A version of this post appeared in The Week:
Writing is tricky business. And so it makes sense that writers are often prickly and opinionated about what makes prose good or bad. Thus, over at the Washington Post lives a very long list of clichés and stale phrases that are now verboten due to overuse: “The Outlook List of Things We Do Not Say.”
Here’s just a small sample:
Upon deeper reflection (why not reflect deeply from the start?)
Begs the question (unless used properly—and so rarely used properly that it’s not worth the trouble)
Suffice it to say (if it suffices, then just say it)
Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)
Orwellian (unless discussing George Orwell)
Byzantine rules (unless referring to the empire in the Middle Ages)
A modest proposal (this was written once, very well, and has been written terribly ever since)
Some of them are pretty funny—and it is mostly a joke, I understand. But when writers put together a list of ostensibly objective rules for writing, it’s common to smuggle in what are actually matters of taste.
Take a word like “Gladwellian.” I won’t defend Malcolm Gladwell, not when he does things like this, but “Gladwellian” is an adjective that could be extremely useful. Why? Because Gladwell is well-known and has a distinctive style, one which we may wish to invoke with shorthand. Perhaps the outright prohibition comes from imagining the TED talk set writing about “Gladwellian genius” and nodding knowingly to each other. But one could also write about “Gladwellian sophistry” and capture an entire sensibility with great efficiency: namely, sophistry featuring great writing, sloppy research, exaggerated claims, and lots of contrarian questions. To be honest, I almost certainly would never use “Gladwellian,” but let’s not pretend that nixing it wholesale is anything more than a function of taste.
More important, perhaps, a list like this illustrates a common, though mistaken, writerly assumption: the idea that good writing has much at all to do with good ideas. In fact, the opposite is often the case: good writing can make bad, even dangerous, ideas more convincing.
The argument against clichés and hackneyed prose more generally was most famously articulated by George Orwell in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” It goes something like this: Thinking is hard, and putting one’s thoughts clearly into words is harder. Clichés allow people to short-circuit this process, resulting in “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Fair enough. But while I quite like the man, it would be the height of disrespect to Orwell’s legacy for his work to become unquestionable dogma. Indeed, I think a large part of Orwell’s theory of how language operates (developed most fully in 1984) is overstated and quite often plain wrong.
In “Politics,” he states that, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” In Orwell’s world, bad political writing—the kind that teems with cliché, jargon, and cant—is a subspecies of the kind of authoritarian language that seeks to control thought by subverting meaning. And it is surely true that corporate PR flacks and government propagandists consistently churn out deceptive or incoherent copy, with no one better at filleting such drivel than Orwell.
But, in a free society at least, such deception doesn’t actually work in the long, or even the medium, run. Phrases like “collateral damage” or “enhanced interrogation,” to choose a couple, fail utterly to veil the reality of civilian casualties and torture, and are only more horrifying for what they imply about the propagandists who cooked them up. (A similar backlash, incidentally, is happening over new phrases like “signature strikes.”)
In other words, corrupt writing is not necessarily capable of corrupting thought. Meanwhile, it’s quite easy to convey a crystal-clear thought even if the prose is riddled with clichés. For example: “Upon deeper reflection, House Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal ObamaCare was motivated by naked partisanship. The connection to the policy itself was tenuous at best.”
It’s also possible to have excellent, original writing conveying ideas that are completely bananas. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias once said regarding Notes from Underground: “Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas.” Of course, the same could be said of many others.
Professional writers are prone to the belief that avoiding trite language is the key to clear thought. If only it were that easy.