Great prose is no guarantor of great ideas, much less of great social action, grantmaking, or public policy. This is a painful thing for a public affairs writer to admit. Yet the opposite may well be true: A certain kind of awful writing really can be a hallmark, even an underlying cause, of sloppy thinking.

There are a handful of toxic words and phrases that have a way of polluting any stream of consciousness, muddying the concepts and making it impossible to see what facts and arguments (if...

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