Do you ever have a dream in which you volunteer to do something that you have no training, talent, or ability to do, and experience a terrible shock when the time comes to do it?
I often have that dream. I’m asked, for some reason, to deliver a lecture, or a whole college course, about a subject I know nothing about. — physics, for example. I readily agree; why not? As the time for the performance nears, it occurs to me that I should, perhaps, consider reading a book about the subject, but there are always other things I’d rather do. The fatal day arrives — I’m too busy right now; I still have a few hours to prepare. And then . . . there’s only one hour left. I should definitely go online and try to dredge up something to say. But no, I don’t. I just don’t. Finally, inevitably, I’m invited to step out on the stage and address the hundreds or thousands of people awaiting my presence, all of them about to discover that I’m an utter fool. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I wake up screaming. Do you ever have that kind of dream?
I suspect that many people do. Yet there are others, living among us, who are never warned by visions of that kind. They gladly accept every opportunity to do things they don’t know how to do and have no idea of finding out how to do. They make fools of themselves, but they don’t know it; they just keep doing it again.
These strange people are called professional writers and speakers — men and women whose sole preparation for their task appears to be a daily acquaintance with people just like themselves, people who are also screwing things up without realizing it.
Finally, inevitably, I’m invited to step out on the stage and address the hundreds or thousands of people awaiting my presence, all of them about to discover that I’m an utter fool.
Vice President Harris must have an excellent relationship with her speechwriter; neither of them makes any sense, and neither of them knows it. This is the peroration of her speech to an international conference about “the climate crisis”:
We will work together, and continue to work together, to address these issues, to tackle these challenges, and to work together as we continue to work operating from the new norms, rules, and agreements, that we will convene to work together on, to galvanize global action. . . . I know we will work on this together.
That’s easy for her to say — all too easy. There’s no one around to respond appropriately to her nonsense, in the way that a modern liberal friend of mine responded to a list of talking points distributed by a head Communicator for his university: “Do you actually get paid to write this drivel?” As soon as nonsense spurts from some partisan source, a thousand kindred spirits repeat it. “Galvanize” means nothing, as long as you aren’t in the metals industry, but it’s just as good as “new normal,” “triggering,” “laser-focused,” “Putin’s price hike,” “weaponize,” “investment in infrastructure,” “affordable healthcare,” “comprehensive immigration reform,” “new normal,” “systemic,” “American values,” “core values,” ‘our values,” and “our democracy.”
The assumption is that any set of words can go in any sentence. On March 16 there were reported the results of a poll of 800 likely voters in San Francisco. It found that 68% of them favored the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, that 78% didn’t like his job performance, and that 74% didn’t like him. On the same day the headline in the Chronicle, the city’s leading newspaper and chief fountain of pishposh, was “D.A. Chesa Boudin Recall: New poll suggests he might be in trouble.” Yes, he might. Do you think somebody on the paper was trying to give Chesa a hand? Or do you think that working for a newspaper no longer requires the ability to read? That’s a close call.
Reading is a skill set that is clearly not required in the world of corporate communications. At the end of April, Disney fired its head of “communications, government relations and public policy efforts.” (“Efforts,” eh? He got paid for trying?} This guy, who’d been on the job for only three months, was apparently sacrificed as a sin offering for the CEO’s bungling of Disney’s political relations with Florida. A memo from the CEO came forth, illustrating the right way to conduct corporate messaging; that is, the kind of writing that no one can read without laughing. It announced the hiring of someone named Kristina Schake as leader of “communications efforts”:
We are incredibly fortunate to have Kristina with us at this important time. Her 30-plus years of experience includes roles leading President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine education program [and how did that work out?], communications for Instagram, and leadership positions in political campaigns and the Obama White House [a real asset in dealing with a Republican state government]. Kristina has a strategic approach and collaborative style, as well as relentless optimism [she’ll need it] and a strong appreciation of our brand and its place in the world [the navel of civilization]. These attributes will be invaluable as she works to protect and enhance our reputation, and I am thrilled to be working with her more closely.
To show he’s thrilled, he uses versions of “incredible” four times, and concludes by confessing himself “incredibly confident.”
Let’s forget, for a moment, about partisan politics. or corporate initiatives. Let’s think about what are cloyingly called best practices in the writing and speaking biz. These practices do not include reading books or consulting works of reference (grammars, dictionaries, boring stuff like that). Maybe they don’t include reading one’s own copy before coming out with it.
A memo from the CEO came forth, illustrating the right way to conduct corporate messaging; that is, the kind of writing that no one can read without laughing.
As we all know, statistics have become especially hard to read — for everyone. Nevertheless, they keep being published. From Fox News, January 4, 2021: “In 2021, the Oakland Police Department saw a 12% increase in robbery investigations, which was well below 2019 and prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which coincided with an uptick in violent crime across the country.” Here’s where we haul out the word “incomprehensible.” Is “robbery investigations” meant to be the same as “robberies”? Do the police divulge statistics about the crimes they’re supposed to be solving, or merely about their own inquiries? But that’s just the start of the problem. I don’t even know how to ask a question about a percentage (of an increase?) being well below a year, which was, or was not, before a pandemic, which coincided with an uptick. In short, what the hell are we reading here?
Also incomprehensible, though for other reasons, was the report that kept appearing in news journals on the morning of an(other) New York subway outrage: “The NYPD is now hunting for a suspect wearing a gas mask and orange construction vest.” A guy dressed like that should have been easy to find.
I mentioned the existence of dictionaries. This being granted, and the need for skepticism in ideological matters also being granted, why should a conservative publication use the following words to implore us to skepticism about reports on the war in Ukraine: “Question everything you see and hear, wait to get the fulsome picture, and eventually the truth will surface”? If I’m not mistaken, the reports are already a bit too fulsome to be trusted.
It’s pretty bad when professional writers can’t tell verbs apart from nouns.
Strange as this may seem, actual best practices in writing come from not from writing itself but from reading — critical reading of one’s own words, sensitive reading of other people’s. In lieu of sensitive, try attentive; in lieu of attentive . . . just try reading their words and taking a shot at remembering them. I’ll go for the basics: if you want to be a writer, and you weren’t taught grammar in school, you ought to be aware of that, and you ought to be especially interested in learning, from the works of others, how the English language operates. You might possibly buy a grammar book! Then you won’t be one of the countless political writers who believe that so and so had ran a good campaign, and you probably won’t inform the world that “Biden himself sunk to a new low in the poll, with a 51 percent negative rating to 37 percent positive.” But ignore the verb — what does that last part of the sentence mean? Eventually you figure it out: “to” means “and a.” Whew! Got it!
Speaking of verbs — it’s pretty bad when professional writers can’t tell them apart from nouns. We are told that Abbott, the baby formula company, “after nearly three months of being shutdown, addressed the FDA’s investigation into its plant on Wednesday.” So now, maybe it will be startedup. Or isn’t that the way the language works? Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, “Putin’s goons handover ex-Marine.” Did they also handin his papers, or will they handdown that stuff to his descendants? I doubt that a “pollster” told an interviewer, “Predictions about how [something] will playout in the midterms are premature” — with the accent on the first syllable, the way it would be if it were pronounced as one word. And I’m certain that the great Randolph Mantooth, an intelligent person, never said there was “a debt that no one can really payback, but you can try.”
But here’s something I’ve said before in this column; get ready, I’m about to say it again. In our society, government is by far the leading source of bad writing. The abuses of language perpetrated by drug-indulgent teens and college-miseducated “journalists” are as nothing compared with those of the government and its host of paragovernmental friends. How could it be otherwise, when government is the largest purveyor of both “information” and “education,” doing its “work” almost entirely by means of empty, malign, or just plain ignorant words? When this is accepted as the definition of “work,” the workers who are most rewarded will be those who plumb the depths of ignorance.
For many years, it’s been a safe bet that whenever anyone in the federal government opens his mouth, something ignorant will tumble out. But it’s still surprising how deep the depths can go — even for Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., who has always existed somewhere in the Mariana Trench but has always kept exploring, trying to hit the bottom.
The abuses of language perpetrated by drug-indulgent teens and college-miseducated “journalists” are as nothing compared with those of the government and its host of friends.
On May 10, Biden was asked why his party wasn’t doing anything to solve great national problems, since it was the party in power, and he admitted that, yes, he did control “all three branches of the government.” Though president, he was unaware that the three branches are the executive, legislative, and judicial, one of which is emphatically not under his control. On the same day, his mouthpiece, Jen Psaki, empty of thought yet full of words, trying to clean up his various messy comments, said this: “As he noted today, he is the President. We do — do control all forms of — branches of government.” Take that, doubters.
At one time there were indications that people in government had read a book or at least listened to a song. The speechwriters for the first President Bush, Peggy Noonan and Craig Smith, prompted him to mention the “thousand points of light” that he claimed to see in private American organizations. I’ve always thought the original of that image can be found in Edwin Hodder’s hymn:
Thy Word is like a starry host:
A thousand rays of light
Are seen to guide the traveler
And make his pathway bright.
That’s fine. But what other allusions to works of literature, or history, or philosophy, have you seen in the records of the presidency, 1989 to present? I recall some mangled references to the Bible, and to the Founding Fathers; I recall President Biden’s inability to quote the Declaration of Independence.
One cannot, perhaps, condemn Biden for the desperately bad copy his speechwriters put on his teleprompter. One can, however, condemn him for the interjections he makes, not all of them the products of senility. He has always been the guy in the barroom that people don’t want to talk to, because if they do they’ll have to listen to his boring, ridiculous stories. But somebody — either the speechwriters or that guy in the barroom — needs to be blamed for stuff like this (April 28):
I’m also sending to Congress a comprehensive package of that will enhance our underlying effort to accommodate the Russian oligarchs and make sure we take their – take their ill begotten gains. We’re going to accommodate them. We’re going to seize their yachts, their luxury homes and all their ill-begotten gains of Putin’s kleptocri- k- yeah, kleptocracy- klep- — the guys who are the kleptocracies. Ha. Ha. Ha. But these are bad guys.
“Kleptocrats” was a good try; it’s not the speechwriters’ fault that Biden had never encountered the word and couldn’t read it and therefore tried to laugh it off, like an eighth grader who thinks it’s cool not to know how a big word sounds. Maybe the repeated “accommodate” — half-corrected in the White House transcript, can be explained in the same way; they wrote “hold accountable,” and Biden came up with an exactly opposite word. Maybe.
But then there’s “ill-begotten,” repeated for emphasis and never corrected. It’s another kind of error that is made only by people who have never read a book. “Begotten” appears in the Bible’s most-recited verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son . . .” It’s in the Nicene Creed, which is recited every Sunday in Catholic and Episcopal churches: “begotten, not made.” It’s in all the genealogical “begats” that kids in Sunday school laugh about. But it’s not some specialized religious word; it’s pretty common in old-fashioned literary works — I mean works written before, say, 2001. Also very frequently found in the English language is the term that the speechwriters (I use the plural form, because these mighty efforts require committees to create) were apparently fooling around with, which is ill-gotten.
I recall some mangled references to the Bible, and to the Founding Fathers; I recall President Biden’s inability to quote the Declaration of Independence.
Isabel Paterson once observed that there are some writers — she had in mind political ones — who can’t even get a cliché right. She was thinking of people like Chesa Boudin, he of the terrible polls. Boudin responded to them with a pair of clichés, just one of them correctly stated: “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day [first cliché], and we’ve seen time and time again that polls — even rigorous polls — are way off the market [second cliché, attempted].”
Well, why should the leftist Mr. Boudin be able to tell markets from marks (i.e., voters)? But Biden, who has purportedly spent his entire life as a devout Catholic, must have heard the phrase “only-begotten Son” about 10,000 times from his priests. I guess it didn’t stick in his mind. And how many times have you read the words “ill-gotten gains”? At least 10,000. But I guess nobody in the White House is reading . . . the same things.
Here’s what seems to have happened with that awful speech. The ghostwriters had some vague memory of somebody mouthing the “ill-gotten gains” cliché. Sounded good to them! Sounded fresh! But they wanted to jazz it up. So why not attach a “be” to it? That kind of maneuver works with “famous,” right? Just add “in” and it becomes “infamous” — so much better than the old, naked “famous”! No need to look it up in some old book. There never is! Go ahead, stick it into the speech!
Thus was begotten “ill-begotten.” If you can’t tell “getting” from “begetting,” there is definitely a job for you. Right in the West Wing! And what more could you want? Since you never read a book, you have no way of knowing that life could be better than this.