Monday, March 24, 2008

Heated words over words

The committee was wrestling with a rigorous challenge: whether the document under discussion should use the word "rigorous" or "challenging." After some debate, we moved on to the next major issue: "appropriate," "actively engaged" or "productive"? I've already forgotten what the context was but it was important enough to inspire heated debate amongst seven overworked professors.

This is why committee-inspired prose comes out sounding so awful: clarity, simplicity, elegance, even common sense all fall by the wayside in favor of the phrase that pleases the most people. I confess that I was once a party to the production of what may well be the worst example of committee prose ever perpetrated, a policy statement that begins thus: "A perceived and sometimes real conflict of interest can occur...."

When a committee starts mincing words about the appropriate (or rigorous or challenging) adjective, I experience a perceived and probably real conflict between my interest in serving the college and my desire to write effective prose and I develop a sudden overwhelming urge to become actively disengaged from the writing process. But fortunately, all committee meetings eventually come to an end, and within the hour I've forgotten every detail of the meetings...except that rigorous and challenging debate about the appropriate word.

The rest is silence.

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