I have to read, review and edit employees’ writing on a daily basis. Maybe I am a literary snob. If I am, please forgive me. However, I’ve developed a number of pet peeves over the years. Today, I feel the need to share one of them with you.
Perhaps I am overreacting. If I am, I am sure you will tell me. (Please do.)
My pet peeve of the week is the overuse of the phrase “and/or” in our department’s reports and memos. Granted, I work in a very traditional business environment and much of our department’s work-product is delivered in the form of management memos and analytical reports. The phrase “and/or” has been used widely in legal documents for years, but that fact doesn’t endear it to me.
I have seen coworkers use and/or multiple times in a single paragraph. For instance, memos often include statements like “Employees arrive late and/or not at all.” The phrase “and/or” adds nothing but ambiguity here. Employees are late, or they are no-shows. They are not both at the same time. The more accurate phrase would be “Employees arrive late. Some do not arrive at all.”
I cannot imagine receiving a wedding invite, and being given the option of chicken and/or fish. Chicken OR fish, maybe. The last time I checked, most bridal parties are not about to spring for two dinner choices per guest.
The abuse of the “and/or” phrase appears to be a symptom of the chronic struggles employees have with writing in general. Being clear and concise can be difficult. I believe there is a common misconception that to appear well-versed in a subject you should use lots and lots of words when writing about it, as if you are trying to cover all your bases.
This is just not so. Using more words to disguise the fact that you haven’t found the precise word does not improve your message. All of the extra words and phrases just muddle it, plenty of embellishments but little substance. I remember struggling through Charles Dickens‘ Bleak House in high school. Obviously, Charles Dickens’ works are classics, but let’s not forget that many of his novels were built on serial episodes published in weekly installments. He was a 19th century soap opera writer. It was in his best interest to stretch out those stories. He was, essentially, paid by the word.
I ask my employees to model their writing style after another famous author: Ernest Hemingway. As a wartime journalist, Hemingway understood the impact of each word he used, and he did not allow superfluous words to dilute his message. In 1926 novel The New York Times published a review of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. the review noted that Hemingway told his story “in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame”.
Hemingway knew the story he wanted to tell. His sentences were short. He was frugal with his syllables. That’s a good thing for sure “The Sun Sets and/or Rises” probably would not have been a best seller.