Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (3)

It bears repeating: if you really want to produce clear writing, always try to say what you mean. Never try not to say what you mean.

Here’s someone trying not to say what he means:

On May 3, 2007, Admiral William J. Fallon, United States Navy Commander, United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee how his outfit was doing.

He said that his outfit had many strengths and he conceded that it had one or two weaknesses. One weakness was that “Our present inventory of language and intelligence specialists (especially human intelligence) and counterintelligence agents does not support current requirements.”

The awkward composition of the sentence alerts his readers that he is up to something. The subject of the sentence (“inventory”) is a thing and the direct object (“requirements”) is a concept. The sentence boils down to “Inventory does not support requirements.” So, no persons failed to do their jobs; only things did. Therefore, no persons need be demoted or fired.

So, we know what Admiral Fallon said and what he implied. What was he trying not to say?

This translation was offered by Robert Higgs, a fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute:

“[B]ecause we don’t speak or understand Arabic, Pashto, Persian, or any other local language in this part of the world, we haven’t a clue as to what’s going on in the politics and social life of these countries, and therefore we are constantly at the mercy of English-speaking collaborators who will take the risk of feeding us lies and fabricated ‘intelligence’ long enough to get rich and then flee the country before their infuriated countrymen kill them.”

Well now. That’s pretty clearly stated. Five clauses have a person or persons (we, we, we, who, countrymen) as a subject. Only one clause has a thing (what) as a subject.

Of course, this translation may be overstated. We can’t know for sure. But that’s the risk you run when you try not to say what you mean: your readers may overestimate the extent of the stupidity, ignorance, incompetence, immorality or crime you are trying to cover up.

The Takeaway: Say what you mean. If you try not to say what you mean, your readers will say it for you. And they won’t be kind.

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