts talk about law and order, there are
no prisoners or delinquents or convicts or ex-cons, only “people
involved with the criminal justice system.”
Descriptive words are switched every few years because people
in a field decide the old term has acquired barnacles of stigma.
This sensitivity backfires. “Handicap” was a perfectly good
word. People have handicaps that limit their activities just
as golfers have handicaps that limit their games. But we now
say “disabled,” a much stronger word that means, to most of
us, incapable. Advocates counter with “differently-abled.”
The public turns away confused and annoyed.
Group-writers also fear using one word. Two or three must
be better. So we have “to enter into a collaborative relationship,”
instead of “to collaborate.” Or we laud a person’s “initiative-taking,”
instead of “initiative,” or “skill set” rather than “skills.”
No corporation has a “mission,” they have “mission statements.”
Writing is hard because thinking is hard. Who wants to do
that? Instead, we laugh as our faculties dim. We go along
and write badly because it’s easier. Why resist the group?
They’ll only revise our work later on. I confess: it’s happened
Finally, we fear writing clearly because we fear accountability.
Better to hide behind the murk of verbiage. Thirty years ago,
a colleague newly hired by a state agency was sent to a seminar
on clear writing. Energized, he returned to the office and
began composing understandable memos and reports. After a
few days of this, a supervisor called him in. “Shut the door,
Bob,” he said. Nice try, good intent, but cut it out. “We
can’t write too clearly because if we do, then someone can
come back and get us.”
D. Ringwald is a visiting scholar at The Sage Colleges in
Albany and is the author of The Soul of Recovery and
Faith in Words.