While talking with GKH about writing today, I figured out what was wrong with a draft of an institutional report I read yesterday: it was packed with tag-alongs: words and phrases not invited to the sentences and paragraphs I was trying to read. Their presence unnecessary and their company unwelcome, but all such familiar rhetorical faces that authors forget to play the doorman, ticket taker, bouncer, or maître d’hôtel and so all comers were admitted and seated. Too polite to thin their own ranks, some sentences meander from initial cap to final period like an oversubscribed progressive dinner. Some paragraphs careen down the page like overstacked, overstuffed pickup trucks you hate to drive behind for fear they’ll tip over and spill their load. And things that need saying and arguments worth making are left to fend for themselves, like a shy guy trying in vain to get a bartender’s attention in a crowded, noisy pub.
This phenomenon is a variation on what Orwell had in mind when he wrote that “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” (1946). He was advocating for elevated political discourse, but his characterization of it as “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought” works for institutional uses of language too, which are too often, as Orwell says of political language, as if “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
When it comes to reports, perhaps we’d do better to charge by the word instead of paying by the hour.