Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hiding the verb

Another rhetorical trick that politicians* use is to de-emphasize a negative via a construction that I call “the hidden verb.” In this construction, the writer converts a verb to a noun or adjective, which disguises the action, which weakens the sentence, which (he hopes) de-emphasizes the negative.

For example, Ruth Kelly (pictured), a British politician, was caught embezzling. To attempt to evade responsibility, she wrote a lame apology that included this sentence: “There was no intention to do anything other than comply with the rules.”

It would have been natural to write, “I never intended to break the rules.” But she hid the verb intended inside the noun intention, and then used the bland verb to be (was). The construction also allowed the embezzler to avoid mentioning the agent: herself. Note also that she avoided using the powerful word break.

The Takeaway: If you are writing about a failure or malfeasance – even if only to deny it – remember that intelligent readers will be especially alert for indications of your candor or lack thereof. Don’t damage your credibility by using a “hidden verb.” Even readers who do not formally know the rules of grammar can often spot this awkward construction. It announces, “Warning: Author Is a Weasel!”

*I mean politicians not in the narrow sense of people who run for office or “work” for the government, but in the wider sense of all professional deceivers, including shyster lawyers, corrupt professors, and corrupt journalists.

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