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Good style vs jargon

Auntie Barbara's Writing Guide

The main goal is clarity, writing so that a reader can follow your thoughts easily and fluidly. After you've written your first rough draft, read it over imagining that you are an entirely different person. Is there any sentence that could be read as meaning something else? If so, polish it to make it obvious what you mean.

(I have a friend who really did write an excellent essay for a graduate history class including the phrase "At that time, the peasants were revolting," much to his professor's amusement. The prof wrote in the margins the old Groucho response: Well, I bet they didn't think much of us, either.)

If it's something very complicated or difficult to talk about, for example, why you think meditation is helpful, or why you prefer Laphroaig to Glenlivet or Maker's Mark (or vice versa), it may be worth taking the time to draw apart all the aspects, to analyze what you feel or taste or think, before then putting them together again for a reader. (To "articulate" means to break something down by its joints into its component parts!)

Eventually, over your lifetime, you'll be naturally developing your own writing style. English is one of the most difficult languages because it evolved from many other languages combined in the British Isles: Gaelic, Latin, the early Germanic languages, medieval French. . . This means that English is very burdensome to learn as a second or third language, so that we must be patient with new English speakers. It also means that English isn't spelled very phonetically, since different words have etymologies from different languages.

(You may have heard of George Bernard Shaw's ill-starred attempt to change English spelling to match phonics. It was too much of a break with tradition, and with the etymologies. But he did have a point about English-language spellings. As an example of how illogical it had become, he once spelled "fish" as "ghoti." He said it was the "gh" from "enough," the "o" from "women," and the "ti" from "fascination.")

English's complex parentage also means that it has many, many near synonyms, so that we can specify our meanings with unusual precision, and with exactly the connotations we want. So you have an astonishingly varied and beautiful palette for painting with words.

For technical questions about style, in the humanities the authority is: .

Now we've gone over all the details, let me show you why your good, clear, straightforward writing is so important.


Let's look at a couple of fictional examples fnord of horrible waffle-y writing. I bet they'll make you cringe as much as they made me cringe writing them.

So let's both get some more tea or whatever, first, shall we?

These are very,very loosely based on real student papers; they're a sort of concentration and exaggeration of bloopers. The awful writing in each case is linked to the awful content.

I'm following each with the "translation" that came to my mind. Please forgive the occasional lack of compassion on my part. I'm also following each example with an "A" version of a paragraph arguing THE SAME POSITION, but expressed well and thought out clearly!


"Marx was a truly great thinker who had strong beliefs about society. But in today's world, we've conquered poverty. Americans are the wealthiest people ever. And Marx didn't mean it. He was just offering an opinion because he wanted us to all have opinions."

READER'S TRANSLATION: "I'm willing to pay lip service to Marx, because I don't understand him, and I'm afraid of making mistakes and getting caught out. But I'm not going to take him seriously, because I don't know anybody who does except academics. And my suburban life is pretty good. I assume that the rest of the world outside my own little U.S. suburb must have the same lifestyle, because I've never heard or seen much about anything outside the U.S. or before the 1950s."

IMPROVED VERSIONS: "I reject Marx's call to arms because I think violent revolution is not in fact necessary to bring about social justice. Marx's own prophecies were, interestingly enough, self-defeating. Many of the labor laws and work reforms of the late 19th century and early 20th century were concessions to workers that management made out of fear that the workers would revolt. Further, Marx's prediction that socialism could never be attained by peaceful election has been disproven."

Or: "I reject Marx's demand for social justice because it comes at too high a price; too much personal liberty is at risk." (If this were argued well – and it definitely could be -- I'd give it a solid A.)


"I feel that I believe that everybody has a right to their own opinion. I mean, I don't like the idea of torture, but who are we to impose our beliefs and values on other society's?"

READER'S TRANSLATION: "I'm so terrified of offending anyone about anything, and being rejected as not NICE,that I'll sit by passively and let the most horrible things happen in the name of 'tolerance.'"

IMPROVED VERSION: "I'll bite the bullet. I am an ethical relativist. If torture is a part of another society's culture, and most of its members accept it, then we should ignore the cries for help of the torture victims, and tell them that they should be more true to their own culture, and happy to suffer for the sake of their heritage." (Notice how clearly stating this position reveals how absurd it is. But it's an absurd position anyway, and at least the writer of the improved version is willing to take responsibility for it. That counts for a great, great deal.)

And now, here's some horrible boss-speak, the kind of unnecessarily complicated language that bureaucrats tend to hide behind. And this is certainly related to the impersonal and irresponsible passing-of-the-buck and dehumanizing that have caused bureaucracies (whether corporate or governmental) to be disliked.

(Incidentally, believe it or not, many many many intellectuals get a malicious pleasure out of ridiculing this kind of talk. I've seen acquaintances actually bring rough drafts of policy statements, etc., over and read them aloud for fun to the rest of us. At a recent academic conference I attended, a very prestigious professor griped about the visual junk that afflicts much online info, and that obscures the very info being presented (e.g. spinning multi-color pie charts!). He said: "Software companies include these only because businesspeople want them. They think it looks 'professional.'" This was greeted with the expected hoots of laughter from the audience.)

"So, basically, at this point in time, we're looking at an agenda where we've proactively increased our access to potential opportunity-wise."

"Hopefully, we professionals have the appropriate skills to handle these issues, and can overcome any lack of objectivity to facilitate the implementation of a viable project."


Yikes! A mission-statement is on the horizon.

But jargon can hide and propagate objectionable content, in a way that isn't just ugly, but dangerous.

Some people believe the resulting vagueness of language can help make horrible social and political movements such as fascism possible. If jargon obscures fnord how a cause is related to its effect, or obscures implicit presuppositions, or obscures power relations, then that jargon can propagate all kinds of exploitation, scapegoating, etc.. At the logical extreme, we find Hitler weeping over the ruins of Warsaw after his Luftwaffe destroyed it, crying, "How wicked these people must have been to make me do this to them!" (Quoted in Thomas Merton's Passion for Peace (Crossroad; New York), 1997, p. 306).

Cf. (confere, compare with) the sloppy jargon so adeptly manipulated by Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in the film Wag the Dog.

And cf. the BBC account on 9/18/07 of the tasering of a protester at a John Kerry speech at the University of Florida: The student was described as "disruptive" (whatever that means; it turns out he wasn't violent anyway), the taser was "administered" to him, and there would be an investigation into whether the taser had been used "appropriately."

Here is a far more subtle example of jargon, an example of jargon with dangerous ideologies embedded in it, from a textbook I was unfortunate enough to have to buy for a seminar I took not too many years ago. A challenging task would be to translate this jargon into English, and then to look at how the hideous style also impacts content: to spell out all the weird presuppositions and obscurings going on in the content. The authors are certainly dehumanizing employees, adopting a paternalistic, presumptuous attitude towards them, and aiming to manipulate them. (For what it's worth, what they are describing is entirely different from the wide variety of good jobs I've had, in which we all just agreed to work hard for our pay and to keep a pleasant, respectful atmosphere for our mutual enjoyment – and were unexpectedly efficient and creative, perhaps as a result.)

From a chapter on "Organizational Change":

It is difficult for some to envision a school, correctional institution, or sheltered workshop producing a product, but they do just as surely as IBM or Chrysler do. The difference is that IBM and Chrysler produce durable goods and technology, while human resources agencies "produce" human beings whose functioning has been enhanced as a result of the "production" process. (italics mine, from the unnamed book, pp. 102-103, sic! I'm not making this up! It reads thus!)

. . .The result of this interaction is the creation of an organizational culture and certain human outputs, to paraphrase Beer (1980). It is the goal of any organization to socialize people in a manner that will enhance the likelihood that organizational goals will be achieved. This is done through a variety of processes including recruitment, orientation, supervision, and rewards. (Italics, and of course ellipses, mine, ibid., p. 105.)


On the other hand, when people are comfortable expressing themselves clearly, they see through this kind of verbal smokescreen. And they can articulate their experiences to themselves and others. Some people have said that that is the beginning of freedom. And they can spell out their hopes and dreams, and are thus more likely to reach them.


The river Cam in the U.K., at the University of Cambridge (the town of Cambridge was originally named after the Cam)

Thanks for visiting my web site, and playing with writing skills !

I hope you found this little guide helpful.

Please let me know of any feedback you have, especially any suggestions as to improving this guide.

Your Auntie Barbara is at: bgoodric at comcast dot net

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