I recently ran across this critical view of “bureaucratic language” in journalism. According to the writer interviewed:
“[Bureaucratic language] removes the actors from their actions, thereby obscuring attributions of responsibility and leaving the reader with little information about cause and effect. These absences are particularly problematic when it comes to reporting on complex political and social issues. If one of the roles of journalism is to promote accountability, then our reporting must not shield responsible actors through our syntactic structure.”
The example in the article is that of an “officer-involved shooting” – which is a particularly tortured way to avoid saying directly that an officer shot a civilian. The construction is not technically the passive voice, but has the same effect, erasing the person who’s actually doing something, in this case, shooting someone. There are other colorful examples of how powerful actors are obscured through the “debasement of language" in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language."
For me, one way to avoid this weaselly wording is a grammatical principle that I initially encountered a few years ago in the University of Chicago's "Little Red Schoolhouse" and the related book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams. The principle is now the basis for much of my line editing.
As I'm reading a draft manuscript, I identify its main “characters,” the handful of things (human or nonhuman, concrete or abstract) that the text is intended to be "about." In academic articles, these are often the keywords.
Then I go back through the document line by line and make suggested edits so that most (not all!) of the sentences have those characters as their grammatical subjects. Of course not all of the sentences need to be structured that way, as there are other details or tangents that the author likely wants to cover, plus varying the cadence a bit is typically a good idea.
One area where I commonly make a lot of these edits is in literature reviews, where the authors of various studies are often written in as the sentence subjects, even though they're not really characters. The characters are probably better conceptualized as those scientists' questions and results. Occasionally another author might be considered a character, if, say, an academic article is directly replicating another study's methods or is trying to extend a theory constructed by a particular scientist who is worth mentioning at length. But for a study that is referenced and described in just a few lines, there's no need to name the author(s), let alone put them in the all-important subject position.
This approach is mostly about improving the clarity and readability of a text, but it can also help draw attention to the actors who might otherwise stay out of sight.
When I was looking for examples of other editors' websites, I found this “radical copyeditor” who writes about issues they encounter while editing. The description reads:
“The concept of radical copyediting is based on the fact that language is not neutral. Through language we communicate values, norms, and ideals. Words matter: they can be used to harm or to heal; to perpetuate prejudice or imagine a different world; to oppress or to liberate.
"Copyeditors help authors and publishers make sure that the material they put into the world is clear, consistent, and understandable, by way of following grammar rules, dictionaries, style manuals, and other tools. A radical copyeditor does all that and also helps authors and publishers align their words with their values of inclusion, equity, and nonviolence, bringing forward a particular awareness and sensitivity to how norms around race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, age, and other elements show up in our language.
"Radical copyediting helps language live up to its most radical potential—serving the ends of access, inclusion, and liberation, rather than maintaining oppression and the status quo.”
I hope that I was a radical copyeditor in one of my sets of edits this year. I was editing an article on French diplomacy and was discomfited by several of the casual references to French colonial history and the relationship between France and its former colonies. One such reference was to France’s “traditional zone of influence,” which is of course simply where France was a colonial power in the 19th and 20th centuries, although that history was not mentioned. The author elsewhere referred to France’s “privileged relationship” with various French-speaking nations in the global South. Again, those nations are only French-speaking and arguably only part of the “global South” today precisely because of their colonization. Another passage described archeology as a field with a “long-standing proximity to diplomacy,” which, to me, glossed over the fact that many colonizers took artifacts from the places they colonized.
I said something to my contact at the publication, who passed my comments on to the author. The references were changed as follows. (I have not included direct quotes so that I might respect the privacy of the writer's first draft.)
French-speaking developing countries -->
French-speaking former colonies
its traditional zone of influence -->
edited to include a reference to the colonial period
And, to the passage on archeology, a sentence was added clarifying that the French had obtained artifacts as colonizers.
One small step towards language that is more inclusive and historically precise!
I was moved when I read this recent series of articles exposing the problems with Arizona’s services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By itself, the series is already a fine example of investigative journalism, but the authors also commissioned a translation of their work into Plain Language.
For instance, one of the articles is summarized as follows:
Arizona is known as the best state in the nation for people with developmental challenges. But its Division of Developmental Disabilities has turned down thousands of people who seek assistance because of paperwork issues.
Translated into what's called "Plain Language" in another version of the article, that summary became:
Arizona is known as the best state for people with developmental disabilities. But the Division of Developmental Disabilities has told many people they can’t have what they need. Sometimes it’s just because their paperwork is wrong.
Elsewhere, the editors explain (in Plain Language) why they commissioned the translations:
Amy Silverman wrote this story. She lives in Arizona. Amy’s daughter Sophie has Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a kind of developmental disability (DD). Amy knows what it’s like to get help for people with DD because she is trying to get Sophie what she needs. Amy wanted people with DD to be part of making the story. She wanted people with DD to be able to learn from the story. She didn’t want to write a story about people with DD that only people without DD could read. She didn’t think we should write this story how we normally do.
Although writers sometimes need to use a specialized vocabulary, lots of academic writing in particular is needlessly dense, with ideas buried under complicated syntax. But Plain Language shows how making our work easier to understand isn’t just a question of style; it’s a question of equity. To me, the changes made in the ProPublica articles are an example of radical copyediting -- making language more inclusive and using writing as a tool for change. I'll write more about that next time!