The following is a cranky, somewhat pompous rant about language written by someone who is overly invested in the principles of clarity, usage, and style. You have been warned.
As pretty much everyone who knows me offline knows, I am a professional wordsmith. I work in publishing, which means that I’m around words every single day. I’m a sometimes freelance copyeditor, which means that I’m particular about how sentences are constructed and how words are used. I work with poets, which means that I am hyper-conscious about the meanings of words and the sounds of words and the connotations of words and how important each word is in crafting a meaningful, memorable statement. My bookshelf includes titles such as The Wordy Shipmates, A Brief History of the Printed Word, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Verbivore’s Feast, and of course, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
I’m finicky about language is what I’m saying.
Which is why I am continuously irritated by the rhetoric of the Republican Party.
I’m not talking about their platform, believe it or not, although I’m not terribly fond of that either. No, I’m talking about their rhetoric (n.): the art of speaking or writing effectively.
It has been said of the new president that he has a fourth-grade vocabulary and that he talks like a clown. It has also been said that he is a master of classical rhetoric, i.e. appealing to an audience through emotional language over rational discourse, which is true, unfortunately, but I’m not going to get into that here, because I’m not actually talking about him (for once).
No, this is a rant about a different Republican spokesperson. It’s about a sentence that is so looping, so repetitive, so poorly constructed that it irritated me enough to write a 1700-word rant about it on Facebook and then copy it to my personal blog.
Again: you have been warned.
Just look at this stupid sentence:
“I think he knows that he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally,” said Susan Hutchinson, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. “I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”
Just look at it! Let it seep into your brain. Let it smother your brain cells with it’s idiocy and strangle them of their oxygen. Let it ooze through your pores and burst through your skin like a bad case of acne. Let it wash over you. Consume you. Make your teeth itch.
“I think he knows that he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally. I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”
Dumb dumb dumb!
Now, before I go any further, I should give you the context of what she’s talking about. This is a quote from a Seattle Times article on U.S. District Judge James Robart’s ruling in favor of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who sued to invalidate key provisions of Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees traveling to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Hutchinson is accusing Ferguson of suing for political motives.
But that’s not the point. The point is that her sentence is stupid.
Let’s look at it one word at a time:
1. “I think”—weak writing. To quote another editor, phrases like “I think” and “In my opinion” a) delay the writer’s message, b) demonstrate insecurity, and c) tell the reader what she already knows. Better to start with “He knows…”
2. “he knows that…”—interpretation of motive. Unless she has spoken with the judge, there’s no way she could know what he “knows”—which itself is a poor word choice, but I’ll let it go for now. Better: “He’s got…”
3. “got”—nonstandard usage. “Got” is the past participle of “get” which means “to obtain.” Better: “He is on very…”
4. “very”—imprecise qualifier. To quote William Allen White: “Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.” Better: “He is on thin ice”
5. “thin ice”—dead metaphor. It’s a cliché phrase that has lost its meaning due to overuse. It’s also imprecise. Better: “He has [note shift of verb] poor standing legally.”
6. “legally”—technically correct, but the adverb placement is slightly unclear. Better: “He has poor legal standing.”
7. “I’m not a lawyer”—disqualification of authority. If you’re not a lawyer, then why should we believe what you say? Better: “He has poor legal standing. I have talked to lawyers…”
8. “I have talked to lawyers”—imprecise. Which lawyers? What branch of law do they practice? Constitutional lawyers? Divorce lawyers? Finance lawyers? Better: “I have spoken with several experts on constitutional law, including [name of lawyer], [name of lawyer], and [name of lawyer]…”
9. “and they have all said”—paraphrase. Better to give an exact quote. Since there is no quote provided, it’s better to cut the phrase.
10. “it”—ambiguous pronoun. What “it” is she referring to? The ruling? Trump’s executive order? Ferguson’s lawsuit? Be precise. Better: “I have spoken with several experts on constitutional law who agreed that Ferguson’s lawsuit…”
11. “a very thin argument”—see points 2 and 3.
12. “legally.”—repetition. You’ve said “legally” and “lawyer,” both of which are variations on “law,” four times. This is an effective rhetorical device for a speech (people remember repetitions), but it’s dishonest here. It’s also distracting. Better to cut the repetition.
To wit: “Ferguson’s lawsuit has poor legal standing. I have spoken with experts on constitutional law who agree that this suit is unconstitutional.”
This may sound silly and pedantic, but guess what? She’s making a statement about lawyers! Lawyers are some of the most pedantic people on the planet. They know that words matter and that every word in a ruling, a contract, or a statement must be precise. If it’s not precise, then another pedantic lawyer could easily find a loophole. That’s why the Terms of Services on your Facebook account (for example) are written in legalese: because Facebook does not want to be sued, and if they are sued, they want to win the case.
The legal field, like most career fields, uses language in a specific manner—jargon, you could say. (“Jargon” here referring to its second, more precise definition in Merriam-Websters, i.e. “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”). In other words, lawyers speak their own language. If you cannot speak their language, they will destroy your argument in the courtroom.
This doesn’t apply to just lawyers, by the way: farmers, engineers, manufacturers, academics, healthcare workers, bankers, stock brokers—every single career field has their own technical terms and their own way of speaking.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not always speak in the most refined manner. I tend to use colloquialisms and everyday vernacular both because it’s easier to articulate and because it’s easier to understand. Spoken language is, was, and always will have different rules than written English.
(English, by the way, is sometimes described as “a language with few rules and many exceptions.” Which is accurate. Which is how I justify writing in sentence fragments. Like this one. In short: I’m not making an argument that “she broke the rules.” I’m making an argument about style.)
I will also admit—readily—that I am guilty of many of the same “word crimes” as Hutchinson. I very much have a bad habit of overusing the word “very” and falling back on clichés (i.e. dead metaphors).
I also trend more toward descriptivism over prescriptivism these days, but again, that’s neither here nor there.
My point is that Hutchinson’s sentence is stupid. It’s also symptomatic of a larger problem: the dumbing down of our public language.
Compare her sentence to the words of Abraham Lincoln’s—another Republican, albeit one from a bygone era—Second Inaugural Address:
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
Beautiful. I get chills every time I read that sentence. It’s elegant, it’s simple, it’s easy to understand (save perhaps for the word “deprecated,” which might send some folks to a dictionary, but since when has looking up an unfamiliar word been a bad thing?), and that last clause! “…and the war came.” The understatement to end all understatements!
I could also compare her statement to, oh, nearly anything spoken in a public address by President Obama, but that would be overkill. Grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Shooting fish in a barrel. Et cetra.
Note the clichés in the last paragraph. Note the sentence fragments. Note that it’s possible to write colloquially without tripping over oneself and repeating the same words over and over and over again.
And if I do repeat words (or start a sentence with a conjunction or commit some other bugaboo), I do so for emphasis—not because I’m too flustered to think of a better word.
Yeah, it’s the repetition that bugs me the most.
“he’s got very thin ice he’s standing on legally.”
“I’m not a lawyer but I have talked to lawyers today and they have all said this is a very thin argument legally.”
In short: words matter, language matters, and public language should aim for a higher standard. Either the GOP is intentionally talking down to the public because they assume we’re all dumber than a fifth grader, or they are legitimately too simple-minded to construct a decent sentence. Either way, as someone who works with language for a living, my eardrums are being ripped from my skull, grated with a lemon zester, and sprinkled over year-old gazpacho.
Now that is how you construct a colorful metaphor.
And to the entire Republican Party I say: Buy a goddamn copy of Shrunk and White, you hacks.
Note: the author does not endorse Shrunk and White as the final authority on style and usage in the English language. It is just as biased and outdated as any style manual written by writerly-type persons. It is, however, a good place to start if one wants to learn the principles of good writing. See also: the works of Stephen Pinker.