Friday, November 21, 2008


An essay in The Masthead, the quarterly journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, of which I am a fringe member, begins:
"Growing up in a small town in Arkansas in the '50s and '60s, the Arkansas Gazette was one of the few institutions that earned any credit for our poor state."
Having lived in Arkansas 18 years myself, I learned that the Arkansas Gazette did not grow up in the '50s and '60s. It was already old by then.
But of course, the writer was referring to herself. The only word that should follow the comma after "'60s" is "I," as in "I knew the Arkansas Gazette was ..."
And I have no idea what credit it earned; only its banker knows that. She probably means the Gazette was one of the few institutions that "was a credit to" Arkansas in an era when racism tarnished the state's image.

The author, an editorial writer with the (Lexington) Herald-Leader continues:
"When I was five, that paper and the national news were full of images of ugly people screaming at teenagers who wanted to go to school."
Certainly the actions of the screamers were ugly, but the people were rather average looking. To avoid adding too many words, the modifier "ugly" could be moved in front of "images." That wouldn't mean the photos were of poor quality. Although the photographs were well-framed and clear, they were "ugly" because of the horrible history they recorded — white students taunting and yelling at black students attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

"I grew up thinking that Orval Faubus, the governor who stood in their way, was wrong, and the newspaper, the Gazette, that called him out was right."
But did Faubus stand in the way of the ugly people or the teenagers who wanted to go to school? The readers might, for a moment, think that Faubus stood in the screamers' way since they are the subject of the preceding sentence. They must surmise from the context that he stood instead in the teenagers' way.
By the way, in the most famous of those photos, the "people screaming" are also teenagers, fellow students at Central, adding to the potential confusion.

Point 1: Most readers would figure what the writer meant in this essay, even though it is not written clearly.
Point 2: Write clearly anyway. Don't force readers to pause to decipher your meaning. That's when you lose them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Sen. Mitch McConnell said repeatedly during the campaign that his position as minority leader in the Senate gave him "clout." He may have chosen that word because the word he really means, "power," has such a negative connotation.

But it reminded me of an old Mike Royko column in which he poked fun of the use of the word "clout" in this fashion.

Royko, the late Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, quoted a Vogue story:
"'People are talking about ... the rise of the word "clout." Among those with "clout" are President Johnson, the Pope, and Ho Chi Minh of Hanoi.' (Vogue does not want us to confuse him with the Ho Chi Minh of Burlington, Iowa.)"

Royko tells of calling a Vogue editor to ask what the article meant by the word. "She shrieked, 'My God! Everybody knows what it means.'" The editor went on to explain that clout means "the ability and the means and the power to return a blow when somebody has attacked you." Royko was happy to set the smug New Yorker straight.

Clout has several definitions, but the one closest to the meaning in the Vogue article — and in Sen. McConnell's use — is "influence." Some of the senator's supporters might have clout, if they can influence him, but he doesn't have clout any more than Lyndon Johnson or Ho Chi Minh. When you have power, you don't need influence.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


A Wall Street Journal editorial today quotes George Orwell:
"The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

The context for the WSJ is the shifting vocabulary surrounding the 9/11 attacks, which is now frequently referred to as a "tragedy," like an earthquake, with "no villainy or evil ... no blame ... no remedy." It was instead an act of war, an organized, unprovoked attack on a civilian population from an enemy that intended to continue causing us harm. That's not a tragedy. The tragedy is allowing ourselves to minimize or even forget how that event forever changed our lives.

Slovenliness of language characterizes lazy thinking people who want to keep things simple, who don't want their assumptions or world views challenged.

People judge one another in many ways — appearance, speech, associations, bank accounts. I find people's writing as a way to judge them. Not necessarily the spelling and grammar but their clarity of thought. As one who can't always express myself in speech but who tries to write precisely, I generally assume that anyone with muddled writing suffers from muddled thinking. I admire articulate people, and I'm disappointed when I discover that someone who speaks well cannot collect his thoughts on paper. I want to suggest, "Just write down what you've just said, and it will make more sense than the jumbled words you've just put together."

We all live under the limitations of our individual abilities to express ourselves. The greater our collective limitations, the more our entire culture suffers. And boy is it suffering.

But look at the bright side. At least you can add "slovenliness" to your vocabulary.