1,000 Words on Writer’s Cramp

The below essay comes from my colleague, Paul Franklin Stregevsky, and is reprinted with his permission. Despite its impending Bar Mitzvah (it originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2000), it remains an instant classic.

“How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2000?”

So asks Question 1 of the U.S. Census 2000. That’s easy: five. But wait—there are two answer blocks. Should the 5 go in the left block, or the right? If the right, should I write a 0 in the left block? If I guess wrong, the computer may think I mean 50. Or zero.

Perhaps Question 2 will prove less tricky: House number. Easy: 13. But what’s this? There are 10 blocks. Will the computer look for my digits in the left blocks? Or the right? I know what I think they want. The question is: What do they think I think they want?

“If you need help completing this form,” promises the bold print, “call 1-800-471-9424.” I call. After dodging the automated responses, I explain my problem to Tracy. Sweet, unsuspecting Tracy. Nothing has prepared her for a dimwit like me. She starts to recite the “who to include” tips that appear on the form, directly below my two empty blocks.

“Tracy,” I interrupt, “have you been trained to give me any response other than the advice on the form?”

“No, Sir.”

I scour the census mailing for a web address. Bingo. I log on to http://www.2000.census.gov, where a bold hyperlink promises that you can “find help with any problems you might have in responding to the census.” Any. I like any.

Two clicks later, I’m at “Questions for Person 1” (me). But wait: The list starts with Question 3! The Census Bureaucrats can’t imagine someone having angst over Q1 or Q2. They can’t imagine someone who finds ambiguity in the simplest statement. They can’t, in short, imagine me—a technical writer.

I don’t doubt that 95% of non-morons find Questions 1 and 2 perfectly clear. Their lucky souls would puzzle how anyone could infer two meanings from such simple questions. And I am equally mystified how they see just one. In my perfect world, everyone would be as befuddled as I.

My dad certainly was. To his dying day, he would shortcircuit each time my mother asked him to “turn up the air conditioning.” If the dial reads 70, was he supposed to turn the dial forward, to 72, or backward, to 68?

Our apparently congenital affliction has brought untold grief into my marital life, as well. “Put this bowl over there,” my first wife, Susan, would say, nodding vaguely northeast. I’d stare blankly “over there,” then ask, “Do you mean on the table, or on the counter?”

One clear, crisp autumn day, I was standing outside our apartment when Susan called down: “Is it cold outside?” I responded sensibly: “That depends. There’s a lot of radiant heat. But there’s not much convective heat.” To my astonishment, she asked again. So I clarified: “If you stand in the sun and wear a jacket, you’ll feel warm. In the shade without a jacket, you’ll feel cold.” When she asked a third time, I lost all patience. “Look,” I called tersely, “It’s about 70 degrees in the sun, 60 in the shade, and the wind is blowing at 8 miles an hour. Is it cold outside? You decide.”

The next summer, at lunch, Susan asked me to pour some juice into her tapered champagne glass. “How far?” I asked. “About halfway,” she replied. Here we go. “Halfway by volume, or halfway by height?” Before long, my dear wife had had enough. Now, I’m someone else’s headache.

You see, I’ve literally made a career of combating ambiguity. As a technical writer, I live by Francis Bacon’s creed: “Write not so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.” As a technical editor, I used to pale when instructed to “just fix obvious mistakes.” Danger, Will Robinson. To a professional idiot, all ambiguity is obvious.

Yet despite what two bosses, one ex-wife, and one current wife may think, I am far from alone in my befuddlement. “You Can’t Miss It”—my thesis for a master’s degree in technical and professional communication—explored how drivers deal with confusing directions. “Go half a mile,” you’re assured, “then turn left at Center Street.” You drive half a mile and come to Center Boulevard. Do you turn? Or do you drive on, hoping that Center Street is just around the bend?

Normal people boast that they arrive at a correct understanding by quickly filtering out irrelevant interpretations. When you test them, however, the truth emerges: Other meanings just don’t occur to them. For example, I’ve always had a problem remembering which way to adjust my clock every spring and fall, because I don’t get the mnemonic “Spring forward, fall back.” This morning, should 2 A.M. have become 3 A.M. or 1 A.M.? Friends can’t imagine my confusion. “Forward means forward,” they say.

Oh? Suppose you have a 2 P.M. department meeting. That morning, the boss’s secretary calls and says, “The boss can’t make the two o’clock. He’s moved the meeting an hour forward.”

So when’s the meeting? Three o’clock? Or one o’clock? Would you bet your next promotion on it?

The once-infallible College Board has conceded that some of its questions may unwittingly allow two correct answers. After sitting for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, you can now receive the answers and challenge the Board’s “correct” answer. The kids who win these challenges are my teen idols. They make the Board bump up the SAT scores of all savants who answered, “Either B or C.” I’d go further, stripping points from every automaton who answered, “only B.”

Letterman and Leno had a field day when President Clinton told Paula Jones’s lawyers “it depends on that the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” but I understood. Look up the root of is, the verb be, and you’ll find eight meanings. If “To be, or not to be” is the question, Bill and I have 16 answers.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all who would cross the Bridge of Death had to answer three questions posed by its keeper. They who failed were flung into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. The bridge keeper asked King Arthur, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” The king replied, “What do you mean? An African or European swallow?”

“What? I don’t know that!” the keeper protested. Whoosh! The keeper was flung to his death. The tables were turned.

Maybe, if the tables are turned enough times, the questions on Census 2010 will be the census for the Rest of Us. Beneath each question will appear an example—or two. On the Web, just below the link to Frequently Asked Questions, will be a link to IFQs—Infrequently Asked Questions, designed for the clueless multitude. Or, as it were, minitude.

And Tracy 2010 will be as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

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