|Less Than Words Can Say
by Richard Mitchell
``The wittiest, the most brilliant and, probably the most penetrating discussion now available of our growing American illiteracy. This book must be read at once...'' -- Clifton Fadiman
``If English is saved, he will be one of its saviors.'' -- Edwin Newman
``...by far the most entertaining, intelligent, and above all, the most important work on the deplorable state of American English...'' -- Thomas H. Middleton
In Less Than Words Can Say, Richard Mitchell lets rip the most devastating expose to date of our rampant misuse of English. A Don Quixote -- Savonarola might be more apt -- of language, he wages war on its perverters, from teachers and deans to politicians and bureaucrats, whose consistently overblown prose offers us inanity in the guise of wisdom.
Mitchell's cantankerous crusade indicts government agency ``chairs'' for the intimidating and obfuscating ``legalese'' of their profession, obsequious grantseekers who supplicate foundations in time-honored cant, and aspiring academics who speak in the Divine Passive.
According to Mitchell, this bureaucratic jargon is turning us into a nation of baffled, inept, frustrated, and -- ultimately -- violent people, and the public schools are to blame. For the past thirty-five years, they have taught children to socialize rather than to read, write, and cipher -- the only disciplines that foster clear language and logical thought. Mitchell's alarming conclusion is that our schools are turning out illiterates who will never manage their lives -- because, lacking ``the power of language,'' they can't think.
Richard Mitchell is a professor of English at Glassboro State College and editor and publisher of the controversial monthly publication The Underground Grammarian. His newest book is The Graves of Academe.
A colleague sent me a questionnaire. It was about my goals in teaching, and it asked me to assign values to a number of beautiful and inspiring goals. I was told that the goals were pretty widely shared by professors all around the country.
Many years earlier I had returned a similar questionnaire, because the man who sent it had promised, in writing, to ``analize'' my ``input.'' That seemed appropriate, so I put it in. But he didn't do as he had promised, and I had lost all interest in questionnaires.
This one intrigued me, however, because it was lofty. It spoke of a basic appreciation of the liberal arts, a critical evaluation of society, emotional development, creative capacities, students' self-understanding, moral character, interpersonal relations and group participation, and general insight into the knowledge of a discipline. Unexceptionable goals, every one. Yet it seemed to me, on reflection, that they were none of my damned business. It seemed possible, even likely, that some of those things might flow from the study of language and literature, which is my damned business, but they also might not. Some very well-read people lack moral character and show no creative capacities at all, to say nothing of self-understanding or a basic appreciation of the liberal arts. So, instead of answering the questionnaire, I paid attention to its language; and I began by asking myself how ``interpersonal relations'' were different from ``relations.'' Surely, I thought, our relations with domestic animals and edible plants were not at issue here; why specify them as ``interpersonal''? And how else can we ``participate'' but in groups? I couldn't answer.
I asked further how a ``basic'' appreciation was to be distinguished from some other kind of appreciation. I recalled that some of my colleagues were in the business of teaching appreciation. It seemed all too possible that they would have specialized their labors, some of them teaching elementary appreciation and others intermediate appreciation, leaving to the most exalted members of the department the senior seminars in advanced appreciation, but even that didn't help with basic appreciation. It made about as much sense as blue appreciation.
As I mulled this over, my eye fell on the same word in the covering letter, which said, ``We would appreciate having you respond to these items.'' Would they, could they, ``basically appreciate'' having me respond to these items? Yes, I think they could. And what is the appropriate response to an item? Would it be a basic response?
Suddenly I couldn't understand anything. I noticed, as though for the first time, that the covering letter promised ``to complete the goals and objectives aspect of the report.'' What is a goals aspect? An objectives aspect? How do you complete an aspect? How seriously could I take a mere aspect, when my mind was beguiled by the possibility of a basic aspect? Even of a basic goals and basic objectives basic aspect?
After years of fussing about the pathetic, baffled language of students, I realized that it was not in their labored writings that bad language dwelt. This, this inane gabble, this was bad language. Evil language. Here was a man taking the public money for the work of his mind and darkening counsel by words without understanding.
Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.
This man had offered me inanity. I had almost seized it. If I told you that this little book would provide you with general insight into the knowledge of a discipline, would you read on? If so, then you had better read on, for you are in danger. People all around you are offering inanity, and you are ready to seize it, like any well-behaved American consumer dutifully swallowing the best advertised pill. You are, in a certain sense, unconscious.
Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to ``know with'' something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know. More precisely, it is the device with which we can know. We don't have to. We can, if we please, speak of general insight into the knowledge of a discipline and forgo knowing.
Consciousness has degrees. We can be wide awake or sound asleep. We can be anesthetized. He is not fully conscious who can speak lightly of such things as basic appreciations and general insights into the knowledge of a discipline. He wanders in the twilight sleep of knowing where insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, have fled utterly from things and ideas. His is an attractive world, dreamy and undemanding, a Lotus-land of dozing addicts. They blow a little smoke our way. It smells good. Suddenly and happily we realize that our creative capacities and self-understanding yearn after basic appreciations and general insights. We nod, we drowse, we fall asleep.
I am trying to stay awake.
The Worm in the Brain
There's an outrageous but entertaining assertion about language and the human brain in Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden. It is possible, Sagan says, to damage the brain in precisely such a way that the victim will lose the ability to understand the passive or to devise prepositional phrases or something like that. No cases are cited, unfortunately--it would be fun to chat with some victim--but the whole idea is attractive, because if it were true it would explain many things. In fact, I can think of no better way to account for something that happened to a friend of mine -- and probably to one of yours too.
He was an engaging chap, albeit serious. We did some work together -- well, not exactly work, committee stuff -- and he used to send me a note whenever there was to be a meeting. Something like this: ``Let's meet next Monday at two o'clock, OK?'' I was always delighted to read such perfect prose.
Unbeknownst to us all, however, something was happening in that man's brain. Who can say what? Perhaps a sleeping genetic defect was stirring, perhaps some tiny creature had entered in the porches of his ear and was gnawing out a home in his cranium. We'll never know. Whatever it was, it had, little by little, two effects. At one and the same time, he discovered in himself the yearning to be an assistant dean pro tem, and he began to lose the power of his prose. Ordinary opinion, up to now, has always held that one of these things, either one, was the cause of the other. Now we can at last guess the full horror of the truth. Both are symptoms of serious trouble in the brain.
Like one of these Poe characters whose friends are all doomed, I watched, helpless, the inexorable progress of the disease. Gradually but inevitably my friend was being eaten from within. In the same week that saw his application for the newly created post of assistant dean pro tem, he sent me the following message: ``This is to inform you that there'll be a meeting next Monday at 2:00.'' Even worse, much worse, was to come.
A week or so later it was noised about that he would indeed take up next semester a new career as a highranking assistant dean pro tem. I was actually writing him a note of congratulation when the campus mail brought me what was to be his last announcement of a meeting of our committee. Hereafter he would be frying fatter fish, but he wanted to finish the business at hand. His note read: ``Please be informed that the Committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00.''
I walked slowly to the window, his note in my hand, and stared for a while at the quad. The oak trees there had been decimated not long before by a leak in an underground gas line. The seeping poison had killed their very roots, but they had at least ended up as free firewood for the faculty. Pangloss might have been right, after all, and, calamity that it was, this latest message spared me the trouble of writing the congratulatory note and even afforded me a glimpse of a remarkably attractive young lady straying dryad-fashion through the surviving oaks. Things balance out.
You would think, wouldn't you, that the worm or whatever had at last done its work, that the poor fellow's Hydification was complete and his destruction assured. No. It is a happy mercy that most of us cannot begin to imagine the full horror of these ravaging disorders. To this day that man still sends out little announcements and memos about this and that. They begin like this: ``You are hereby informed...'' Of what, I cannot say, since a combination of delicacy and my respect for his memory forbid that I read further.
It's always a mistake to forget William of Occam and his razor. Look first for the simplest explanation that will handle the facts. I had always thought that perfectly normal human beings turned into bureaucrats and administrators and came to learn the language of that tribe through some exceedingly complicated combination of nature and nurture, through imitative osmosis and some flaw of character caused by inappropriate weaning. Piffle. These psychologists have captured our minds and led us into needless deviousness. The razor cuts to the heart of things and reveals the worm in the brain.
Admittedly, that may be a slight oversimplification. It may be that the decay of language and the desire to administrate are not merely concomitant symptoms of one and the same disease, but that one is a symptom and the other a symptom of the symptom. Let's imagine what deans, who like to imitate government functionaries, who, in their turn, like to imitate businessmen, who themselves seem to like to imitate show-business types, would call a ``scenario.''
There you sit, minding your own business and hurting no man. All at once, quite insensibly, the thing creeps into your brain. It might end up in the storage shelves of the subjunctive or the switchboard of the nonrestrictive clauses, of course, but in your case it heads for the cozy nook where the active and passive voices are balanced and adjusted. There it settles in and nibbles a bit here and a bit there. In our present state of knowledge, still dim, we have to guess that the active voice is tastier than the passive, since the destruction of the latter is very rare but of the former all too common.
So there you are with your active verbs being gnawed away. Little by little and only occasionally at first, you start saying things like: ``I am told that...'' and ``This letter is being written because...'' This habit has subtle effects. For one thing, since passives always require more words than actives, anything you may happen to write is longer than it would have been before the attack of the worm. You begin to suspect that you have a lot to say after all and that it's probably rather important. The suspicion is all the stronger because what you write has begun to sound -- well, sort of ``official.'' ``Hmm,'' you say to yourself, ``Fate may have cast my lot a bit below my proper station,'' or, more likely, ``Hmm. My lot may have been cast by Fate a bit below my proper station.''
Furthermore, the very way you consider the world, or the very way in which the world is considered by you, is subtly altered. You used to see a world in which birds ate worms and men made decisions. Now it looks more like a world in which worms are eaten by birds and decisions are made by men. It's almost a world in which victims are put forward as ``doers'' responsible for whatever may befall them and actions are almost unrelated to those who perform them. But only almost. The next step is not taken until you learn to see a world in which worms are eaten and decisions made and all responsible agency has disappeared. Now you are ready to be an administrator.
This is a condition necessary to successful administration of any sort and in any calling. Letters are written, reports are prepared, decisions made, actions taken, and consequences suffered. These things happen in the world where agents and doers, the responsible parties around whose throats we like our hands to be gotten, first retreat to the remoter portions of prepositional phrases and ultimately disappear entirely. A too-frequent use of the passive is not just a stylistic quirk; it is the outward and visible sign of a certain weltanschauung.
And now that it is your weltanschauung (remember the worm has been gnawing all this time), you discover that you are suited to the life of the administrator. You'll fit right in.
Therefore, we may say that it is not the worm in the skull that causes deans and managers and vice presidents, at least not directly. The worm merely causes the atrophy of the active and the compensatory dominance of the passive. (Through a similar compensatory mechanism, three-legged dogs manage to walk, and the language of the typical administrator is not very different from the gait of the three-legged dog, come to think of it.) The dominance of the passive causes in the victim an alteration of philosophy, which alteration is itself the thing that both beckons him to and suits him for the work of administration. And there you have it. Thanks to Carl Sagan and a little help from William of Occam, we understand how administrators come to be.
You may want to object that a whole view of the world and its meanings can hardly be importantly altered by a silly grammatical form. If so, you're just not thinking. Grammatical forms are exactly the things that make us understand the world the way we understand it. To understand the world, we make propositions about it, and those propositions are both formed and limited by the grammar of the language in which we propose.
To see how this works, let's imagine an extreme case. Suppose there is after all a place in the brain that controls the making and understanding of prepositional phrases. Suppose that Doctor Fu Manchu has let loose in the world the virus that eats that very place, so that in widening circles from Wimbledon mankind loses the power to make and understand prepositional phrases. Now the virus has gotten you, and to you prepositional phrases no longer make sense. You can't read them, you can't write them, you can't utter them, and when you hear them you can only ask ``Wha?'' Try it. Go read something, or look out the window and describe what you see. Tell the story of your day. Wait...you can't exactly do that...tell, instead, your day-story. Recite how you went working...how morning you went...no...morning not you...morning went...how you morning went...The rest will be silence.
Only through unspeakable exertion and even ad hoc invention of new grammatical arrangements can we get along at all without the prepositional phrase, as trivial as that little thing seems to be. It's more than that. Should we lose prepositional phrases, the loss of a certain arrangement of words would be only the visible sign of a stupendous unseen disorder. We would in fact have lost prepositionalism, so to speak, the whole concept of the kind of relationship that is signaled by the prepositional phrase. We'd probably be totally incapacitated.
Try now to imagine the history of mankind without the prepositional phrase, or, if you're tired of that, the relative clause or the distinction between subject and object. It would be absurd to think that lacking those and other such things the appearance and growth of human culture would have been merely hindered. It would have been impossible. Everything that we have done would have been simply impossible. The world out there is made of its own stuff, but the world that we can understand and manipulate and predict is made of discourse, and discourse is ruled by grammar. Without even so elementary a device as the prepositional phrase we'd be wandering around in herds right now, but we wouldn't know how to name what we were doing.
We're inclined to think of things like prepositional phrases as though they were optional extras in a language, something like whitewall tires. This is because we don't spend a lot of time dwelling on them except when we study a language not our own. We study German, and here comes a lesson on the prepositional phrase. Great, now we can add something to our German. That's the metaphor in our heads; we think -- there is German, it exists, and when you get good at it you can add on the fancy stuff like prepositional phrases. All we have to do is memorize the prepositions and remember which ones take the dative and which ones take the accusative and which ones sometimes take the one and sometimes the other and when and why and which ones are the exceptions. Suddenly it becomes depressing. How about we forget the whole thing and settle for your stripped-down basic model German without any of the fancy stuff? If you do that, of course, you'll never find the Bahnhof. You'll be stymied in Stuttgart.
Like prepositional phrases, certain structural arrangements in English are much more important than the small bones of grammar in its most technical sense. It really wouldn't matter much if we started dropping the s from our plurals. Lots of words get along without it anyway, and in most cases context would be enough to indicate number. Even the distinction between singular and plural verb forms is just as much a polite convention as an essential element of meaning. But the structures, things like passives and prepositional phrases, constitute, among other things, an implicit system of moral philosophy, a view of the world and its presumed meanings, and their misuse therefore often betrays an attitude or value that the user might like to disavow.
There's an example from the works of a lady who may also have a worm in her brain. She is ``the chair'' of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It's very short and seems, to those willing to overlook a ``small'' grammatical flaw, almost too trivial to be worthy of comment. She writes: ``Instead of accepting charges indiscriminately and giving them docket numbers, charging parties are counseled immediately.''
``Charging parties'' are probably faster than landing parties and larger than raiding parties, but no matter. She means, probably, people who are bringing charges of some sort, but there are many kinds of prose in which people become parties. It's not really meant to sound convivial, though: it's meant to sound ``legal.'' What's important is that the structure of her sentence leads us to expect that the people (or parties) named first after that comma will also be the people (or parties) responsible for doing the ``accepting.'' We expect something like: ``Instead of doing that, we now do this.'' That's not because of some rule ; it's just the way English works. It both reflects and generates the way the mind does its business in English. We, the readers, are disappointed and confused because somebody who ought to have shown up in this sentence has in fact not appeared. What has become of the accepting parties? Are they hanging around the water cooler? Do they refuse to accept? Are they at least hoping, that no one will remember that they are supposed to accept? We can guess, of course, that they are the same people who make up the counseling parties, who have also disappeared into a little passive. It's as though we went charging down to the EEOC and found them all out to lunch.
Well, that could have been a slip of the mind, the mind of the chair, of course, but later we read: ``Instead of dealing with charging parties and respondents through formalistic legal paper, the parties are called together within a few weeks...''
It's the same arrangement. Who does that dealing, or, since that's what they did before the ``instead,'' who did that dealing through ``formalistic'' paper? Wouldn't they be the same parties who ought to do the calling together? Where have they all gone?
A schoolteacher would call those things examples of dangling modifiers and provide some rules about them, but that's not important. What's important is that those forms are evocations of that imagined world in which responsible agency is hardly ever visible, much to the comfort of responsible agency. Since that is the nature of the world already suggested by the passive voice, you would expect that this writer, or chair, would be addicted to the passive. You'd be right. Here are the bare skeletons of a few consecutive sentences: ...staff is assigned......cases are moved......parties are contacted......files are grouped...and prioritized......steps are delineated...and time frames established......discussions are encouraged...
You have to wonder how much of a discussion you could possibly have with these people. They're never around.
Admittedly, it does these bureaucrats some credit that in their hearts they are ashamed to say that they actually do those things that they do. After all, who would want to tell the world that he, himself, in his very flesh, goes around grouping and prioritizing?
The dangling modifiers go well with the passives, and, in suggesting the nature of the world as seen by bureaucrats, they even add something new. The passives are sort of neutral, verbal shoulder-shrugs -- these things happen -- what can I tell you? The danglers go the next obvious and ominous step and suggest subtly that those charging parties have caused a heap of trouble and really ought to be handed the job of sorting things out for themselves, which, grammatically, is exactly what happens. In the first example the people who do the accepting and the counseling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don't. In the second, the people who do the dealing and the calling ought to appear right after the comma, but they don't. In both cases the people who do appear are the clients on whose behalf someone is supposed to accept, counsel, deal, and call. Does that mean something about the way in which those clients are regarded by this agency? They seem to have been put in some kind of grammatical double jeopardy, which is probably unconstitutional.