Word Economy and its Effect on Comprehension

Considering the fun I had constructing the post regarding the flawed principles of the “1930 Motion Picture Code,” I wanted to continue with a similar analysis. In that post I emphasized the Orwellian undertones of the “Principles Underlying the Code,” and I will carry on in a similar fashion; this time however, with the section titled “Particular Applications.”  Whereas previously I detailed the absurdity of the aforementioned principles in general, presently, I would like to identify the absurdities of the “applications,” in reference to a specific linguistic sin that Orwell warned of. Word economy is the concept of finding just the right amount of words to express one’s point without sacrificing meaning, and is often nonexistent in official documents. Try reading the Terms and Conditions of a software update for more than five minutes without wanting to dissolve from the perpetual scrolling, or rereading a sentence three times before it is understood. The section “Particular Applications,” of the “1930 Motion Picture Codes” demonstrates this adeptly. 

Similarly to the last post concerning these codes, I am going to take this line by line, sub-section by sub-section, until I can not leave my desk without stepping in one of the numerous piles of bullshit around me. Firstly, the line: “These [crimes] shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice, or to inspire others with the desire for imitation,” is a prime example of a word economy in recession. If one seeks to stimulate said economy, the phrase could be condensed to: “Do not glorify crime.” I was able to convey in less words than fingers on my hand, what was conveyed in enough words to account for my fingers and toes combined. This line reminds me specifically, of a scene from Indiana Jones where the protagonist “Indie,” is in a standoff with a Middleeastern swordsman — dazzling the gathering crowd with his fine pirouettes and twirls. Ultimately, Indie simply shoots him before he can take a step towards our protagonist, and walks away more or less bewildered. Just as the swordsman was all show, so too is the line from the opening of the section. Furthermore, just as Indie is bemused by the display, so too is the reader — but it would be rather pointless to shoot a piece of paper or one’s computer screen. With bullets that is. 

Application one regards the depiction of murder on screen as it says: “The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.” Listed below it are other requirements such as: “Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail,” and “Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.” These are superfluous to the application as they are more or less addressed by the first statement. They do little to add substance to the initial statement, as although it is unnecessarily lengthy, it is acceptably sufficient. These sub-requirements are page fillers that seem generally redundant as “…will not inspire imitation” although poorly phrased, gets the point accross that murder is a no-no. This blatant fluffing occurs commonly in the text, and serves no purpose other than to devour page space, and a reader’s time. 

Application two, three, and four concern crimes excluding murder, such as robbery, drug trafficking, arson, etc. The fluffing, or loading, mentioned earlier is accentuated by the juxtaposition between the simplicity of the heading and the four subsections that follow it. For example, “Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented,” is an adequate expression of restriction, that states intent without being overinvolved. Moreover, “explicitly,” is a well-chosen adjective as it states in one word what “…in a way that will not inspire imitation,” does in eight. Nevertheless, one takes a step forward and three steps back, as the benefits of this diction are squandered by the urge to include four subsections that all practically reiterate the inaugural point. One subsection of note reads: “Theft, robbery, safecracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings etc., should not be detailed.” The word “safecracking,” in this sentence is unnecessary as one could assume there is some measure of this involved in a robbery. I would be shocked to find a bank, real or fictitious, that holds their money in a tin lunch box. Furthermore, “dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings etc.,” is also unnecessary and convoluted. A refined version could be written as: “Demolition by explosives should not be detailed.” In condensing the list into one word, meaning is preserved, and word economy is augmented. Onward, the “etc.,” promotes vagueness as it leaves the sentence open for a debate as to what is included in the list. Whereas “Demolition by explosives,” removes the need for an “etc.” because firstly, it removes the overused list of three (which I myself am guilty of) and secondly, is more authoritative. It can stand alone, but “etc.,” can not. In subsection four, further redundancies can be seen as: “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot, or for proper characterization, will not be shown.” “For proper characterization,” can be removed from this sentence, as it is an aspect of the plot. Characters are what drive a story, and their dynamacy is key to illustrating themes. Therefore, the whole thing can be simplified to “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot, will not be shown.” Intent is not sacrificed for word economy, and is actually expressed more clearly. Many moving parts does not indicate that one’s machine will function well, it just means that one will have more parts to fix once the machine is broken.

The next section is all about sex. The Big One. The one that pisses off people in power poignantly. The header for this section reads as follows: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures should not infer that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing.” Remember, it is 1930 afterall. Ironically, for as little attention the film code desires to give sex, it sure spends a lot of time talking about it. The word “institution,” can be removed so it reads slightly smoother: “The sanctity of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” Continuing, “sex relationships,” is extremely ambiguous. Are they referring to prostituion, adultery, sex out-of-wedlock, gay sex? Instead, let us not beat around the proverbial bush and state: “Pictures should not infer that sex outside of wedlock is accetpable or common.” Considering the obvious Christian intimations throughout the document it is safe to assume that the word “wedlock,” properly summarizes the conditons to warrent the portrayal of sex on screen. In all, the revised sentences are as follows: “The sanctity of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures should not infer that sex outside of wedlock is acceptable or common.” Word economy advocates for the replacement of phrases with singular words when applicable and “sex relationships,” desperately needs it, because it has no meaning whatsoever. I have never heard that phrase in my life, nor have I seen it written until now. It is especially abhorrent when one understands the words that compose the phrase, but not the phrase itself. Oh the irony — more means less, and less means more. 

Subsection one details the conditions of adultery as: “Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, justified, or presented attractively.” Is “justify,” not to “present attractively?” Again, the reduncies are clear throughout the text, as too often words are inexplicably followed by synonymous phrases. If the aforementioned phrase was deleted, the sentence would continue to convey the same message. As a side note, it is humerous how, sex, an inherently pleasant experience, must not be “presented attractively.” One can clearly see where Orwell got his inspiration for sex being “A duty to the Party,” in 1984. The other subsections continue in a similar vein to those of the “Crime,” section, as redundancies, and loading are aplenty. 

Having read up to this point, one can see the pattern that is forming: state, babble, restate and repeat. This is the recipe for fluff — a lovely substance that turns garbage into gold with about as much structural integrity as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. With all jokes aside, word economy is essential to crafting a text that accurately conveys one’s messages. If the piece is too involved, such as the “1930 Motion Picture Codes,” meaning is lost in the diction. Keeping one’s sentences simple, but precise, is an important skill to have in all forms of writing. With the sheer number of words in the English language, and the multitude of homonyms (words that are spelled the same but mean different things), as Percival Everett said: “It’s a miracle we understand each other at all.” We certainly do not need poor word economies to complicate our language more than it already is.     

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