The Elements of [Bureaucratic] Style

Sometimes when I’m teaching students about passive voice I use the following example:

The decision was made to raise tuition.

I ask them, who made the decision? Of course they have some guesses, but eventually we determine that the point is, you can’t actually tell from the sentence.

In “The Elements of Bureaucratic Style,” Colin Dickey examines United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’ recent use of language that obfuscates and minimizes the airline’s own responsibility for an incident where security dragged a passenger off the plane, while simultaneously implying that the passenger was an active agent in his own violent takedown. This goes beyond the passive voice and employs something he calls the bureaucratic voice:

We tend to think of the purpose of style guides as helping students to write clearer and more effectively. But increasingly, the far more important side of composition pedagogy is teaching students how to read. And teaching students how to spot and decipher the bureaucratic voice must become an essential skill.

The very best dissection of this phenomenon I’ve seen is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar” (McSweeney’s). The last line, while not unexpected, is a sharp blow.

2 thoughts on “The Elements of [Bureaucratic] Style

  1. Katherine Wikoff says:

    Great post! Yes, it seems very much the job of composition instruction not only to teach writing but also to teach reading and critical thinking. All of a piece. My. English PhD concentration is rhetoric. It makes perfect sense when considered in light of your blog post’s discussion that my undergrad degree in political science should have turned out to be really good preparation for my ultimate career teaching college communication courses (written, spoken, visual, etc.).

  2. mworfolk says:

    I think a degree in poli sci would fit perfectly with teaching communications! As I move through my career I can’t help but see how much overlap there is in all these different disciplines. Although my undergrad was in English, and that’s what I teach now, my MA is in Gender Studies, and it too was excellent preparation for teaching critical thinking.

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