Friday, July 15, 2011

Political speech is full of bombast; in other words, political speech, as practiced today, is full of impressive, important language that, taken together, adds up to very little. In fact, the best politicians (but perhaps not the ones most loved by the people) are those schooled in the art of circumlocution, also known as never answering the question or taking a clear, sure stand. Listen to news programs on any network or channel, and you will hear bombastic circumlocution. A edited example from Face the Nation, June 19, 2011, follows.

Bob Schieffer: Is there anything else that Republicans can do to put people back to work?

McConnell: They [Democrats] need to stop over-regulating . . . making it very difficult for businesses to operate.

Did McConnell answer the question asked? No. He used the question as an opportunity to send a message, to shape opinion, but he did not say what Republicans can or will do to put people back to work. He obfuscated (in other words, he obscured perception), and later, when Senator Chuck Schumer was asked about McConnell’s answer, he said as much. He pointed out that McConnell did not say one word about a Republican plan to create jobs and put people to work.

Periphrasis is a synonym for circumlocution
, but is more often reserved for literary or stylistic analysis. However, periphrasis is generally considered to be a vice in style, not a virtue. Why? Periphrasis breaks one basic rule of good writing: never use several words when one will do. Here is an example of wordiness, taken to an extreme:

Please forgive me for reporting after the optimal time agreed upon for this collaborative meeting and exchange of information. I was temporarily delayed by an unexpected disturbance in my lower gastro-intestinal tract, necessitating a detour not mapped by the Global Positioning System installed in my vehicle and subsequently requiring unnecessary backtracking in order to establish my whereabouts and arrive at the correct juncture.

While the speaker may be shy about admitting to diarrhea in front of peers and/or supervisors, he has gone too far, using sixty-four words when fourteen will do:

I’m late. I’m sorry. Diarrhea hit, then I got lost searching for a bathroom.

Wordiness has infested business-speak, government jargon, and educators. I think you will recognize the following classic examples of wordiness that should be expunged:

• At the present time = Now
• In the near future = Soon
• In this day and age = Today or Now
• Due to the fact that = Because

We are like sponges; we hear and absorb these phrases, perpetuating them into perpetuity. Let’s stop it, okay?

Sometimes periphrasis may be artful. When the writer substitutes a descriptive word or phrase for a proper, more common noun, then periphrasis may become a valid writing choice. Shakespeare used periphrasis artfully when young Hamlet tries to convey how his mother’s behavior disgusts him. He avoids calling her names and choosing crude language for her actions while condemning her with periphrasis.

Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven’s face doth glow:
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act. (3. 4. 40-51)

Hamlet’s answer to his mother’s question is wordy, but he has avoided the words incest and adulterer while vividly specifying how unholy and vile she is.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Re-read Abraham Lincoln’s spare and beautiful Gettysburg Address. Appreciate his craft and style in fewer than 300 words. Then ruin that wonderful, inspiring speech by rewriting it with plenty of circumlocution and periphrasis.

Next, exercise your brain in the opposite direction. Re-read Hamlet’s speech and reduce it to the fewest number of words. You may find it wise not to share the rewrite with others.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM

Today’s post is a lesson in usage: better usage. Make a longer list of wordy clich├ęs like the four bulleted above. Practice avoiding them, using their one or two words counterparts instead.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach