The most infamous writing style examples from today’s public figures often involve language gaffes, which are internet gold. For every thought piece about a decline in writing ability in the United States, there are at least 10 Top 10 lists of ridiculous things that a public figure has written or said. Poor Dan Quayle will forever be remembered as the former Vice-President who got served a side of humility when he misspelled “potatoe.” George W. Bush may be the nation’s most prolific language blunderer, getting phrases, sentences, and whole idioms wrong. These gaffes are often laughable but innocent, endearing even.
What about those cases, though, when the way something gets said, or its style, is not so innocent? Many of the writing style examples we share here get filed under gaffes, whoopsies, are actually closer to what George Orwell warned about in his Politics and the English Language. When style helps someone hedge, hem haw, obfuscate, or muddy… well, these instances make Dan Quayle’s potatoes seem small by comparison.
The language choices of our public figures are directly connected to the ethics of their leadership. And whether they make us laugh or cringe, we should be paying close attention so we know when to call them into question. As writers who promote public intellectualism, especially when it comes to today’s public figures, we know that a commitment to ethics means continually questioning the motives that drive our work, the words that represent it, and asking if it’s ultimately adding to the public good.
With this in mind, let’s look at some infamous writing style examples that shed light on the relationship between language clarity and ethics.
Infamous Example #1: The meaning of is…is…?
Perhaps the most famous example of a stylistic sleight of hand belongs to former President Bill Clinton. When questioned about his relationship with his intern Monica Lewinsky, the former president cast doubt on the question by turning the focus to one small word: is. Instead of fessing up to the affair, the former president denied it, saying, “There’s nothing going on between us.” Once he was caught in the lie, he explained:
“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If … ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”
In other words, “There is nothing going on between us” would technically be true, while “There is nothing and never has been anything going on between us” would be a lie.
Writing Style Takeaway: The most obvious takeaway here has been written about widely. Former President Clinton (and we) know what the meaning of the word is is. Less has been written, however, about how “one of the most infamous semantics quandaries in history” hinges upon a being verb, is. While action verbs make the reader think of concrete movement, being verbs are less likely to conjure concrete images. For this reason, English instructors in classrooms all over instill in their students the value of choosing action verbs whenever possible for clarity’s sake.
The Clinton example illustrates how a being verb works when a speaker wants to muddy clarity—and compromise honest testimony. Also, in this writing style example, Clinton’s decision to choose a contraction—“There’s nothing going on between us” instead of “there is nothing going on between us”—allowed him to de-emphasize the action in his answer even more by casually burying the verb. His response sounds more muted as a result. The lie looks a little whiter.
Infamous Example #2: Mistakes were made
So many public figures have said the words “Mistakes were made” that it’s perhaps unfair to pick on former New Jersey governor Chris Christie for this one. Ronald Reagan has said these words. Barack Obama has said them. Still, Christie’s explanation of “Bridgegate” offers a strong example of this infamous stylistic choice. In 2016, staffers working for governor Christie were found guilty of closing the Fort Lee lanes on the George Washington Bridge, without warning. The closures, which led to dangerous gridlock, were found to be politically motivated, a plan to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s bid for governor. While murmurs about Christie’s knowledge of the plot did not lead to charges, he addressed the controversy in a State of the State address:
“The last week has certainly tested this administration. Mistakes were clearly made and as a result we let down the people we’re entrusted to serve.”
Writing Style Takeaway: Christie’s language allows him to acknowledge that something bad happened without pointing a finger. He does this by opting for passive voice, which makes the person responsible look like they were acted on by the verb. Not only does he de-emphasize responsibility by using passive voice but he omits responsible parties completely. After all, he could have said “Mistakes were clearly made by my administration.” He does not.
Judging by Christie’s language in this writing style example, the biggest culprit was “the last week,” which tested the administration. In Christie’s defense, he does say that “we” let down the people. The surrounding context, however, doesn’t clarify who that “we” may be. Instead, it diffuses the responsibility across an unnamed group of individuals. It’s easier to forgive mistakes when they were made—by no one in particular, really.
Infamous Example #3: The unknown knowns
When a reporter asked Donald Rumsfeld about the evidence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction, the Secretary of Defense responded with perhaps the most confusing justification of military action ever spoken:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Called a nonsense gaffe by some and poetic by others, the quote rings of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and requires a trip down the rabbit hole to decipher.
Writing Style Takeaway: Rumsfeld’s words throw the concept of knowing into an existential crisis—as all oxymorons do. Oxymorons, which set contradictions side-by-side, encourage listeners to think past the place where straightforward understanding ends. Getting a mental grip around an oxymoron like a “known unknown” would take at least an afternoon of heavy pondering, even for Socrates. The bombardment of contradictions and repeats that Rumsfeld offers in this writing style example moves beyond the philosophical to the nonsensical and, yes, to the unknowable. Is it clever to use language that doubles back on itself to communicate unknowability? Yes. Does it offer sound evidence for military action? Not so much.
Infamous Example #4: I Meant Would/n’t
President Donald Trump made headlines in 2018 for comments he made at a joint summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When asked whether he supported U.S. Intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, he said:
“I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Following widespread backlash, even among his supporters, he explained that he actually meant to say, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.”
Writing Style Takeaway: Instead of calling language into question, Trump says that he meant the opposite of what he said. While his correction, wouldn’t, doesn’t make sense when read within the larger context of his statements, the use of a contraction here warrants a second look. In this writing style example, Would and wouldn’t sound incredibly close, even though they are polar opposites. Polar opposites are not, as the President asserted, double negatives. Still, all it takes is a mumble to confuse listeners into whether Trump is supporting the FBI’s findings on election meddling or if he’s elevating Vladimir Putin’s denials. Presidential trust in its own intelligence agencies hinges upon the abbreviated form of would not, just an apostrophe and a missing “o.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the writing style examples above is how the smallest grammatical choices create huge impacts. Are they worthy of a chuckle? Perhaps. Calling them “gaffes,” though, erases the weighty consequences of style. Dismissing them as typical political “doublespeak” glosses over the specifics we can name: Being verbs, passive voice constructions, oxymorons, and contractions allow the speakers here to confuse and sidestep culpability. If Orwell is right, advocating for ethical communication means advocating for clear language. This means taking grammar and style seriously enough to be able to identify the language choices that allow speakers to sidestep transparency in context. Demand clarity. Demand honesty. And depending on the context–keep powerful decision-makers as far away from being verbs and passive voice as possible.
For more in-depth grammar and writing style examples and instruction that can improve your language clarity and ability to persuade others ethically, check out Wordsmith: A Grammar & Style Refresher for Business Professionals.