Paul Romer and the World Bank and conjunctions and brevity and bad targets

The World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, has been demanding that his staff use the word “and” less.

Why? It’s such an innocuous little word.

This is his thinking:

Circulating a draft of the upcoming World Development Report, Mr Romer warned against bank staff trying to pile their own pet projects and messages into the report. The tendency, he argued, had diluted the impact of past reports and led to a proliferation of “ands”.

“Because of this type of pressure to say that our message is ‘this, and this, and this too, and that …’ the word ‘and’ has become the most frequently used word in Bank prose,” he complained in an email.

Romer mentions a study of World Bank writing, which highlights this phrase as an example:

emphasis on quality, responsiveness, and partnerships; on knowledge-sharing and client orientation; and on poverty reduction

This is 16 words (counting “knowledge-sharing” as two), of which three are “and” – 18.75%. That’s very high.

I agree that a lot of corporate writing – like this quoted phrase – tries to say too much, making it clunky, boring and unfocused. But a mechanical focus on the word “and” is the wrong way to fix this.

Imagine you’re a junior member of Romer’s team. As instructed, you’re trying to reduce the “and”s in that phrase. The simplest thing would be to change it to this:

emphasis on quality, responsiveness, partnerships, knowledge-sharing, client orientation and poverty reduction

Now you only have one “and” in 11 words – just 9.1%. A great improvement!

Except that the whole waffly list of things is still there. You may have hit the target but you’ve missed the point.

The point is to say less. So instead, you talk to your colleagues to figure out what’s truly important to keep in that list, and you all agree that it only needs to emphasise the first two points. So you can cut it down to this:

emphasis on quality and responsiveness

This is a great improvement. Shorter and much better-focused.

There’s only one problem: five words, one “and” – you’re up to 20%. Romer will not be happy. But Romer will be wrong.

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