Friday, February 17, 2006

Act Forcefully

Writing is something every literate person does, like it or not. We often do it badly. Partly this is due to lack of education and care of the basic craft of writing. Sometimes it is systematic, which is bizarre. When you combine the general lack of skill in writing, and systematic warping of language, you get unexpected results.

For an example, I have a local news story that is also getting national coverage. A nurse at the VA hospital in Albuquerque wrote a letter critical of the Bush administration, and it was published local paper. As a result, her computer at work was seized, and it was reported that she is being investigated for Sedition. The ACLU is representing the nurse.

I read the story and said out loud, "I guess I'll keep giving money to the ACLU every month." This interested Jae, and she read the story, including the nurse's letter.

Her response was, "Yep, that'll get you in trouble."

"What?", Josh asked.

"She advocated violence to overthrow the government."

"Huh? Did we read the same letter?" asked Josh.

"This sentence right here.", said Jae, pointing.

"We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration..."

I responded that interpreting the phrase "act forcefully" as encouraging violence was silly. The worst habit of writing is lack of precision. "Act forcefully," I argued, was much more likely to mean impeach than to mean remove at gun point. Jae did not agree. To prove my point, I googled for "act forcefully." The results surprised me. Most of the hits were from articles or statements that were overtly political in nature. In the political cases, "act forcefully" clearly meant "use violence." In political speech, "act forcefully" is systematically used as a euphemism for violence.

This depressed me. First, because I lost an argument. Second, because this cowardly warping of speech is a reflection of the inadequacies of politics. Would it hurt to speak plainly when we are talking about killing people? This is a subject on which I want people to be clear.

I recommend you read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." If nothing else, read the section where he rewrites a verse from Ecclesiastes the way it would be written by a modern politician or bureaucrat.

You can read about the VA nurse, from an obvious slant, at


Cool Hand Luke said...

I often review written materials from junior staff on my project teams that will be going to a client. I'm not a great writer, but I have some experience under my belt. Easily my most common revision or suggestion is to "write forcefully". That is a bit of a bad joke, but seriously my most common suggestion is to be more clear in their writing, and that usually means to be more strong in their wording and not be afraid to make the point that needs to be made.

Sorry you were wrong. Hopefully Jae didn't rub it in *too* much.

Matt Dick said...

Okay, Mr. Smartypants editor of dumb people's writings, here is where your chickens come home to roost:

Over on your blog, you used the wrong vocabulary word -- you meant "sleight" of mouse, not "slight" of mouse.

I shall now be referred to as Mr. Smartypants.

Josh Gentry said...

Good advice. Can you make them read the 18 little pages of the chapter, "Elementary Principles of Composition", from Strunk and White's _The Elements of Style_? Just the list the headings is instructive. It includes:

Use the active voice
Put statements in positive form
Use definate, specific, concrete language

Cool Hand Luke said...

Ouch. I didn't say I was qualified.

Cool Hand Luke said...

I have no idea what you are talking about, Matt. If you go to my blog you will see the post clearly reads "sleight".

Matt Dick said...

Ahh... well my mistake.

On an unrelated note, have you ever seen:


Carlos said...

Not to interrupt a nice little flame going here with actual, you know, commentary or anything...
Are any of you familiar with One of the main focuses of this group is to bring about sensible malpractice reform, but they often comment on absurdities in law and official policies. This sounds like a good story, along the lines of 6 year olds being suspended for sexual harrassment.

Josh Gentry said...

I think investigating her was fine, now that I believe her use of "act forcefully" is likely to have meant use violence.

shadowfax said...

This depressed me. First, because I lost an argument.

That *would* be depressing. At least I suppose it would, but since it's never happened to me, I wouldn't know . . .

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