When I find myself in terms of trouble

June 10, 2009

The complex (or compound) preposition “in terms of” is much censured – sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. In this post I’ll examine some of the ways the phrase is used and some of the criticism it has provoked.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression to the mid-18C; its early use seems to have been chiefly mathematical or otherwise technical. In fields with precise figures and relationships, such as physics, statistics, engineering, and accounting, “in terms of” – typically coupled with verbs like measure, describe, define, or state – can easily be put to good literal use. As Bryan Garner writes in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “in the sense ‘expressed by means of,’ the phrase is quite defensible”:

All local four-vectors at the same event in space-time can be expressed in terms of the same set of basis vectors. (I.R. Kenyon, General Relativity)
In a system that encodes information in terms of patterns of activity . . . (Charles Legg, Issues in Psychobiology)
[T]he behaviour of a motor car is to be explained in terms of interactions between fundamental particles (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker)

From the 1940s and 1950s on, the phrase’s general popularity soared, and it’s now used widely and non-literally as “a useful particularizing device” (Robert Burchfield), and as “a vague all-purpose connective” (Hans Paul Guth). I’ll deal with the former usage first. Here, the complex preposition introduces a specification, clarification, or elaboration on a generality, and is widespread in all kinds of contexts. I plucked the following examples from the British National Corpus:

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Jargon and the economic recession

March 18, 2009

According to the UK’s Local Government Association (LGA), ditching jargon can “help people during the recession”. I propose that ditching jargon can help people almost any time, anywhere, and that dressing it up as an economic matter smacks of opportunism. But it’s in a good cause, so I’ll move on.

Today the LGA published a blacklist of 200 words and phrases that public sector workers are to avoid when talking about their work and services. The BBC have a summary here. The LGA has also supplied alternatives for most of the terms in their list.

Although this effort is welcome and potentially useful, the list itself is quite baffling. Some of the rejected terms seem fine to me: client and customer often cannot be replaced by person, while sustainable is quite different to long term – though there is some overlap in meaning. Client, customer and sustainable may be prone to overuse or inappropriate use, but that is no reason to ban them.

Many of the blacklisted terms are followed by the phrase “why use at all?” It’s a fair question to ask of rebaselining, holistic governance and – are you sitting down? – predictors of beaconicity, but what’s wrong with compact? Some of the suggested alternatives, meanwhile, are as bad as the terms they are meant to replace. Is coterminosity worse than all singing from the same hymn sheet? Can’t we destroy both?

Other alternatives listed have limited synonymity. Tough has significantly different connotations to robust, an initiative is not an idea, multi-disciplinary does not mean many, and a challenge is not necessarily a problem (neither is an issue).

Nor are word types sustained. If you want to replace transparency, the list says you need clear. Not clarity? Enabler could become helper, but not helps. Thematic derives from theme; you cannot simply swap one for the other. Some alternatives are better, e.g. in the future substitutes for going forward. But except for a few cases, the replacement terms seem more like rough notes than usable alternatives.

With regard to ‘regarding’

March 6, 2009

This post offers advice on using regarding, as regards, in regard to, in regards to, with regard to, and with regards to. It deals with their prepositional use, not with regarding as a participle (“Regarding the picture quietly, I didn’t notice the crowd gather”).

These phrases are a mixed bag. In regards to and with regards to are quite common in spoken English but much less so in edited English, where their appearance is apt to provoke flinches and howls of outrage from precisionists – except, of course, where an elliptical with regards to indicates personal consideration:

With [my] regards to your wife/husband/family

As regards, in regard to and with regard to are all standard compound prepositions. They are fine when used sparingly to introduce or re-introduce a topic at the start of a clause:

With regard to your letter…
In regard to the matter we debated this morning…
The differences between the two presidents could not be more striking; as regards temperament, where one was placid the other was bullish…

Sometimes they are better replaced by the more concise regarding, concerning, about or as to, but not always: when used infrequently their relative wordiness is not unsightly. Besides, concerning is no shorter than as regards. Use context and sentence rhythm to help you choose the most suitable phrase.

Embedded in a clause, with regard to and its brethren are increasingly overworked, leading to a weak and periphrastic style. They are generally inferior to simple prepositions such as about, on, in or for, but these prepositions are often forgotten or considered too direct:

The following books have much information with regard to this subject (on, about)
We will answer your questions with regard to this issue (on, about)
The company has an obligation in regard to delivering on its promises (obligation to deliver)

As the examples show, with regard to and company are best replaced when they serve only to connect elements whose relationship is poorly understood. The same goes for other phrases commonly used to avoid plain language or to bypass incomprehension, such as involving, in terms of, in relation to, with respect to, on the basis of/that, and as far as … is concerned. These phrases occasionally fit their context well, but sometimes they signify only a dubious ability to vaguely relate abstract nouns.

I recently read this quote by a company spokesperson:

“Discussions have taken place with staff regarding this decision.”

It might not seem so bad, but much has gone wrong here so I’ll make an example of it. First we read about discussions, then we are told they took place, but we still don’t know who had them. It’s a short sentence but already it’s disordered and in search of a natural subject. After the half-way point we discover one party to the discussions (staff), and at the very end we discover what the discussions were about: a decision. It would be easier to remember the substance of this decision if we didn’t have to infer so much in between.

We also have to interpret who had these discussions with staff. Earlier the spokesperson had implied that it was the company, referring to it by an acronym and as us, so why not say so? We would suffice. The passive voice is not always a bad idea but here it gives the discussions an abstract and disembodied quality, which is typical of corporate circumspection and for which there is little justification. Better to have said:

“We discussed this decision with staff.”

This shows the reader who did what; it does so quickly, directly and in a sensible order, and it removes an unnecessary regarding.

If I asked you to fill in the blank in “Make a complaint ___ something”, most of you would guess “about”, and you would be right. But if you visited the Irish government’s website you would see about vying with regarding and even with regard to for its humble place: Make a Complaint regarding an Advertisement; Make a Complaint about Anti-Competitive Behaviour; Make a Complaint Regarding Food Safety.

This last link tells me the Food Safety Authority “operates a facility for you to make a complaint with regard to food safety online.” If you can work out what “operates a facility” is doing here, please let me know; I’ll be looking for the links to “Make a Complaint Regarding Excessive ‘Regarding’” and “Make a Complaint about the Uncontrolled Proliferation of Unnecessary Capital Letters”.

Some authorities in English style advise against all of the phrases I’ve described. In this they seem to be following the lead of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose On the Art of Writing (1916) recommended the following (at #23):

Train your suspicions to bristle up whenever you come upon ‘as regards,’ ‘with regard to,’ ‘in respect of,’ ‘in connection with,’ ‘according as to whether,’ and the like. They are all dodges of Jargon, circumlocutions for evading this or that simple statement: and I say that it is not enough to avoid them nine times out of ten, or nine-and-ninety times out of a hundred. You should never use them.

I say that you should not be persuaded by this intransigent rule, regardless of where you hear it. Try to avoid with regards to and in regards to, at least in written English, and if you use regarding, as regards, in regard to, or with regard to, do so judiciously and only after careful consideration of the alternatives.

Microsoft gobbledegook

February 26, 2009

Last month Microsoft laid off 1,400 staff, then discovered that they had given 25 of them too much severance pay. The company blamed this on an administrative error and asked the recipients to return the money. Microsoft subsequently backtracked, admitting that it wasn’t worthy of them to make such a request.

A statement by a company spokesperson said:

“We are reaching out to those impacted to relay that we will not seek any payment from those individuals.”

Compared to the finest gobbledegook this is modest enough, but gobbledegook it is; in plain English it seems to mean:

We’re telling those affected they can keep the money.

which conveys the message directly and succinctly, reducing the word count by more than half.

Word count reduction per se isn’t a holy grail, but we tend to use a lot more words than we need. This is especially true of Irish people, bless our wordy ways. Editing a document typically reduces its word count by at least 5–10%.

‘Reality’ and ‘the facts’

February 2, 2009

The word reality has many uses in fictional, technical, philosophical and pseudo-philosophical contexts, where it can distinguish between different kinds of “reality” or show contrast with what is imaginary, ideal, dreamt or otherwise “unreal”. Typical uses are: fantasy versus reality, virtual reality, consensus reality, phenomenological reality.

Even in these contexts, its meaning is generally mutable and sometimes contentious. Such is “reality”: it is not a homogeneous collective experience, the mere mention of which connotes a unanimously understood truth.

Nonetheless, the term is very popular in rhetorical clichés, especially in spoken English:

The reality is that…
The reality on the ground is that…
Let’s deal with (the) reality here.
We have to face the reality of…

These stock phrases, like the bottom line and the much-reviled at the end of the day, are hackneyed and all but meaningless. And although an expedient in fact can sharpen a good point, the term fact(s) is often used more dubiously:

Let’s face facts.
We can’t ignore the facts.
The fact of the matter is…
The facts speak for themselves.

This kind of verbiage is beloved of talking heads, who use it to lead in to their point. But referring to “reality” in this throwaway manner does not foster constructive dialogue, since everyone’s “reality” is unique, subjective and always changing. Wheeling it out only raises the questions: Which reality? Whose reality? What information are you leaving out, and why? Can you get to the point?

descartes_diagram1Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reality is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes”. It’s a good point but a severe one, since the word’s meaning in certain contexts is clear and justifiable. But if it prefaces an opinion without supporting or illuminating it, as in the examples above, it may instead depreciate the point and delay it unnecessarily. This is far more likely to occur in spoken than written English, but habits in the former can become habits in the latter, so it’s one to watch out for.

Footnote: “All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.” This is according to the Principia Discordia, a playfully satirical faux-religious text (or a work of guerrilla ontology, according to Robert Anton Wilson). The implication, of course, is that this statement itself is true in some sense, false in some sense, etc. Most germane is its inclusion of uncertainty in any interpretation of reality and the facts.

Words are just symbols, and cannot map directly onto the things they signify, any more than Magritte’s painting of a pipe can be smoked. In the battleground of public debate, however, uncertainty is anathema. And in reality, the fact of the matter is that I’m now well off the point, so I’ll stop here.

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A satirical interlude

December 17, 2008

From The Onion:

“My God, just listen to him spin that empty administrative rhetoric into flaxen strands of gold…”

Gobbledygook exerts a paradoxical pull on me: I become transfixed by its awfulness, torn between twitching discomfort and perverse appreciation for its awe-inspiring obfuscation. It is the Vogon poetry of the modern office environment (and beyond), except that in purporting to convey important information, it lacks the rousing charm of nonsense for the sake of nonsense.

When I encounter gobbledygook I itch to transmute it into meaningful, readable English. In the worst cases no such meaning exists, and parsing the text reveals only hints of sense in masses of gibberish; other times the alchemy succeeds, and a plain emphatic version of the writer’s intentions suddenly emerges from the jumble of jargon like the hidden image in an autostereogram.

Previously: Going forward into the future

Going forward into the future

August 9, 2008

“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