Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige is a weekend rodeo rider who likes to think of himself as a laconic cowboy, lassoing pretentious and redundant bureaucratic words.
"Cowboys don't talk unless they've got something to say," is the way he puts it.
The secretary, riding roughshod over bad language, has made a list of words banned in Commerce. And he's had the department's computers programmed to spit out those words, like a wad of a cowboy's chewin' tobacco.
"We have these computers that go through copy," Baldrige said. "When they hit a word on my blacklist they begin to smoke, and fire comes out and they GET the writer."
Baldrige may be the first Cabinet member to quote regularly from "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. He takes as his text the book's admonition: "Vigorous writing is concise." He's earned a reputation in the Cabinet, according to one report, for "unabashed guts and bluntness." After warning the president on the economy, to the president's displeasure, Baldrige told friends, "I broke my pick with the president."
Though Baldrige doesn't eschew the colorful phrase, he accuses some people in government of using "multisyllabic words and phrases to cover themselves. We all know there is a kind of protection in statements and a recommendation so vague that it can be interpreted two or three ways on a single issue. But honestly, except in rare cases, that's not what one is paid for in the U.S. government. That's not communicating, that's covering one's flanks.
"Take [former secretary of state] Al Haig, for instance. Now Al can be just as direct and straightforward as anybody. But when he thought the occasion demanded it, he could obfuscate or cloud up the answer by the way he used the language. I've had a lot of fun with Al."
He tells his Alexander Haig story so often that it's represented in the text of his written speeches by the single word "Haig."
Baldrige starts out speeches by saying that he is "sorry that my friend Al Haig could not have attended today. But he sends his regrets. 'I deeply regret that I am unable to optimize this point in time to achieve a meaningful interface with your multifaceted organization in its function of facilitating clear and direct articulation of the English language system.' I think he means he won't be able to make it."
Baldrige goes on to say he overheard an exchange between Haig and an assistant: "The staff person asked Al for a pay raise. And Al said: 'Because of the fluctuational predisposition of your position's productive capacity as juxtaposed to government standards, it would be monetarily injudicious to advocate an increment.' The staff person said, 'I don't get it.'
"Al said, 'That's right.' "
Baldrige is wise enough in Washington ways not to accuse anyone else of circuitous writing or speaking. But he lists as persons who use the language well: Secretary of State George Shultz, former transportation secretary Drew Lewis, budget director David Stockman and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein. And President Reagan? "President Reagan, of course," he hastens to cover himself.
At Commerce, Baldrige has seen that his staff gets the point of plain writing. The secretary uses an editor's ultimate device, sort of a mechanical version of washing someone's mouth out with soap.
What happens is that the computer operator pushes the "glossary" button on the Wang word processor and the machine goes through the copy in question looking for the forbidden words. If it finds a nasty word (in Baldrige's view), it writes a message at the top of the computer screen that says, "Don't use this word," and flashes a light on the bad language. The operator is then on his honor to substitute a better word.
The trick was invented by a summer intern, Alan Eisen (now with Wang Laboratories), who worked for Commerce when Baldrige first became secretary. "He Baldrige sent out this memo saying, 'Don't Use These Words,' " Eisen said. "I told my supervisor, 'I could fix it so the computer wouldn't let anybody use them.' So I did."
The program doesn't work on all the different kinds of computers at Commerce, and nobody is willing to guess just how many do use it. Speeches, press releases and letters important enough to go out of Baldrige's own office have an eye on them as sharp as the computer's--Baldrige's.
"He's the meanest editor I ever had," said B.J. Cooper, a former newspaper reporter and editor who is now Baldrige's press secretary.
Baldrige says his staff has taken his admonitions to heart. "After I told everybody they should write like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, every drugstore within miles was sold out of Grey."
The other day Baldrige sat on a comfortable sofa in his spacious office in the Department of Commerce, under the protection of five bronze rodeo sculptures by his friend Harry Jackson. An elaborate ceremonial saddle that he won as a rodeo prize (he figures he makes an average of $150 a month on the rodeo circuit) stands by the desk "so I can look at it and cheer up." He's admitted once roping a secretary in his office.
Baldrige himself is a tanned, fit 60, a legacy, he likes to say, from starting out at 13 as a ranch hand in western Nebraska. He often rides horses with Reagan. Actually, his background is not all that homespun--his father was a one-term congressman who ran on a platform of legalizing beer in the early 1930s. Baldrige was graduated from Yale University, as was his lawyer father. The secretary began as a mill hand in an iron company and went on to become chairman of Scovill Inc., a national manufacturer with headquarters in Waterbury, Conn., which was responsible for his 1981 income of between $1.6 million and $2 million.
But Baldrige majored in English, not business, at Yale. "I got so mad when I was out hunting a job after I graduated because three-fourths of the personnel interviewers would ask me, 'Did you plan to teach English?' I thought that was a stupid question. The basic tool for government or business is to be able to put ideas across. The trouble with young people today is that they've been taught in school to use overblown phrases by English teachers."
Since Baldrige has spoken out on plain speaking, he's had a great many letters from English teachers backing his stand. He's also had a number pointing out his grammatical errors. The other day his office sent out a press release describing a seminar on improving business English and used "host" as a verb, a practice frowned upon by the experts of American Heritage Dictionary and other careful writers.
"I don't say I speak and write perfectly," Baldrige defended himself. "I don't say I practice perfect English, just simple English."
Baldrige well remembers when he decided that the extra words had to be pared from Commerce copy. "It was my first day at work. I came back to the office after a very busy day expecting to knock back the letters in an hour. And I found I couldn't do it.
"The letters were written in such a roundabout manner I sometimes had to read them three times to understand what they said. So I rewrote, circled words and underlined phrases. I decided I couldn't do that every night, so I called a meeting of the bosses to tell them I wanted writing that got to the point. 'It can be upsetting,' I said, 'when you've read through something and don't know whether the writer meant yes or no. Think about the poor individual on the receiving end. Learn to enjoy the discipline of good prose.' "
So, has the Commerce Department's English notably improved after two years of Baldrige? Cooper says yes. When asked for an example of bad writing corrected by Baldrige, he said, "The old ones are stored in the attic and he doesn't get bad ones anymore." THE LIST
* Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige's hit list of bad English:
* Do not use nouns or adjectives as verbs, such as:
* Use the precise word or phrase:
datum (singular); data (plural)
criterion (singular); criteria (plural)
subsequent means after, not before
different from, not different than
insure means to guarantee against financial loss; ensure means to make sure or certain
effect as a noun means result, and as a verb, to bring about, to accomplish; affect means to influence, to act upon, to alter, to assume, to adopt
think is mental; feel is physical or emotional (think thoughts; feel feelings)
* Please stop using affected or imprecise words. Some examples:
hopefully (use I hope)
* Please stop using the following phrases:
I regret I cannot be more responsive (or encouraging)
I am deeply concerned
Thank you for your letter expressing concern (use: Thank you for your letter concerning)
prior to (use: before)
at the present time (use: at this time)
as you know, as I am sure you know, as you are aware
more importantly (use more important)
needless to say
it is my intention
* Avoid redundancies, such as:
untimely death (Has there ever been a timely death?)
* Do not use a split infinitive (placing an adverb between to and the verb)
* Do not use addressee's first name in the body of the letter.
* Do not refer to the date of the incoming letter.
* Stop apologizing, such as, "I regret the delay in responding to you."