Considerable propaganda is being spread these days, aimed at getting government and business to streamline their correspondence. At great expense, agencies and firms are hiring consultants and teachers to get employes on all levels to produce jargon-free, readable English -- language that expresses, rather than impresses.
The most frequent recipients of these "debureaucratese-ing" courses and seminars are clerical-level employes and occasional entry-level professionals. The courses focus on good basic English usage, as well as on the elimination of jargon, self-serving puffery, and long, impossible-to-read sentences.
In general, the students' reactions are positive. They are eager to learn.
Throughout the course, however, comes the same lament: What difference does it make how I write? I just type the boss' correspondence and he won't brook meddling with his own personal style.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter -- the "own personal style" of persons in high places: executives, managers, supervisors, scientists, lawyers. After all, it is they who do the bulk of the writing, not the secreatries. It is they who draft letters, write speeches, and produce inter-office memoranda. If their writing is poor, there is little a secretary can do.
As this recognition has dawned on the topmost echelon of government and business executives, the courses have been aimed with ever greater frequency at the generators of writing -- the bosses.
Now, this is all very nice, but it usually doesn't work. And it's not easy to make it work. For some very obvious reasons:
The average Grade-14 and up civil servant (or his business equivalent) has been working iin the system for many years. He (or she) is enerally a person with training and expertise in a particular field. That field, chances are, is rarely the effective production of the English language. He/she learned a professional vocabulary in university days -- in science or engineering or business administration or law. And in his early years in the governmental or business system, he mastered a prodigious vocabulary of jargon, acronyms, and in-language.
As a good student of how to succeed in the system, he has stayed abreast of all current developments in these areas. He can off-the-wall-it and bottom-line-it with the best of them.
Because he is well past his prime new-language learning years, retooling his language is generally difficult and sometimes impossible.
But the biggest problem is ego. A clerk or secretary is on the bottom end of the ladder. He or she has learned to accept criticism of all sorts, warranted or not. Top-level people, on the other hand, are very important and experts. How can you tell an important expert that he or she is inexpert at something that is a significant part of his or her professional activities?
It's hard. As one secretary -- who types for eight professionals -- puts it about one of her bosses: "He tells me, 'I'm paid to make important policy decisions. I don't have time to worry about commas and spelling; that's what you're hired for.' Then he gets upset when I do what he told me I was hired for."
When I left high-school teaching, I expected to leave behind adolescent behavior: deliberate disruption of class, giggling, refusal to do assignments. b
I did leave them behind . . . except . . . when I teach managerial-level employes. The prospect of self-satisfied, 50-year-old adolescents -- a whole class full of them -- is enough tomake you laugh . . . or cry.
Take, for example, the case of T., a brilliant scientist who prides himself on his writing skill, even though his reports are so poorly written that sometimes even fellow brilliant scientists have difficulty understanding them.
When his reports form part of his agency's budget request to Congress, they must be completely rewritten or no congressman will understand his ideas.
In the Executive Writing Course, T. slouched in his chair and scowled perpetually. He could not take correction of the smallest detail. There was always the excuse: "That's my personal style and you are attacking it."
If a tenth grader behaves this way, you send him to the principal's office or send a note home to mother. If a GS-4 secretary behaves this way, he or she will probably get a poor performance rating and stay a GS-4. But what do you do when a GS-14 or -15 behavesthatway -- tell him to stand in the corner?
This kind of situation, I submit, is where a major English language problem lies. Hanging the blame on the defenseless secretary may be convenient for the bosses, but it doesn't solve the problem. Unless the bosses can swallow their pride, submerge their egos, and learn how to write cleanly, clearly, and simply, real communication cannot take place.
After all, there is no shame for a university graduate in English to admit weaknesses -- severe ones -- in engineering, law, economics, science, and administration. Why, then, should there be such hang-ups when engineers, lawyers, economists, scientists, and administrators confront their weakesses in written English?
Just because you speak it doesn't mean you can write it.