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Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language Hardcover – May 9, 2005
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The publisher of Lynne Truss' phenomenally successful Eats, Shoots & Leaves [BKL Je 1 & 15 04] now brings out a book on language that has been a best-seller in Australia. It is not, like Truss' book, a treatise on punctuation; however, it does share that book's passionate concern about the erosion of language, especially public discourse as practiced by businesspeople, academics, journalists, and politicians. Watson makes an eloquent, elegant, and sometimes scathing case for taking back the language from those who would strip it of all color and emotion and, therefore, of all meaning. Watson deploys devastating examples of the deadening effect of our current use of language by recasting the Gettysburg Address and Shakespearean dialogue in corporate business-speak. Furthermore, he argues that politicians use obfuscating language to foster a climate of deceit: "Spin abounds. Whatever is most hackneyed triumphs. . . . Language goes out the window, and with [it] many opportunities for humor, spontaneity, originality, and surprise." With admirable clarity and logic, Watson makes the decay of language an issue of prime importance for everyone, not just wordsmiths. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
A fine and necessary book. Any citizen who neglects to read it does so at his or her peril. -- Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harpers Magazine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
I found Watson's style overblown and pompous. He criticises modern discourse for lacking both passion and clarity. Fair enough. But he confuses the two; passion doesn't make for clarity. Often, the opposite.
Some occasions demand a cool head, and the writing which describes them should reflect that.
For example, Watson spends most of page 31 arguing why he prefers the phrase "universities are under siege" to "universities are under pressure". The second phrase smells of "21st century secular Methodists", whereas the first calls to mind the Trojans, who, like their counterparts in academia, live behind walls and who "have something the besiegers want--not a woman in this case, but their submission certainly."
To use an old-fahioned Australian phrase, get your hand off it. "Under pressure" will do just fine, thanks.
Colour and metaphor are great. But too much makes for verbal sludge, just as thick and gooey as the bureaucratic double-speak Watson criticises.
I really don't need to hear that modern official language obscures rather than informs. Orwell and others established that long ago. Where's the new spin? Watson gives none.
On p. 139, he observes that Martin Luther King knew a good speech is like a song. A good book isn't. I personally found Watson's constant chorus of disgust a little hard to listen to, over and over, gilded with obscure references and going nowhere.
Are you sick of the idiocy that seems to be inherent in mission statements? Have you ever attempted to read a book of laws--the rules by which we are all supposed to live in this country--and given up in utter frustration at your inability to understand any word other than "the"? Do you wonder why no one's said anything original in a TV commercial in decades (assuming you don't simply record everything and fast-forward through the commercials, as I've been doing for years)? In that case, Australian curmudgeon Don Watson's rant on the dumbing down of the English language is right up your alley.
I tend to like my grammar books replete with footnotes and diagrams, but Watson is pointing out features of the modern language that don't require them; it's easy to find a plethora of examples of everything he attacks by just looking around us. Open up a company's annual report, or just look at the polished bronze plaque with the company's mission statement on the wall, and you've got examples out the wazoo. And lord help you if you attempt to read some of the crap that gets introduced in Congress. (Given that no one in Congress actually reads the legislation they vote on, which is common knowledge these days, you have to wonder--who's writing the stuff? No, I don't know either.) It all makes Watson (whose government, it seems, is as awful as ours when it comes to this stuff) want to beat his head against something pointed, and I have to agree with him. Given the book's bestseller status, I'm not the only one by a longshot.
No matter how much you agree with a book's premise, though, if it's badly-written, you'll get less out of it than you otherwise would. Death Sentences is a wonderfully entertaining little book on top of it all, and that makes a great deal of difference. Anyone can rant, but it takes a true auteur to do it with style. Watson (a speechwriter by trade) knows how to rant with all the style necessary and then some. Pick this one up and take it to heart. ****
Then, part way through the book, Watson starts showing his true colours. On page 103 he takes an inoffensive quote from Australia's ex-PM (John Howard), that being "As a people, we have traditionally engaged the world optimistically. Our open, friendly nature makes us welcome guests and warm hosts", and then spends the next page arguing that this echoes the propaganda of the Third Reich. Earth to Don: the Nazis wore shoes, but all people who wear shoes aren't Nazis. We know you're a red-hot Labor man and hate Howard's guts, but be a good fellow and keep it out of your book about public language.
The book is replete with this type of stuff. Avoid.
Chapter 1 should be digested by everyone whose job requires them to write or speak. In the beginning I thought the book was a 4; by page 58 I was thinking 3 stars; and by chapter 3 it was in freefall. His own writing bogs down in muddy thinking and poorly chosen examples. I lost sight of his sails as he drifted off point and disappeared in a fog of philosophical opportunism.
I still recommend chapter 1, but get it from your library. It's not worth the money.
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