Avoid Professional Mumbo-Jumbo
Inexperienced writers pad sentences with official-sounding fluff. Unnecessary prepositions, passive voice and word nominalization cause it. Here’s how to fix it.
How do you react to this excerpt on vaccinations?
Historically, and where economically viable, vaccination has weighed in the favor of the masses and the benefit of mankind. Multiple previously terrible and debilitating illnesses have all but disappeared from western life as a result of the mandated vaccination for children at various stages of development, be it infanthood, school aged, or now, even teenage years. Why controversy has arisen with the development of an HPV vaccine that protects women from multiple forms of a disease attributed to 70% of cervical cancer alludes to a greater crux between modern public medical awareness and the moral and sociocultural stance of a generation. Perhaps due to the taboo nature of sex, as well as the age at which children would be recommended to receive the vaccination (between 9 and 16 years), parents are reluctant to admit that their child is at risk for sexually transmitted disease.
- (A) The writer sounds smart. They must know what they’re talking about.
- (B) I’m confused by terms like “economically viable” and “sociocultural stance”. I must be dumb.
- (C) The same thing could have been said more simply. Get to the point!
Hold on. Ever read something like this?
No person who has not attained the age of twelve years shall be competent to testify, provided that, if the court finds that any such person understands the nature and obligation of the oath, such person shall be competent to testify.
Why didn’t the writer just say this?
Every person above the age of twelve years is competent to testify, but a person beneath that age is also competent if the court finds that the person understands the nature and obligation of an oath.
Anyone older than twelve can testify in court, but younger people can also testify if judges think they understand the testifying oath.
Why say “No person who has not attained the age of” instead of “Anyone older than”?
Why say “shall be competent to” instead of just “can”?
Look at this example from vectrix.com’s FAQ page
Q: Does my weight affect the range of the scooter?
A: The Vectrix scooter at approximately 500 lbs (227 kg) plus a 180 lb (82 kg) driver equates to a gross vehicle weight of 680 lbs (308 kg). If you add 50 pounds (23 kg) of cargo the total weight you are attempting to move is 730 pounds (331 kg) or 7.3% increase in weight. If then you add a 175 pound (79 kg) passenger the total weight is 905 lbs (411 kg) or a total weight increase of 33%! The more mass you are pushing/lifting the more energy it takes to accomplish the mission. Avoid keeping unnecessary items in your scooter since it will impact your range.
Why didn’t they just answer my question with a straightforward yes or no?
Many people have noted this bad tendency of writers trying to sound sophisticated but really not saying anything more intelligent than plain language. UCLA professor Richard Lanham calls this type of writing “Official style.”
It’s like instead of saying:
She was hungry, so she ate spaghetti.
To satisfy her own need of hunger, the spaghetti was consumed by her.
Can we identify the things we do that make official writing obscure? Yes!
Compare the differences between the original and a plain-language rewrite.
|Historically, and where economically viable, vaccination has weighed in the favor of the masses and the benefit of mankind.||Affordable vaccines have tremendously helped humankind.|
|Multiple previously terrible and debilitating illnesses have all but disappeared from western life as a result of the mandated vaccination for children at various stages of development, be it infanthood, school aged, or now, even teenage years.||Vaccines for infants, children, and even teens have irradicated many fatal and near-fatal illnesses.|
|Why controversy has arisen with the development of an HPV vaccine that protects women from multiple forms of a disease attributed to 70% of cervical cancer alludes to a greater crux between modern public medical awareness and the moral and sociocultural stance of a generation.||However, the HPV vaccine, which protects women from 70% of cervical cancers, is controversial in our society…|
|Perhaps due to the taboo nature of sex, as well as the age at which children would be recommended to receive the vaccination (between 9 and 16 years), parents are reluctant to admit that their child is at risk for sexually transmitted disease.||…because American parents don’t want to acknowledge that their child may be sexually active.|
3 out of 4 passive sentences
|53 words (36% of the original)
4 prepositions (18% of the original)
1 passive phrase (33% of the original)
Steps to make your writing clear and beautiful
If you start to smell “official style”…
- Reduce prepositions (in, of, with, by, from, to, for, between, etc.).
- Make your sentences active (look for passive cues like is, was, were, be, being, been, have).
- Use concrete word forms (“vaccines” for “vaccinations,” “infants” for “infanthood”)
- Use simpler words as long as they don’t obscure the meaning (“near-fatal” for “debilitating,” “affordable” for “economically viable”)
- Get to the point, damn it. (If someone asks “Does my weight affect range?” first say “yes” or “no,” then explain).
How to know how “readable” your writing is?
The Flesch Reading Algorithm helps quantify long sentences and long words:
- 90.0–100.0 easily understandable by an average 11-year old
- 60.0–70.0 understandable by 13- to 15-year old students
- 0.0–30.0 understandable by college graduates
Readability makes a difference. Many government agencies require a certain readability score. Compare these examples (provided by Bill Slawski):
|Excerpt from The Wind in the Willows||Excerpt from a typical legal document|
|“There’s Toad Hall,” said the Rat; “and that creek on the left, where the notice-board says, ‘Private. No landing allowed,’ leads to his boat-house, where we’ll leave the boat. The stables are over there to the right. That’s the banqueting-hall you’re looking at now - very old, that is. Toad is rather rich, you know, and this is really one of the nicest houses in these parts, though we never admit as much to Toad.”||The foregoing warranties by each party are in lieu of all other warranties, express or implied, with respect to this agreement, including but not limited to implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. Neither party shall have any liability whatsoever for any cover or setoff nor for any indirect, consequential, exemplary, incidental or punitive damages, including lost profits, even if such party has been advised of the possibility of such damages.|
|Words: 75||Words: 74|
|Avg words per sentence: 14.8||Avg words per sentence: 37|
|Readability: 84.5/100||Readability: 3.5/100|
|Grade level: 4||Grade level: 21|
Don’t be a fancy writing jerk
Try fixing “official style” yourself:
With respect to the 76-minute interruption of service on August 15 due to unexpected levels of user demand coinciding with scheduled maintenance of our backup systems and unrelated technical problems at our customer call center, apologies are offered to any of the company’s valued customers who experienced inconvenience as a result. There will be a $15 credit supplementation to customer account balances.
- Highlight all prepositions (of, to, on, with, as, from, by) in the below passage and rewrite the phrases without prepositions
- Underline all the passive verbs (is, was, were, be, being, been) and rewrite the sentences using active voice (“An example is provided below by Dr. Lanham” becomes “Dr. Lanham provides an example below”)
- Find nominalized word forms and change them into action words (“information” becomes “inform,” “happening” becomes “happen”)
- Tally the results. How many prepositions did you cut? How many words total did you save?