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Life and Arts

A Word, Please: 4 proven ways to make yourself less clear

Chipper
“Instead of saying, ‘Sen. McStabby crammed the severed arms and legs into a wood chipper,’” June Casagrande writes, “you can just say, ‘The man disposed of the items utilizing machinery.‘”
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When we talk about language and grammar, there’s an unspoken yet universal agenda: clarity.

The whole point of written communication is to get information to your reader as effectively as possible, meaning with as little confusion as possible. Grammar, punctuation and proper usage are tools to get you there.

But what if you don’t want to be clear? What if your No. 1 writing goal is to weasel your way around a point or a piece of information you’d rather not highlight, for whatever shady reason you may have?

Well, grammar is your friend too. After all, if you understand how to write clear, vivid prose, the secret to underhanded obfuscation is at your fingertips. Just do the opposite of that clarifying stuff.

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Here are a few grammar concepts for all you devious purveyors of murky message:

Upside-down subordination

“Although the senator murdered his aide, his voting record on infrastructure was nothing short of stellar.”

This sentence uses a grammar dynamic called upside down subordination to downplay some rather shocking information by highlighting info of a very different kind.

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Subordination, which is used in good faith all the time, takes a subordinating conjunction like “though,” “since,” “because, “while,” “when” or “after” and uses it to make one clause subordinate to another — not just in emphasis but in the grammar itself.

Take a complete sentence like “Rob likes cheese,” slap a subordinating conjunction on front, “Because Rob likes cheese,” and you no longer have a complete sentence. You have a subordinate clause that has to piggyback off a main clause to be part of a complete sentence: “Because Rob likes cheese, he has high cholesterol.”

The main clause, “he has high cholesterol,” is the main attraction, downplaying the subordinated stuff. Remember this trick for making one fact upstage another anytime you need to mention a homicidal senator’s crimes but want readers to understand they’re not a big deal.

Nonspecific nouns and verbs

If our senator disposed of his victim in a gruesome way, but you don’t want readers to think ill of him, use the most vague nouns and verbs at your disposal.

Instead of saying, “Sen. McStabby crammed the severed arms and legs into a wood chipper,” you can just say, “The man disposed of the items utilizing machinery.”

Nominalizations

Here’s another way to suck the life out of a lively or engaging verb: Make it a noun. “Jolene dashed out the door” can become “Jolene engaged in the dashing out the door.”

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You can almost feel the stillness of the air around her. These are called nominalizations, when you put an action that could have been in verb form into a noun form, and they’re beloved by obfuscating writers everywhere.

Instead of saying you walked, a verb, say you took part in the walking, a gerund, which is a type of noun.

It works the same way with adjectives. Instead of saying the house is beautiful, an adjective, say the house has beauty, a noun.

Business writers are especially wicked users of nominalizations. Just the other day I saw, “We will be a conduit for collaboration” where a simple “We will collaborate” could have roused the reader from sleep.

Passive voice

You knew this one was coming, right? Passive voice lets you gloss over the doer of an action or omit him or her entirely.

Compare: “The senator murdered his aide,” which is active voice, to “The aide was murdered by the senator,” which is passive voice.

The active form follows a simple subject-performs-verb formula. The passive turns that upside down. The doer of the action, the senator, is no longer the subject of the sentence. The grammatical subject is the recipient of the action, the aide.

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That’s less direct and thus less clear. Sometimes, passive voice lets you omit the doer of the action entirely, which comes in great handy when you’re determined to cover up for a certain senator: “The aide was murdered.”

End of sentence. Your reader will never know whodunit.

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