Unclear Language Isn’t Just Annoying, It’s Politically Dangerous

They’re around every corner, frighteningly vacant shells of what they once were. What renowned editor Harold Evans calls “zombies” ― or, words that have lost their vitality ― are spotted often amid unclear writing. And, according to Evans, they’re muddying up our language to the point of total opacity.

Evans’ new book, Do I Make Myself Clear?, is a case for the value of clear writing, and a thorough guide for making writing clearer.

“One of the reasons we get tired in writing and in studying, is we have to carry all this dross in our heads. All this excess wordage,” Evans told HuffPost in a phone interview.

A statement like that might be dismissed as pedantry, but Evans’ professional experiences more than qualify him for making such a claim. He was the longstanding editor of The Sunday Times, and has since held positions at The Atlantic Monthly and New York Daily News. Before that, he worked in India and Northern England, where he endeavored to use straightforward, evocative language to communicate directly to papers’ readerships.

In the 1980s, Evans moved to the U.S., where he founded Conde Nast Traveler and later served as the publisher of Random House. These roles inspired him to hone another title on his resume: author of instructional writing books.

In the health care bill going through Congress at the moment, the deceptions in the language are serious.”
Harold Evans, author of ‘Do I Make Myself Clear?

“There was no economy in the writing, there was no conciseness,” Evans said. “My metaphor for it was, while the English are still on the starvation diet of WWII ― which we were, because all the newspapers shrank in size, and had to be very economical ― Americans grazed gently over acres of pasture.”

In Do I Make Myself Clear?, Evans ventures to change that. He identifies the worst offenders of verbose, inexpressive writing. “Academia is one of the major criminals,” he said. “The major criminals are lawyers, academics, bureaucrats of all kinds, insurance companies.”

Politicians, of course, are among the guilty. Evans points out Trump’s unclear language, and the power it has to mask the decisions being made by his administration. With his book, Evans is interested in alerting readers to “the deceptions practiced on us. For instance, in the health care bill going through Congress at the moment, the deceptions in the language are serious.”

To this end, Evans points out several easily identifiable offenses. The aforementioned zombies, or verbs that are used as nouns, are one. For example, rather than, “I authorized the expenditure,” a zombiefied version would read, “the authorization of the expenditure was approved.” “The verb is being turned into a flabby noun,” Evans said.

Another impediment to clarity: pleonasms, or extra words. The example Evans gives is “35 acres of land”; “of land” is an unnecessary add-on. “American newspapers and online are full of pleonasms, some of which are funny,” Evans said.

And another: flesh-eaters, or, as Evans puts it, “words [or phrases] without any meaning whatsoever.” In his book, he lists pages’ worth of examples, and translations into clearer iterations of the words. So, “currently” becomes “now,” “adjacent to” becomes “near,” “due to the fact that” becomes “because,” “in order to” becomes “to,” and “this day and age” becomes, simply, “today.”

Today, Evans’ ode to clarity is much needed. As he argues in his book, murky descriptors make it harder for readers to see the truth behind a tweet, a treatise, or a proposed new law.

Do I Make Myself Clear? is available now.

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