Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2003 / 20 Shevat, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Consumer Reports

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire | 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:

  • You'll be lucky to get this person to work for you.
  • I cannot recommend this person too highly.
  • I recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
  • She has made immeasurable contributions to our firm
  • Nobody is better than this man.
  • I found myself frequently raving about her work.
  • We were teetering on the threshold of bankruptcy last year, and her efforts pulled us through.
  • For the services he has rendered to our firm over the years, we find ourselves deeply indebted.
  • I would place her research on the cutting edge.
  • He was never away from his job too long.
  • She is now ready to strike out in a career.
  • Whatever task he undertakes, he will be fired with enthusiasm.
  • I would place this student in a class by herself.

For many months, I've wanted to write this column very badly. And now I have.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


01/16/03: Retro-active words
12/19/02: Why I deserve welfare --- actual letters
12/05/02: English for -- make that "by" -- foreigners
11/21/02: Humorously Inclined Informational Products
11/14/02: Disorder in the Court: a Collection of 'Transquips'
10/31/02: Oxymoronology
10/24/02: The Bandwagon
10/17/02: Is life a movie? We all speak their lines
10/03/02: Brave New Words
09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer