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Just the Fact Pattern, Ma'am
I'm constantly depressed by the degradation of our language. People talk about "fact patterns," "impacting on it," and "pre-planning our trip" until you no longer know what they're talking about. Is a "fact pattern" the same thing as "the facts" (would Sgt. Friday on Dragnet have to say, "Just the fact pattern, ma'am"?) How do you impact on something? (Have we suddenly become guided missiles?) Isn't that the same as "having an affect on it"? And don't get me started about pre-planning. Is that the plan before the plan? What's the plan, then?
This came to mind when I recently received some online comments about an article I wrote that appeared on the Habitat magazine website. The article was about a co-op that ordered a woman to get rid of a dog, but the details are less important at the moment than the poor use of language. "Soter's tone is heavily biased," writes one reader. " I personally believe the directors overstepped their authority." Leaving aside the question of this person's credentials to make such a judgment, what does he mean when he says he "personally" believes? Is there any other belief but a personal one? Can you have an impersonal belief?
Another reader writes, "I was shocked to see this article published in the possible guise of sound advice. The tone was too bubbly and chirpy.The Editors of Habitat would do well to re-review this piece with legal counsel for his/her '2nd opinion] and consider a possible ancillary note cataloging the potential difficulties, or else consider a retraction. I'd personally vote for retraction."
"Shocked" seems a little strong, but that's just my "personal belief." I don't quite understand the phrase "the possible guise of sound advice." Since a guise, according to my dictionary, is a concealment of "the true nature" of something, then of what is the reader accusing me? Of writing a story that possibly conceals sound advice? And is it a guise or not? (That word "possible" confuses me.) Or does he mean "it is presented as sound advice but is actually not?" I think that's what he means, but why doesn't he say so? Instead of asking us to "re-review" the piece (one review would have been sufficient), he'd do well to review basic style and grammar in The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Or read George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." (And let's not get into his "personal vote" for retraction.") Finally, I wonder about the phrase "the tone was too bubbly and chirpy." What degree of bubbliness and chirpyness would be acceptable to him?
But enough. The debasement of our language is everywhere, yet no more so than in the current election cycle. Politicians talk about what they believe the facts to be – as though facts are not by definition immutable – and about "not completely factual statements" – what we used to call lies, and the world rolls on, apparently unaware or uncaring that when we debase our language, we debase ourselves and our ability to communicate. And without clear communication, everyone loses.
September 2, 2012