Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Politics and the pundits' language

We read more political commentary than anyone else. Let's face it: we're rather freakish in this respect. However, although we might be expanding our knowledge of the world around us exponentially, our aesthetic sense could be suffering, since (as I have pointed out with Victor Davis Hanson) many authors on the internet are unremittingly bad.

Matt Taibbi has graciously given us the locus classicus for dismantling poor pundit writing with his review of Friedman's The World is Flat. But allow me to proffer a few more examples. Take this sentence from an article by National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez about Rudy Giuliani's Presidential prospects:

"But if Rudy can be patient and practice political abstinence as his rivals engage in hot combat, the former New York City mayor could prove to have a leg up in the 2008 Republican race."

Now, having established the abstinence metaphor at the beginning of her piece, Lopez is allowed at least this one instance. "Hot combat" and "leg up" are just too many images for one sentence, however, and furthermore the triad of abstinence, heat, and raised legs establishes the unfortunate and confused mental picture of simultaneous pissing and copulating. (Wasn't Lopez's point to keep our minds off of sex? But perhaps these are my own psychic hang-ups manifesting themselves.) Also, "hot combat" is a wretched phrase. It sounds like the lazily translated title of a Japanese video game, the literal meaning being something like "Big Fighting Temperature Increase."

Other pieces, while not as gauche in their language as Lopez's, suffer from quite the opposite problem: they're so damn colorless as to be scarcely readable. Take this paragraph-sized monster from an American Prospect article about Martin Luther King:

"If he were still alive, King would surely be working with unions, clergy, and community groups to raise the federal minimum wage, enact local living wage laws, expand health insurance to all Americans, and help America's working poor -- hotel workers, janitors, security guards, hospital employees, grocery workers, farmworkers, and others -- unionize for better working and living conditions."

A three-string series of comitative subjects. Four purpose clauses. A seven-string series as an interjection. Two instances of the word "America." Two of "living." Six of "work" or "working." What would Martin Luther King be doing again?

It's not hard to find this stuff, and I admit it's too easy to mock it. Instead, we should "get down to brass tacks" and "search high and low" for the "cream of the crop," the "diamonds in the rough," to employ a few "well-worn cliches." In other words: Writing contest time. Tomorrow (today--Thursday--if you're reading this now), pick out one or two particularly well-wrought phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs during your daily pundit-scanning. (I think blogs should be allowed, too, provided that the sentence in question is from a longer, composed piece, not just a blurb.) Post your selections in the "comments" section here with a few explanatory notes. If you like, you can include instances of outstanding shabbiness as well. For the sake of clarity, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Zargatron B journalism are prohibited. Let us never forget what Orwell and Eric Brown taught us about bad writing!

4 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

Still searching, but in thinking about your title, how long do you think one can go having never once read "Politics and the English Language" before knowing the essay by heart through others quoting from it? Five years or so? I think I have about 1/4 down already.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

From memory (and repeated "Politics and the English Language" blows to the head, as you describe):

1. If you can remove a word and keep the meaning of the sentence, remove it.

2. Avoid a Latin or Greek root when a good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon word will do.

3. Avoid technical jargon and vacuous contemporary phrasing.

4. Avoid the passive voice? (I don't remember if this one is in there.)

Am I forgetting any others?

3:34 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Doesn't he say something really great about the phrase "In order to make an omelette, you've got to break some eggs"? I think his response (or so hearsay tells me) is: But where's the omelette?

11:16 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

That may be in the essay, though I don't remember. He also said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot coming down on a human face...forever" (seems rather apt after seeing Pan's Labyrinth), and "some ideas are so bad only very intelligent people could believe in them" or something like that. I was very pleased recently when reporting my run in with the police in Tijuana, because someone told me I was very lucky not to have gone to jail, and I said, quoting Orwell, that "I would have been luckier for it not to have happened at all."

7:17 PM  

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