Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Alfred Kahn on clear writing

Economist Alfred Kahn died this week at age 93. Although he is most remembered for deregulating the airlines industry, Vanderbilt students know him through his essay,My War Against Bureaucratese," the gobbledygook written by government bureaucrats designed to hide what they are really doing.  Here are a few of his most salient points:
  • “Every time you’re tempted to use ‘herein’ or ‘hereinabout’ or ‘hereinunder’ or, similarly, ‘therein,’ thereinabove’ or ‘thereinunder,” and the corresponding variants, try ‘here’ or ‘there’ or ‘above’ or ‘below,’ and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense.”
  • “The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically its purpose is to conceal information. One is less likely to be jailed if one says, ‘He was hit by a stone,’ than if he says, ‘I hit him with a stone.’ The active voice is far more forthright, direct, humane.”
  • The use of ‘presently’ to mean ‘now’ is another pomposity. If you mean ‘now,’ why don’t you say ‘now’?
  • “Why use ‘regarding’ or ‘concerning’ or ‘with regard to’ when the simple word ‘about’ would do just as well? Unless you’re trying to impress somebody. But are you sure you want to impress anybody who would be impressed by such circumlocutions?
  • “Outreach makes me upchuck.” Sometimes the demands of pomposity and dynamism converge—as in using “input” as a verb, “specifics” for “details” and constantly “implementing” things and “addressing issues.”
Professor Kahn began this war as part of his succesful effort to deregulate the airline industry. He is the hero of Thomas McCraw's Pulitzer Prize Winning book Prophets of Regulation. Interestingly, the villain of the book is Louis Brandeis for his role in creating the FTC.

Colleague Mike Shor's MBA Writer puts phrases from student memos together to generate sentences that sound all too familiar.

To proactively manage profit, our key initiative objective pushes the envelope toward systematized reciprocal capability.

Enabling continuity, enterprise optimization accelerates the movement towards third-generation contingencies.

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