Prospero, "The World's Worst Sentence", The Economist 7/17/2013:
FINANCIAL books are not renowned for their literary merits. Neverthless, the reader is still entitled to expect something better than the following (from Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste"):
Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.
That is not just a mixed metaphor; it is meaningless and pretentious at the same time. One would nominate it as the world's worst-written sentence but it is only the opening clause. After a semi-colon, the author drones on for a further 32 words, from which Economist readers should be spared.
Prospero suggests that this horror could have been avoided, if only the author or his editor had referred to
George Orwell's rules of writing (which introduce The Economist's in-house style guide) […]:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
4. Never use the passive when you can use the active
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and finally
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say something outright barbarous
But none of these six rules are relevant to the cited sentence's problems. Mirowski's sentence contains no foreign phrases or scientific words; its only verb is in the active voice; omitting some words would make it shorter but even less coherent; and its average word length (4.26 letters) is less than that of Propero's own text in this column (4.69 letters).
The most obvious problem with Mirowski's sentence is its unpalatable stew of mixed metaphors: a nightmare is casting a shroud in the guise of a contagion of the sort of paralysis that afflicts a deer caught in the headlights of a car. That's between four and seven distinct metaphorical systems in 19 words, depending on whether we take cast, guise, and paralysis to have any metaphorical force left.
But Orwell's rule doesn't tell us not to mix metaphors, it tells us not to use them, or at least not to use metaphors that we're "used to seeing in print". I concede that if Mirowski had avoided all commonly-seen metaphors, he would have been spared some embarrassment. But by that standard, the Economist itself is full of a very bad writing. Let's take up Mirowski's metaphors one at a time, and look at the Economist's own text for examples.
The Economist headlines are rife with metaphorical nightmares:
Violence in Iraq: The nightmare returns
Nigeria: Waking from a nightmare
Investment banking: Dream turns to nightmare
Big music's digital nightmare
American retailers: Nightmare on Fifth Avenue
Cambodia's logistics nightmare
Spain's property crash: Builders' nightmare
Bagehot: A New Labour nightmare
Riots in Xinjiang: Beijing's nightmare
And there are plenty of metaphorical nightmares in the text as well:
As fund managers are finding, the latest effort from the American authorities to root out those of their citizens who have been hiding their assets overseas is creating a bureaucratic nightmare around the world.
Such nightmares are worse in India, where the courts move with Dickensian speed, or in China, where the legal system is patchy.
A new nightmare for greens: conserving water may encourage sprawl.
Is the United States' nightmare of “a second Cuba” coming true in Venezuela?
On the face of things, Rotterdam has the ingredients for a Eurabian nightmare.
ON SUNDAY Israel got an unexpected and unpalatable taste of its nightmare scenario: masses of Palestinians marching, unarmed, towards the borders of the Jewish state, demanding the redress of their decades-old national grievance.
For many firms, sending call centres overseas has turned into a nightmare.
In the Economist's text, we often encounter a metaphorical shroud (of secrecy, gloom, or mystery):
And the shroud of gloom is not as uniform as it looks from afar.
But for outsiders it helps unravel the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy.
There is less of a shroud of secrecy surrounding the first world war.
Even in Paraguay its moral ambiguities have caused generations of leaders to shroud it in myth.
Mr Li likes to shroud his business manoeuvres in mystery.
NOT so long ago, the Federal Reserve was anxious to cloak itself in secrecy and shroud itself in “monetary mystique,” as Marvin Goodfriend, an American economist, has put it.
They shroud their operations in secrecy and are blamed for manipulating markets from Hong Kong to London.
As well as providing financial firepower and a network for sourcing deals, private-equity firms can shroud the identity of publicity-shy investors.
But increasingly they are fed up with the shroud of secrecy thrown over the Fukushima plant and the abandoned towns and villages where families had lived for centuries.
And there's a positive epidemic of metaphorical contagion in Economist headlines:
Euro crisis spillovers: Reverse contagion
American banks: Contagion? What contagion?
Political and market turmoil: Contagion effect
The Swahili coast: Contagion of discontent
Crises, crises everywhere: Atlantic contagion
Mexico's economy: Braced for contagion
Financial contagion: Mortgage flu
Ex-communist economies: The whiff of contagion
Grüne Sprösslinge, and the contagion of ideas
Nor, of course, is the Economist at all shy about using contagion in the body of stories:
This week, however, contagion spread to another and even more alarming place: Italy.
Some economists think a new form of financial contagion is spreading, via stockmarkets, in a way similar (if slower) to that in which Asia's financial crisis in 1997-98 infected one economy after the other.
Many Europeans fear that they have seen a fragment of their future: contagion spreading from one indebted country to the next, the breakdown of social order as public-sector jobs are cut, years of political indecision and the inevitable ousting (or withdrawal) of countries from the euro.
From that very moment, contagion spread like wildfire.
Deers are often found in Economist headlights:
Scott McClellan, his successor, had a sweaty, deer-in-the-headlights look as he robotically repeated the White House's phrase of the day.
Mr Zapatero was inexperienced, ill-prepared and unprepossessing; he was nicknamed “Bambi”, as he often looked like a startled fawn caught in the headlights.
Mr Biden is a smart, thoughtful guy, he's not going to go all deer-in-the-headlights during the vice-presidential debate, and his recent extracurricular activities suggest that he will help out if elected, instead of hiding out in the Naval Observatory.
He is smart and aggressive in debates, which would appeal to Democrats who remember John Edwards' deer-in-the-headlights problem with Dick Cheney in the 2004 vice-presidential debates.
And someone at the magazine is fascinated by the metaphor of one or more rabbits caught in headlights:
Japan, once seen as the engine of Asian growth, remains stuck in its third recession in a decade, its policymakers behaving like rabbits caught in the glare of oncoming car headlights, unable to get to grips with the massive structural reforms needed.
At the very least, his multi-screen office-cum-TV-studio must have told him how far the value of his stock options had shrunk when Ford's share price started diving (see chart) as the crisis grew, and management began to look like rabbits caught in the headlights of an SUV.
Yet academic publishers do not have the rabbit-in-the-headlights look that music executives did a few years ago.
Ever since their troubles began emerging in the early summer of 2001, America's airline industry has been like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Italy and the euro: Rabbit in headlights.
And from time to time, the Economist's headlights metaphorically transfix even more exotic animals:
OVER the past three months, oil-producers have watched, transfixed like bustards caught in the headlights, as the price of their product has plummeted from around $18 a barrel to about $12.
I'll spare you lists of cast metaphors and paralysis metaphors from the digital pages of the Economist, though I'll note in passing that many dies, lights, shadows, palls, chills, and doubts are metaphorically cast therein.
Let me emphasize that (unlike Orwell) I see nothing wrong with any of these uses of often-seen metaphoral extensions of the sense of words, or common expressions with a metaphorical origin. But this small sample (of the much larger lists that are easily available from Google site search) should be enough to make the point: Orwell's number-one rule is so unhelpful that the Economist doesn't even pretend to try to follow it, any more than anyone else does.
Quoting Orwell's rules in the face of bad writing is like reciting paternosters in an out-of-control airliner: it may be comforting, but it doesn't solve the problem.