Conjunctions considered harmful

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Or not. Andrew Mayeda, "World Bank's Star Economist Is Sidelined in War Over Words", Bloomberg 5/25/2017:

The World Bank's chief economist has been stripped of his management duties after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly, including curbs on the written use of "and." […]

A study by Stanford University's Literary Lab in 2015 found the bank's use of language has become more "codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language" since the bank's board of governors held their inaugural meeting in 1946. The study coined the term "Bankspeak," a vague "technical code" that symbolized the lender's organizational drift.

In an email to staff obtained by Bloomberg, Romer argued the World Development Report, one of the bank's flagship publications, "has to be narrow to penetrate deeply," comparing his vision for the report to a knife. "To drive home the importance of focus, I've told the authors that I will not clear the final report if the frequency of 'and' exceeds 2.6 percent," said Romer, citing the percentage of the word's use in World Bank documents analyzed as part of the "Bankspeak" report.

Some other commentary: Tyler Cowen, "Paul Romer *and* the World Bank", Marginal Revolution 5/25/2017; Kevin Drum, "Paul Romer and the Parataxis of the World Bank", Mother Jones 5/25/2017.

The report that set it off — Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre, "Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports 1946-2012", Literary Lab Pamphlet 9, March 2015, which includes this graph:

Moretti and Pestre cite a passage from the 1999 Report to explain where all the conjunctions are coming from:

promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatize state-owned enterprises and labor market/social protection reform

There is greater emphasis on quality, responsiveness, and partnerships; on knowledge-sharing and client orientation; and on poverty reduction

But there seems to be some larger cultural trend involved — here is a comparable graph from the Medline collection of biomedical abstracts:

Maybe this is counterbalancing the gradual disappearance of "the"? See "Decreasing definiteness", 1/8/2015; "The case of the disappearing determiners", 1/3/2016. (More seriously, I think that the Medline trend is probbly due to a tendency towards longer abstracts.)

[h/t Dmitri Tymoczko]

Update — We're lucky that Dr. Romer has not been in charge of English literature over the centuries. Some works with and percentages above his limit of 2.6%:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 2.83%
The Incredulity of Father Brown 2.88%
Pride and Prejudice 2.91%
Moby Dick 2.95%
Emma 3.02%
Jude The Obscure 3.03%
Far from the Madding Crowd 3.05%
Tristram Shandy 3.08%
The Pickwick Papers 3.13%
The Great Gatsby 3.16%
Animal Farm 3.18%
Little Dorrit 3.18%
Ivanhoe 3.20%
Jacob's Room 3.20%
Persuasion 3.29%
Lady Chatterly's Lover 3.31%
David Copperfield 3.34%
Fanny Hill 3.39%
The Sun Also Rises 3.42%
To the Lighthouse 3.46%
Jane Eyre 3.48%
U.S. Constitution 3.52%
Bleak House 3.53%
Dracula 3.61%
Life on the Mississippi 3.62%
A Tale of Two Cities 3.62%
Works of H.P. Lovecraft 3.67%
My Antonia 3.67%
For Whom The Bell Tolls 3.68%
Gone With The Wind 3.79%
Tom Sawyer 3.83%
Wuthering Heights 3.87%
Martin Eden 3.92%
Frankenstein 3.95%
The Railway Children 4.01%
Treasure Island 4.11%
The Wizard of Oz 4.20%
Little Women 4.26%
A Moveable Feast 4.57%
The Old Man and the Sea 4.70%
The Call of the Wild 4.76%
Huckleberry Finn 5.34%
Bible (all of KJV) 6.53%
Book of Genesis (KJV) 9.55%

In fact, it's not easy to find any works of classic literature that fall below his limit.

Non-classic literature, on the other hand, includes The Da Vinci Code at 1.96%.
 



28 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

    Well, clearly one should never write "and.". "and", I have no problem with, but "and." ? In what circumstances (other than discussions about the word "and" itself) could "and" ever be followed by a full-stop ?

  2. Rubrick said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    I can't tell if Philip is being facetious or not. While I'm firmly on the side that believes the end of that sentence should have been punctuated including curbs on the written use of "and"., with the period outside the quotation mark, many (most?) style guides still advocate that the period should be (illogically) moved to inside the quote. As a programmer, this drives me nuts, except that I rarely notice it. ;-)

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    Facetious ? Not initially — I genuinely interpreted it as meaning that World Bank staff needed reminding that "and" should never end a sentence. Then realisation dawned, but by that time I was half-way through my reply, so I just carried on. But even if one subscribes to the belief that punctuation should always be within the string quotes (which, being British, I do not, as is also the case with several of my American correspondents), this is surely the clearest example ever adduced that "laws are for the guidance of the wise and the blind obedience of fools".

  4. David Morris said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

    I have never read a sentence ending with and.

  5. Anthonybrice said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 12:40 am

    I'm just curious, is the title a reference to Dijkstra's paper, or was "X Considered Harmful" a thing before his paper?

    [(myl) Both. See "Considered Harmful", 7/3/2007.]

  6. Outeast said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 1:22 am

    I had been wondering if / when LL would be commenting on this weirdness. It does on the face of it seem a bit extreme to force the guy out of his job because of this, though. It seems to me that the desire to discourage "bankspeak" / nerdview was probably not misplaced. The actual requirements were ridiculous, but not much more so than the more familiar nonsenses such as prohibitions of the passive. A walk back followed by a more sensible set of guidelines (perhaps developed in consultation with a linguist) might have been appropriate.

    @David Morris
    Very meta.

  7. Lee C. said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 2:24 am

    Classic literature may violate Romer's naive metric for a readable report, but I don't think anybody imagines that a bank report should be written in the style of Huckleberry Finn:
    "There was things which he stretched, but that is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another."

    On second thought, this is perfect for the concluding section of a bank report.

  8. rosie said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 2:49 am

    Rubrick: many (most?) style guides

    How about style guides not intended for a US readership?

  9. Bathrobe said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 3:09 am

    On the Internet, everyone is "US readership".

  10. Lugubert said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 4:00 am

    Another comparison: A quick manual count of Genesis 1:1-10 (New KJV) looks like 6.7%.

    [(myl) The King James Bible as a whole weighs in at 6.28%, or 6.53% if we remove the chapter and verse numbers.

    For the book of Genesis alone, if we remove the chapter and verse numbers, we get 9.55%!

    I've added these values to the table above.]

  11. Graeme said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 6:19 am

    Even forgetting the begettings… Genesis is a corrective to the teachers everywhere (yes, my daughters' primary school teachers, you know who I'm talking about) who parrot the 'don't begin a sentence with a conjunction "rule"'.

  12. Rose Eneri said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    Could the increasing use of "and" reflect writers' insecurity over the use of colons and semi-colons?

  13. MattF said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    From the given example, it's possible thar the problem is 'and' density. And 'and' correlations. And, perhaps, 'and' and semicolons and macroeconomic nerdview.

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 9:39 am

    The KJV's use of "and" is a clumsy calque of the Hebrew waw-consecutive which is not necessarily a conjunction.

    [(myl) True enough — but the English version still has influenced many millions of readers stylistically as well as spiritually. And the KJV New Testament, which was not translated from Hebrew, has an and-frequency of 5.93%, which is not very different from the overall rate.]

  15. Robert Coren said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    @Lee C: The delicious thing about that Huckleberry Finn quote is that he's talking about Tom Sawyer, so the "he" being referred to is Mark Twain.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    I'm from the US, and I think the period should be inside the quotes if it's part of what's being quoted, and outside otherwise.

  17. Lugubert said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 11:55 am

    (myl): "the English version still has influenced many millions of readers stylistically"

    Probably true for most languages that Bible language at least used to influence style. But I wonder if the lots of "and" have had any impact. I think that initial "and"s ('och') are rare in Swedish outside of Bible translations up to and including 1917. They seem to be non-existent in the 2000 translation, "B2000".

  18. Bathrobe said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

    You Swedes are an irreligious lot. Didn't you know those 'and's are divinely inspired?

  19. James Wimberley said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 6:29 pm

    And erotomanes to boot, with all those jots and titties.

  20. Yuval said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

    Gotta love that y axis label, "frequency per million words (thousands)".

  21. Bloix said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 11:56 pm

    The Biblical "and" at the beginning of sentences and phrases is usually a mistranslation and is not really the conjunction.
    "And" in Hebrew is not a word – it's a prefix, the letter vav (v) and a vowel, usually schwa. Because in Biblical Hebrew the verb often precedes the noun, sentences often start with a verb.
    Now to the point. In Biblical Hebrew, there is a very curious construction called the vav conversive, in which a verb in the past tense (yes, I know, Biblical Hebrew has aspects not tenses, but this is close enough) with a v' in front of it turns into the future tense, and vice versa. This v' doesn't really mean "and" although it can merge with "and" and do double duty where an "and" is wanted.

    So, for example, "And God said, 'let there be light, and there was light" is more or less:
    "[v]will say God, will be light, [v]will be light."

    The v' in front of "will say" flips the tense to "said," and the v' in front of will be does double duty – it flips the verb from will be to was, and it is the conjunction: Said God, will be light, and was light.

    The point being, there aren't really as many "ands" in the Bible as you might think.

  22. The Other Mark P said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 12:55 am

    On the Internet, everyone is "US readership".

    Surely that should be: On the Internet, everyone is "US readership."

  23. Bathrobe said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 5:10 am

    @ Bloix

    Thanks for puncturing my bubble! Very interesting to boot.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 9:00 am

    Bloix: Thank you for expanding on what I had alluded to in my comment, in which I referred to "waw-consecutive" (rather than "vav conversive") because that's what the relevant Wikipedia article is titled, except that the link I inserted didn't work.

  25. Simon Musgrave said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

    Before anyone goes too far with disputes about the relative position of inverted commas and other punctuation, they should remember that there are historical precedents – and it didn't end well. See Punctuation and human freedom and the aftermath, A guest of the state.

  26. DWalker07 said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    @The Other Mark P:

    Huh?

  27. Bloix said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

    Coby Lubliner – how did I miss your comment? Apologies for not referencing it.

  28. Graeme said,

    June 4, 2017 @ 7:11 am

    Tyndale's Genesis is replete with 'And' and 'Then'. Functioning, to most ears, as conjunctive adverbs. Unnecessary in the earlier Hebrew or Greek or not, why assume Tyndale and James's panel didn't fully intend the sonorous litany to convey the continuousness of the creation?

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