Saying Nothing In So Many Words

I just skimmed some articles in a newsletter put out by a university that is well-known in Jewish circles and reminded me of the fact that the written word often does more to obscure meaning than to illuminate it. This is not true only in academic circles but in businesses that use the buzz words so regularly that Dilbert was able to use them in bingo games with coworkers. Job applicants attempt to emulate that style and cram their introductions with such general terms, completely oblivious to how vapid such writing is. But I suppose that if the intended audience is the HR person whose thinking is not only inside the box (the reverse of one of the favorite catch phrases in business today) but really two-dimensional (as in Flatland See then there really is no point to writing clearly and directly.

When I taught composition and rhetoric I often started with photocopies of the essay "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words" that you can read here:
Orwell, in his way, tackles the subject with examples not from college writing but from published material in "Politics and the English Language" that you could read in full here:
I am quoting an excerpt that contrasts the concrete language of the Bible (Koheles) with the "modern" approach.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.


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