Exhibiting a Pattern of Beating in the Immediate Vicinity of the Bush but Not Beating the Bush Itself

I’m concerned with the use of what I call “tentative language.” Tentative language is language that seems afraid to make a statement, is unnecessarily indirect, tries to be all-inclusive, or is overly helpful rather than instructive. If you follow the logic of tentative language, it tends to be circuitous. It avoids getting to the point.

I find that this kind of language crops up often in nonfiction and self-help books that I work on. As an author, why should you avoid “tentative language”? Because it threatens to portray you to readers as unassertive, wishy-washy, or self-apologetic. In your writing—perhaps as in your personal life— you may be reluctant to tell others what’s what and what to do, but if you’re writing a book, that’s the business you’re in. Your readers are looking for answers, they want to know your opinion, or they’re asking you what to do. Give it to them straight. To do otherwise communicates a lack of self-confidence and undermines your own authority. So: say what it is you have to say.

I find that instructions to the reader (such as in exercises) in the self-help books I work on often include the word “please,” as in “Please write your answers in your journal.” Unlike in the real world, politeness is not required or even welcomed in a self-help context. Why?

Because you aren’t the least bit invested. You’re not present for the reader. The reader runs no risk of offending you if he or she chooses to ignore your direction. Instead the reader is likely not to need your entreaty because given that they’re reading, they’re already welcoming and hopefully following your advice. Even in a non-self-help context, it’s much more useful for you to tell readers why they should do as you instruct, rather than saying “please.” Give them a reason.

I’m not saying that indirectness and sensitivity are qualities that should be eradicated from writing, but please reserve their use. There may certainly be areas in which you need to tread lightly, for example to avoid overgeneralization. But watch how far you go: are you including multiple words that indicate possibility or uncertainty? Even though this may make you feel safe, it works against you. It makes you seem timid or dulls or obscures the point you’re trying to make. Also, you should clamp down on the kind of cautious language appropriate to these cases; keep it where it needs to be, and don’t make a habit of using it generally. Otherwise you may find yourself talking about how the sky might be blue.

Let’s take a look at some examples of “tentative language.” There may be nothing grammatically wrong with these sentences, but taken as examples of clear and effective writing they all get a grade of C. Yet it’s not too hard to turn them into sentences worthy of Bs or even As.

(As with all other examples of bad writing in this blog, these are my inventions.)

C Some women may on occasion prefer books to television.
B Some women on occasion prefer books to television.
A Some women prefer books to television.
C Some examples of emotions include anger, sadness, fear, and joy.
B Some examples of emotions are anger, sadness, fear, and joy.
A Examples of emotions are anger, sadness, fear, and joy.
C Studies suggest that certain herbs may help some people with this disorder.
B Studies suggest that certain herbs may help people with this disorder.
A Studies show that certain herbs may help people with this disorder.
C We suggest that you might take a moment to consider your available options.
B We suggest that you take a moment to consider your options.
A Take a moment to consider your options.
A+ Consider your options.
C This book will help you learn skills for better communication.
B This book will teach you skills for better communication.
A This book will teach you better communication skills.
A+ This book will teach you to communicate more effectively.
D This book will help you learn to communicate in a way that’s superior to the way you might have communicated previously.

(Note that the A+ example uses “more effectively,” an adverbial phrase, rather than “better,” an adjective, to modify the verb “to communicate.”)

In closing, here are a few phrases characteristic of “tentative language” that you should avoid using too often. Can you add any more?

  • “to me”
  • “to my mind”
  • “I would like to”
  • “in my opinion”
  • “and/or”
Advertisements

2 Comments on “Exhibiting a Pattern of Beating in the Immediate Vicinity of the Bush but Not Beating the Bush Itself”

  1. Jim O. says:

    Very useful and interesting article! I think that perhaps some people might find your advice useful and/or helpful in maybe improving some of their writing, in my opinion. (Maybe I should rewrite that sentence…)

  2. Joe says:

    I know it’s a different altogether, but this post reminded me of Taylor Mali’s “Like, You Know.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s