Recently I’ve read a number of good articles about bad writing. As a large part of my working day is spent making bad writing better (and, hopefully, making good writing a greater joy to read), I have to admit that I love this kind of article.
Many of my clients are non-native English speakers. Even those who are very skilled in expressing themselves in English are apt to run afoul of its devilishly tricky rules of placement. James Harbeck just wrote a very good post on the importance of correct adverb placement. I can imagine that you’re ready to click off this page without reading one more word, but have a little patience and take a look at the ways that adverb placement can change the meaning of a sentence. Harbeck uses the example of what would seem to be the simplest of adverbs: honestly. He asks the reader to compare the meaning conveyed by this adverb when it is placed in six different positions in a sentence. As we read the list, it’s obvious that we should all be more careful about where we insert an adverb in a sentence. Are we really saying what we set out to say?
Honestly, I can’t say what the problem is [I am speaking honestly to you and I say I can’t say what the problem is]
I can’t honestly say what the problem is [I cannot make an honest statement of the problem]
I can’t say honestly what the problem is [I can only make dishonest statements about the problem]
I can’t say, honestly, what the problem is [I tell you that I cannot say – and I am speaking honestly to you – what the problem is]
I can’t say what the problem is honestly [If I try to say what the problem is, I will do so dishonestly]
I can’t say what the problem is, honestly [I say I can’t say what the problem is, and I am speaking honestly to you]
Spanish allows for a great deal of flexibility as far as placement within a sentence goes, and a good number of my clients give themselves the same leeway in English that they enjoy in Spanish. Occasionally my queries to non-native authors look very much like Harbeck’s list—if necessary, in a series of “back” translations that explore all the possible interpretations. However, native speakers also make placement errors. I always get a good laugh out of the errors people send to Michael Quinion for his language website and newsletter World Wide Words. For example, even the writers churning out content for the BBC News website make placement errors. World Wide Words reader Stephen Turner noted that on May 18, 2011, the BBC news let this little howler slip out: “She arrived with the Duke of Edinburgh by her side in a dress adorned with 2,091 hand sewn embroidered shamrocks.” I should hope that the Duke of Edinburgh has more sense than to wear a dress adorned with 2,091 hand sewn embroidered shamrocks, but one never knows. Once another reader wrote in to report that during an ABC24 news program broadcast in Sydney, Australia, the newsreader said that a “motorcyclist was killed when he hit a car not wearing a helmet.” I think that one provides a very clear picture of the importance of where things go in a sentence.
Apart from poets and novelists, anyone writing in any language who has even a modest ambition to share his or her ideas with a larger public should remember to write clearly and simply. I also recently enjoyed Lucy Kellaway’s 2011 “guff” list in the Financial Times. Kellaway keeps track of the most florid and nonsensical business writing she reads all year and doles out annual awards to the worst offenders. As she notes as an introduction to this year’s list, “There is an economic law that says all markets are cyclical save one: the bullshit market, which knows only the bull phase.”
This year’s top award went to Cisco System’s John Chambers for the punchy, but completely meaningless statement “We will accelerate our leadership across our five priorities and compete to win in the core.” In the euphemism department, the kudos went to telecommunication giant Nokia, for stating that the company operations were being “managed for value” rather than honestly saying that management had been forced to fire thousands of people worldwide. My favorite this year was the confession “The challenge for me is to re-aggregate the big picture, while throwing my arms around as much of the density of complexities as possible, distilling them down to their most basic constituents and plugging them back into the picture.” Even the world’s most successful CEOs could benefit from reading a bit of Harbeck now and then.
More links to articles I’ve read recently (in English and Spanish) can be found at Jenni Lukac Linguistic Services at Google+.