Yesterday there was a pretty hilarious article in the New York Times. I don’t know if you saw it. The Times isn’t much on humor, although sometimes they stumble upon some by accident. In this case, however — please note the use of that particular word, “however” — I believe the writer was having some fun with her subject. The piece was entitled, “An Uneasy Marriage of the Cultish and the Rumpled,” and it concerned the merger of Bloomberg, the terminal company that also does news and local governance in New York, and Business Week, the venerable magazine.
A word of disclosure, since everybody is so big on that subject for the moment: I know a bunch of the people who were quoted in the article and have, at various times of my career, sought their favor in one way or another. I like them. They’re good folks. I’m talking about the journalists and managers now, and not the Mayor. I don’t know him and don’t want to. He frightens me, as do all powerful men of his size.
The point is, I have absolutely nothing against the gang trying to put this duck and spaniel together to make a legitimate animal whose meat might be valuable on the open market. But I was fascinated by the peek into the Bloomberg corporate culture that Business Week journalists now have to deal with. I’ve been involved in a number of “mergers,” and I use that word in full knowledge that there is no such thing as a merger, there is only acquisition and pain for the conquered. So I was particularly interested in how the Franks, Britons, and Germans were faring after the incursion of the Romans.
All in all, it seems pretty normal as far as those things go.
Of course, there are some weirdnesses, as there always are in these cases. For instance, the Times story reports that “Employees swipe ID cards to enter and leave the building, and when an employee sends an internal e-mail message, the last time he clocked in or out appears next to his name. If he forgets his ID, “Forgotten Badge” appears next to every e-mail message he sends to co-workers that day — a tough fit for magazine journalists lucky to remember their wallets, let alone their building IDs.” See what I mean about fun?
Incredibly fascinating for me, however, were the somewhat bizarre rules that Bloomberg has established in mysterious 361-page volume called “The Bloomberg Way.” It’s a style guide for their writers. There are a bunch of rules about how a story is to be written, but I’ll just mention one thing that has resonated with me and seems profound in its implications. “In the guide,” the Times reports, “words like… ‘however,’ ‘although,’ ‘but’ and ‘despite’ are discouraged.”
Now, think about that for a minute. What does that eliminate from the way you communicate a story? What is the function of “but”? Of “however”? And likewise, of “although” and “despite”? They are all ways of moderating a fact or a point of view. You say, “I like cheese.” And then, because there are times when cheese is not appropriate, you add, “But never on Tuesdays.” You say, “The traders at Goldman continued to sell packages of sub-prime mortgages.” And then, because it seems germane to the point you are making, you add, “despite all indications that the market was tanking at that time.”
What would the world be like without a proud and virtually indiscriminate use of “but”? “I love you, dear,” you might say. Then you would be unable to add, “But I’m marrying your sister.”
Rules, they say, are made to be broken. Some, I think, are more breakable than others. Unless, of course, they are grounded in a serious consideration that transcends all appearance to the contrary. Can you think of any?