Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Too many ands?

The New Arthurian alerted me to a recent controversy involving the word and. When Paul Romer of the World Bank criticized the Bank staff’s writing and called for shorter, clearer documents, he pointed specifically to excessive use of and and insisted that the word account for not more than 2.6% of a Bank report. In a highly critical 2015 analysis of “Bankspeak,” Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre cite that percentage as the average frequency of and in academic writing.

One passage from a World Bank report that has come in for attention, by way of Moretti and Pestre’s analysis:

promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatise state-owned enterprises and labour market/social protection reform
Is and really the problem? Moretti has said that “a few fewer ands” won’t fix the Bank’s writing problems. Romer has acknowledged that his emphasis on the conjunction is “a gimmick,” a way to call attention to matters of writing. Mark Liberman has listed literary works with more than 2.6% and. In first place: the King James Version of Genesis, with 9.55% and. As I began to think about and, Sammy Cahn’s lyrics for “Love and Marriage” popped into my head. Cahn beats Genesis: his 100-word lyric is 10% and. “Love and marriage, love and marriage, / Go together like a horse and carriage”: there’s a sentence that’s 23% and.

The real problem with the passage of Bank writing is not the ands but the words in between, piled up with an utter lack of clarity. Look again:
promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatise state-owned enterprises and labour market/social protection reform
Does policies apply to both governance and competition, or to competition alone? Is the first reform a noun that pairs with policies, or a verb that pairs with privatise? And if reform is a verb, what sense is there in reforming enterprises that are to be privatized? And how might “labour market/social protection reform” be privatized? Wouldn’t privatizing reform amount to permitting private enterprise to do whatever it pleases?

And here I’m reminded of George Orwell’s observation in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) that one need not take on the responsibility of thinking when composing sentences:
You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connexion between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Or economic policy and the debasement of language.

Paul Romer fought a good fight, but the enemy is much bigger than and. Yes, fought. As Bloomberg reported in late May:
The World Bank’s chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of and.
Two Paul Romer websites
Notes for Bank insiders : Paul Romer

[“Love and Marriage,” music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn. I skipped the repeats when counting ands.]

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