Thursday, December 4, 2008

What am I trying not to say? (6)

In an earlier post, I discussed a news item about a serial rapist (pictured) who had escaped from life imprisonment in a psychiatric lockup in King’s College Hospital in South London (UK). Some doctor or nurse there had deliberately understated how dangerous he was. Apparently the hospital staff routinely understates these dangers, out of “sensitivity” for the feelings of the violent lunatics in their charge.

In that post, I briefly discussed two sentences from a hospital management committee report on the escape. In this post, I give you a more detailed analysis of the two sentences, because they exemplify the kind of weasel-wording favored by politicians and shyster lawyers. It is the opposite of clear writing; it is deliberately unclear writing.

“Recent events…”

This choice of words allows the writer of the report to avoid mentioning that a serial rapist escaped, that he had escaped once before from the same hospital, and that the second escape was made possible by the use of Politically Correct Euphemism.

“…have suggested that…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid making a clear, logical connection between the “events” and the cause. There is no human agent in this clause; it is an uninhabited clause. The “[r]ecent events” do not conclude or demonstrate or even indicate – they merely suggest. So, mere events (not the escape of a serial rapist) are merely suggesting something or other that may or may not prevent additional escapes or other unpleasantness.

“…certain language such as ‘medium secure patient’…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying that the “language” is politically correct language. It also allows him to avoid characterizing the “language” as evasive, dishonest or dangerous – all of which it is.

“…is not transferable in the understanding of the level of risk posed.”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid specifying the people (security guards and police) to whom the “language” is “not transferable.” Note that, right after “transferable,” he inserts the awkward phrase “in the understanding of.” The reader, pausing to attempt to decipher “in the understanding of,” can easily overlook the writer’s omission of an indirect object where one is called for (transferable to whom?). Clever.

The writer also avoids stating why the hospital staff’s everyday language is not transferable to these unspecified people (because they work in the real world and speak English, not Politically Correct Euphemism).

“Consideration therefore is required…”

This choice of words allows the writer to avoid acknowledging how serious the matter at hand really is. Instead of telling the staff what they henceforth must do, he suggests, by using “consideration,” that the staff need not do anything – merely consider what they may do if they are so inclined and it’s not too much bother. By weakly stating the remedy, he implies that the “[r]ecent events” were not really that serious.

“…as to how we portray or use common language whilst remaining sensitive to the patient’s treatment needs.”

This choice of words allows the writer even to avoid telling the staff what it is that they may possibly want to consider doing (but not necessarily do). He avoids telling them that they should immediately stop deliberately misleading security guards and policemen with euphemisms that understate how insane and dangerous a patient is.

He does not warn the staff that their sensitive language may expose them to criminal charges of aiding and abetting violent criminals.

Nor does he warn them that someday a victim of one of their escaped lunatics may discover that he escaped because some soulful nurse sensitively understated how dangerous he was. Upon learning this, the victim may decide to sue the nurse for everything she has.

By using “whilst remaining,” the writer hints that management places a higher priority on sensitivity than on security or public safety – crime victims be damned! However, if confronted he can always deny this.

All in all, a little masterpiece of weasel-wording.

The Takeaway: If you catch yourself habitually writing evasive language, try to break the habit. If you are not sure whether something is evasive, email me a representative sample and (unless I am on deadline) I will give you a free sanity check.

A Good Resource: For more on weasel-wording and bureaucratic writing, see Less Than Words Can Say, by the late Richard Mitchell. It is one of the great essays on English.

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