The Write Stuff
How Politicians Talk
By Alan Crawford
Last month, we propped up the late George Carlin who, I had just found out, left us with some deathless wisdom about bad writing. Here’s Part Deux of some of the comedian’s insightful observations. We would have included them in the past issue but ran out of space, what with February being a short month and all.
“When people mention term limits to me,” Carlin wrote, “I usually tell them the only politicians’ terms I would like to limit are the ones they use when speaking. They have an annoying language of their own.”
Elected officials have to speak the way they do, Carlin claimed, because it is important for them to make sure they do not “inadvertently say something.” In fact, they don’t say things, they indicate them. (“As I indicated to the president…”)
When politicians aren’t indicating, they’re suggesting. (“The president has suggested to me that as I indicated yesterday…”) When they aren’t indicating or suggesting, they are outlining or pointing things out.”
And they don’t decide things, they determine them. Or they make judgments. (“When the hearings conclude, I will make a judgment. Or I may simply give you my assessment. I don’t know yet. I haven’t determined that. But when I do, I will advise the president.”)
Politicians “don’t tell; they advise; they don’t answer, they respond; they don’t read, they review. … They don’t give advice, they make recommendations. ‘I advised the president that I will not make a judgment until he has given me his assessment. Thus far, he hasn’t responded. Once he responds to my initiative, I will review his response, determine my position, and make my recommendations.’”
Addressing the Problem
Finally, after each of these important people has responded to the others’ initiatives and reviewed their responses, made their judgments, determined their positions and offered their recommendations, “they begin to approach the terrifying possibility that they now may actually be required to do something.” So, instead of doing something, they address the problem. “We’re addressing the problem, and we will soon proceed to take action.”
A lot of their time is spent proceeding and taking action. Of course, they don’t always take action. More often, they simply move forward. They move forward with respect to Social Security, for example. With respect to sounds important and complicated. About doesn’t.
And as for moving forward with respect to anything, Carlin wrote, “you may wish to picture the blistering pace of the land tortoise.”
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Interrogate. It used to be enough to ask people questions or interview them about something. Now — like hard-boiled police detectives in Raymond Chandler novels — we interrogate them. I could be wrong about the sources here and the motives. “Interrogate” might also be traced to the world of scientific research, and laypersons (especially academics in other fields) love to filch words they don’t fully understand from scientists and then use them where they don’t belong.
But nowadays, we don’t just interrogate other people. We interrogate their beliefs. Sometimes we interrogate ideas regardless of who expresses them. A new TV show called Forbidden America will interview participants in the Jan. 6 riots and “interrogate their opinions.” A speaker at a Eurasia Group Foundation event “will interrogate US nuclear policy and seek to make nuclear policy more accessible to Americans.” One way that will never happen — or shouldn’t — is for foreign policy experts to continue to write like that.