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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Words & Language Toolbox

Literacy demands precision

By Paula LaRocque

Literacy. n. the state or quality of being literate; specif., a) ability to read and write b) knowledgeability or capability ... (Webster’s New World Dictionary).

By that definition, we can say with surety that the media world is populated by the literate. After all, writers for the news media are, at the least, professional wordsmiths, which means they have one major tool in their kit: the word. And it is their skill with this tool that determines how effective or ineffective they are in building a bridge to their readers — that is, in transferring thought, idea and information without distortion or misunderstanding.

Writers who use words well know what’s effective and ineffective, and what’s beautiful and ugly. But more than that, they know what is clear and precise; they understand the many subtleties of clarity and precision. They know writing can be muddied by one wrong word, or by one word carelessly placed, or by a stumbling syntax.

Literacy demands — at the same time that it should ensure — precision.

Consider the following:

"Encouraged by a series of upbeat statistics in the last few days, the chairman of the Federal Reserve said today that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2 percent in the last quarter."

Is this in any way clear or precise? The first thing we notice is that this lead backs in. It begins not with a noun/subject/actor, but rather with a verb, encouraged. Who is encouraged? And by what? Keep reading and find out.

But do we initiate conversation this way? Do I approach you and blurt: “Encouraged by a series of upbeat weather statistics, I think I’ll take a stroll in the park”?

I do not, and you would not like me much if I did.

Backing-in phrases often run off into space as carelessly as cartoon characters off a cliff. Of course they crash and burn, as this one does. It does not serve logic — and if we didn’t notice that, it only suggests how often media writing fails to serve logic. Let’s reduce this lead to its bare bones and see what it really says: Encouraged by statistics, the chairman of the Federal Reserve said the economy grew.

Now, did the chairman of the Federal Reserve say what he said because he was encouraged, as the lead states? Or did he say what he said because it was true? If he hadn’t been encouraged, would he have said something else? And how do we know he was encouraged? Did he say so? If so, that important fact is not present here. So are we surmising, extrapolating, stuffing feelings into the chairman as though he could not generate them on his own?

Let’s continue with the Fed. Consider:

"The Fed acknowledged the uncertain future of the global market, BUT they said that they were wary of further reducing interest rates. BUT they also signaled that rates may be near a noninflationary level."

Look at those two “buts” in consecutive sentences. I hesitate to mention it, but this writing is not literate. The literate do not use such words as but, although or however in consecutive sentences. Such sentences complement or stand in opposition to preceding sentences. That means the subsequent sentence in part cancels out the previous sentence, which also in part cancels out an even more previous sentence. It’s all too much to keep track of.

We can — and should — delete the second “but” in the passage above. That sentence is not a “but” sentence, but an “anyway” or “in any case” sentence. It supplements rather than opposes the preceding “but” clause.

Or we could cut the chaff and revise the passage into a single sentence:

Fed officials acknowledged the uncertainty of the global market but said they were wary of further reducing interest rates, which are already near noninflationary levels.

That revision is both clearer and more precise.

Speaking of literacy, a final note: The Fed is not a “they”; it’s an “it.” And we can discuss the journalese “signaled” another day. But, meantime, ponder: What kind of “signal” would the Feds use to convey that “rates may be near a noninflationary level”?

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