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Hamptons Life

May 3, 2019 4:59 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Review: Harold Evans Dissects Language In 'Do I Make Myself Clear?'

May 13, 2019 11:17 AM

Sir Harold Evans begins his latest book, “Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters” (Little, Brown, and Co., $27, 404 pp), with a quotation from Dickens’s “Bleak House,” “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [river islands] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.” And so on.

Sir Harold’s book is about the fog of language; the “fog everywhere” generated by politicians, journalists, academics, television personalities, and businessmen. Sir Harold set out to produce a corrective and clear the air. He began the book in 2016, the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s “classic polemic ‘Politics and the English Language’ indicting bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language.”

Who better than Sir Harold to follow in Orwell’s wake? He is one of the legendary editors of our time. He edited The Times of London and The Sunday Times, which he left after a dispute with Rupert Murdoch over the integrity of the political coverage.

Sir Harold has written major histories of America (“The American Century” and “They Made America”) and was voted by his peers the all-time greatest British newspaper editor. He was knighted in 2004. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1993. With his wife, Tina Brown, who has edited The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, he summers in Quogue.

The book is many things. It is a hymn to the nobility of the English language. It is a memoir, a guide to usage and style, an aid to strip away clichés, and an anthology of excellent short journalism.

The book can be read from cover to cover, but it offers so much that it might best be dipped into.

Much of “Do I Make Myself Clear?” can be summarized by saying “use the active voice, aim for concision, and don’t be a bore.”

Reading it is like taking a course in writing and editing by a master teacher. Sir Harold teaches by example, showing us how it can be done. He takes countless humdrum samples and turns them into sentences and paragraphs that would be the envy of any writer.

One of his samples is a paragraph from one of President Trump’s speeches, which he reveals to be a linguistic and intellectual train wreck.

The primary specimen is a long document released by the government about the famous “underwear bomber,” the terrorist who smuggled explosives onto a plane by hiding them in his underpants.

Sir Harold notes: “You can see how the fog that envelopes the whole document is made up of particles: words that do not work, live images suffocated by abstractions, prefatory clauses too complex for any normal memory, dozy verbs in the passive voice.”

He takes the effort to rewrite the document, eliminating none of the facts, and reduces the word count from 2,567 to 1,030. It is a fascinating exercise.

He divides offending words in common usage as zombies, flesh-eaters, and pleonasms.

The zombie is a noun that’s devoured a verb: implementation, assessment, authorization, documentation, etc.

Flesh-eaters are “unnecessary words, pompous phrases, and prepositional parasites that eat space and reduce the muscularity of your writing.”

A pleonasm is “a redundant unnecessary superfluity.” Sir Harold lists 200 examples, like absolute perfection, acres of land, actual evidence, acute crisis, etc.

He makes lists readable. He has listed several pages of clichés, which he calls “off-the-rack expressions.” Looking them over, I realize that I have used far too many in my own writing and I resolve to be more attentive. Reviewing a book by such a stickler can be a daunting experience, since the reviewer can almost sense him looking over one’s shoulder, but it can also be bracing and profoundly instructive. Any one who loves the English language and tries to do justice to its beauty and grace will benefit from reading “Do I Make Myself Clear?”

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