Respect & Imprecision II

Pentadact commented:

Would this be a bad time to note that “lets” in the context of “allows” doesn’t have an apostrophe?

I’ve recently got to reading two magazines more closely, one very mainstream and in-your-face, the other more niche and intellectual. I’m finding the mainstream one wins dramatically in the precision stakes. Almost everything on the page is expertly judged to /specify/, not just intimate, what the game is and how it works, while the niche rag drowns in rambling blocks of longer but /less/ precise words. Simple, common language only becomes inadequate when the writer lapses into repeating a vocabulary of clichés, not because they’re tired but because they’re being used out of habit rather than their specific purpose. More elaborate and abstract writing has its own vocabulary of clichés too, though: they’re less tired because fewer publications write in this style, but they’re no less imprecise.

I don’t think you have to like and respect other people who do your job to take pride in it yourself. In fact, I find the terrible attitude of a lot of journos on press trips actually spurs me to be more professional, attentive and respectful, and take my work there more seriously.

(Changed it, ta! Criticism always welcome.)

I don’t really mind what intellectual depth a magazine writes to, though my prose will always tend to the purple. I just care that the words are being used to mean the ideas that they are commonly known to mean, so that the literature and science of today will keep meaning the same thing to suceeding generations. Yes, language changes with time; but there’s no reason to let it and reasons to stop it (consistency of idea communication). I agree, however, that the worst offenders against language are those who deliberately confuse the meanings of their sentences through needless obscurantism (there I go), which is why I have a particular distaste for academia. There’s a breed of academia, including philosophy and english literature, that maintains itself by spewing nonsense words out for every situation.

I’ll quote Wikpedia on Logorrhoea then get back to the point.
In his anecdote collection Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the physicist and raconteur Richard Feynman describes a time when he participated in a multi-disciplinary conference discussing the nebulous topic “the ethics of equality”. Feynman was at first apprehensive, having read none of the books the conference organizers had recommended. A sociologist brought a paper he had written beforehand to the committee where Feynman served, asking everyone to read it. Feynman found it completely incomprehensible and feared that he was out of his depth—until he decided to pick one sentence at random and parse it until he understood. The sentence he chose (to the best of his recollection) was

The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.

Feynman “translated” the sentence and discovered it meant “People read”. The rest of the paper soon made sense in the same fashion.

Further examples are easy to create:

Doctors say that the best way to lose weight is to eat less.

The medical community indicates that downsizing average total daily intake is maximally efficacious in the field of proactive weight-reduction methodologies.’

He is the sort of person who will call a spade a spade.

This man is a member of the personality class exhibiting the tendency to term a pedally operated humus redistribution device a pedally operated humus redistribution device.

It’s not other people I have trouble with, though I will admit that I’d rather be the lazy bottom of a class of intellectuals, than lazy and mediocre amongst similar mediocrities (all this is theoretical, note); it’s the lack of respect for myself the job engenders that really causes problems. I find I can’t appreciate what I do, when what attracts praise or at criticism is so random. There seems no standard that carries from magazine to magazine (or indeed in websites) and the feedback from our readers is so limited, negative and mostly illiterate. The other writers on my magazine have stopped reading our forum, out of fear I think.

So the readers don’t respect us and the management don’t respect us. Despite the approbation of our peers (or at least those, like yourself, who are respectable), it’s hard to maintain self-respect in the face of that.

Anyway, I hope I’ve inspired you on a few press trips. 😉

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  1. Iain

    Personally, I’ve never been someone to use one word when five will do (translation: I’m verbose), but I don’t think I’ve ever written in a way designed to obscure the meaning of what I’m saying. Used lots of big words in an attempt to appear clever, yes, but (intentionally) written in a manner as to be unintelligible by someone who might describe themselves as “not an intellectual”? No. At least, I hope not…As for the self-respect thing… I have my own problems in that department at the moment, so pinch of salt time, perhaps… In my experience you’re only ever going to get two kinds of readers who give you feedback – either the people who *really* love your stuff, or the assholes who like to fling shit at people because it makes them feel better about their pathetic, futile little lives. So they’re not worth worrying about, really. Just remember that you’re writing for the silent majority, who do think you’re doing a good job (otherwise they wouldn’t buy the magazine), and just have too much sang froid to get overly animated about it.And it’s the *job* of a manager not to appreciate you. Haven’t you learnt *anything* from reading Dilbert yet? ;-)(Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman! is a great book, by the way.)


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