August 2020 Handgrenade--What's in a Noun?

John T Kuehn's picture

What's in a Noun?

John T. Kuehn

Just a quick one folks:  Let us look at a typical sentence written in professional military education these days (PME):

"General George Patton was a maginficent Soldier.  His Troops performed magnificently during World War II and brought great Honor on themselves, our Nation, and for the gratitude of their Families."

Aside from other possible grammatical errors and the triumphal style,  how many unnecessary formal nouns?  

I count five:  soldier, troops, honor, nation, and families.  And that is just the beginning...and only two sentences.

This sort of usage litters miitary writing these days, and it is starting to creep into formal and academic writing--or if you go to this website: will find that it has more than "creeped" into for what passes for academic writing in PME.

I know this handgrenade is a bit off topic---or should I write Handgrenade?--but I've been busy and this was the first thing that came to mind since I have recently been reveiwing quite a few papers and masters theses manuscripts.

Happy August...wash your hands, wear your masks, and socially distance (especially indoors).     John

Were I a History professor I'd give that guy a D if he turned in something that read like that. Sometimes you need to paint with a broad brush, but never that broad. In my opinion. PME should enforce higher standards of composition.

An interesting examination of discipline in writing or lack of it. In my career as a university teaching career, my time at CAC, and my subsequent career as a DoD civilian, I believe the phenomenon you highlight is caused by several aspects of modern life. Many of the students and officers and civil servants suffer from what can be called "intellectual insecurity." As undergraduates they were never expected to write much nor do much research. As a result they take refuge in overblown rhetoric. The prose is flabby because the intellectual underpinning is weak. I suspect thesis advisors and committees do not take the time to edit and/or carefully read the submitted material. The result is a 40 page seminar paper that is turned into a 100 page thesis. This is compounded by the constant use of PowerPoint, which does not encourage anyone to go beyond the surface of any topic. I once heard Hal Winton say the Army began going downhill when generals began getting briefings and ceased to read reports. What you describe is not only found in PME but in much academic writing. Again, this is only my opinion based on my 50 year career in the formal and informal teaching profession - yes, I did profess and educate.

You raise an interesting point and highlight a real problem. It is not simply confined to PME but may be found in all forms of academic and professional writing. The flabby prose you use as examples may be the result of intellectual/academic insecurity. Many students are not given enough opportunities to write and do research as part of an undergraduate education outside of English Composition classes. This leads to using more words than necessary to express one's ideas. This results in a 40 page seminar paper turning into a 100 page MA thesis. Then, faculty - thesis advisors and committees - may be too hard pressed to give the paper the time and attention it deserves. Then, word processing encourages "thinking with your fingers." And using PowerPoint stifles any attempt to go beyond a glib phrasing; ideas are not explored. Finally, as Hal Winton once explained to me: the Army started going downhill when generals stopped reading reports and relied exclusively on briefings. He used more colorful language. Finally, I don't think its crept into writing - it has broken down the walls and stormed into the citadel.

Lewis, I agree, at least with the notion that these are all factors, maybe even primary factors, in why they write this way.

BTW, I have a grammar and style sheet I give every student in which I turn the tables on them, with an acronym for the most common errors to save time writing the same comments over and over.....EG PA stands for pronoun agreement. PV is passive voice.

But your comment about power point made me chuckle, I have another acronym comment "PPT=power point error, comes from writing in bulletized formats all the time and creating lists."

It is about a page and half long. Jon House has a narrative version of several pages he gives the students and discusses the lead versus led mistake one sees everywhere these days.

I think I know what I will post as next month's hand grenade...unless something else more hand grenade-ish comes up.

all the best, John

One of my feedback comments for my undergrads is "UC" for "unnecessary capitalization." It's endemic.

How about adding marine (when not proceeded but US) to your list? When I taught ROTC HQs began to capitalize cadet. Any Tom, Dick and Harry thinks their hot button noun needs special treatment. It's like creeping reserved parking spaces on some bases. 20 years ago US Army cracked down on that abuse: only generals and handicapped. Wouldn't surprise me if random spaces for sergeant major, soldier of the year, etc have crept back.

I concur with what Lewis Bernstein says, but would like to offer a word in defense of that widely-condemned devil application, PowerPoint. As an intelligence analyst and (simultaneously) a USAF Air Staff Action Officer I learned that it is often necessary to resort to PowerPoint, the best tool for the all-too-frequently-needed "elevator pitch." Senior decision-makers in the Pentagon and the executive branch agencies (Dept. of Energy, in my case) have a necessarily limited attention span and offer narrow windows of opportunity for us in the information business to get our message across.

In my career(s) I've written some lengthy, thoughtful intelligence research reports and position papers, chock full of whatever nuance is called for, splitting hairs as needed, footnoted six ways from Sunday. Drafted one National Intelligence Estimate and contributed to several more. But when I had my fifteen minutes of fame in front of an Assistant Secretary or a Deputy Chief of Staff for whatever, PowerPoint was what I needed to grab their attention. Really, what else is there? Sure, I've seen it done poorly, who hasn't? But I think there's no reason why a well-done PowerPoint briefing couldn't be viewed, in a certain slant of light, as a minor work of art.

Probably guilty of such infractions of grammar and likely, more than one occasion, Prof. Bernstein and Ralph raise valid points about importance to composition and writing of History[as well as other materials].

But, should like to ask one question. Other than a strictly factual statement of History[as well as non history], doesn't the issue leave incomplete the reasons for writing history; to wit, 'interpretations' of facts as an explanation of both History and its meaning[s] ?

This latter is quite important to writing a 'true' history ?

One other matter, possibly, standards mentioned by Prof. Bernstein. Can present practices be the same as past or have past practices been subjected to declines.

If I may step in as a semi-recent (gosh, it's been almost 5 years already) US Army retiree, there's some missing context here. I will not defend the incorrect spelling ("maginficent"), nor the fact that it sounds like a boiler-plate, uninspired, and thoroughly useless catch-all statement written at the end of some poor (S)oldier's Army Achievement Medal citation because he managed to go six months without causing bodily self-harm.

Specifically on the subject of unnecessary capitalization, however, the student is not at fault; the US Army is. Remembering back at least as far as my time as a company executive officer in 2000-2001 (possibly before, but I did not write many memos as a platoon leader), the word "(S)oldier" has been Capitalized in official Army memorandums, correspondence, etc. Why? Because if we don't, how will the Soldiers know we respect and value them? Well, and if we capitalize "Soldier," then are not "(T)roops" the same thing? Then as we progressed further and further into non-stop deployments post-2003, we had to start capitalizing "(F)amily" because we wouldn't want the home front to feel snubbed. "(H)onor" is an official (A)rmy (V)alue, so must be important enough to capitalize, right? We do all this for the "(N)ation", so let's capitalize that too. I doubt the writing regulations that hardly anyone ever actually reads mandate all of these, but they FEEL like they follow, and so become practice.

The practice itself is stupid, I chafed at it for years, but not enough to not comply when my superiors sent back a memo for me to fix it. And thus, all of us become indoctrinated into this silliness. I'm sure many a deployed Soldier and their Families back home felt better because of it. Incidentally, this spanned multiple administrations, lest anyone think there's a partisan angle on this.

Dr. Hitchens writes "Were I a History professor I'd give that guy a D if he turned in something that read like that," and I agree, especially in a non-military environment. However, PME students are still active duty officers at a military institution, even those of us who were farmed out to other locations than Leavenworth. While I did not carry over this particularly dreadful habit into my own academic writing, I merely wish with the above to point out that stupid or not, this is how many officers are trained to write their official correspondence, and the distinction between their normal "military" writing and writing at PME may be blurred as it's still a "military" institution. I would suggest that at PME this should be recognized, though not ignored. A simple explanation of "we follow academic standards for writing, so read your Strunk and White. These military habits specifically (non-standard capitalization, writing US Army instead of U.S. Army (as I still do), etc. are to be avoided in academic prose" should suffice as warning, then penalized when the students inevitably revert back to their conditioning.

I have had other habits to break, as my adviser would be happy to tell you. Writing SME policy snippets for DoD decision makers who have no background on your subject seems like it should translate more directly, however...

As a teacher of writing, who has run multiple composition programs, I have strong opinions on this problem. First, it's always a problem--probably caused by the way that we learn to perform in a new area. Linguists say that we are initially are mimetic, and then we become transactional--that is, newbies first try to make their writing look like the writing they're reading and told to admire. As a person comes to understand a field (and have an actual argument to make), they start focusing on their argument rather than just trying to imitate. (If you have any of your first-year composition essays, or, more horrifying, papers you wrote in your first of graduate school, reread them some time. You'll stop complaining about "kids these days.")

Second, standardized testing has reinforced students' tendency toward a truncated writing process--a one and done process. So, students are trying to create, critique, and revise a sentence all at once. That's stressful, and therefore they tend to procrastinate till panic enables them to write *something.* Most writers have a recursive writing process, what one colleague describes as a narcissistic first draft, and second pass in which you're trying to make sure it's the argument you want to make, and a third in which you're trying to read it from an audience's perspective. (Some people say the process is from writer-based prose to reader-based prose.)

Finally, standardized testing rewards Latin-based vocabulary and lots of words. (There's good reason to think a large number of tests are machine-graded.) Those essays aren't graded on the basis of whether the writer is making a sensible argument supported with good evidence, but whether they can follow a form.

In other words, people write this way because it's rewarded. And don't get me started on the blather that passes for commentary on TV or radio.

First, I agree with most of Ralph Hitchens's comments. I, too, have similar experiences although I've never prepared a National Intelligence Estimate. PowerPoint is extraordinarily useful if the briefer is knowledgeable, otherwise the brief resembles the Powder River, five miles wide and one inch deep. I've seen both and I've seen intelligent senior leaders ask a briefer probing questions to learn the depth of their knowledge.
Second, briefings of a certain type mean you don't have to read. You can be told about things. A briefer can fill you in on a situation. You question the briefer for ten minutes and it's over. It's easier than reading and thinking and more reassuring.
Third, this has to do with reading. Those who do not read, or read little, or read only trash, are people with an impediment: they can speak much but they can say little, because their vocabularies are deficient in the means for self-expression. We learn how to speak correctly – and deeply, vigorously and subtly – from good literature, and only from good literature.

I, too, have run into the random capitalization problem teaching in both military and civilian schools, and as a staff officer.

While assigned to the Joint Staff 1999-2002 we were holding the line against capitalizing "marine," despite consistent Marine Corps staff comments on strategy documents suggesting that we treat it as a proper noun regardless of usage or context. But it was clear we were fighting a losing battle. There were already hints that the Army and USAF were thinking it would be a good idea to capitalize "soldier" and "airman," and I was in constant search of the person who decided "nation" needed a capital N. As Nate Ledbetter points out, once it becomes part of the normal military style requirement, questions of whether these random capitals are actually in accordance with standard English style norms are moot (or "mute" as most of my students would say).

Another capitalization stratagem I noticed was the "reverse acronym capitalization" technique. That is, people assuming that because an acronym is rendered in capital letters (ICBM) they should capitalize the words when they are written out (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).

Teaching grad courses at a civilian university after I retired, I encountered students who seemingly just arbitrarily capitalized words whenever it occurred to them to do so. I often wondered whether habits of texting and tweeting where capitals signify emphasis or shouting were to blame, but the capitalized words in their papers usually didn't require either.

Regarding Ralph Hitchens defense of PowerPoint, I agree it can be done well. The problem is that 99 percent of the time, it's not even close to being done well. To write a short paper or PPT briefing as a work of art (minor or otherwise) takes actual work and thought, based on the realization that briefly stating something meaningful is much more difficult than typing a slapdash list of generalizations in a pretty font on a slide. I always referred my military students in particular to Edward Tufte's short pamphlet called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (at - a devastating takedown of the PPT norms that people are taught and a compelling argument that instead of defaulting to slide presentations we should use whatever mechanism is best suited to conveying the information we're trying to present. (And I'll stop here, before I really get on my soapbox about all the inane PPT briefings I saw in my career.)

Karen Wilhelm (USAF, ret.)