Despite what you may have read, words matter

Words do matter — and contrary to what you may hear from the halls of academia, government and corporations, less can be more.

I write this after recently encountering two of my least favorite words — visitation and signage.

Did you know wilderness visitation is up? I wasn’t aware of that, although I did know that wilderness visits were up. I also did notice that there are more signs on some local trails, but totally missed the increase in signage.

Why use one syllable (signs) when you could use two, or two syllables (visits) when you could use four? Maybe it makes you feel more important, more educated?

Or maybe it’s just the way your brain is wired. Technicians can probably be forgiven for their left-brain way of expressing themselves, evidenced in the excerpt I came across describing an exchange between a congressman and a technician during an inquiry into the Challenger explosion:

Congressman: You wrote in your report that at that time the microphone picked up “an audible high frequency oscillation?”

Technician: That’s correct.

Congressman: So, you mean you heard it whistle?

Technician: Uh, yes sir.

Congressman: You can just say “it whistled.”

It’s saying something that the jargon correction came from a member of Congress, a body not known for being concise. Our own congressman, Rep. Greg Walden, recently touted the passage in the House of his otherwise laudable legislation, titled “the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act.” Catchy.

The federal government is at least trying to keep it simple. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal executive agencies to ”Use plain writing in every covered document that the agency issues or substantially revises.”

That act came in part from the efforts of the Center for Plain Language, which was founded for the purpose of getting the federal government to write in a way that readers could actually understand. It’s a work in progress.

Although I viewed the result with some suspicion, it was encouraging to see that the federal Department of Education received A’s and B’s in the grading from the center. Educators, after all, have rightly earned a reputation for using big words or unnecessarily opaque phrases in their writing.

The University of Florida noticed this and warned its professors to be wary of the failing in publishing scientific manuscripts. “Bureaucratese is an extreme form of English,” the university advised in a posting, “in which the objective is to make the pronouncements of the speaker or writer sound important by the deliberate choice of big words, bloated expressions, and “buzzwords” ... . Regrettably, it is the normal speech and writing of university administrators, and this influences all who listen to them.”

The good authors of the above statement went on to list a number of objectionable phrases, but cut the list short with the note, “There are legions of other examples of bureaucratese. They will not be listed here because you might notice them and use them in scientific writing.”

I think I just became a Gator fan.

Journalists are hardly exempt from ambling through the briar patch of obfuscation. See, I just did it.

There are little offenses on a regular basis in this paper and others (and don’t even get me started on TV station websites, where the words have to be written instead of just spoken). Here are a few of those minor crimes: “take a look” instead of “look,” “conduct an investigation” instead of “investigate,” “make a motion” instead of “move” ... the list, unfortunately, goes on at length.

Journalists regularly deal with bureaucracies and too often end up writing like them. A Poynter Institute column noted that in doing so, we unwittingly support their tendency toward the opaque.

How often have you seen or heard the phrase “officer-involved shooting”? Poynter describes as “a perfect example of the bureaucratic voice.”

Author Carl Dickey notes in the column: “It invariably is paired with an active verb (‘an officer-involved shooting occurred’) and yet the entire purpose of the construction is to imbue the scene with passivity. Police did not kill anyone; a shooting just occurred and it happened to involve officers.”

We err when we mangle the language. The error is magnified when we parrot the fogged-over words of those in power.

Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at

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