The Write Stuff
How to Be Dashing
By Alan Crawford,
There was a time when businessmen — they were almost all men back then — didn’t dress like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Business leaders, just look at the “Mad Men” era, wore the “gray flannel suit,” and the way they wrote and spoke was similarly formal, as drained of personality as possible. This might have worked when business was transactional in a way it is not today. Formality was how you inspired confidence.
These days, it is — for want of a better term — relational. Trust is established when business leaders — many now are women — get to know one another, as individuals, and develop a personal relationship. That’s why the way we write and speak has also become more informal and conversational.
A comparison by Slate of the prose styles of Robert Mueller and that of the unnamed writer for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) — both weighing in on the sentencing recommendations for Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen — demonstrates this shift fairly well.
“The defendant’s crime was serious. He withheld information material to the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election being conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the SCO. The defendant lied to Congress.”
Here’s the SDNY:
“Now [Cohen] seeks extraordinary leniency — a sentence of no jail time — based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes; his claims to a sympathetic personal history; and his provision of certain information to law enforcement. But the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life (and was evidently hidden from the friends and family members who wrote on his behalf).”
Can you hear the difference?
There’s no “righteousness or resentment” in Mueller’s presentation. “No mid-sentence interruptions. The SDNY’s voice is hard-charging and adversarial, while Mueller’s measured baritone sounds like the narrator of a 1950s black-and-white high school filmstrip.” Mueller’s sounds robotic, while the anonymous SDNY sounds like a real person — sarcastic even.
So let’s look at just one way that personality is conveyed — the use of what Slate’s writer calls “mid-sentence interruptions” — in this case the use of the dash. The dash is a useful tool for writers — and one that is too infrequently employed.
You Have a Point There
The dash is like parentheses in that it adds information that isn’t necessary for a sentence to make sense. It expresses “rather more strongly, rather more abruptly, what parentheses express less strongly and much more smoothly,” according to a useful book called You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies, published way back in 1953. The word “dash” “derives from ‘to dash,’ to shatter, strike violently, to throw suddenly or violently, hence to throw carelessly in or on, hence to write carelessly or suddenly, to add or insert suddenly or carelessly to or in the page.”
But of course, the dash isn’t — or shouldn’t be — used carelessly at all. It is a device that good writers employ with deliberation and care — even when the intended effect might be to seem casual and offhand. The dash can be used to emphasize a point, while parentheses downplay it. The dash underscores the information “to make it emerge prominently and thus to prevent it from being slurred over”— and adds “a dramatic touch.”
Conversational and Nonchalant
Mark Twain — who worked and reworked his prose to make it sound casual, conversational and nonchalant — used dashes to great effect. In Roughing It, Twain describes the coyote as “so homely! — so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.” The coyote is a woebegone creature, but “if you start a swift-footed dog after him, you will enjoy it ever so much — especially if it is a dog that has a good opinion of himself, and has been brought up to think he knows something about speed.”
See how casual and relaxed and personal Twain’s writing is? Can you hear it? Used thoughtfully, dashes add personality to prose, and personality in business writing these days is important — even necessary.
I could say more, but I don’t have time. I have to dash.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH. Per or as per. People routinely write or even say “per,” when what they mean is “according to.” Even the Urban Dictionary finds “as per” insufferable, calling it “a popular nonsense phrase used by people trying to sound smart.”
With that in mind, I was thrilled to hear Jesse, Walter’s lowlife sidekick in “Breaking Bad,” say it. Jesse and Walter were arguing about which one of them had to carry out some horrible deed, like murdering someone. Jesse said Walter had to do it, and Walter asked why, and Jesse said, “Per the coin flip!” (“The coin flip is sacred!”)