Federation of Dunces

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As a former speechwriter for Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating and political-comedy writer for TV's The Gillies Report, Don Watson can speak with some authority about officialdom's use and abuse of English. As the author of Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, a widely praised memoir of Keating, he's also a big enough name to sell a book on just about anything. So for Watson's publisher, Random House, and for his many fans, it probably doesn't matter that his latest book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, says nothing really new.

Its gist can be summed up in a sentence: "Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." George Orwell wrote that in 1946, in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language." Watson has updated and Australianized the theme in several speeches and articles. Now, with the help of large print, double-wide margins and a pile of quotations, he's expanded his ideas into a 198-page book.

Most people would agree with Watson that official prose is too often flabby and formulaic. When he calls for more clarity and vigor, one can only say amen. But his arguments are confused. He wants to blame the torpor of public writing and speechifying on the influence of big business, with its deadening jargon of value-adding, benchmarking and strategic initiatives. But many of his gripes - the underuse of active verbs and adjectives; terms like at the end of the day, closure, elite and game plan; the rising inflection that makes statements sound like questions - have no apparent link to business. And the lazy thinking that gives rise to lame writing didn't start in the corporate world.

Occasionally, as if embarrassed by his own vehemence, Watson tells us things aren't so bad: "The decay or near death of language is not life threatening." Mostly, though, he insists things are dire, far worse than in Orwell's day. But when some of his examples turn out to be a decade old or from non-native speakers, the urge to panic ebbs. When he holds ad-hoc speech to the same standards as writing, or laments that policy papers don't read more like William Faulkner, one struggles to feel perturbed. When he claims that cliché-addicted speakers and writers are killing the English language, rather than just boring their audiences to death, one wonders if he's running a fever.

Watson doesn't just exaggerate the power of language's dark forces, he ignores the gains made in fighting against them. You wouldn't know it from reading his book, but the Plain English movement has been campaigning against obfuscation for 30 years, and Australian governments and corporations are among its keenest supporters. They publish composition guides, put staff through writing courses, even hold contests in rewriting tortuous sentences. Official prose is still far from exquisite, but it's a lot crisper and clearer than it was in the 1970s.

Watson doesn't just want public language to be clear; it should also, he writes, convey emotion and "comic possibility." There's more fun in his book than in a bank brochure, but it arises less from Watson's jokes ("To be, or not to be? They are the scenarios") than from the gap between what he says and what he does. He preaches reverence for words, yet his text is littered with misspellings and misquotations (the words of Yeats and Donald Rumsfeld are transcribed with equal carelessness). He urges officials to be bold and use livelier words and rhythms, but his own prose has all the zing of a child's reading primer: "There is idealism in this, but democracy is an ideal and it needs idealism. And critics of ideals. It needs the arguments. This makes the public language fundamental."

Now and then - as when he discusses his childhood discovery of English literature and his ideas for teaching others "the beautiful arrangement of words" - Watson's style takes lyrical flight. More often, it sinks in syntactical quicksand: "The difference between the feigned spontaneity, outrage and excitement seen in authoritarian societies and dictatorships is different solely in degree from democratic leaders who are agitated only by what agitates public opinion." Of the poverty of public prose, he notes: "You write for your audience and your audience knows fewer words than it used to." Perhaps he underestimates it.

"Masses, numbers, are invariably idiotic," Watson writes, quoting Flaubert. But he can't seem to decide whether democracy and mass culture are the perpetrators or the victims of public language's decay. By repeatedly denying that Australia is on the brink of fascism or neo-Stalinism, he plants the idea that too much official waffle could push it over the edge. Yet he also observes that "culture, language included, always has to pay a tithe to social progress and democracy. Standards are bound to slip." When the masses can read, vote, go to university and buy shares, they tend to demand more information. That means more letters, speeches, reports and policy papers. But good writers don't multiply so fast. We can hope to find (even strive to produce) a Gettysburg address or a Letter to a Noble Lord. But, just as in Lincoln's or Burke's day, the odds are that we won't.