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John Kirby on Writing

John Kirby on Writing

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Published by jreedFP
John Kirby gives a lesson in how to write in English, not Pentagonese
John Kirby gives a lesson in how to write in English, not Pentagonese

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Published by: jreedFP on Aug 09, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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You’ve heard me talk about good storytelling.
Today, I want tospend a little time on good writing and speaking.
‚Adm. Jim Stavridis once said that all military officers should
learn a second language.
I think he’s right.
I think thatlanguage
should be English.‛
That’s the way Mary Walsh, Pentagon producer for CBS News, kicked
off a talk recently to students at Defense InformationSchool. The line drew chuckles, but it also hit home with me.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard Adm. G
reenert urge
Navy leaders to ‚say it in plain English,‛ well, let’s just sayI’d have a pot full of nickels.
And yet I’m amazed at how often
we continue to ignore him.
I don’t think it’s intentional, this butchering of our own
It’s more a crim
e of neglect. I think many of us havesimply forgotten what it is to write well and speak well. Weknow good writing when we see it. We know a good speech when wehear it.
But for some reason, or maybe lots of reasons, we can’t
measure up to the task ourselves.
For one thing, we’ve never met an adjective or adverb we didn’t
We don’t ‚exploit operations in the electromagneticspectrum.‛
We fully exploit them.
We don’t integrate functions;
we seamlessly integrate them.
And it’s not sufficient t
o makeinvestments.
We need to remind you they are ‚essential, long
term‛ investments, because, hey, some of our other investmentsaren’t really all that important.
According to this year’s Navy program guide, the world isn’t a
dangerous place.
It’s a ‚
dynamic and complex international
And the Navy’s ‚most pressing challenge‛ in comingyears ‚will be sustaining Fleet capacity while maintainingrelevant capability.‛
 I guess I just assumed all our capabilities were relevant.
And why can’t
we talk about problems? When did that word becomeso bad? Everybody has problems. Problems are real. Problemsare what we get paid to solve. But no, we in the military havechallenges to meet, face, overcome, deter, or defeat.
Jargon and gibberish always win out.
We didn’t tell people we were reducing to one the number of
carriers in the Middle East. We told them we were responding to
a ‚1.0 carrier presence requirement in the CENTCOM AOR.‛ Wearen’t defending America at sea.
We’re ‚delivering offs
And we do not sustain troops through supplyroutes.
We do it through ‚lines of communication.‛
 I once heard a general say -- no kidding -- that he was worried
about a ‚kinetic provocation‛ on the Korean peninsula.
pretty sure he meant attack.We do not withdraw from Afghanistan. We retrograde.We do not come home. We redeploy.We do not muster out. We reintegrate.
And when we do reintegrate, it’s to places INCONUS rather than
just plain old stateside.
If you’re not stateside, well, you’re OCONUS … not simply
Let’s be honest.
It’s just a lot easier to complicate things
--to rely on fancy words and acronyms -- than it is to be clear andconcise. Being clear and concise might get you quoted. Fancywords might convince people you are smarter than they are. And
then, maybe, they’ll leave you alone.
 I call it the Prego Proof. I named it after that televisioncommercial, the one for Prego spaghetti sauce.
‚It’s in there!‛
says the announcer, making sure customers know every possibleingredient they need to make good spaghetti sauce is in thatjar.We do the same thing in our writing. We cram as much informationas possible into every paragraph and power-point bullet so that,should any Hill staffer dare ask about this or that, we can say
with a straight face, ‚You bet, it’s in there!‛
Here’s another example from the program guide, this one about the
Zumwalt-class destroyer:
‚This advanced warship will provide offensive, distributed, and
precision fires in support of forces ashore and will provide acredible forward naval presence while operating independently oras an integral part of naval, joint or combined expeditionary
strike forces.‛
 I count 14 adjectives in that sentence, maybe three of which arenecessary. If you remove the 11 others, you come up with this:
‚This warship will provide fires in support of forces ashore and
will provide a naval presence while operating independently or as
a part of expeditionary forces.‛
That’s still a bit stodgy, but it’s
a whole lot easier tounderstand. And it gives the reader a better sense of what theship can actually do, which is what I think we were trying toaccomplish in the first place.Editing out the adjectives reveals something else: a weakness inverbs.
‚Provide‛ is used twice, and the word doesn’t exactly
instill confidence.
Warships don’t provide.
They fight. Theydestroy. They defend. They chase, shoot, engage, transport andsteam.My insurance company provides.My doctor provides.My mother provides.Somehow, somewhere along the way, we grew scared ofverbs.
That’s a shame, because the English language boasts
plenty of verbs that convey action and purpose. And the Americanmilitary, perhaps above all professions, has reason to usethem. A
ction and purpose is what we’re all about.
To be fair, I’m guilty of butchery myself.
A reporter asked melast year about the development of an East Coast missile defensesystem. This was my response:
‚Well, we always look very seriously at the broad s
cope of ourmissile defense capabilities and how to make them more robust andto improve them.
But the general also said … that we don't
believe we need that kind of a capability right now. It's notprogrammed for in the budget we just submitted back inFebruary. But just as a matter of course, we constantly look atways to improve our capabilities, particularly in a field as

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