January 01, 2019 On the Papers

Bad News

Indirect language can show greater concern for the state of mind of the person listening.

George D. Gopen

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Compare the following two sentences:

(A) I have bad news.
(B) I have news not of the kind for which I would have hoped.

Authors of most composition textbooks use this kind of pairing constantly to display their wares: “Here is a bad, evilly written sentence that I have transformed into a fine, virtuous sentence by the application of my wonderfully rigid rules.” Almost all of them would by far prefer (A) to (B). They have many reasons: (A) is shorter—4 words to (B)’s 13. (A) is direct; (B) is rambling and not to the point. The news in (A), while negative, is communicated in a positive way; (B) delivers the negative news only by a use of the negative word “not.” (A) tells us the news is “bad”; (B) never utters an adjective or noun that communicates “bad.” (A) contains no prepositional phrases; (B) is weighed down by two of them.Such responses seriously underestimate the rhetorical complexities involved in the choice between what we might call the “American” version (A) and the “British” version (B). Just imagine hearing (A) recited by a voice from Iowa and (B) by a voice from Henley-on-Thames. You can hear the difference, yes? They both sound at home.

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