Less Than Words Can Say


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Richard Mitchell is trying to stay awake. What’s putting him, and all of us to sleep? “Insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, [that] have fled utterly from things and ideas.”

In Less Than Words Can Say, Mitchell wakes everybody up with the most devastating exposé to date of our rampant misuse of English. A Don Quixote–Savonarola might be more apt–of language, he wages war on its perverters, from teachers and deans to politicians and bureaucrats, whose consistently overblown prose offers us inanity in the guise of wisdom.

“Words never fail,” Mitchell declares–and inane words never fail to damage the brain. All too often, words are used imprecisely by administrators and bureaucrats, as unintelligible public documents, oblique grant proposals, and pretentious administrative memoranda attest. Mitchell’s cantankerous crusade indicts government agency “chairs” for the intimidating and obfuscating “legalese” of their profession, obsequious grant-seekers who supplicate foundations in time-honored cant, and aspiring academics who speak in the Divine Passive.

According to Mitchell, this bureaucratic jargon is turning us into a nation of baffled, inept, frustrated, and–ultimately–violent people, and the public schools are to blame. For the past thirty-five years, they have taught children to socialize rather than to read, write, and cipher–the only disciplines that foster clear language and logical thought. Mitchell’s alarming conclusion is that our schools are turning out illiterates who will never manage their lives–because, lacking “the power of language,” they can’t think.


Richard Mitchell is a professor of English at Glassboro State College and editor and publisher of the controversial monthly publication The Underground Grammarian.


“Richard Mitchell objects to renaming libraries ‘learning resource centers.’ That is an example of his clear thinking. If English is saved, he will be one of its saviors.” Edwin Newman

Less Than Words Can Say is by far the most entertaining, intelligent, and above all, the most important work on the deplorable state of American English I have read, and I have read many.” Thomas H. Middleton

“Richard Mitchell has the courage to write well–an even rarer courage now that sloppy thought is equated with democratic virtue. His own prose illustrates the qualities and habits of mind our educationists don’t want our children to develop: wit, clarity, precision, mastery of detail, intellectual self-respect, and contempt for charlatans. J. Mitchell Morse

“I, too, have been there…and , too, have railed at the gobbledygook and nonsense of pedagoguese….I hope Less Than Words Can Say finds its way into all the bureaucratic mazes of our land.” Bel Kaufman

“The wittiest, the most brilliant and, probably the most penetrating discussion now available of our growing American illiteracy. This book must be read at once, in the short time that remains before all of us become incapable of reading and writing.” Clifton Fadiman


Foreword “Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.”

1. The Worm in the Brain “The next step is not taken until you learn to see a world in which worms are eaten and decisions made and all responsible agency has disappeared. Now you are ready to be an administrator.”

2. The Two Tribes “There is a curious thing about the way they use their verbs. They have, of course, both passive and active forms, but they consider it a serious breach of etiquette amounting almost to sacrilege to use the active form when speaking of persons.”

3. A Bunch of Marks “An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages.”

4. The Voice of Sisera “Jefferson must have imagined an America in which all citizens would be able, when they felt like it, to address one another as members of the same class. That we cannot do so is a sore impediment to equality, but, of course, a great advantage to those who can use the English of power and wealth.”

5. “let’s face it Fellows” “The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can’t spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher’s ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well.”

6. Trifles “Our educators, panting after professionalism, are little interested in being known for a picayune concern with trifles like spelling and punctuation. They would much rather make the world a better place. They have tried on the gowns of philosophers, psychologists, and priests.”

7. The Columbus Gap “American public education is a remarkable enterprise; it succeeds best where it fails. Imagine an industry that consistently fails to do what it sets out to do, a factory where this year’s product is invariably sleazier than last year’s but, nevertheless, better than next year’s.”

8. The Pill “Thought control, like birth control, is best undertaken as long as possible before the fact. Many grown-ups will obstinately persist, if only now and then, in composing small strings of sentences in their heads and achieving at least a momentary logic. This probably cannot be prevented, but we have learned how to minimize its consequences by arranging that such grown-ups will be unable to pursue that logic very far.”

9. A Handout of Material “The propensity for borrowed jargon is always a mark of limited ability in the technique of discursive thought. It comes from a poor education. A poor education is not simply a matter of thinking that components and elements might just as well be called factors; it is the inability to manipulate that elaborate symbol system that permits us to make fine distinctions among such things.”

10. Grant Us, O Lord “One of the most important uses of language in all cultures is the performance of magic. Since language deals easily with invisible worlds, it’s natural that it provide whatever access we think we have to the world of the spirits.”

11. Spirits from the Vasty Deep “Bad writing is like any other form of crime; most of it is unimaginative and tiresomely predictable. The professor of education seeking a grant and the neighborhood lout looking for a score simply go and do as their predecessors have done. The one litanizes about carefully unspecified developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, and the other sticks up the candy store.”

12. Darkling Plain English “The bureaucrats who have produced most of our dismal official English will, at first, be instructed to fix it. They will try, but nihil ex nihilo. That English is the mess it is because they did it in the first place and they’ll never be able to fix it.”

13. Hydra “At one time I thought that I was the victim of a conspiracy myself. I was certain that the Admissions Office had salted my classes with carefully selected students, students who had no native tongue.”

14. The Turkeys that Lay the Golden Eggs “The minimum competence school of education is nothing new. We’ve had it for many years, but we didn’t talk about it until we discovered that we could make a virtue of it.”

15. Devices and Desires “If you cannot be the master of your language, you must be its slave. If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be.”

16. Naming and Telling “Two things, then, are necessary for intelligent discourse: an array of names, and a conventional system for telling. The power of a language is related, therefore, to the size and subtlety of its lexicon, its bank of names, and the flexibility and accuracy of its telling system, its grammar.”

17. Sentimental Education “The history of mankind hasn’t yet provided any examples of a decrease in stupidity and ignorance and their presumably attendant evils, but we have hope. After all, history hasn’t provided anything like us, either, until pretty recently.”

Critical Bibliography “I should say, for those who might think these things unusual, that they aren’t and that they weren’t difficult to find.”