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A Quagmire of Obtuse Construction April 9, 2015

Posted by nrhatch in Humor, Word Play, Writing & Writers.

Sometimes wading through the written word is like getting sucked into an imbroglio of briars and quicksand.

Instead of building from Point A to Point B, certain writers circle around the point they are trying to express, using as many ostentatious, esoteric, and cumbersome words as possible.

Cautious readers must wear hip boots or waders to protect against muck, mire, and the occasional thorn. 

When I can’t follow a writer’s line of reasoning on a subject with which I am conversant, I assume the problem lies with the writer and not the reader.  :mrgreen:

Lest you accuse me of hubris, I followed the less than pellucid wanderings, wonderings, mutterings, and meanderings of Kant, Hume, Sartre, Descartes, and Socrates as a Philosophy major in college . . . without major mishap.

In law school, I studied and digested 75 page “briefs” of the United States Supreme Court . . . with only rare indigestion or stomach upset resulting from the effort.

Based on these experiences, it is my reasoned opinion that good writers, even those espousing philosophical musings, manage to convey complex ideology in a straightforward manner without resorting to obscure references and labyrinthine reasoning.

They bring readers into the fold, rather than leaving them out in the cold.

When writers obfuscate, that propensity may stem from a lack of mental clarity or acuity on their part.  Perhaps they haven’t yet grasped what it is they are attempting to say.

Even if that appears the most ostensible or plausible explanation, I try to be charitable and give them the benefit of the doubt.

After all, if we didn’t know what we wanted to say, would we say anything?

In some cases, I suspect that lack of clarity in sentence after ghastly sentence stems from a latent desire to confuse and mislead readers, by throwing them off the scent.

I know that seems counter-intuitive but watching readers scratch their heads or stall in their tracks may provide befuddled or bemused writers with an ego boost derived from delusions of adequacy.

Who knows?

* He who writes carelessly makes first and foremost the confession that he himself does not place any great value on his thoughts. For the enthusiasm which inspires the unflagging endurance necessary for discovering the clearest, most forceful and most attractive form of expressing our thoughts is begotten only by the conviction of their weightiness and truth – just as we employ silver or golden caskets only for sacred things or priceless works of art. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

* I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.  ~ Blaise Pascal

Aah . . . that’s better!

What about you?  Have you ever waded into a writer’s work and become lost in a quagmire of obtuse construction?  What did you do?

Did you beat a hasty retreat or wallow a while longer?

Related post:  Defending the Chamois (Silver in the Barn)



1. suzicate - April 9, 2015

“What about you? Have you ever waded into a writer’s work and become lost in a quagmire of obtuse construction? What did you do?” -Yes, I have…my own, ha! The delete button is a magical thing!

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Ha! That’s perfect, Suzi. “I have made this more complicated than it deserves . . . because I can’t figure out how to K.I.S.S.!”

2. Pix Under the Oaks - April 9, 2015

Answering your question ~ Yes I have… I beat a hasty retreat, occasionally feeling I should have wallowed but I am a big girl now and I can do what I want to do. I feel like there are other things I would rather do than wallow… time spent enjoying other things 🙂
Happy to see another post Nancy!

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Hi Pix. I’m with you. Why spend time “reading through gauze” or wading through purple prose when we could be enjoying other pursuits.

Yesterday, we headed to UTC and indulged in mini indulgences at Season’s 52. We waved at Rise Pies as we walked by. 😎

Pix Under the Oaks - April 9, 2015

Lucky you two! We were hunkered down on The Tiny Ten dodging severe storms.. bah. Repeat today I think. I can taste a Rise Pie right now.. 😀

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Sorry to hear of your stormy weather, Pix. Hope the sun returns to the Tiny Ten in due course, short order, or both!

Silver in the Barn - April 9, 2015

Hi Pix, I never feel guilty any more about abandoning a book (or a blog) that is not written well. Life is just too durn short!!!

3. Don - April 9, 2015

I’ve certainly waded in to stuff like that Nancy. Out of respect I have persisted and struggled on, and then I’ve simply let go of it. Something I’m often aware of in a lot of writing is a plethora of adverbs and adjectives which are suppose to provide a descriptive quality, but ultimately get in the way of the movement, direction and meaning. Great post Nancy.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Yes! Adverbs and adjectives when misplaced or overdone may well detract from the subject at hand. I abandoned a book last week that seemed designed to throw readers off the scent.

I have little respect for writers who don’t respect their readers.

4. L. Marie - April 9, 2015

Great post, Nancy. One of my grad school advisors told me, “I hate this” in regard to my attempts at sounding lyrical and profound. She never minced words. That was the wake-up call I needed to stop pretending and start communicating for real.

I try to live by this statement of yours: “They bring readers into the fold, rather than leaving them out in the cold.”

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

I love your grad school adviser’s straight shooting ~ sometimes being too P.C. gets in the way of honest communication. I hate to tip toe around a topic rather than diving right in.

What I’ve read of your writing draws me in . . . always.

L. Marie - April 9, 2015

Aww. Thank you.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

My pleasure.

5. Kate Crimmins - April 9, 2015

I toss the book, close the Kindle or delete the story. I had a collection of books never finished which were donated.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Sounds like me, Kate. At the moment, none of the bloggers I follow is guilty of intentional obtuseness. In the past, I have unsubscribed from blogs that lacked clarity, especially when it seemed to stem from a desire to impress readers by confusing them. :mrgreen:

Kate Crimmins - April 9, 2015

Likewise. I followed a blogger who wrote very well when she wanted to but got too absorbed with selfies and obtuse sentences.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

I enjoy blogs that entertain, educate, and amuse . . . those riddled with selfies and obscure references seldom satisfy.

Hope your thumb is feeling a bit better, Kate. Sounds like your simple procedure was NOT so simple.

6. Jill Weatherholt - April 9, 2015

Great post, Nancy! I too have done my share of wading. Like Suzi, it’s often been my own. I try and spare others as much as possible.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Me too! Often, after typing a sentence/paragraph/page, my thoughts settle down, allowing me to eliminate the extraneous to reveal the essential. I try not to press “post” until the fog lifts.

7. William D'Andrea - April 9, 2015

“One so literate that none can comprehend, so erudite that he cannot communicate with his fellow creatures, would be a heinous perversion of nature” Thomas Wolf.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

I thought you might share that quote. It’s apt.

William D'Andrea - April 11, 2015

How did you know that I knew this quote? Did I send it to you in an earlier post to this website?

nrhatch - April 11, 2015

That’s it! You shared it in the comment thread to an earlier version of this post . . . 4 years ago.

William D'Andrea - April 11, 2015

You have one terrific memory!

nrhatch - April 11, 2015

I do have a decent memory, but I “jogged it a bit” when editing the previous post to ready this post for posting. I read through the comments and thought the quote you shared was a good one.

If you’re interested, here’s the link:


8. http://theenglishprofessoratlarge.com - April 9, 2015

Simplify, simplify, simplify. Jargon has to be swept to the wayside.When I teach writing, I tell my students to go for the throat and not dilly dally with long, language-laden introductions circling the topic. Give your reader a break. When I edit manuscripts or speeches, I do the same, advising the writer to cut out the frills and let the bones show.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Awesome advice! When I set out on a journey, I don’t want to start out circling the block 2-3 times before hitting the road ~ lead in paragraphs are often the first thing I cut when editing.

9. Val Boyko - April 9, 2015

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” Albert Einstein
KISS really resonates with me too!

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Yes! When writers meander, my interest in their words flounders, turning to other topics.

10. Silver in the Barn - April 9, 2015

“Omit needless words.” Strunk and White. Elements of Style. I’ll never forget that advice. And I feel no obligation whatsoever to continue reading some piece of dreck which is more about the author’s vain attempt to be clever than to entertain. Blech!

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Yes! Blech! I’ve had Strunk & White’s Element of Style sitting next to me since law school ~ a small book overflowing with weighty advice.

Perhaps pseudo-intellectuals believe that the cleverest wordsmiths of all should not deign to be understood? 🙄

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

As a bit of synchronicity, the Final Jeopardy question yesterday dealt with The Elements of Style!

Silver in the Barn - April 10, 2015

I LOVE that. You know I am a huge fan of synchronicity and the lovely connections in our universe. Thanks for letting me know.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

My pleasure, Barbara. I feel the same about the winks, whispers, and nudges of synchronicity.

nrhatch - April 19, 2015

Thought you might enjoy this:

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker

11. Grannymar - April 9, 2015

I do have a couple of friends who suffer from the debilitating disease of verbal diahorrea! I am not impressed by this excess any more than by those who feel the need to splash their money for all to see.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Sensible approach, GM. Those who try too hard to impress are hard to be around for long. It’s exhausting trying to comply with their demands for an audience. 😎

12. ericjbaker - April 9, 2015

Maybe they get paid by the syllable.

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

That’s how lawyers used to earn their keep ~> hence the wherefors and whatfors and wherebys and henceforths and cease and desist orders (instead of a simple STOP).

And HI! We’ve missed seeing you out and about. Hope you’ll shoot a periodic post into the cyber pipeline soon.

13. Barb - April 9, 2015

Keeping it simple is just……well, so simple really!

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Yes! And so much better than the alternative.

14. brickhousechick - April 9, 2015

“Write” you are, Nancy! You make some excellent points. 🙂

“Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators.” — Albert Camus
“Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple.” — C.W. Ceram

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Those are perfect quotes for this post, Maria. I love them both.

15. anotherday2paradise - April 9, 2015

I’m a great fan of the KISS principle. 🙂

nrhatch - April 9, 2015

Me too! Otherwise, I’d need to provide “secret decoder rings” to readers. 🙄

16. Tiny - April 9, 2015

Good points Nancy. It’s a hasty retreat for me. I can’t read something that I feel the writer doesn’t master…unless I have to. I had a team member once, a young graduate, who just couldn’t come to the point. He could write a page on something he should’ve said in two sentences. I still get a headache when I think back on that ordeal.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

Just thinking about that made MY head hurt. I’ve worked with people who hadn’t mastered the art of building from Point A to Point B ~> whether reading their writing or listening to them speak, I often wondered whether and when they might reach the end. 😉

17. Behind the Story - April 10, 2015

When I can’t follow a writer’s line of reasoning, I conclude that either he’s too lazy to work things out in his head or he’s not a clear thinker. I really do appreciate clear thinkers, whether in writing or speaking.

Do you have some favorite philosophers, some who are less prone to wanderings, wonderings, mutterings, and meanderings?

I received some good news this morning from daughter #2. She must have expressed herself well because she won a case with the WA State Supreme Court in a 9 to 0 opinion. (Sorry for the mommy brag.)

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

I did have favorite philosophers in college, Nicki. These days I just have a favorite philosophy (shared with the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, and others) ~> we are here to be happy.

And that’s exciting news for daughter #2. Appellate argument and advocacy encourages being succinct and to the point. When that RED LIGHT lights up on the podium, the microphone turns off.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

You’ve inspired me to see whose philosophy resonates. Right out of the box, it appears I might find ample points of agreement with Kant:

Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. ~ Immanuel Kant

Act that your principle of action might safely be made a law for the whole world. ~ Immanuel Kant

He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals. ~ Immanuel Kant

It is not God’s will merely that we should be happy, but that we should make ourselves happy. ~ Immanuel Kant

Behind the Story - April 10, 2015

Wow!!! These are wonderful quotes! The second one is more widely known, but the others are just as worthy of being remembered and committed to memory. Thank you, Nancy.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

I do think you’ve inspired me to re-visit a few of the philosophers who filled my thoughts (and blue books) in college. Thanks, Nicki.

18. Three Well Beings - April 10, 2015

I’m quite impressed to learn you were a Philosophy major, Nancy. That is the epitome of dense reading! 🙂 I really admire well-written, tight and concise language and I think there was a time I had more patience for rambling, if we eventually reached the point! But I don’t seem to have that patience any more, and I just find myself skimming to get to a point–provided there is one!

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

Yes! As a teen, I inhaled every word of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and enjoyed the story, the characters, and his writing. As an adult, I did not. I found myself skimming and turning pages to get to the point of his words. Reading it was a chore to be endured rather than a joy to savor.

I also find that I don’t enjoy Dickens’ and Austen as much as I did in my younger years.

I don’t believe it’s because of our current soundbite mentality or because I’m too busy or because I have attention deficit disorder or because I don’t know how to press pause and relax.

Instead, I think it stems from the fact that I no longer need to escape from my life. As a teen, I wanted to get lost in a whirlpool of words and put life on HOLD. These days, I’m happy in the midst of my life and just want to be entertained, educated, or amused for a few hours before I put on the carrots for dinner.

19. NancyTex - April 10, 2015

If I don’t get hooked right off the bat, I end up being a skimmer – hoping the ‘gist of it’ hits me as I scroll quickly through the piece. If it doesn’t, I move on. Life is too short to spend trying to figure out what someone is really trying to say.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

Yes! I quickly tire of wrestling with someone else’s words in what might prove, in the end, to be a futile attempt to glean something of value from a less than lucid submission.

A few excerpts from The Clean (Book)Plate Club:

* No longer a dewy-eyed optimist, I refuse to believe that tedious writing, ill-formed characters, and laborious story lines will transform themselves if I forge ahead.

* Slogging through swamp water to reach a distant destination holds little appeal. I no longer expect to be surprised by a satisfactory ending after a dismal start.

In reading, like life, the journey matters more (to me) than the destination. I refuse to plod along a rocky road riddled with potholes solely to satisfy my curiosity about an unseen destination which may not be worth the trek.

If I don’t like the way a book tastes after sampling a few bites, I spit it out . . . as discretely as possible.


I am hoping to hear that you are feeling better. Soon.

20. beeblu - April 10, 2015

Oh, yes – my own writing, for one. And recently, for a university assignment, I had to précis a 15-page linguistics journal paper that was so badly written, I wanted to run from the planet screaming.

nrhatch - April 10, 2015

You poor thing, BB ~> it’s hard to do a proper summary or abstract when the paper’s author has spent 15 pages chasing his or her tail with no hope of catching it. No wonder you wanted to run from the planet screaming.

Somehow I doubt that your papers plague others in that fashion.

21. Synchronicity x 3! | Spirit Lights The Way - April 13, 2015

[…] (1) On Thursday, in her comment on A Quagmire of Obtuse Construction, Barbara (Silver in the Barn) mentioned The Elements of Style.  […]

22. livelytwist - April 16, 2015

Some ‘intellectuals’ make their arguments ‘sophisticated’ by using complex words. It is not that their arguments don’t make sense but that they are unnecessarily complicated. As for the ones that don’t make sense, I won’t finish reading.

Was it Albert Einstein that said if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough?

But this tendency can creep into anyone’s writing… thanks for a word in due season.

nrhatch - April 16, 2015

Yes! I feel the strongest connection with writers (and bloggers) who use every day vocabulary to convey whatever they have to say.

And yes (maybe): “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” ~ Albert Einstein

It may have been misattributed to Einstein:


23. jannatwrites - April 18, 2015

Well…. I struggled with philosophy (my only “C” in college) and I glaze over when faced with too many “big words” and lengthy sentences that I need to read over and over because I get lost in the middle. In these instances, I give up and move on. I can’t say if it’s the writer or me, but I just stop. I like to keep things simple…. or perhaps I’m just simple(minded?) 🙂

nrhatch - April 19, 2015

In college, I enjoyed grappling with the thorny issues of ethics, morality, “right” living, etc. I still do, to some extent. But I don’t enjoy reading blog posts that meander round and round spewing out ostentatious words in an effort to impress, confuse, or both.

We would never do that, would we? 😎

24. nrhatch - May 30, 2015

We don’t need to write with a thesaurus in one hand, but neither should we “dumb it down.”


25. Silver in the Barn - May 30, 2015

I’ve forgotten what a powerfully well-written post this is. Thanks for the link to mine; I love your bright and shiny brain, Nancy.

nrhatch - May 30, 2015

Thanks, Barb. Right back atcha!

Reading your post today made me focus on the need for balance when reaching for the “right” word.

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