Going forward into the future

“At the end of the day we would be looking at resourcing vision-centred and core value solutions on the ground, integrated and sustainable in the final analysis, that mark a paradigm shift at this moment in time and proactively incentivise the workforce in terms of these bottom line strategic issues going forward into the future.”

I exaggerate for effect, but this parody isn’t so distinct from the strings of clichés, buzzwords and business jargon that one regularly encounters nowadays. Except that I’ve left out a perfect storm of something or other. Practitioners tend to deploy this kind of language because they can’t or won’t say something in a clear and straightforward way. The degree to which they are aware of their rhetorical obscurity probably varies a great deal.

Clichés, buzzwords and jargon overlap in definition. A cliché is usually a trite and hackneyed expression, but it can be a word, a phrase, an image, an idea, an event, a stereotype, the word cliché itself, etc. Examples from the opening paragraph include at the end of the day and paradigm shift. Buzzwords are voguish terms that purport to be trendy and significant, but are rarely helpful or impressive. Examples above include proactive and going forward. Jargon emerges in any specialist or occupational vocabulary – scientific, marketing, medical, musical, fishing, political, bureaucratic and so on – and sometimes spreads beyond its original terrain. Examples above include incentivise and core value solutions.

If you want your words to appeal to a broad readership, try not to use this kind of language often. I don’t advocate avoiding clichés altogether – sometimes they are most apt, and preferable to alternative phrases that might be clunky, long-winded or downright mystifying. The trouble arises because clichés and buzzwords are naturally contagious and self-perpetuating, so they spread and become habitual, leading to epidemics of gobbledegook. Entire books have been written on this sort of language – or language abuse, if you’re in an unforgiving mood – and I’ll return to the subject as we move forward into the future (you’ll just have to touch base with me to see if I’ve kept up to speed after I hit the ground running). So I’ll conclude this post with quotes from two careful stylists.

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

- George Orwell in Politics and the English Language

The first [main vice of jargon] is that it uses circumlocution rather than short straight speech. It says ‘In the case of John Jenkins deceased, the coffin’ when it means ‘John Jenkins’s coffin’: and its yea is not yea, neither is its nay nay: but its answer is in the affirmative or in the negative, as the foolish and superfluous ‘case’ may be. The second vice is that it habitually chooses vague woolly abstract nouns rather than concrete ones.

- Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in On the Art of Writing

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One Response to Going forward into the future

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