Monday, May 25, 2009

On Gobbledygook

I recently stumbled upon this passage in Edward Fischer's The Chancy War. If you have ever had to read a military document, you know he tells the truth. Sadly, I think his conclusions are probably true of most bureaucratic writing, and probably far too much of academia as well.

In the Infantry School at Fort Benning, I had spent a year writing Army field manuals.... During basic training at Camp Croft, South Carolina, and while studying in the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, I had groped through enough field manuals to know how riddled they were with gobbledygook. If everyone was to understand the material in those manuals, so that we might hurry up and win the war, it seemed sensible that the prose be clear and concise.

My first manual came bouncing back from the review board in Washington. Nothing was omitted, the board said, and there were no errors in fact; it just didn't sound like a field manual. The colonel who headed the writing project lacked interest in simplicity and clarity; all he wanted was the approval of the Pentagon. He said just that as he tossed the manuscript to me and stomped into his office, where the grapes of wrath were stored.

The only way I could write military prose was to burlesque it. So I made some rules for myself:
  • Never write a simple sentence if you can stretch and torture it into a compound-complex sentence.
  • Never use a one-syllable word if you can entice a five-syllable word into doing the same job.
  • Never use the active voice, if you can back the idea around into a passive construction.
  • Always substitute utilization for use, subsequent for after, and initial for first.
  • Use frequently the words supersede, implement, and impracticable.
  • Ignore the advice Horace gave: "More ought to be scratched out than left." Instead, keep adding to what is there; federal prose is not written, it accumulates.
So put the idea into a simple declarative sentence and spend the morning building it. Enlarge each word, nail on more phrases, synonyms, and redundancies; twist the sentence structure until scarcely a tag-end of the meaning sticks out.

As a final test, read aloud what has been translated from English to gobbledygook. If it sounds like an excited turkey going, "Gobbledy, gobbledy, gobbledy," the translation has been successful. (Perhaps Congressman Maury Maverick had the sound of an excited gobbler in mind when he coined the word gobbledygook to label government jargon.)

The rules that I complied worked well. My manuscript was long and wordy and as dull as a butter knife. Reading it was like slogging through a swamp under full field pack.

But the Pentagon liked it! The book was printed in five languages. I often wonder how that gobbledygook sounded in Chinese.
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