Effective Usage

[UPDATE: So far, the first eight commenters have all read the statement that I’m describing differently from how I read it. This suggests that my and my correspondent’s reading of the term “ingenuity” might well have been idiosyncratic, and that my misunderstanding may have been entirely my fault and not the fault of the author of the statement. Sorry for the confusion if that is indeed what happened. FURTHER UPDATE: Later commenters agree, which persuades me that I indeed just misread the statement; my apologies to our readers and to the author of the statement.]

As I’ve argued before, we law professors ought to teach our students about effective usage — and that includes avoiding usages that are technically “correct.” My advice: “[T]ell your students what’s effective writing, rather than limiting yourself to what’s correct and incorrect. By teaching them that even usages that are approved by the dictionary can still be distracting, alienating, clumsy, or otherwise ineffective, you can help your students think more broadly about how they can improve their work.”

I was reminded of this by an item that Prof. Samuel Levine passed along to me, from the statement that Attorney General Eric Holder issued today (emphasis added):

As of today — what is known as “Cyber Monday” and billed as the busiest online shopping day of the year — anyone attempting to access one of these websites using its domain name will no longer be able to make a purchase. Instead, these online shoppers will find a banner notifying them that the website’s domain name has been seized by federal authorities.

With today’s seizures, we are disrupting the sale of thousands of counterfeit items. We are cutting off funds to those looking to profit from the sale of illegal goods and exploit the ingenuity of others. And, as the holiday shopping season gets underway, we are also reminding consumers to exercise caution when looking for deals and discounts online. To put it simply: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

It seems quite unlikely that Attorney General Holder was faulting the counterfeiters for exploiting people’s cleverness, inventiveness, or creativity. (Selling products that contain counterfeit trademarks doesn’t require such great creativity. [UPDATE: A commenter suggests that the Attorney General was referring to people’s trying to free-ride on creators’ ingenuity, but that struck me as not very likely as to many of the items at issue, such as “shoes, handbags, athletic apparel, [and] sunglasses.” But if that was the point, then it seems to me that “exploit the ingenuity of others” remains confusing, though for reasons other than those I describe below — unless my reaction is highly idiosyncratic, and, who knows, perhaps it might be.] Rather, I take it that he meant that the site operators were exploiting the public’s trust or naivete — their ingenuousness.

Now as it happens, “ingenuity” was indeed once a synonym (more or less) for “ingenuousness.” But though the American Heritage and the Random House label that meaning obsolete, the real problem is not the term’s obsolescence as such: Rather, even if “ingenuity” still maintained “ingenuousness” as a current but rare meaning, why use a rare and potentially ambiguous term? Sure, anyone who reads or hears the quote would likely be able to figure out the meaning from context — but why put people to the trouble?

Even “ingenuousness” would not be perfect here, I think. It’s a pretty rare term — a LEXIS NEWS;MAJPAP (major newspapers) search finds only 17 references in 2010 — and “trust” would be a simpler and more universally accessible substitute. (“Naivete” might also be an option, but perhaps the Attorney General might find that too pejorative to the consumers.) On top of that, “ingenuousness” is itself subtly ambiguous; it could mean either sincerity or naivete, and it might take a bit of effort on the reader’s part to figure out which is meant in context.

And more broadly, I suspect that using fancy words generally tends to increase the risk of writer or editor error. As Prof. Levine speculated in an e-mail to me,

As far as why he would have used “ingenuousness,” my guess is that these kinds of announcements go through multiple drafts, and multiple authors/editors. I would speculate that one of these authors/editors wanted to emphasize the innocence of the victims, and … found a word that reflects this point. A later editor … was not familiar with the word or thought it sounded odd, and replaced it was a more familiar but similar word, thinking it had the same meaning.

This is much less likely with a simple, familiar word such as “trust.”

So one could label the statement “incorrect,” because it is a departure from modern standard English. But that’s not the core mistake here, it seems to me — the core mistake is that the statement is not as effective as it could be, because it’s potentially confusing (which in turn stems, I suspect, from its trying too hard to be fancy). And that’s a problem that “fixing” the statement to say “ingenuousness” wouldn’t entirely resolve.