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Saturday, May 11, 2013

The purpose of bad grammar in politics

“The ancients wrote at a time when the great art of writing badly had not yet been invented. In those days to write at all meant to write well.” - Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a most quotable German scientist, another of my Lichtenberg favorites, “With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.” (The second quote is only tangential to this blog.)
Bad writing is prevalent today in political blogs and political speeches. The poor construction of sentences ranges from the pedestrian to a pure atrocity. This is a recent phenomenon, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, or the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the addresses of FDR or JFK, all had style and clarity. Common Sense by Thomas Paine, while emotional and ideological, was nonetheless, will written.
Today’s right wing authors, such as Glen Beck or Ann Coulter, write as if they had failed their freshman class in writing. One would think they had never heard of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., or they had slept through the sixth grade class about diagramming sentences. My Texas Senator, Ted Cruz, composes sentences which can be interpreted with a wide range of meanings.
I don’t believe this is just bad grammar, I believe this is intentional. The use of code words in political arguments leads to insensible sentences. After the reelection of President Obama, one common sentence I encountered was, “Except for the stupid voters Romney would have won.” In this sentence “stupid voters” is a code word. Only those who understand the code word can make sense of this sentence. The right wing writers have improved the code word and now use “Low information voter”, shorten to LIV, and added punctuation, making the new sentence, “Without the LIV’s, Romney would have won.” This lack of clarity in writing allows readers to construct their own meaning, which is the point and purpose of the poor writing and the usage of code words. Like secret handshakes between bomb throwing anarchists, it gives the participants a feeling of belonging and group identification. The rest of us just stand around thinking WTF? (I haven’t decided whether WTF is good grammar, I am sure my college English professor would disapprove.) Poor writing, code words and dog whistles, will co-op the reader to encompass a conclusion that he/she finds agreeable, without the author having to clearly state their position.
This would indicate that clarity of the political position has been judged to produce undesirable consequences. If the political argument is sound, then make it with clarity and precision, as Lincoln did with the Gettysburg Address, good ideas win by being good ideas.
Of course, my writing is far from perfect, but, I do try to be clear and precise.

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