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Her Mission: Helping Business Pros Improve Their Prose

Writing: Appalled by the mangled verbiage of lawyers and other professionals, an English professor became a wordsmith for hire.

September 02, 1996|JOHN HENDREN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BALTIMORE — They say "who" when they mean "whom." They use nouns as verbs. They speak in mind-boggling bureaucratese. And, forgive them, they split infinitives.

For bankers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, an English degree is not a prerequisite. And the linguistic misdemeanors they commit routinely in the name of corporate communication so offended Baltimore writer and English professor Lynne Agress that she began a new career as a workplace wordsmith.

For 15 years the founder of BWB Business Writing At Its Best Inc. has rooted out muddled correspondence in personnel departments and corporate boardrooms. For fees starting at $5,500 plus expenses, her company holds seminars to teach lucid prose to the communication challenged.

"The thing that I find stunning--and my teachers find this every day--is that we have people with degrees from Harvard Law School and other fine schools who make a lot of mistakes in grammar, who are totally incapable of organizing a brief letter," she said.

The Baltimore-based firm asks professionals to send in their latest memo, letter or annual report. Then she and five other English professors show them how to cut out the jargon, bad grammar, inappropriate diction and sometimes Dickensian surplus of words.

One executive hacked out this tortuous sentence:

"Expansive communication is fundamental to successful resolution of these intrinsic conflicts and to the optimization of resource allocation for the emerging department in an increasingly competitive environment."

Translation: Communication in this department is essential.

Agress couldn't agree more. She believes everyone, from historian to hot dog vendor, achieves more by communicating better.

"If an academic physician cannot communicate his discovery, what good is it? If a brilliant lawyer cannot write the kinds of briefs that are going to help his clients and persuade judges, he's not going to be that successful," she said.

There are trends in turgidity, according to Agress. Engineers use jargon, bankers and middle managers misuse words. As for doctors, the problem is "prose in general."

"You get into the habit of writing things in such shorthand," said Brian Browne, a physician and head of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore who joined his staff at a BWB course. "Sometimes the clarity of communication doesn't come across."

Among the worst offenders are lawyers, who tend to write wordy, labyrinthine sentences in the passive voice with nouns capitalized at random, Agress said.

When a client asked a London barrister how a law would affect his company, the lawyer offered this less-than-helpful response:

"However sadly therefore we cannot really at this stage come to any firm helpful view as to the proper law and jurisdiction for proceedings under the Bill of Lading nor as to the terms of liability/exceptions which would with all due respect govern any such claim."

In other words: We don't know.

"We tend to use 10 words when five will suffice," conceded Washington, D.C., lawyer John Steren, who has sought to make legal briefs less of an oxymoron since taking a BWB course. "And of course--not as a conscious thought--we get paid by the word."

There are worse offenses in the eyes of Agress, such as making verbs into nouns. Executives like to "impact," "interface," "task" and even "incentivize" when they mean to affect, talk, assign and encourage.

Friends say Agress, 54, retains her meticulous and assertive seminar style outside the classroom. The founder of the Baltimore Women's Forum, a group of more than 20 prominent business women, she manages to lure prominent speakers such as Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening through sheer persistence. While giving a recent seminar for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's law firm, she chided the orator for not polishing up his prose in the course himself.

"She's particularly good at getting on the phone and asking these people to talk to us," said Elaine Logan, a women's forum member and co-founder of the Logan Grant interior design firm. "It scares the heck out of me. I wouldn't dream of doing it."

An aggressive organizer, she gathers church colleagues for trips to museums, theaters and art shows.

"I think if it wasn't for her, most of us wouldn't do it," Logan said.

In 1978 she published the book, "The Feminine Irony," about 19th-century women whose writings urged a traditional role for women that contradicted their own achievement-oriented lifestyles.

Her own lifestyle combines traditional and feminist roles. Her suburban Baltimore home serves as both the office from which she schedules seminars from London to Los Angeles and a showplace for a collection of dozens of teddy bears.

Agress has a doctorate in English from the University of Massachusetts and has taught writing courses for 20 years at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and other campuses.

She blames the sorry state of corporate prose on schools that have "thrown out the book" on grammar over the past 25 years and a decline in pleasure reading.

"You don't find many busy professionals--doctors, lawyers, accountants--reading for enjoyment," she said. "So they're reading the same awful writing, the same occupational journals, written by people who know little about good writing."

She also blames improving technology for declining literacy.

"As a child I wrote more letters to relatives and friends than I do now," Browne said. "Who writes a letter now? They just pick up the phone and call."

With more communication being done online, often in Internet shorthand that can look like an eye chart, Agress fears the future could be worse.

"As technology expands, literacy declines," she said.

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