“words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.”
~ William Hazlitt
Sir Harold Evans shares his exquisite prose with us in his new book, Do I Make Myself Clear: Why Writing Well Matters. Evans is the former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times of London. He holds the British Gold Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism, and in 2001 his peers voted him the all-time greatest British newspaper editor. He was knighted in 2004.
Evans begins by reminding us that in his classic, “Politics and the English Language” Orwell argued that bad English corrupts thought and vice versa. Yet today things are even worse. “For all its benefits, the digital era Orwell never glimpsed has had unfortunate effects, not the least making it easier to obliterate the English language by carpet-bombing us with the bloated extravaganzas of marketing mumbo-jumbo. Words have consequences.”(3)
We live in a fog created by slovenly language that is either unclear, or specifically designed to mislead and confuse. In response Evans writes a polemic against the current state of our language, and the malfeasance that often accompanies it.
Fog everywhere. Fog online and in print, fog exhaled in television studios where time is anyway to short for truth. Fog in the Wall Street executive streets. Fog in the regulating agencies … Fog in the evasions in Flint, Michigan, while its citizens drank poisoned water … Fog in pressure groups that camouflage their real purpose with euphemism; fog from vested interest groups aping the language of science to muddy the truth about climate change … Fog in the U.S. Supreme Court, where five judges … sanctified secret bribery as freedom of speech. But never come there fog too thick, never come there mud and mire too deep … as to withstand the clean invigorating wind of a sound English sentence. (4,5)
(I hope Evans is right that language can defeat the lies, but I’m skeptical. I’m reminded of this quote, attributed to various people, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” I’m not sure that most people even recognize good sentences or good reasoning—hence the proliferation of bad thinking. Yet, as Pascal put it, “All our dignity consists, then, in thought. This is the basis on which we must raise ourselves … Let us make it our task, then, to think well: here is the principle of morality.”)
What Evans has in mind is noble language like Churchill’s “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down;” or LIncoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people;” or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream;” or Orwell’s “Political langauge … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Nowhere is the degradation of language and the lies that accompany it more destructive than in politics. The Presidential election of 2016 took these tendencies to new heights. “Fake news, entirely fabricated to generate clicks and income for the fabricators, was tweeted and fed into Facebook without correction. Judgment fled to brutish beasts and men lost their reason. I’d argue that the maelstrom of mendacity makes it all the more imperative that the truth be clearly expressed.” (15)
(I don’t think the expression of truth is enough, since so many live in information bubbles that tether them to misinformation, and prevent the truth from creeping in. There are also many psychological impediments to good thinking, and cognitive biases inhibit people from changing their minds. You can tell people about the truth of climate change, evolution, or Trump’s lies and malfeasance, but that’s hardly ever sufficient.)
Regarding politics, Evans argues that anger with, and lack of trust of, political leadership and institutions can partially be traced to the degradation of language. He also believes that the opaqueness of written and spoken English is one cause of the substitution of fanatical emotion for quality reasoning. Consider this gem from a Trump rally:
We have to stop illegal immigration. We have to do it. [Cheers and applause] We have to do it. Have to do it. [Audience: USA! USA! USA1] And when I hears some of the people that I am running against, including the Democrats. We have to build a wall, folks. We have to build a wall. And a wall works. All you have to do is go to Israel and say is your wall working? Walls work. (16)
But clear speaking, thinking and writing is hard, as any good speaker, thinker or writer can tell you. Good writing demands continual rethinking and rewriting. Such considerations lead to the aim of the book: “to give you the tools so you can finish the job, first by describing the tools and then by applying them to lengths of knotty prose. (29)
It is hard to do justice to the plethora of suggestions Evans offers. He is obviously one of the world’s foremost editors, and his advice on writing is extraordinarily helpful. (I wish he had the time to edit my posts!) His advice includes: short sentences are generally clearer than longer ones; use the active voice; be specific; ration adjectives and adverbs; give concrete examples; cut the fat; be organized; don’t bore; and make every word count.
The multiple examples of editing bad writing are instructive, but I found his examples of good contemporary prose particularly instructive, especially a piece by David Foster Wallace in Rolling Stone about John McCain and the captivity he endured as a prisoner of war. (McCain, along with Senator Susan Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, recently saved health-care for millions of Americans and undermined the Republicans plan to let more people die and give the rich more tax cuts.)
Evans knows that it isn’t easy to counter the language that is intent on deceiving and confusing. But this project is important because: “The fog that envelops English is not just a question of good taste, style, and aesthetics. It is a moral issue.” (347) That is what he has tries to make clear in the book, and I believe he succeeds. Lack of clarity in language along with outright lies serve a common purpose—to deceive people in order to control them and thereby solidify the place of those in power. But as we all know if we think about it, civilization is based on the assumption that people tell the truth. If I don’t think you’ll give me directions or the time, what’s the point of asking you?