Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vagueness: A Technique of Rhetoric--And Journalism?

"There's something wrong with this sentence," a certain person said to me. "Listen."

"'Concerns about falling employment, incomes and wealth have overshadowed relief from lower energy prices'"

He was reading an article in today's Seattle Times online, Fallout from financial crisis hammers housing.

"Aaargh," I said. "I can't stand sentences like that. You know what the problem is?"

"I'm sure you'll tell me."

"The speaker is confusing relief and relief."


"Reduced to its simplest form, the quote says, 'Concerns have overshadowed relief.' Which makes sense. If you're talking about emotional relief. But they're not. They're talking about economic relief."

"Nah. That's not the problem with the sentence."

"It's not? What, then?"

"The meaning of 'relief' is ambiguous."

"That's what I just said."

"No, in the other sense of relief. Does relief mean the improved circumstances that we experience due to lower energy prices? Or does it mean our escape from the bad, nasty lower energy prices? Depends on your perspective."

"And shaky use of a preposition. 'From' can mean either 'due to' or 'away from' here. The sentence is bad."

"Very wicked."

"You should say what you mean."

"Unless it's inconvenient. Then it's OK to say things bad-like."

"Right. Baddish speech ain't no not-bad."

Here our conversation degenerated. But it got me thinking about vagueness.

In George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," the famous author of Animal Farm and 1984 discussed how language is deteriorating toward becoming meaningless.

Well, that was over six decades ago, but boy, did he hit upon a trend.

I find a lot of journalism to be meaningless these days. Whether it's because journalists are taught that, more important than what you have to say, is saying what won't get you sued, or attributable to some other wishy-washiness, I don't know.

Whatever it is, I find myself steering clear of reading news because too much of it reads like this:

Researchers say that dogs tend to bark as much as 50% or more at postal workers and other federal employees.

Researchers [what researchers?] say [where?] that dogs [which ones are those?] tend to [tend to? or actually do?] bark [ah, a real verb! Dogs bark!] as much as [meaning, maybe less than, but not more than--that's some kind of commitment, I guess] 50% or more [scratch the commitment comment; apparently dogs tend to bark at any percentage they darn well feel like] at postal workers and other federal employees [so what proportion are postal workers again?].

I guess this is why, when I read the news, I get the funny feeling I haven't actually read anything new...or, well, anything at all...

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom 2008-2010 - All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

susie said...

The timing of "here our conversation degenerated"? Perfection. I mean, just as I was beginning to wonder about the convoluted dialogue you, in your own entertaining yet compact way, say "Hold on there, wait! Our (shall we say) somewhat original way of expressing ourselves got even worse! But I'll spare you, dear reader, of the details." Priceless. You are a funny writer, indeed, nerd writer mom.