Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (2)

On May 15, I discussed the act of trying not to say something, and how I usually got caught when I resorted to it. Today, I’d like to discuss how grammar and diction often reveal the evasion.

Last month, a journalist was discussing how network executives had pressured correspondents to tout the invasion of Iraq. Jessica Yellin, who worked at MSNBC before the invasion, said:

“When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.” (48 words)

Her circumlocution is remarkable, even comical. She has used:
  • Unnecessary clauses (make sure that, a war that was, a way that was).
  • An unnecessary passive-voice verb (was presented).
  • Two unnecessary copulative verbs (was under, was consistent).
  • A gratuitous adverb (frankly).
And she has used the press corps instead of the brief and simple us – falsely implying that she had been merely a bystander.

When you see a circumlocution this extensive and this strenuous (I call it “The Stretch”), you know someone is trying very hard not to say something. Ask yourself how a natural, unstretched sentence might look. In this case, the answer is easy:

When the lead-up to the war began, corporate executives were pressuring us to present the war jingoistically and servilely. (19 words)

The Takeaway: You don’t need to be a hypervigilant grammarian to know when you are resorting to The Stretch. It tends to jump off the page (or screen) at you. Whenever you catch yourself stretching, ask, “What am I trying not to say?” Then do whatever you think is ethical and dignified.

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