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A Little Rant: English and Politics Don’t Mix


A Little Rant: English and Politics Don’t Mix

Unless 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?

Regardless, 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 interesting.

• 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.

I’ll 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.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

Writers' Tidbit: My multi award-winning The 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 ranting.

Tidbit for Readers: I hesitate to recommend a book that is written by someone even slightly associated with politics, but Words that Work 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 election.

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Carolyn Howard Johnson

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning novelist, poet and author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of how-to books. She occasionally teaches classes for the renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

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