Watch your language

When the Whistle-Blower’s complaint erupted last month, Jane Rosenzweig, director of the Writing Center at Harvard, found something notable about the complaint itself: The Whistle-Blower Knows How to Write. Three days before, Pope Francis came out against adjectives saying, “I am allergic to these words,” and “We have fallen into the culture of adjectives and adverbs, and we have forgotten the strength of nouns.” In particular, the addition of “authentic” to “Christian” pushed him over the edge.

This was a moment. Written or spoken, communication is tricky. One word can make the difference between meaning-making and meaning-muddling. I’m new to writing for public consumption, and an important aspect of my work with clients focuses on communicating the right thing in the right way. I had to take heed.

What the whistle-blower did

Excerpted directly from Rosenzweig’s opinion piece:

The whistle-blower gets right to the point.

We know right away what his purpose is and why we should care. He wastes no time on background or pleasantries. . . . “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple US Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election.”

The whistle-blower uses subheadings to make sure we can connect the dots.

The whistle-blower’s subheadings do what the best subheadings do: They structure the complaint and provide a clear outline of what the document contains:

I.    The 25 July Presidential phone call

   II.   Efforts to restrict access to records related to the call

   III.  Ongoing concerns

   IV.  Circumstances leading up to the 25 July Presidential phone call

Even if you’re writing something less formal, you can use subheadings to organize your document and then remove them before sharing it. [Subheadings are my jam, and they are good for accessibility.]

The whistle-blower gets an A for his topic sentences

Strong persuasive or expository writing features topic sentences that tell the reader what to focus on:

‘Multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call informed me that, after an initial exchange of pleasantries, the president used the remainder of the call to advance his personal interests….. [sic]”

The whistle-blower uses active verbs

Among other things in the complaint, we learn “the president also praised Ukraine’s prosecutor general,” and that “senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call.” Contrast that with. . .”Ukraine’s Prosecutor General [sic] was praised” or “all records of the phone call were locked down.”

Passive constructions leave us hanging about who did what . . . make sure your sentences feature real people performing actions.

Rosenzweig closes by noting no matter what careers her students choose, they will have to write — reports, strategic plans, proposals, and if nothing else, many, many emails.

Adjectives and other troublemakers

I’d been minding my use of adjectives before the Pope backed me up. My beef is with too many words, not defending the honor of nouns or verbs, although they are the pathway to redemption. I get cranky when I read or listen to content twice as long as it needs to be to convey its meaning. Adjectives wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have a purpose. Peter Segal pointed out in response to the Pope’s adjective allergy, “Where would the Bible be without adjectives? You’d have the story of the ... Samaritan? And somebody would walk into baby Jesus’ manger and say, ‘There are Three ... Men’?”

How to get rid of the bad adjectives and keep the good? A simple hack is to remove all adjectives and see if the meaning is still there. Add them back sparingly as needed.

Other watch-out words I was aware of — long known to get in the way of communicating, especially in the context of giving feedback or managing conflict were:

Why can invite defensiveness.

But negates what came before it. Try substituting “and.” It works most of the time.

No shuts down the conversation

Always, never, everything, nothing, and other absolutes are rarely true; they overemphasize, often evoking a defensive response.

Curiosity piqued, I googled “words to avoid.” Most cited are listed below. Some have fallen victim to “semantic drift," rogue usage over time rendered the modern meaning different from the original. “Literally” now often means “figuratively.” Some don’t need to be there. “I think that you’re hungry" is adding a word to “I think you’re hungry.” “I’m very tired” could become "I'm exhausted." And, some are overused: if everything’s amazing, nothing is. Again, the fix is to remove these words and see if the sentence still works, or use more precise words.

Amazing
Absolutely
As
A lot
Feel
Honestly

Just
Like
Literally
Maybe
Really
Sort of/Kind of

That
Think
Used to
Very
Went
You

Brace yourself for these two: stuff and things. No, no, no. They’re literally everywhere! The right thing is what without “thing?” The right stuff?

All of this brought Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century to mind. Many have recommended it. It’s on my nightstand book stack, third one down.

Altogether now

No, but it’s absolutely amazing, really, that a lot of stuff, that honestly used to always feel sort of (maybe) very right, literally feels kind of wrong. Why, then, you wonder, is that, and what to do about it, you think?


This is the perfect moment to give a shout out to my editor, Nicole Bemboom. She rights my wrongs: fixes my punctuation and grammar (I’m not good with rules), outs my run-on sentences, raises an eyebrow at my misguided metaphors and occasional insensitivities, and points out when I don’t make any sense. Thank you for having my back, Nicole.

Sunday Morning Reflection

What words do you auto-use that could stand a tune-up?
How could those emails be a little better?

Sunday Morning: 129