A Little Rant:
English and Politics Don’t Mix
we decide that “obfuscation” is the be-all
and end-all of literature, we who love literature and
language are in deep trouble this political season.
Is it my age? Is it that now I’m doing more editing?
Is it because my memory is failing me so I don’t
recall that other political cycles have been awful examples
for writing and speaking clearly, too? Why suddenly
am I more annoyed with the language politicians are
using in 2015 than most?
I think I have figured out the reasons English gets
such abuse when at the hands. . . er . . mouths of politicians.
One of the most obvious reasons is that politicians
are up from streets or want to appear that they are
so they will appeal to a broader range of voters.
• There is a firmly rooted dislike for aristocracy
in American culture and we mistake “educated”
and “well-read” for “aristocracy.”
You know, reel in the onex ill-equipped to see through
what they are doing.
• Ah, yes. And we perceive the educated (or
those who sound that way), to be disingenuous at best
while all the time lauding those who have money and
are downright dishonest instead of sending them to
prison for their felonies.
• Of course, politics has always been about
appealing (lying?) to the public. So a politician
has to learn to appeal to his or her base of voters
and then to deftly change directions once they have
become the nominee. It’s dizzying, but it’s
• Then, of course, once that happens a few pundits
start babbling about how disgraceful it is that our
politicians “waffle,” never considering
that a leader listens, learns, and changes his or
her mind as conditions call for it. (Though that usually
isn’t the reason that politicians waffle—at
least not by my count.)
• Then there’s that the English language
is uniquely (if not uniquely, very nearly uniquely)
qualified to help politicians waffle, avoid taking
blame and dozens of other ploys that make it almost
impossible for democracy to work as it should. That
unique (or nearly unique) and very annoying ability
to use what grammarians call the passive voice.
So, OK. You can see I’m off on a tangent. Which
is part of what annoys me about elections. . .you know,
when they are the ones who go off track and pull me
along with them. I mean, interviewers can hardly get
a question through to Donald Trump. He is a master at
prattle. The idea apparently is: If one repeats oneself
often enough the interviewer will give up and the audience
will assume one has something to say.
get to the point. There is no cure. No cure for drivel,
hogwash, or gibberish. Or wordiness. Not in politics.
But there is a therapy that will help. It’s reading.
It’s reading and being more selective about what
we read. And the more cautious about how we talk about
it. No more excuses like “I’m not a psychologist,”
or “I’m no scientist.” Our brains
are for learning and forming educated opinions. We can
do better than listen to athlete-speak on TV or read
magazines in beauty parlors! People Magazine? Blahhh!
Let’s all dig out a couple of classics and read
them during this, the silly season. If we don’t,
we’ll all become victims and it won’t be
long before we’ll believe what we’re hearing
or we’ll go stark raving mad trying to make sense
of it. Worse. We’ll start to talk that way, write
that way, think that way.
Tidbit: My multi award-winning
Frugal Editor is now in its second
edition—as an e-book. It’s been
reformatted, updated, and expanded. AND
it’s now in paperback .
And, yes, there is a section in it on utilizing
the passive voice to good effect complete
with warnings about how insidious, underhanded,
and downright dangerous it can be. And,
you’ll be glad to know, I do it without
for Readers: I hesitate to recommend
a book that is written by someone even slightly
associated with politics, but Words
by Frank Luntz is on my list of reads
that might help folks survive the time between
this column and elections. Ignore Frank’s
politics (he tries very hard to be even-handed
and very nearly succeeds). Instead learn some
real specifics about how words are used against
us and have been used against us in the political
(and commercial) arenas. Luntz, as the most
distinguished practitioner of the art (and
probably highest paid), tell us his secrets
and admits to some of his own English-bending
shenanigans. By learning from him, you’ll
be better equipped to survive until the next