Yesterday I talked about how useful I find Wikipedia for first-level research–for providing a general basis of information so I can decide where to focus my research more specifically. But there’s another way that I find Wikipedia a great resource: the horrible, horrible writing.
The overwhelming volume of prose on Wikipedia is contributed by people wholly without skill as writers or editors. At least the factual inaccuracies are generally violations of some Wikipedia policy or another, such as neutral point of view or original research or verifiability, so there’s a mechanism to correct them. But not only is bad writing itself not a violation of Wikipedia policy, many Wikipedia writers actually go to great length to enshrine bad writing as policy; witness, for instance, the protracted argument over whether we should talk about the Beatles or The Beatles, in which over eleven thousand words are expended before the proponents of The grudgingly concede that the is correct–though as a peek at any Beatles-related article will show, they have then proceeded simply to act as if the outcome of the argument was that the capital T should be used at all times.
I’d go so far as to say that the writing on Wikipedia is so bad that it becomes instructively bad–often, there’s something to be learnt about writing good prose from examining just how the prose on Wikipedia manages to be so bad.
The Wikipedism that I always find most glaring is their habit of peppering their nouns and adjectives with the modifiers then- and now- at every opportunity they can find. It’s endemic throughout Wikipedia, and seeing it over and over again has led me to a conclusion: it is never appropriate to make your writing uglier by prepending then- or now- to a word.
Right away, I’m suspicious of that declaration. I’m generally distrustful of absolutes, in writing, in philosophy, in life; it’s my experience that almost always, the best path is some sort of middle road. I hope there’s an exception to the then- and now- rule; I hope some day I either think of a circumstance where they add meaning or aren’t ugly and awkward, or come across the circumstance in my reading. But of the hundreds of times I’ve seen them appear in Wikipedia articles, in every single instance they have been ugly and awkward, while adding no meaning to the sentence.
From Wikipedia’s article on the 1938 Munich Crisis: In fact, Edvard Beneš, the then-President of Czechoslovakia, had the military print the march orders for his army and put the press on standby for a declaration of war. Whoever wrote that sentence must have believed that if they omitted it, his readers ran the risk of not understanding that, in an article describing a diplomatic crisis between Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1938, the person referred to as “President of Czechoslovakia” was president at the time of the Crisis, and not necessarily president at another time. What exactly is the author worried about? That we’ll think the president mobilising the 1938 Czech army and making announcements to the 1938 Czech press is actually the current president of a no-longer-extant nation? Is the 1974 president? The 1919 president?
Or from Wikipedia’s article on Peter Gabriel: The third album is often credited as the first LP to use the now-famous “gated drum” sound. Again, what is the author of that sentence worried we won’t understand if he omits the now-? Is it that we might think the gated drum sound was famous in the past, but isn’t famous now? That makes no sense. Or does the author want us to understand that while the gated drum sound is famous now, it wasn’t famous at the time it was introduced? Well, how would we reach the conclusion that it was famous at the time it was first used? How many recording techniques are famous before they’re invented?
Let’s look at these sentences if we make one small change to each of them:
In fact, Edvard Beneš, the President of Czechoslovakia, had the military print the march orders for his army and put the press on standby for a declaration of war.
The third album is often credited as the first LP to use the famous “gated drum” sound.
They both mean exactly the same as the originals. Removing the unwanted modifiers makes the sentences lexically more attractive, and it does it without removing a single drop of meaning. Wikipedia articles are full of horrible habits like these, but this is the one that’s always struck me as amongst the most widespread, easiest to spot, and unambiguously indefensible.