Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Objects in Mirror

Probably only physicists and writers pay attention to the warning stencilled on auto rearview mirrors: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

A physicist might observe that there is really nothing IN a mirror but molecules of glass and silver (or polymer and alloy). The images that APPEAR to be in the mirror (that actually appear to be behind it, as if the mirror were a window into a looking-glass universe) are virtual images, not real ones. A writer would note that the illogic created by the statement is due entirely to its awkward structure. It would take no more effort to say OBJECTS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR IN MIRROR. It would take only one more word, “the,” to make the statement grammatically and logically correct.

News reporters regularly announce that someone has died of “an apparent heart attack.” Wrong! No one dies of an apparent anything. People die of real heart attacks and from disorders that have similar symptoms. If a heart attack is suspected, one might say, “Apparently, he died of a heart attack,” or “He apparently died of a heart attack.” After the autopsy, we’ll know for sure.

Carry this lack of precision to its illogical extreme (no extremes are logical). What fun defense lawyers could have at trial—“The victim died of an apparent gun shot wound? Maybe he’s only apparently dead.” Recently I heard a news reporter announce that the Indiana State Police were looking for an apparent sniper. I hope not. When someone’s shooting at motorists on an interstate, I hope the police are looking for a real sniper.

We all know what the reporter means, so why get your shorts in a bunch?

If you’re a writer you ought to be as incensed by a professional’s careless use of words as a carpenter would be if you drove a nail with a crescent wrench. You could force the nail in, but you would probably make a mess of the job. It would certainly mess up the wrench. Words are a writer’s tools. When we use them carelessly, we damage them. In Chicago, for example, the police routinely refer to suspects in custody as “gentlemen” (on camera. In private they call them assholes.). Would it be so much harder to say, “We believe we caught the offender,” or “We have an individual in custody”? It’s that OBJECTS IN MIRROR thing again. Calling someone a gentleman used to be a compliment. Now it’s an insult. And what word can we use for a man who’s considerate and polite?

It’s a tribute to the human brain that we can sort out intended meanings, however illogically presented. But we shouldn’t have to. Writers should write what they mean. Much of the trouble we have with others comes from misunderstanding, which is easier to avoid in conversation because body language fills in for unclear prose.

Fuzzy writing is indicative of fuzzy thinking. Unless you’re being paid to obfuscate, you ought to take pride in making your meaning unmistakable.

40 comments:

John Gooley said...

Michael, very enjoyable, and I agree absolutely. Surely using language correctly (or at least attempting to do so) means you're thinking about what you're actually trying to say, and not falling into cliché or faulty thinking. And in doing so, perhaps you'll also be aware when others are deliberately corrupting language for their own malevolent purposes. As you probably know, in his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell said, "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". It's good to know when you're being lied to.

I hope I haven't taken this subject up the wrong track.

Also, I have to admit I've been looking at the OBJECTS IN MIRROR warning for years, and I've never thought twice about it. From now on, driving will be a whole new experience. Anyway, a great post.

D.A. Davenport said...

I have actually had people I work with laugh at me and tell me that I speak "Funny." I do try to use the English language properly, but it's from years of Catholic School and a Mother who insisted. I also use my vocabulary and love the right descriptive word when I speak, as well as write. If they all gave me a twenty dollar bill for each "twenty dollar word" I have been accused of using, I'd be independantly wealthy by now!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Here's a cautionary tale about "the most costly piece of punctuation in Canada."

Ray Rhamey, Flogging the Quill said...

I'm with you, Michael, as is illustrated by today's (8-9-06) post in my blog, Flogging the Quill. We need all the word police we can find.

Best,

Ray
www.floggingthequill.com
www.vampirekittycat.com

Sara Paretsky said...

Great column, Michael. When I worked in the insurance business, I wanted to teach a course on "English as a second language for American businessmen." Often, unless the person who wrote a memo was actually in a room with you explaining it to you, it was impossible to know what he (or sometimes she) was trying to say.

Michael Dymmoch said...

John, d.a., Kevin, Ray, and Sara,

Thanks for the affirmation.

At an early stage of my writing life, I was exposed to Samuel T. Williamson's “How to Write Like a Social Scientist,” originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature (October 4, 1947).

After recounting his experiences as an editor Williamson proposed the following rules for creating unintelligible prose:

1 Never use a short word when you can think of a long one.
2 Never use one word when you can use two or more.
3 Put one-syllable thought into polysyllabic terms.
4 Put the obvious in terms of the unintelligible
5 Announce what you are going to say before you say it.
6 Defend your style as “scientific.”

ab said...

You are so right, Michael. I think one should be meticulous about language. Often stress comes in the way of it, and deadlines are very counterproductive, I found.

Sara, fun idea - wish you had done it!

An evil cousin of the unintentionally sloppy language is the intentional whitewash. Example: When news reporters report that Israel or Hezbollah or some other of our countless warlords have fired missiles at "targets". It should be: They have fired at people and buildings and roads and bridges.

Sara Paretsky said...

A note on an unconnected topic: Dorothy Uhnak, one of the first women police officers, and the first to have a credible woman officer as hero in fiction as well, has died, sadly of a drug overdose, at the age of 76. You may remember her Christy Opera series, or the Law and Order novel which long preceded the Dick Wolf tv show

ab said...

I have never heard of her, but will look her up now. Thanks for the info.

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