Save Our English
I love English. It is a truly beautiful language and is worthy of its status as the de facto international language. I despair when students finish college having never taken a course in writing so that they may deploy this amazing language to its fullest and most powerful effect.
What I particularly love about English is its expansive vocabulary, arguably the largest of any language. It’s not just that we have a plethora of words, it’s that English has borrowed or imported a multitude of words from other languages, becoming richer, more dynamic and more expressive in the process. I can’t find the exact quote, but I think it was Heinlein who described English as meeting other languages, gobbling them up and making English out of them.
We could still use a few words that other languages have, but more often than not you can find precisely the word you need if you think hard enough (or have a thesaurus). Which is why crap like this annoys the hell out of me:
#BREAKING: Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Ellis has resigned from his state House seat immediately. The Republican representative was accused of having sex with an incapacitated woman against her will. https://t.co/xu6kGutCdO pic.twitter.com/AzzpSTppXt
— Alex Cole (@acnewsitics) March 18, 2019
The beautiful thing about English is that you don’t have to use such an awkward phrasing as “accused of having sex with an incapacitated woman against her will”. You can use only three words: “accused of rape.” If you really want to be more specific you can say, “accused of raping an incapacitated woman.”
I’ve noticed these kind of euphemisms show up more and more often when authority figures — politicians or law enforcement — are involved. A police officer is accused of “forcing women to have sex for their freedom”. No, he’s accused of raping them. A politician is accused of forcing children into sex acts. No, he’s accused of molesting them. Not only is my phrasing shorter; it’s clearer about what is alleged to have happened.
This abuse of our Norman tongue does not just confine itself to acts of sexual violence. Acts of ordinary violence are also shrouded in opaque verbiage. I’ve noticed that almost all police shootings these days are described by the phrase “officer-involved shooting”. That doesn’t have the same problem with prolixity but it does give an unclear account of what happened. You can just say “a police officer shot someone”. It’s clean, simple and accurate. There’s no judgement in using that phrase. The shooting may have been absolutely justified. But police unions and departments have chosen the oblique phrase “officer-involved shooting” and the media have obediently gone along with it. William Schneider has dubbed this entire category of writing as using the exonerative tense. Radley Balko:
There was a particularly egregious example of this with the L.A. Sheriff’s Department [in April 2013]. While responding to reports of a stabbing, LASD deputies shot and killed 30-year-old John Winkler. In an initial press release, the department said Winkler “aggressed the deputies and a deputy-involved shooting occurred.” Note that Winkler’s actions were put in the active voice, while the officers’ actions were put in the passive.
As it turns out, Winkler was innocent. He hadn’t “aggressed” the officers at all. Rather, he and another victim, both of whom had been stabbed, were running toward the police to escape their assailant. (The deputies shot the other victim, too.) The press release incorrectly assigned criminal culpability to an innocent stabbing victim, but carefully avoided prematurely assigning responsibility to the deputies who shot him.
We also sometimes hear about how weapons “discharge” as though they had wills of their own. Sometimes, this is comical, such as when a gun discharged into a wall while an officer was unloading it. Sometimes … it’s not.
Passive voice is another beast marauding our beloved dialect into incomprehensibility. I’m fond of the passive voice in some circumstances. But lately, as my friend Maggie points out, it has become a way to push a narrative:
[T]here are times when the construction is useful; if Rasputin is the subject of a paragraph, it’s perfectly reasonable and proper to include the sentence, “He was killed by a group of boyars who felt that his influence over the Czarina threatened all of Russia.” Changing the subject from “Rasputin” to “boyars” would not only be jarring, it might even make the point more confusing. The passive voice is also quite useful when the entity which actually initiated an action is unknown: “The package was picked on Tuesday,” or “The cave-paintings were made about 16,000 years ago,” or “A flaming bag of human feces was left on the steps of the police station.” This is why the form is often used by those who wish to avoid responsibility for something*; it can make it sound as though the culprit is unknown when in fact there is little doubt of his identity. The classic political example is “Mistakes were made,” which is bureaucratese for “I made a mistake” or “My office staff made a mistake” or the like. Police reports and press releases are riddled with such constructions, especially when the cops murder someone; in the cartoon world they inhabit, guns and bullets appear to act on their own without any identifiable human agency.
Maggie particularly notes how this construction is used to drive the narrative on sex trafficking — women are “trafficked” or “prostituted” (sometimes by themselves), which obviates the need to show any actual force or compulsion. It is not without reason that Strunk and White spent an entire page hammering on the abuse of the passive voice.
Frankly, our entire press corps could due with spending a few minutes reading Mark Twain’s Rules for Writing, particularly these:
An author should
12. _Say_ what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple, straightforward style.
The media, in their desperate need to appease authority figures, has forgotten these rules. They have shown a distressing tendency to shroud the misdeeds of the powerful in euphemisms, passive constructions, awkward exonerative phrasing and run-on justifications that would make James Fenimore Cooper blanch.
A pity, really. Because in doing so, they are turning their back not only on the beauty of language but on accuracy.