Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good readability: a popular example

In previous posts, I’ve given examples of high readability. Here’s another one: a transcript of a few words from the late comic George Carlin. Warning: adult language.

“Most people seem indoctrinated to believe that bullshit only comes from certain places, certain sources: advertising, politics, salesmen. Not true. Bullshit is everywhere. Bullshit is rampant. Parents are full of shit, teachers are full of shit, clergymen are full of shit, and law enforcement people are full of shit.

“This entire country is completely full of shit and always has been. From the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to The Star-Spangled Banner, it’s really nothing more than one big, steaming pile of red, white and blue, All-American bullshit.

“Because think of how we started – think of that. This country was founded by a group of slave-owners who told us all men are created equal. Oh, yeah. All men, except for Indians and n***ers and women, right? (Always like to use that authentic American language.)

“This was a small group of unelected, white male, land-holding slave-owners who also suggested their class be the only one allowed to vote. Now that is what’s known as being stunningly and embarrassingly full of shit.

“And I think Americans really show their ignorance when they say they want their politicians to be honest. What are these f***ing cretins talking about? If honesty were suddenly introduced into American life, the whole system would collapse. No one would know what to do.”

This selection scores a very high 63.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test of readability – higher than every Fortune 500 company annual report issued last year.

The Takeaway: Adult language aside, we would do well to emulate George Carlin. He routinely achieved readability scores that many professional writers have never touched even once in their entire lives.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to show and explain examples of clear and unclear writing and speech. Accordingly, I select examples for the diction they contain, not the ideas they express. I promote no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mantra overload (3)

As we become increasingly indolent, we Americans are using more and more mantras in our writing. It is now common to see a writer use several mantras in a single sentence. This atrocious habit is the death of clear writing.

Recently I mentioned Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer of the U.S. Government, who used three mantras in one sentence. Now it appears that the Department of Homeland security, which is also part of the U.S. Government, has beaten Mr. Kundra’s ignoble record.

According to James Delingpole, a British journalist, someone in Homeland Security wrote this sentence: “Rightwing extremists are increasingly galvanized by these concerns and leverage them as drivers for recruitment.” (My boldface.)

I count that as four mantras.

The Takeaway: If you frequently resort to using mantras, you will make yourself look stupid and lazy. Here’s the cure: Whenever you are tempted to write down the first mantra that comes to mind, stop! Search your mind or a thesaurus for a word that precisely and accurately conveys your meaning. For a helpful discussion of mantras versus precise words, see my post about the mantra drive.