Editing and More

Opting Out for Clarity’s Sake

I got a thick envelope this week from the mortgage lender that now owns my house. As I glanced through several pages about disclosures and RESPA requirements, a sentence at the top of the last page caught my eye.

You do not need to notify us if you decide not to opt out.

Wait—what?

I make my living parsing sentences; I translate jargon into common English, reset fractured syntax, and mend malapropisms. After three decades as an editor, I’ve become quite skilled at divining an author’s intended meaning, even if I have to pull a sentence apart word by word to find it.

But after reading this sentence multiple times, I’m still not entirely sure I know what it means. The less-than-helpful instructions relate to the mortgage lender’s privacy policies. I THINK I understand this to mean that if I fill out some papers and mail them back, then the lender can’t share my information willy-nilly. And I THINK it means they can do whatever they please with everything they know about me if I don’t mail back the papers. But I am CERTAIN that the lender would prefer me to do nothing at all, which is why they have crafted this sentence to be as confusing as possible.

I spend my time as an editor choosing just the right word, setting up the perfect sentence structure, smoothing out rough spots where readers could get bounced out of the text or tripped up by confusing phrases.

And I have to tip my hat to the writers at Vericrest Financial. Because there is no way a sentence that confusing just “happens.” Every word was carefully chosen and precisely placed so that the lender has fulfilled its legal obligation to inform customers of their privacy rights–but made it far more likely that customers will just toss the papers aside rather than claiming those rights.

Language can be crafted to obscure just as much as it can be used to illuminate. Vericrest Financial proves it.

 

3 Responses so far.

  1. Jim Dillon says:

    My ex-father-in-law was an attorney who cared (and still does) passionately about the importance of the law to civilized society. He also has a very deep love of well-written prose. As you can imagine, in 40 years of practice, he developed an allergy to the sort of writing in your example. Like you, it was always clear to him that many such instances are carefully crafted to deceive or at least confuse, and cannot be written off as mere carelessness. It was also very clear to him that this sort of shenanigan, allowed to flourish, leaves us all in a less-civil society. Think of that amazing phrase from the Brown v. Board of Education decision, “with all deliberate speed.”

    • Jim Dillon says:

      Dangit! Like/As got me again. Second time this month – – Margaret spotted one that got out into the wild via a press release.

    • Jim, I tend to think they must offer classes in law school to help students learn how to write this way. Something like: Writing Unclearly 302: In this class, you will practice writing conventions that will help you cloud all intent. Time will be spent practicing the use of double negatives, unclear antecedents and run-on sentences. Much of this course will be dedicated to mastering the use of passive voice.

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