The art of written communication – It's a word thing

I like to collect examples of written communication used well, poorly, dishonestly and creatively. Here’s my latest crop.

Sometimes a complex message is as clear as a bell, other times the simplest idea is turned into gobbledegook. Here are a couple of examples, one getting it right and the other getting it wrong.

Getting written communication right

A letter in last week’s New Scientist makes a marvellous job of explaining how life can influence its own evolutionary path. Here’s what the letter, by Martin Savage from Thailand, says:

“If our understanding of evolution and organic chemistry is correct then a complex molecule – DNA – has, by evolving the code necessary to make human brains, become capable of looking down on itself and even modifying itself in ways that would never have occurred in nature.”

Getting it wrong

A letter from Sussex Police told us this. It took five minutes of head scratching to figure out what they meant.

“The offer of a course is not available if you have attended a similar course within the last three years from the date of the previous offence.”

Eh? We eventually worked out it meant this: You can’t attend this course if you’ve already been on one in the last three years. Which is exactly what they should have said. Then it goes on to say, “To be able to take advantage of this offer, you will need to respond within 14 calendar days from the date of this letter”. Ouch. Nasty. All they needed to say here was “Please reply within 14 days of this letter“. Plain language training, anyone?

Identifying Wiki sock puppet cheats

I use Wikipedia a lot because it’s a trusted source of reliable information. But an army of fake accounts is messing with the online encyclopaedia, filling it with spurious nonsense and damaging its credibility.

Wikipedia has already blocked around 250 ‘sock puppet’ accounts, fake IDs set up by people who are being paid to edit articles in companies’ favour. Luckily a bunch of clever folk at the University of Alabama have developed a tool to analyse the way Wiki articles are written and spot when they’re generated by the same person. They hope it’ll eventually help reveal the sock puppets for the cheats they are.

F. Scott Fitzgerald pulls it off…

With The Great Gatsby movie causing a stir, last week I was inspired to read the book for the first time in a couple of decades. And was struck all over again by the author’s wonderful descriptions. Here’s one of my favourites, describing Mr Wolfshiem. While it’s far from politically correct, the book was written in 1926 and keenly reflects the era in which it was written:

“A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.”

And another:

“As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by  white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry.”

Beautiful. It goes to show, you don’t need to use complicated language to describe something in deliciously creative and rich detail.

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