Monday, November 19, 2012

Vague words making a vague point about a vague topic

If you want a brief but intensive lesson in how not to write, read this web page published by the University of Minnesota. It is full of vague words that make a vague point about a vague topic. The concentration of so much vagueness leads the intelligent reader to suspect either fatuousness or flimflam.

You and I never want our readers to think that way about our writing. So, let’s analyze the web page to see what makes it so vague.

A vague topic

The topic of the page is sustainability. This is an unsettled, confusing and controversial topic. The Wikipedia definition, which attempts (but fails) to include all the disagreements, is a whopping 755 words long.

Nor are all the disagreements trivial; far from it. For example, Jeffrey Tucker, speaking for many free-market scholars, defines sustainability as “rolling back the advances of civilization by force.”

A vague point

So much for the topic of the university’s web page about sustainability. Now let’s consider the point of the page: how the university teaches sustainability.

Apparently the university does not have a department of sustainability and does not offer a major in sustainability. It does offer a minor – not in sustainability but in “Sustainability Studies.” The minor is a kind of scavenger hunt through all the colleges of the university. The university says it offers, via the minor and other programs, “a spectrum of opportunities for students to engage in the challenges of sustainability.”

I would think that prospective students’ first “challenge of sustainability” would be to persuade the university’s sustainability teachers to publish a concise, clear and widely accepted definition of the word sustainability. Failing that, the teachers’ consensus definition. Failing that, each teacher’s definition.

The prospective students’ second challenge would be to convince their parents that spending a year with the teachers who wrote that web page could somehow be worth $24,718, and that the teachers’ atrocious writing habits would not rub off on the students.

A lot of vague words

What about the text of the page? Well, it consists mostly of phrases like this:

•    sustainability studies
•    courses on the core issues of sustainability that effect [sic] all disciplines
•    undergraduate opportunities in sustainability education
•    undergraduate sustainability education offerings
•    graduate sustainability education opportunities
•    issues of sustainability
•    contributions of multiple disciplines and professions
•    sustainability education network
•    opportunities to advance sustainability education

So what was the University of Minnesota trying to achieve with that web page? My guess is that when sustainability became a mania word* the university wanted to publicly declare its infatuation with the word, to avoid looking out of step.

The Takeaway: Read the whole web page. It is a good example of pathological vagueness. Print it out and keep it in your writing reference file. If you ever catch yourself thinking vague language is always harmless, pull out the copy and read it again as a deterrent.

Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning, who called my attention to this example.

See disclaimer.

*A mania word (my coinage, I believe) is a fad word that writers have begun using prodigally, promiscuously and rashly. Other mania words favored by the University of Minnesota are drive, issue, passion, and self-esteem.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe there's no there there, and that's why it's vague. Still, as an enthusiastic recycler, I've got to admire an institution that tries to create something new out of what's already around, simply by repackaging.