What was E-Prime?

After college, I was working at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I was an art major, I soon found myself writing instructional copy. Before long, I was an official copywriter. The year was 1992, and “E-Prime” was the talk of business writing journals and articles everywhere. “E-Prime” advocated using active voice and eschewing the verb “to be” in most instances, including the preceding four sentences, which would instead read:

After college, I took a job at a Richmond, Virginia, firm developing educational and training software. Although I majored in art, I volunteered to write instructional copy. Before long, I added “copywriter” to my job description. In 1992, articles about business writing touted something called “E-Prime…”

Linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., proposed E-Prime as a way to eliminate passive voice and other lazy writing habits. As I mentioned, E-Prime forbids using the verb “to be” in all but the existential sense, and thus makes it impossible to use passive voice. 

Alas, E-Prime was only a fad in the annals of business writing. Now it is mostly an academic exercise (which is why I’m using the “to be” verb again). But its brief appearance on the scene called attention to a problem: writers don’t think when they write. More than anyone, I understand the demands of deadline. I also understand sometimes one must use passive voice when defining the doer is difficult or impossible. (“Too many buildings in our neighborhood are neglected.”) But thinking is neither difficult nor time-consuming. In fact, if you write for business, it’s what someone pays you for.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker that claims “well-behaved women rarely make history.” If Lexicide sold bumper stickers, one might read “well-behaved writers rarely make sense.” It’s time to misbehave and not accept trendy words. What’s more, it’s time to put some thought back into memos, white papers and proposals. Having E-Prime in mind when you write forces you to think about nouns and verbs. I don’t advocate it as a way of life, but you might find it takes your brain off auto-pilot, and makes writing not only mischievous, but fun again.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Confuse, obscure, evade

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

(This essay appeared in the Blue Ridge Business Journal, March 23, 2009)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

It is advisable to limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
Technologies can be leveraged to effect the necessary changes.
We are very excited for this one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Nothing, right? Now try these:

Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes.
We can use available technologies to make the changes your company needs.
The opportunity to work together fills us with excitement.

When you read the two sets of sentences above, there is no question the second set represents clearer, more forceful writing. Why, then, are we far more likely to see sentences from the first set?

When I started writing copy for an instructional software company in 1992, business writing seminars and journals were working to stem the tide of “corporate-ese.” Experts begged us to avoid jargon, obfuscating phrases and passive voice. They touted “e-prime,” a linguistic style that eschewed most forms of the verb “to be,” forcing writers to use active voice and evocative verbs. Even the SEC got into the act. Then-chairman Arthur Levitt demanded corporate and mutual fund prospectuses use “plain English.” What has happened since then? Why does one “engage in issues-based solutions” instead of “solve problems?”

David Silverman, a business writing professor and contributor to harvardbusiness.org, blames “an education system that rewards length over clarity.” Since teachers look for certain key points in essays and papers, students carpet-bomb them with verbiage, hoping they hit the magic words by sheer volume. This habit carries over into the working world, where, according to Silverman, it’s “better to make every possible point, use three words where one will do, and even be redundant, than leave out something that might win the boss over.”

Still others blame the rise of electronic communication. Tom Clark, a business professor at Xavier University, sees a new generation of professionals fixated on speed instead of quality. “Young people are wrapped up in the speed with which they communicate rather than seeing writing as a reflection of their best selves,” he said in a December 5, 2006, Associated Press story. In the same story, another business writing expert shares a different thought on the cause of poor business writing: laziness.

As a writing professional entering his thirteenth year of reading (and occasionally penning) appalling prose, I have my own thoughts on why people, including myself, resort to inelegant, roundabout or redundant phrases, or use words incorrectly. Before I lay them out for everyone to read, though, here’s a disclaimer:

Any reference, implied or explicit, to any client, associate or employer, past or present, living or dead, is unintentional. All examples are for entertainment purposes only. Tumble dry on lowest setting. Cool iron if needed.

• The writer is terrified of offending someone.

“Please limit breaks to fifteen minutes” commands. It implies a hierarchy, where the writer is superior to the audience. In our age of “teamwork” and “buy-in,” this cannot be permitted (or rather, “it is not advisable”). How, then, does one say what’s needed without sounding too imperious, admonishing or skeptical? Simple — make it sound like someone else — some mysterious otherness — is doing the writing. The Associated Press article quotes a touchstone of achievement in this department:

“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”

Translation: “Hi. I’m the training manager, and I’m here to whip you incompetents into shape.” You almost feel sorry for this person, being forced into this job and all it requires. He craftily avoids all verbs in favor of nouns — he doesn’t sustain, he ensures sustainment. And best of all, he litters this short missive with meaningless buzzwords.

• The writer is terrified because he doesn’t know what he is saying.

I’ve written for the tech industry and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what “best practices” means. I’m fairly certain it means different things to different people. What I have learned is that if you pepper your writing with these catchphrases, you can disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s like saying “d’accord” every five minutes in Paris. It doesn’t mean you know French, but you sure sound like a Parisian. Likewise, calling attention to “management solutions” instead of plain old “management” seems to indicate you’ve read your Fast Company.

But here’s the thing — corporate catchphrases are like the emperor’s new clothes. I’m convinced no one really knows what they mean, and those that do are too afraid to speak up. How many times has a manager asked for a post-mortem after a project kick-off, or requested a quick perusal of a document, or (my favorite) concise verbiage? Each of these phrases contains a gross contradiction. Not only do we not question these usages, we propagate them, maybe because re-using them might, as Silverman surmised, “win the boss over.”

• The writer is terrified of being understood.

Another benefit of using buzzwords is the ability to disown them. If you “meet expense management goals,” a manager can’t accuse you of cutting her budget. If you “optimize resource allocation,” you’re really not taking away the department copier. Not only do you avoid offending people, you avoid communicating. And that seems to be the new goal of business writing.

In his inaugural address, President Obama called for “a new era of responsibility.” Perhaps it’s time for managers and writers to take this to heart. Stand up and be understood. Be direct and be effusive. Use active voice. Let everyone know you’re doing your job with gusto, and let your fair and pleasant demeanor inoculate you from your audience taking offense.

Or not. But at least keep a dictionary at your desk.

— Otto E. Mezzo

Postmortem (spotted on FoxNews.com)

Who Were Madoff’s REAL Partners In Crime?

March 13th, 2009 9:06 PM Eastern
Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin. Would you like to know who were his real accomplices in this affair? It’s a gang that goes by the nickname, the “Securities and Exchange Commission” and it brazenly operates right out in the open in Washington, D.C. And the nature of their fraud? Why, they con the investing public into believing that they’re “protected” against guys like Bernie Madoff! (read the rest here)

See Postmortem.


POSTMORTEM (or POST-MORTEM): “an examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death” — New Oxford American Dictionary

Aside from the lexicide of verbiage, no other meaning drift is as disturbing as this one. You don’t have to be a first-year Latin student to recognize the irony. As every fan of detective novels and “CSI” knows, postmortem means “after death.” At the risk of sounding didactic, let me repeat that: “after death.” Not “after the fact.”

So, corporate manager, you simply cannot call a postmortem meeting to discuss a project kickoff. You just can’t. Postmortem documentation is for coroners, not strategic consultants. I’ll say it again: postmortem means “after death.” If necessary, I’ll post an entry defining death.

And that is why this lexicide is so ironic and disquieting. It’s not just that college-educated business folk everywhere are witlessly wishing for their enterprises’ demise. (Will we soon start eviscerating our strategies instead of analyzing or dissecting them?) Merriam-Webster, Random House and AHD4 have all given in to popular misuse by adding entries acknowledging that yes, postmortem means “after the fact” or “an analysis after the event.” In other words, this entry is a postmortem for postmortem. To which I say, “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him after the fact.”

My suggestion? The next time someone calls a postmortem for a live project, show up with scrubs and a bone saw. If you get funny looks, the correct response is, “what?”

— Otto E. Mezzo

In case anyone cares, to say “after the fact” pretentiously yet properly, try post hoc or post facto. Or you could just say what people used to say: wrap-up, summary or (here’s a gem) after the fact.

SIGHTING | March 13, 2009

The lead-in: “Now that Madoff is starting what will eventually become a long stay in the clink, let the post-mortems begin.” Harsh, man. I’m sorry I missed the drawing and quartering. Did they let Steven Spielberg and Kevin Bacon whip the horses?