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.
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.)
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.
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 election.
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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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