I think of Bill Mauldin s cartoon of two hoboes riding a
freight car. One of them says, "I started as a simple bum, but
now I'm hard-core unemployed." Clutter is political correctness
gone amok. I saw an ad for a boys' camp designed to provide
"individual attention for the minimally exceptional."
Clutter is the officiai language used by corporations to hide
their mistakes. When the Digital Equipment Corporation eliminated
3,000 jobs its statement didn't mention layoffs; those were
"involuntary methodologies." When an Air Force missile crashed,
it "impacted with the ground prematurely." When General
Motors had a plant shutdown, that was a "volume-related production-
schedule adjustment." Companies that go belly-up have
"a negative cash-flow position."
Clutter is the language of the Pentagon calling an invasion a
"reinforced protective reaction strike" and justifying its vast budgets
on the need for "counterforce deterrence." As George
Orwell pointed out in "Politics and the English Language," an
essay written in 1946 but often cited during the Vietnam and
Cambodia years of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, "political
speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. . . .
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism,
question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." Orwell's warning
that clutter is not just a nuisance but a deadly tool has come true
in the recent decades of American military adventurism in
Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
Verbal camouflage reached new heights during General
Alexander Haig's tenure as President Reagan's secretary of state.
Before Haig nobody had thought of saying "at this juncture of
maturization" to mean "now." He told the American people that
terrorism could be fought with "meaningful sanctionary teeth"
and that intermediate nuclear missiles were "at the vortex of
cruciality." As for any worries that the public might harbor, his
message was "leave it to Al," though what he actually said was:
"We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don't
16 ON WRITING WELL
think there's much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area
I could go on quoting examples from various fields—every
profession has its growing arsenal of jargon to throw dust in the
eyes of the populace. But the list would be tedious. The point of
raising it now is to serve notice that clutter is the enemy. Beware,
then, of the long word that's no better than the short word: "assistance"
(help), "numerous" (many), "facilitate" (ease), "individual"
(man or woman), "remainder" (rest), "initial" (first), "implement"
(do), "sufficient" (enough), "attempt" (try), "referred to as"
(called) and hundreds more. Beware of all the slippery new fad
words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They
are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don't dialogue
with someone you can talk to. Don't interface with anybody.
Just as insidious are all the word clusters with which we
explain how we propose to go about our explaining: "I might
add," "It should be pointed out," "It is interesting to note." If
you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If
it is interesting to note, make it interesting; are we not all stupefied
by what follows when someone says, "This will interest
you"? Don't inflate what needs no inflating: "with the possible
exception of" (except), "due to the fact that" (because), "he
totally lacked the ability to" (he couldn't), "until such time as"
(until), "for the purpose of" (for).
Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here's a
device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets
around every component in a piece of writing that wasn't doing
useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary
preposition appended to a verb ("order up"), or the adverb that
carries the same meaning as the verb ("smile happily"), or the
adjective that states a known fact ("tall skyscraper"). Often my
brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence
they inhabit ("a bit," "sort of), or phrases like "in a sense,"
which don't mean anything. Sometimes my brackets
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