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30 percent

A professor I knew at Syracuse liked to quote an old Army maxim, "Thirty percent never get the word." Understanding this helps to explain why the advice from newsletters and memos at The Sun over the past three decades keeps pointing to the same errors and lapses over and over.

Any attempt to communicate is fraught with hazards. A colleague in graduate school used an ingenious demonstration in composition class to illustrate those hazards. Put two students in front of the classroom, back to back. One has a set of Tinkertoys; the other has the instructions. The student with the instructions tells the other, step by step, how to build a particular construction. He can ask only yes-or-no questions, such as "Do you understand?" The student with the parts can only answer yes or no. Since the instructing student can’t see the structure and the building student can’t see the plan, frustration builds, and the resulting product typically bears little or no relationship to the design.

The consequences of imprecision can be a little more serious than a bungled Tinkertoy construction. Take this text: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front — follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." Dictated by the senile Lord Raglan to Quartermaster-General Richard Airey and misinterpreted by subordinates, this order sent the Light Brigade charging to its destruction at the Battle of Balaclava on Oct. 25, 1854. (For the complete sequence of imprecise orders and misinterpretations, see Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why.) The Light Brigade, with about 700 men, charged straight down a valley, exposed to fire on three sides. Of the force, 195 returned. Witnessing the charge, General Bosquet, a French commander at the scene, famously observed, "C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre."

War highlights lapses in communication, as one sees in Clausewitz’s concept of friction. A general orders an advance. The troops set out in line of battle, but friction — irregularities in terrain, uneven hostile fire, the troops’ varying levels of physical strength — breaks up the order. And ambiguous information contributes as well to the effect of friction. Look at what happens to a project: Once a plan has been formed by someone in authority, friction develops immediately. Perhaps the plan is unclearly formulated, or the details have not been communicated to all the parties involved. Unanticipated difficulties arise, and the information does not move up and down or across the lines. The parties wind up working at cross-purposes, and delay and disorder ensure. Thus we have what we can call [cough] McIntyre’s Ratio: Any project will require three times the anticipated effort to achieve one-third the desired result.

One should not overlook as well the likelihood of mulish resistance. One word for that is mumpsimus. An old priest, the story goes, had been saying mumpsimus in the Mass for sumpsimus (“we have received”). Corrected by a young priest, the old priest said, “I’ve been saying mumpsimus for thirty years, and I’m not going to change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” So mumpsimus has come to refer to obstinate persistence in an error after correction. Anyone who has tried to oversee the introduction of a new procedure, particularly at a newspaper, can describe the widespread passive resistance that follows.

The shrewd course is to assume, every time you put subject to verb to object, that something will go wrong.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:24 AM | | Comments (1)


I discovered I had been guilty of lapses of imprecision (is that like 'lapsis lazuli'?). Years after my stint as an English teacher, I took a job as an editor, of grammar textbooks no less. Our guidelines codified precise formulas for directions preceding student exercises. We had to specify activities such as 'underline' or 'spell' or 'write' or 'list.' Then I remembered this type of assignment that I, along with other teachers, commonly gave: 'Think about the causes of the Civil War.' And why were we surprised when the students handed in no papers the next day?

In closing, let me add that computer manuals typically have the same levels of imprecision -- and worse -- rooted in false assumptions of the learner's knowledge.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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