Making Oneself Clear

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Sir Harold Evans Was published in May, this year, and there was an intriguing interview with Sir Harry in the June issue of Time Magazine.

The first two questions caught my eye:

Q: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns.  What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

A: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive – insurance policies, political statements.  Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions.  I find myself getting much more angry about the moral obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

Q: And do you believe in freedom from the language police?

A: The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular.  The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers.  Do you know that word pettifogger?  It is somebody who stumbles over a neck, but misses the body lying on the floor.

Sir Harold Matthew Evans (born 28 June 1928) is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when he had a falling out with Rupert Murdoch.  He moved to the United States in 1984 and was naturalised as a US citizen in 1993.   He had leading positions in journalism with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News.  He has written various books on history and journalism, with his The American Century (1998) receiving particular acclaim. In 2000, he retired from leadership positions in journalism to spend more time on his writing. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of The Week magazine and he has been a contributor to The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 since 2005.  In 2004, Evans was knighted for services to journalism, and he became editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency in 2011.

Sir Harry Evans

In a New York Times book review in May 2017,  Tim Holt says: “As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well. But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes. For the most part. Up to a point.  ‘What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,’ Evans tells us. And the key to clarity, he insists, is concision — a virtue allegedly less honoured in the United States than in the author’s native land: ‘Newsprint rationing in wartime Britain enforced economy in language, a conciseness not required in American print journalism, where acres of space invited gentle grazing.’

Holt continues: “I also enjoyed Evans’s history of the ‘readability’ movement, launched by 19th-century American reformers who wanted written sentences to be shorter and easier to understand (especially for immigrants); his witty choice of quotations, like Winston Churchill’s gibe that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ‘the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought’; and his various lists of pet peeves — pleonasms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘self-confessed,’ abused pairs like ‘discomfit/discomfort’ (to discomfort is to make uneasy; to discomfit is to defeat or rout), and ‘flesh-eaters’ like ‘We are in receipt of’ for ‘We received’.

In a Financial Times article in May 2017, Matthew Engel writes: “He is a sworn enemy of . . . the lonely modifier  — which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail. He is also a welcome enemy of two of my own hates. One is the ludicrous non sequitur, found most abundantly in American newspaper obituaries: ‘A keen golfer, he leaves three children.’ The other is what he calls monologophobia, a phrase he credits to Theodore Bernstein of the New York Times, who described a monologaphobe as someone ‘who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines’. This is the widespread practice (also known, too kindly, as ‘elegant variation’) whereby sports writers, having said Federer once, have to refer to him thereafter as ‘the Swiss’, ‘the 35-year-old’ and ‘the seven-times Wimbledon champion’ before they dare use his name again — even if the reader ends up forgetting who is under discussion.

At the very least, Sir Harry has a keen sense of humour!

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