Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2003 / 20 Shevat, 5763
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | One year during tax season, the H&R Block Company ran an ad claiming that it "prepares more complex tax returns than any CPA firm in America."
Does this means that the Company prepares tax returns that are more complex (which is how most consumers interpreted the claim) or that it prepares a greater quantity of complex tax returns? Grammatically, does the adjective "more" modify "complex" or "returns"?
Challenged by the New York State Society of CPAs, an H&R Block assistant vice president said that the company defines "complex" as individual returns with schedules. He added that the qualification "makes it clear that H&R Block does not purport to prepare tax returns that are more complex than the tax returns prepared by CPA firms."
Whether by accident or on purpose, H&R Block ended up with an ambiguous statement that just happened to serve their bottom line.
Such corporate doublespeak harks back "L.I.A.R.," a little book by Robert Thornton that appeared more than a decade ago. Like the H&R Block ad, "L.I.A.R." demonstrates that language can fly in the face of the physical law that says two things can't occupy the same space at the same time. In fact, two entirely opposite meanings can do just that.
Writing letters of recommendation is no easy task. For one thing, it is exceedingly difficult to honestly evaluate a person with whom you have worked closely, whom you have taught or near whom you have lived. And these days your statements may not be confidential. The person you are recommending can exercise a legal right to read your letter - and can even sue you if the contents offend his or her sensibilities or are insufficiently substantiated.
Don't despair. A solution is at hand in the form of "L.I.A.R.," a bacronym for "Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations." Thornton's loopy guidebook uses cleverly ambiguous phrases to steer a sane course between the Scylla of the desire to write an honest, informative recommendation and the Charybdis of the wrath of the recommendee and the threat of a lawsuit.
Now it is possible to write statements about a candidate's personal qualities, work habits, and motivation that are guaranteed litigation-proof because they can be interpreted both positively and negatively.
If the candidate has been habitually absent from work, for example, you can write, "A man like him is hard to find," which can mean either "He disappears frequently" or "He is an unusually fine employee." If she is afflicted with alcohol or drug problems, "She was always high in my opinion" or "We remember the hours she spent working with us as happy hours" or "I would say that her real talent is getting wasted at his current job" will do the ambiguous trick.
What to say about an employee with a criminal background? Try "He's a man of many convictions" or "She has a long and notable record" or "While he worked with us, he was given many citations" or "Give her the opportunity and she will forge a name for herself."
If you want to fudge just plain incompetence on the job, slip in any of these pushme-pullyou testimonials from "L.I.A.R.," each of which manages to praise and damn at the same time:
For many months, I've wanted to write this column very badly. And now I have.
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01/16/03: Retro-active words