Monday, November 14, 2011

Lessons without pupils or teachers

BBC Radio 4's Any Questions last Friday was rich with the sort of blah that infects political debate in most countries. The radio doesn't attract the big hitters who get the gig on the BBC's television equivalent, Question Time, which is why the panellists are more timid than usual. There's a bit of slugging, as with all such panel shows, but the main aim of the politicians is to get away without having said anything. It's significant that the follow-up show on Saturday, where listeners write in with their comments, is called Any Answers, because the last thing you'll get on Thursday is answers. 

Every politician has a number of phrases in his arsenal that are designed to deflect the question rather than answer it. In a discussion on the NHS, one panellist (I think it was the Tory representative Andrew Mitchell) came up with one of the most popular such phrases:
Lessons will be learned
Let's think about that for a moment. Lessons will be learned. Doesn't it just resonate with contrition and desire to make amends? Yes it does, and that's why politicians love it. But what does it actually say? Does it say any of the following?
I failed
My organisation failed
I (or my underlings) will make the following improvements
I am sorry
We will discipline or sack those responsible
I will resign
See? This comforting slab of insincerity doesn't acknowledge fault or promise action. At least that other, slightly more contrite platitude "mistakes were made" acknowledges that something went wrong, but both use the evasive passive voice, whose USP (for politicians) is that it is a sentence without a subject.

So, if ever you hear someone say "lessons will be learned", interrupt them with at least one of the following questions, but certainly the last one:
What lesson will be learned?
Why do lessons need to be learned?
Who will teach the lesson?
Who will learn? C'mon, give me a name
Learning is an active process. If something is to be learned, then someone – one or more specific individuals – needs to do the learning. Don't let them get away with stock platitudes instead of answers.

Moral: When politicians use the passive voice, they're hiding something. Insist on an answer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does your prose mean anything?

I’ve chosen an example – not a particularly bad one – of the sort of writing that tumbles onto the page in business reports without the writer or the reader stopping to think whether it means anything. It all sounds, well, businessy, which is why the writer can get away without thinking about what he is writing and why the reader probably doesn’t take much notice either. This came from a report I was editing yesterday:
"Slowing US economic growth is starting to impact trend levels"
The reader will get something from this: a vague idea that slowing US growth is having an unwelcome effect. But that doesn’t really tell anyone anything – at least, not anything worth paying money for. Even if you knew which industry was under discussion, you wouldn’t be any wiser. So, what’s wrong?

First, there’s our old friend “impact” used as a verb. This term means something in dentistry, when a growing tooth (usually a wisdom tooth) pushes into another. Impacted molars are painful. In business, ‘to impact’ means ‘to have some sort of effect, probably unwelcome’. Is that the kind of insight that’s going help your reader with his next million-dollar investment?

And what is being ‘impacted’? ‘Trend levels’. All that is required to reduce this phrase to a collection of random syllables is to consider (which the writer clearly didn’t) what those two words actually mean.

‘Level’, as an adjective, means ‘at a constant elevation’. As a noun, it means a point of elevation. A ‘trend’, on the other hand, is a direction of motion. How can a fixed point have a direction of motion? The simple solution is to remove the word ‘levels’, but then we need to know what trends are being affected. The writer doesn’t say (and take my word for it, he didn’t give a clue anywhere in the surrounding paragraphs).

This all suggests that slowing growth is bad for business, which is hardly an insight. The writer wants to imply that the rate of growth in that business is going to slow down, but that’s a frighteningly specific thing to say if you haven’t got the figures or the arguments to support it. By using the vague phrase “impact on trend levels”, he is hoping to avoid making statements he can’t back up without revealing the nakedness of his analysis.

Moral: If the words sound right, you can often get away without saying anything (unless I'm your editor*).

*Not just me. There are plenty of other good editors out there, but business writers don't often employ them.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Review of Is That a Fish In Your Ear? By David Bellos

Bellos starts with a provocative question: what exactly is translation? The answer is more elusive than you might think, but in trying to answer it he takes us on a fascinating journey that is partly academic and partly anecdotal, with a light enough touch to make a fun read. Of course he is an advocate for the unsung, underpaid translator, but he makes a convincing case that translation is often just as creative as writing, and a translation can be an original creation itself.

But he's not just talking about novels: the problems of translation in international diplomacy are given a thorough airing, and he finishes with a fascinating discussion of how language evolved in the first place, not (as we usually presume) as a way of communicating but as a way of defining primitive groups. In other words, language was a way of restricting communication by excluding outsiders, so it was intended to limit communication rather than broaden it.