What The Hell Does This Mean?

A confused woman readinBecause we pretty much live in a world of ubiquitous literacy, we live in a world of ubiquitous incompetent writing. Here is one example, taken from Form 9465, sent to me this week by the IRS, along with a letter telling me to send them more money. The form contains this sentence: “I authorize the U.S. Treasury and its designated Financial Agent to initiate a monthly ACH electronic funds withdrawal entry to the financial institution account indicated for payments of my federal taxes owed, and the financial institution to debit the entry to this account.”

It’s horribly written, just as we’d expect from any government agency. The sentence is bad for human beings in general, but when you also consider that this form may be sent to any person in the country, regardless of education level, the writing is almost immorally bad.

In addition to the unexplained abbreviation ACH, the sentence has unnecessary legalistic puff like “its designated Financial Agent” and the oxymoronic sounding “withdrawal entry”. The sentence is also simply too long, and it uses language like the Latinate “initiate” instead of the common (and more easily understood) “begin”.

If we were to rewrite this hideous bureaucratic bullshit so that normal people could read it, it might be along the lines of “I authorize the IRS to begin taking automatic deductions from my bank account to pay the taxes I owe, and I also authorize my bank to make the payments.”

The impulse for such writing horrors is, in part, bad training in writing, and that isn’t going to change between now and when the world ends, because people who run educational institutions don’t care (though God knows they’ll talk until you’re deaf about much how they care). Many writers are incapable—or worse, lazy and unwilling—to think about their readers, what the readers will know, what they will care about, what they need, and so on.

There is also a deeper psychological reason for bad writing, and this affects all of us. Supposedly, the purpose of writing is to communicate a message, but what we are trying to communicate is usually more complicated than we realize. Let’s say I’m writing to tell people the purpose of filling out a form. Though my presumed purpose is to convey information about the form, I’m probably not even aware that as I write, I’m also using the language to say things about myself. I want to sound knowledgeable. I want to sound like I’m good at my job. And while we’re at it, I want to sound smart and like I went to college.

So I’m not going to use something common like “begin” when I can say “initiate”. I sometimes found students openly resistant to the idea of using language that was as simple and clear as possible, as they felt it didn’t sound professional. Notice that their point was not about how well the writing communicated. In fact, the students were wrong. Murky language and professionalism are not the same thing. The issue here is actually self confidence. As I would sometimes say, are you bold enough to be clear, or do you need to show people how smart you are instead?

I have a second example of bad writing that is less easily noticed, but also concerns thinking about the needs of the readers. A few months ago I had some dealings with Verizon, a “communications” company, as they ironically like to call themselves, the same way North Korea has the word “Democratic” in their official name.

When I got a new phone, it came with a small booklet called Tips, Hints and Shortcuts. To my thinking, the name did not bode well, as I wanted a Basic Manual before I got around to tips, hints, or shortcuts, which all sound like additions to basic knowledge. The booklet does have some basic information, but the problem is that obvious things a reader would want to know are missing.

Not providing the right information is also writing at its worst, no matter how “clearly” it is worded. As I was preparing to write this blog, I decided to test what I’m saying and use a phone feature that I was sure must exist, to add a specific ringtone for a single caller. I went to the Contents page and found a section called Changing Ringtones. What that section told me was how to change the ring for the phone in general, for all calls. Only by playing with the phone for a while did I eventually figure out how to do what I wanted. Having looked at the entire manual, I know for certain that Tips, Hints and Shortcuts gives no hint about how to do what I did.

That total lack of information is actually typical for the booklet, which is a fairly stunning example of incapacity to provide the kind of information a reader might actually want. The same booklet has seven pages on the safety of radio emissions, but not a word on several obvious functions. Keep up the good work, Verizon.

The IRS and Verizon are certainly not alone. Incompetent, unclear writing is everywhere you look. It is as if literacy comes with a built-in, incurable disease.

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