The Elements of Bureaucratic Style
April 16, 2017 6:43 AM   Subscribe

The bureaucratic voice presents governments and corporations as placid, apologetic, and unmovable. It also makes their victims as active as possible.

If the supposedly objective journalists we rely on to report facts are so hopelessly smitten by the language of violence, what hope do the rest of us have?

After all, the purpose of the bureaucratic voice is less to shape our thoughts or how we see the external world, but to reward incuriosity. The citizen who reads of an “officer-involved shooting” is invited to not think too hard about things and fill in whatever preconceived notions they may already hold about law enforcement, the use of violence, and the prevalence of criminality among racial minorities or those with mental health issues. United [Airlines’] use of language in its email to employees does not itself shape our perception; rather it offers soothing pabulum to those whose minds are already made up, or who are predisposed to support bureaucracy and its use of force. Watching the cell phone videos of the assault has, for most people, the immediate effect of provoking outrage and awakening a desire for justice. The purpose of bureaucratic speech is to dull these responses. It suggests your outrage is not worth it, that it’s fine to go back to what you were doing, that it’s best to move along and mind your own business.

After all, bureaucracy whispers in your ear, the guy probably had it coming.
posted by cynical pinnacle (56 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
 
The system wants to preserve the system.
It really is that simple.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:08 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]


Another purpose of bureaucratic language is to muddle and confuse. Hence Sir Humphrey Applebee saying things like "The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination. "
posted by DreamerFi at 7:09 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]


"Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say 'The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognised by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,' you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the grey matter inside your skull. But if you begin 'I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,' you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word 'damn' than in the word 'degeneration.'”
--G.K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Orthodoxy”
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:24 AM on April 16 [56 favorites]


He links to the McSweeney's Article on Exonerative Case, which has been discussed here before we have discussed here before. It remains the gold standard on explaining this phenomenon.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:38 AM on April 16 [52 favorites]


Somehow an incorrect thread was involved in a reply-based incident.
posted by Samizdata at 8:30 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]


" To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. " - George Orwell.
posted by birdhaus at 9:07 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]


Both this article and the one linked above by jacquilynne are excellent.

However, it's not completely obvious to me that this style inherently stems from the nature of bureaucracy itself. For example, we currently have bureaucracies (the EPA, NPS, NOAA, etc) that are prohibited from issuing clear statements on climate change by the populist overlords in charge. Perhaps the deliberate obfuscation and redirection of language (and legitimization thereof) is more directly linked to ruling-class ideology (which may frequently align with bureaucracy).
posted by splitpeasoup at 9:13 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]


Is this style explicitly taught? Or is it something that just sort of culturally happens? I find myself accidentally using passive voice all the time when trying to avoid responsibility for something (sic), it seems pretty ingrained. But then this sort of language seems to be a modern problem.

It's astonishing to read early-mid 1900s prose that's written in a direct, simple style. Orwell and Hemingway, for example. So clear, so simple, nothing much is lost but the paragraphs are half the length of typical prose.
posted by Nelson at 9:22 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


It's definitely a top-down phenomenon. People in business learn to write this way from bosses who have learned the dangers of saying anything too directly and thus risking the unpredictable wrath of someone's ego. Innocuous-seeming direct statements can be perceived as criticisms by higher-ups, or as risks by lawyers, and so you learn to be circumspect by getting yelled at when you aren't.
posted by emjaybee at 9:44 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]


A bookstore owner I once worked for referred to "the bureaucratic passive exonerative" voice.
posted by doctornemo at 9:45 AM on April 16 [19 favorites]


Police Constable Danny Butterman: "Hey, why can't we say 'accident', again?"
Sergeant Nicholas Angel: "Because 'accident' implies there's nobody to blame."
posted by FJT at 9:49 AM on April 16 [8 favorites]


*immovable
posted by clockzero at 9:52 AM on April 16


It's a little irritating how badly Dickey takes being corrected about the 'passive voice.' He is completely wrong in his initial tweets about what is and is not a passive construction in those emails, and he doesn't seem to realize it or back down gracefully. It really colors how I read this piece -- if Dickey can't recognize the passive voice, why am I supposed to trust his opinion about language and style more generally?
posted by crazy with stars at 9:55 AM on April 16 [12 favorites]


Using passive voice in its colloquial sense is always always always going to muddy your argument. Everyone knows what you mean when you do, but the term has a pretty specific meaning, and that's going to throw people off. Passive voice in the technical sense is perfectly useful and often makes your point more clear, not less so. A Venn diagram showing instances of the two types of passive voice would have a pretty small overlap. Bureaucratic voice or something is a much better choice, if only to head off the fussing. (And I am a fusser. I just try to fuss internally.)

Anyway, I have this vague memory from college, I think, that there was a concise term for the stage of growth in which an institution starts being perceived as an independent entity with its own agency, rather than the product of human decisions. Where rules become seen as a force of nature, and as something that people have to adapt to instead of the other way around.

And beyond the immediate effect of allowing responsible people to avoid their culpability, that sort of thing has become so common that I honestly think people sometimes start perceiving anything complex or nuanced as bullshit. We've gotten so used to seeing complex explanations and constructions to describe simple things that actual complexities start looking like obfuscation somehow. People gloss over qualifiers and exceptions almost out of force of habit, and try to tangle some simplistic scenario out of things that aren't simple at all.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:00 AM on April 16 [24 favorites]


...people sometimes start perceiving anything complex or nuanced as bullshit.

This may be the crux of the entire essay. The example "officer involved shooting" seems to me to be a legitimate phrase, assuming the reporter doesn't know who shot whom, or maybe if the essay is, in general, about shootings that involve police officers.

But this definitely is not the topic of Colin Dickey's essay. Doublespeak's intent is to discourage critical thinking, to encourage the listeners themselves to provide whatever inference suits them. It also offers a back door through which a speaker can escape when later confronted. Dickey objects to the pig, not the shade of lipstick that's being applied. Good on him for noticing.
posted by mule98J at 10:27 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]


The example "officer involved shooting" seems to me to be a legitimate phrase, assuming the reporter doesn't know who shot whom, or maybe if the essay is, in general, about shootings that involve police officers.

I think that's the whole point of the essay - the exonerative passive is only used when the officer does the shooting, so as to absolve the police from agency. When an officer is injured, they will say "the officer was shot in the line of duty" or "a suspect shot the officer." They will usually also include name, rank, length of service, and official photograph to humanize the officer as victim.

The reporter knows quite well who shot whom.
posted by metaseeker at 10:43 AM on April 16 [21 favorites]


If the supposedly objective journalists we rely on to report facts are so hopelessly smitten by the language of violence, what hope do the rest of us have?

A journalist performs "objectivity" using rhetorical tools and procedural rituals very similar to the bureaucratic voice described so well here.

It's troubling, but not new.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:47 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


The Police Foundation helpfully disambiguates:

The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP’s) Model Policy covering officer involved shootings defines officer involved shootings as “A discharge of a service weapon by an officer during a hostile encounter or an accidental discharge, while on-duty or off-duty, irrespective of injuries to suspects, officers, or third parties.”

This also suggests that someone intentionally invented and promulgated the use of this terminology.
posted by metaseeker at 10:56 AM on April 16 [13 favorites]


I don't think it's really about writing style, it's about whether the facts of a matter have or have not been established. It may be right to criticise people for being non-committal and refusing to acknowledge the truth, but that doesn't mean non-committal language ought not to be available or should be regarded as a stylistic flaw in itself. Sometimes it's appropriate or even necessary where caution about the facts is needed.
posted by Segundus at 10:56 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Non-committal implies to me an absence of caring about the subject. Using the example of a shooting, saying, "A suspect has been shot; we don't know the details yet." is factual and to the point. Masking uncertainty with language like "an officer involved shooting" provides significantly less information and certainly implies that more might be known, but no one is saying.
posted by Ickster at 11:13 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]


Or, 'Police Activity'. It doesn't exist by itself, they're there for a reason. Tell me the reason.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:25 AM on April 16


The system wants to preserve the system.
It really is that simple.


Language aside, this is arguably at least as much of a feature as a bug. If one of the roles of a government is to provide some measure of stability to its citizens, then a bureaucracy that resists rapid change can help ensure that a government is fulfilling (at least some part of) its role.

Of course, this can be used for good or evil, and all too often these days it is the latter. Rather than helping provide social stability in the sense of "ensure domestic tranquility," contemporary bureaucracy--especially in the US--appears to see its role as preserving the privilege of the few at the expense of the many.
posted by dersins at 11:36 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]


I enjoy articles like this because they say - "Hey, here is a thing to look out for if you haven't noticed it, or if you noticed it but couldn't put words to it. Now that you know how to look for it, you can see for yourself that it's happening out there."

I don't think they are necessarily saying "Don't nobody ever do this, it's bad and only bad people do it."

In other words, it's not necessarily prescriptive or proscriptive, just descriptive.
posted by metaseeker at 11:42 AM on April 16 [10 favorites]


> It may be right to criticise people for being non-committal and refusing to acknowledge the truth, but that doesn't mean non-committal language ought not to be available or should be regarded as a stylistic flaw in itself.

#NotAllRhetoric!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:10 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


"It's a little irritating how badly Dickey takes being corrected about the 'passive voice.' He is completely wrong in his initial tweets about what is and is not a passive construction in those emails, and he doesn't seem to realize it or back down gracefully. It really colors how I read this piece -- if Dickey can't recognize the passive voice, why am I supposed to trust his opinion about language and style more generally?"

You oughtn't, insofar as he is leveraging any claim of authority and expertise when he uses technical terminology. That's my generalized standard for rhetoric and technical language -- technical language is a register which signals authority, and therefore when one speaks or writes in that register, one should meet, and be expected to meet, that standard. If you don't, you've badly damaged your credibility and should be called harshly to account for it.

I think it's important to be clear that this standard does not prevent informed discussion that doesn't presume a technical expertise -- we all know what he's complaining about here, this obfuscation of agency, and it's completely appropriate to discuss it even if we're not grammarians. The problem, though, is that it's extremely common for writers to criticize style and usage on the basis of what amounts to a kind of folk linguistics that pretends to be authoritative. It's pretty astonishing that a number of prominent writers have, like this person, criticized the use of "passive verbs" that are active. I mean, they specifically claim to be undertaking a grammatical analysis and they get it egregiously wrong.

I can't really think of a technical topic, as presented in the public sphere, that is as badly polluted by misinformation as is language and its usage. (I can think of some that are close.) This matters not only because it makes it difficult for an audience to evaluate the merit of an argument, but most especially because it makes it difficult for everyone to think carefully and clearly about the topic -- because the way we think about it, as informed by public discussion, is the result of this undifferentiated soup of genuine knowledge and crap. It's alarming, or should be, that so-called "grammar snobs" would write at length about passive verbs while misidentifying most of them.

As a linguistic descriptivist, but not a linguist, I find it ironic and amusing that linguists police the common usage of passive voice/verb. I, personally, don't find this supposed misuse of "passive voice" any more inherently annoying than the supposed misuse of "begging the question". Which is to say ... it annoys me mightily, but I recognize that it's irrational. So, prima facie, I don't find the common use of "passive voice" as a synonym for "obscured agency" to be objectionable. What I do object to is when a writer adopts a tone and some additional technical language such that this use of "passive voice" is apparently authoritative, when it clearly isn't (because they're misusing it, technically). And I think that this applies both more generally -- yes, obviously, about rhetoric and technical language -- but also all of rhetoric and the register of presumed authority.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:29 PM on April 16 [12 favorites]


Metafilter: soothing pabulum to those whose minds are already made up
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:09 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Non-committal implies to me an absence of caring about the subject.

You are not wrong to notice that trend, but that is a huge, horrible problem. It conflates confidence with competence, and it tends to cast nuance and reasonable doubt as dishonesty or, in your case, apathy.

This doesn't apply in the case of 'officer involved shootings,' as I've never seen a case in which the officer's involvement didn't include shooting someone. That terminology is deceptive because it only seems to be used to describe one very specific scenario, which is more accurately described by more direct language. If the media were really just being cautious, they would use that to describe situations in which someone other than a cop did the shooting; and if they were really trying to be accurate, the term would only apply to situations in which so many people were firing weapons that they honestly don't know whose weapon the offending bullet(s) came from.

A person shooting a bullet out of a gun into another person is pretty straightforward. But a lot of things are subtler and more complicated than that, and it would be inaccurate to describe them any other way. There is absolutely a place for ambiguity and speculation and the intellectual integrity to acknowledge when you're basing your interpretation on something other than solid, clear factual information. And in cases like that, it is dishonest not to. But people are primed to interpret that type of accuracy and honesty as obfuscation or waffling or lack of expertise, and the plain, overly broad, overly confident claims as honest.

I know that, often, I don't even bother discussing topics I actually know something about, simply because they're just not as simple or straightforward as people want them to be, so they either ignore any sort of qualifier or they'll focus only on that and interpret it as totally uninformed conjecture. I'm not willing to talk all blustery and pretend that I'm speaking from a position of absolute authority, so I pretty frequently get spoken over by people who know a lot less than I do whose opinions and interpretations are perceived as more honest and accurate simply because they sound confident. And I know I'm not alone in that.

And that's just shitty for everyone.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:25 PM on April 16 [12 favorites]


Language aside, this is arguably at least as much of a feature as a bug.

It's a feature when it validates my political biases; it's a bug when it doesn't.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:36 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


As a linguistic descriptivist, but not a linguist, I find it ironic and amusing that linguists police the common usage of passive voice/verb. I, personally, don't find this supposed misuse of "passive voice" any more inherently annoying than the supposed misuse of "begging the question". Which is to say ... it annoys me mightily, but I recognize that it's irrational. So, prima facie, I don't find the common use of "passive voice" as a synonym for "obscured agency" to be objectionable. What I do object to is when a writer adopts a tone and some additional technical language such that this use of "passive voice" is apparently authoritative, when it clearly isn't (because they're misusing it, technically). And I think that this applies both more generally -- yes, obviously, about rhetoric and technical language -- but also all of rhetoric and the register of presumed authority.

I've done a good deal of hindsight apologetics for my annoyance at some of these things. Let me share.

1. There are additive changes and reductive changes. An additive change adds meaning, and a reductive one eliminates it. Begging the question is an important concept, but it's one that is at risk for falling out of common understanding because people are using it as a $2 substitute for 'raising the question.'

2. I choose to think of the term passive voice like I do theory or fruit. They each have a technical definition, which is prescriptive, and a colloquial one, which is based on common understanding and usage. It's as much a mistake to correct someone for using the colloquial meaning of passive voice as it is to correct people for talking about 'conspiracy theories' and telling them that cucumbers are fruit. It doesn't matter. You're being a nerd if you care too much.

Also, the common misunderstanding of the technical term is in the danged Elements of Style, teachers teach it all the time, and it's totally understandable that people believe it. They probably learned it from a fairly authoritative source.

3. Semantics isn't grammar, anyway. You can (and really have to) be a little prescriptive about lexicon without being called a prescriptivist.

(I am not a linguist either, but I have about a halfster's degree in computational linguistics, so I feel obligated to have half-baked opinions.)
posted by ernielundquist at 1:42 PM on April 16 [7 favorites]




This is how I always taught the passive voice to my students.
posted by Peach at 2:57 PM on April 16 [11 favorites]


Begging the question is an important concept, but it's one that is at risk for falling out of common understanding because people are using it as a $2 substitute for 'raising the question.

Except that classic, 'proper' use of 'begging the question' was itself a mistake, a mistranslation, and the word 'begging' in this sense is used nowhere else in English. I can't blame people for using natural language when the technical term is bad and nonsensical.
posted by Jimbob at 3:01 PM on April 16 [6 favorites]


I am doing some consulting work with a guy who wants his organization's writing to be clear; unfortunately he has a partner who writes long spun-out threads of evasive Latinate compounds. More frustratingly, I never get to communicate with the partner directly, and for every billable hour I spend hacking down his evasive conditionals down to simple declarative prose, he will spend an hour restoring, "If you have any further questions, please contact us here and we will answer as quickly as possible" to, "Any further communication or feedback should be forwarded to this electronic mail account at which time response will be made by our expert customer service representatives in a timely fashion subject to current volume of inquiries."


The Police Foundation helpfully disambiguates:


A friend of mine from school became a cop. It was interesting to see his slow descent into Cop Talk even when off duty, and his gradual recovery so he could talk like a normal person with friends. Telling an anecdote:

Age 20: "So then I saw the guy get out of the car."

Age 30: "At that time I observed the individual exit the vehicle."

Age 40: "So then I saw the guy get out of the car."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:23 PM on April 16 [18 favorites]


I knew someone once who thought that "the exception proves the rule" meant prove as in confirm. She'd make some universal claim, then when someone gave a specific exception, she'd tell them that the exception proved the rule.

In that case, the meaning of the word prove is much less common than the more common meaning. In the case of 'beg the question,' the meaning is also much less common, plus apparently based on a mistranslation. But lots of commonly used words have origins pretty far removed from their current meanings.

Both of those terms serve a real purpose, and importantly, there's a handy and readily available way to convey the mistaken meaning of beg the question (raise the question),* so nothing's gained by coopting the term. They're the best and most concise way to describe those specific phenomena, regardless of how those terms originated.

* There is no alternate way that I know of to convey that other meaning of 'the exception proves the rule,' because that's ridiculous and not anything people ever need to say.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:41 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


Readers need to know, for example, that journalists who use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” in any context other than a direct quote from law enforcement are derelict. It is law enforcement’s prerogative to use spin and dissimulation to obtain favorable coverage; it is the media’s role to resist this. And yet, this is a role the media has almost wholeheartedly abdicated.

Thanks for posting this, OP. As a non expert, I'm happy to believe that the author gets stuff wrong. But what he gets right is worth nothing, including his observation about journalists simply parroting the bureaucratic (or administrative or corporate) line.

Also I feel for you, ricochet biscuit. I used to be the only native English-speaking writer/editor at a European nonprofit that catered to clients who spoke other languages. The organisation's official language was English, however. And every time I would turn long, confusing prose into direct, clear language a guy in a different department would re-rewrite it to be three times longer and opaque as hell.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:44 PM on April 16 [5 favorites]


Also I feel for you, ricochet biscuit. I used to be the only native English-speaking writer/editor at a European nonprofit that catered to clients who spoke other languages. The organisation's official language was English, however. And every time I would turn long, confusing prose into direct, clear language a guy in a different department would re-rewrite it to be three times longer and opaque as hell.

The odd thing is that my contact is a native French speaker (although he speaks excellent English). Both his partner and I are native English speakers, but the partner believes that Talking Fancy is the way to project professionalism. I can only imagine what he thinks of me dumbing down his soaring flights of prose.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:01 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


It occurs to me now that widespread (mis)use of a technical term like "passive voice" is really the symptom of a need -- that there is a phenomenon out there that everyone is dimly aware of and wants to talk about, but that does not have a name. This is why terms must be invented: Gaslighting. Engineer's Disease. "Bureaucratic voice". Once it has a name, you can point it out, discuss it, analyse its causes and effects. It seems that if such a thing has no name, people will simply reach for the nearest term in the same semantic ballpark. So the next time someone does this, maybe we would do well to resist the pedantic impulse to point out their error and consider whether there is something real they are trying to point to but don't have the words to do it.
posted by a car full of lions at 4:42 PM on April 16 [11 favorites]


As a non/prescriptivist linguist I still won't concede "passive voice" has a non-specific meaning. It names a very precise grammatical construction about which there is very little possibility of interpretive disagreement, if I may. We wouldn't let colloquial usage redefine say, the present tense to describe actions happening in the past.
posted by spitbull at 5:15 PM on April 16 [9 favorites]


I don't even view the problems of passive construction as a linguistic issue... It's more appropriate to the disciplines of rhetoric and communications. That bureaucratese, i.e., cover-your-ass performative behavior, is sophistry, is an idea with lots of important history/connections: I don't know, maybe Kafka is a good representative, but then how many people outside of relatively privileged education would be exposed to that?
posted by polymodus at 5:50 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


It seems that if such a thing has no name, people will simply reach for the nearest term in the same semantic ballpark.

With the passive voice, they aren't just grasping around for a term and hitting on that. They were probably taught it wrong in the first place. (Oh, ummm, I guess it's The Elements of Style's birthday today.)

It'd be better if people used a different term such as bureaucratic style to describe it, but you can't just deny that there is an established colloquial meaning that is different from the technical term. There just is. That's a fact.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:07 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


They get it wrong even if they were taught it right, trust me. Teachers have very little power over the instructive force of popular usage.
posted by Peach at 6:35 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Clearly, the author needs to go back and read Gogol. This has almost nothing to do with grammar and everything to do with the bureaucracy's chief aim of self-preservation.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:41 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


You are not wrong to notice that trend, but that is a huge, horrible problem. It conflates confidence with competence, and it tends to cast nuance and reasonable doubt as dishonesty or, in your case, apathy.

Well, I'm using "non-committal" in the colloquial rather than the technical. I think what you're getting at is that the statement, "An officer shot a suspect. That's all the information we'll release until we have a full report." is non-committal in the sense that there is no opinion or information given as to whether it was a justified shooting or not, and I agree, and have no problem with it. I was really trying to disagree with the characterization of "officer involved shooting" as a nothing more than a simple non-committal statement--it's clearly a linguistic device to re-characterize the event as some sort of act-of-god rather than a concrete action.
posted by Ickster at 6:43 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP’s) Model Policy covering officer involved shootings defines officer involved shootings as “A discharge of a service weapon by an officer during a hostile encounter or an accidental discharge, while on-duty or off-duty, irrespective of injuries to suspects, officers, or third parties

Combining officers shooting people and accidental weapon discharge into one category is clever and horrifying. It's like, have I had sex before? Well I have been in several genitalia-involved incidents if that answers your question.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:33 PM on April 16 [4 favorites]


I wonder — pure speculation from an outsider— if "officer-involved shooting" arose from beurocratic oversight of officers' weapons. I see the trope a lot on cop shows that it's a big deal when officers discharge their weapon no matter the circumstance. I could see how — if that is actually the case — new language could develop naturally to cover this class of activity. Then, of course, the nearby language is operationalized for a need: the exoneration and obfuscation of police and their agency.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:40 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


As a linguistic descriptivist, but not a linguist, I find it ironic and amusing that linguists police the common usage of passive voice/verb. I, personally, don't find this supposed misuse of "passive voice" any more inherently annoying than the supposed misuse of "begging the question".

I mean, descriptivism, as a principle, isn't really a big deal. It's just in the nature of modern scientific inquiry not to make unwarranted and unconsidered claims about how things ought to be. The reason linguists make a fuss about it is that some people with a certain amount of social power feel free to make those kinds of claims, and linguists are in a good position to see exactly 1) how this is bullshit and also 2) how it confuses people who are trying to understand and use language in various settings that might already be uncomfortable for them and oppresses people who don't have the power to tell other people how to use language, especially not written language.

So when the kind of people who do get to tell other people how to use language say "It is wrong to use the passive voice" (and does anyone misuse the term in any other context?) even though they really mean "I feel like it's bad to use this random assortment of grammatical constructions that may or may not obscure who did what to whom in a given situation but which definitely stood out to me for my own idiosyncratic reasons, at least on this particular occasion, and also I have probably painstakingly cultivated a completely irrational aversion to the verb 'to be'" -- well, who wouldn't hate that shit, having devoted their life to the scientific study of language?

The thing with "begging the question", which involves a dwindling crew of pedants attempting to harass the general public into restricting their usage of an appealing cliche to that of an obscure (and kind of unnecessary) term of art instead of in the perfectly literal and absolutely consistent way they overwhelmingly prefer, is like the exact opposite situation.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 11:15 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


"Car left the road." "Train left the tracks."

But never "plane left the sky."
"Boat left the surface of the ocean."
posted by Graygorey at 11:50 PM on April 16


Speaking as somebody who works in government - albeit a local one - I think it's important to consider that the idea of there being a stylebook, or even the idea of implementing some standardization of communication, would be some distance down on the list of priorities. We don't have the resources. I don't have a proofreader, and County Counsel is somehow too busy to proof all of my correspondence. So it's up to me.

I don't want to get sued for the things I tell you. Don't get me wrong, I really want to help you! I'm an advocate who will let you know of any advantages you had available to you. However, this article, by examining syntax, voice, and style, doesn't make me any more likely to want to respond to *anything,* for fear it would put me in danger of a lawsuit.

Pedants are a thing.
posted by Graygorey at 12:23 AM on April 17


On the flip side, consider that bureaucrats often have to deal with domains of discourse narrower than the public and may require some degree of nuance. There are officer-involved shootings, and as a subset consider officer-involved offensive shootings, and as a subset of that unjustified officer-involved offensive shootings. It's not enough just to know the latter number; we'd like to know the quotient over the first number, among other things.

If the language seems inelegant, consider that developing new terms of art within a mostly-closed analytical team can be both ad-hoc and evolutionary, rather than being born systematic out of the head of Zeus. Moreover, the medical jargon method of redescribing everything as a semi-systematized mishmash of Greek and Latin roots isn't considered an improvement by any stretch.

Not that the small distinctions and gradations of meaning and the inelegant ways of describing them can't be used for unjustified implications, esp. by unsavory political characters.
posted by adoarns at 12:47 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]


While there certainly are many occasions when word choice and sentence construction is used to obfuscate situations and deserves to be called out for that, I'm really not keen on Dickey's use of Munoz's internal letter to United employees as an example of poor usage of "Bureaucratic voice".

It seems to me to be a time where such a construct is not only acceptable, but actually beneficial as the entirety of the letter is Munoz relating the events to United employees in a way that emphasizes United standing behind their employees, and effectively accepting the incident as a United problem rather than one of individual action of any employee involved in the chain of events. That's a good thing, especially in a situation of public outrage. How would things be improved by naming individual actors or even just pointing to an unnamed employee in a specific position? That would be an attempt to shift blame from the company.

In addition to the complaints over non-specificity, complaint over the relating of events too strikes me as misguided in this instance as it is an attempt to reconstruct those events as they happened, not from an end assumption backwards. This is a necessary construct to try to explain actions as they occurred rather than with end knowledge in mind that those involved couldn't possibly possess. It also, of course, is a non-elaborative telling, where only the basic outline of events are examined which is necessary when all the details aren't yet known, which Munoz says is the case at the start of the letter, and avoids unnecessary legal complications which can occur through making assumptions, attributing motivations, or in providing potentially complicating and unnecessary information of any sort prior to further investigation and legal need. It's something that isn't limited to bureaucracies, and is good practice for anyone caught up in a potential legal challenge.

The letter wasn't intended for the public, so apologies to Mr Dao would be out of place in this context, and was addressed later by the company. With all this there is also some important considerations of the events not necessarily being simply complete right and complete wrong, but a mix. That Mr. Dao suffered physical abuse is one element that needs addressing, the accepted practice of allowing flight crews to bump customers another, and Mr Dao refusing orders from a flight crew and officers a third. Each is connected in the course of these events of course, but how they are or should be addressed viewed legally or ethically may not be of a piece in the same way. The end result here shouldn't entirely obscure all the individual issues involved. I don't mention that to argue the events, as I have no interest in doing so since, at this point it is a legal issue regarding Mr Dao's treatment, and a matter of national debate over laws around flight more generally. I only mention it to suggest the multifaceted set of issues lends an added need for consideration in addressing the events in print. Which I suspect is as true for Mr Dao's legal team as it is for United, as each side in these kinds of events usually has their own story to tell and spin to things.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:47 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


The odd thing is that my contact is a native French speaker (although he speaks excellent English). Both his partner and I are native English speakers, but the partner believes that Talking Fancy is the way to project professionalism. I can only imagine what he thinks of me dumbing down his soaring flights of prose.

Business French is really formal, or at least it was in the 90s when I was taking it:

Yours sincerely,
Warriorqueen

Became:

Je vous prie d'accepter mes sentiments les plus agréables,
Warriorqueen

- and that was the short version.

In short the French may well be even better at bureaucratic tense.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:59 AM on April 17


As far as "begging the question" goes, Mark Liberman's advice settles it for me:
OK, those of you who are still with me, what should we do? Should we join the herd and use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question"? Or should we join the few, proud hold-outs who still use it in the old "assume the conclusion" sense, while complaining about the ignorant rabble who etc.?

In my opinion, those are both bad choices. If you use the phrase to mean "raise the question", some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others' "misuse", you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean "assume the conclusion", almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use "assume the conclusion" or "raise the question", depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.
posted by a car full of lions at 6:06 AM on April 17 [18 favorites]


But never "plane left the sky."

The original article has had me thinking about NTSB accident reports for airplane crash causes. They are a masterwork of bureaucratic language. When you read enough of them the homogeneous style comes shining through clearly. But it's the opposite of an exonerative style, the purpose of the language is always to establish fault. For instance this fatal crash in Palo Alto, 2011
The pilot departed the airport in near-zero visibility instrument meteorological conditions, and shortly after takeoff, struck a power pole and power lines before impacting terrain. ... The controller responded that he could not clear the pilot for takeoff, due to not having the runway environment in sight and that "the release is all yours and it's at your own risk sir." The pilot acknowledged the transmission and proceeded to take off. ... Accident site evidence was indicative of a level impact with a power pole about 50 feet above ground level (agl) and at a high airspeed. ... The interpolated flightpath indicated an approximate 45-degree left turn shortly after departure to the area of initial impact with the power pole and power lines.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The pilot’s failure follow the standard instrument departure as instructed, and his failure to attain a sufficient altitude to maintain clearance from power lines during takeoff in instrument meteorological conditions.
It's so direct and factual.

These reports almost always find the pilot at fault. Even if the engine failed and also one wing fell off the plane, the final cause won't be "the plane fell apart". It will be "pilot failed to control the aircraft and flew it into the ground". Because aviation has a very strong sense of personal responsibility; the safety of the flight is the sole responsibility of the pilot. It's remarkable to see a whole bureaucracy centered around that belief.
posted by Nelson at 7:55 AM on April 17 [4 favorites]


Yeah it's almost as if there were multi-billion-dollar corporations with something at stake in finding a way to blame the operator instead of the equipment or the system.
posted by dersins at 9:23 PM on April 17


"If you have any further questions, please contact us here and we will answer as quickly as possible" to, "Any further communication or feedback should be forwarded to this electronic mail account at which time response will be made by our expert customer service representatives in a timely fashion subject to current volume of inquiries."

My boss does this. I've told people that his native language is Business Hype, and it's my job to translate his writings into English.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:22 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


Yeah it's almost as if there were multi-billion-dollar corporations with something at stake in finding a way to blame the operator instead of the equipment or the system.

It's more like unwillingness to allow anything to come down to "well, sometimes shit just happens". If there was a crash, it happened as the result of a chain of influences, choices, and actions. By rigorously investigating all crashes and working to nail down what all the causes were, the NTSB tries to avoid having the same kind of problem happen again. They also never, as far as I know, come down to "people should have just tried harder". It's much more a systems analysis orientation: how can we change the process so this doesn't occur?
posted by Lexica at 11:12 AM on April 18 [2 favorites]


« Older Tea comes out of a teapot   |   Not pictured: pointless shaking of developing... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments