Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.

Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.

Inkhorns in the past, apostrophes in the future

February 2, 2012

I have two new posts up on Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, The fashion for inkhorn terms, continues the discussion of plain English (the blog’s theme for December and January) and looks at some of the reasons language can fail to achieve its main purpose: communication.

In particular, I look at the once-popular ornate style of writing that

combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English. . . .

In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”. But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English . . .

Read on for examples of inkhorn terms that survived and ones that faded.

Next, Apostrophe apostasy returns to the story about Waterstones’ apostrophe that I recently addressed on Sentence first. I speculate on why people get so upset by trivial changes to a company’s style, and I ponder what the future might hold for this troublesome punctuation mark:

Minor matters of style and punctuation have a way of agitating people, and worlds of contention spring from trivial distinctions. Language usage is also a convenient scapegoat through which people can express their displeasure and unease with big business, youth culture, societal change, the anticipated end of civilisation . . . .

We may see a trend towards using [the apostrophe] less where its absence doesn’t appear too odd. Well-known companies deleting it from their names will contribute to this shift, as will its omission from much informal communication in text messages and online chat, especially where character count is a constraint.

This post prompted some fascinating comments, which you can read here. If you’d like to browse my older posts at Macmillan, you can go straight to the archive.

Preoccupied by plain language

January 10, 2012

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about eponyms, plain English, and words of the year. Below are excerpts from my four posts there during December.

An eponymous kind of fame provides an overview of eponyms that mentions some of their inspirations and the areas of language in which they tend to arise:

The origins of some eponyms are well known, such as boycott from Charles Boycott and mesmerise from Franz Mesmer. Others are less obvious. Sandwich, panic, silhouette, algorithm and nicotine all derive from proper nouns: John Montagu (4th Earl of Sandwich), Pan (Greek god), Etienne de Silhouette (French finance minister), al-Khwārizmī (Persian mathematician) and Jean Nicot (French diplomat who inspired the formal plant name Nicotiana).

Mentor was the name of Odysseus’ friend in The Odyssey, and the word is popular today both as a generic noun for someone who advises another, and as a verb for what they do. [more]

Plain English is Macmillan Dictionary’s theme in December and January, and my next two posts address the subject (as do many in the Sentence first archives).

Plain and simple discusses an awkward use of post as a preposition, before criticising the tendency — widespread in officialdom but by no means exclusive to it —

to jazz up language by replacing plain words with fancy ones for no good reason, for example with what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “vague woolly abstract nouns”. Somehow people feel that simple, everyday language is not impressive enough, and that what’s needed is more abstract and ostentatious vocabulary. Not so.

In a similar vein, I received a letter recently [that] asked the reader to “advise this fact” to the relevant government office. Advise this fact is the kind of jargon — officialese, you could call it — that results when let us know is mistakenly thought to be too informal, and tell and even inform too suspiciously plain. [more]

The Plain English Campaign’s annual awards took place last month. In Fuzzy writing, fussy reading I look at a few of the selections in its “Golden Bull” category. Though some of the winners fully deserve the infamy, other choices struck me as harsh. I explain why before making a seasonal plea for greater tolerance:

Plain English is strong, supple and precise, leaving no room for buzzwords, fuzzy evasions, illogic and obscurity. But we’re all prone to loose language, not to mention typos. . . .

Too often people, including editors, treat minor slips as though they were terrible, shameful acts. I see it a lot on Twitter. This can make people anxious about their language and nervous around editors. Criticism can be constructive and compassionate; why not keep the judgement and scorn to a minimum? [more]

My last post for Macmillan in 2011, appropriately enough, was Preoccupied by words of the year, in which I survey the recent Word of the Year selections from various organisations and consider the front runners in the (then upcoming) American Dialect Society’s event:

As the year ends, lexicographers and other word geeks traditionally put their heads together to choose or vote for a word of the year. It’s not that simple, of course: different groups pick different words in different ways for different reasons. And it’s not always a word — other “vocabulary items” like phrases and parts of words are generally allowed.

Words of the Year can be new or newly prominent or significant. They’re like annual trending topics, pointing to wider concerns in society, and it can be fun to follow the suggestions and the debates over which ones deserve recognition and why.

To find out my Word of the Year, and for links to further reading on the subject, you can read the rest here.

You might also like to browse Macmillan Dictionary Blog’s 10 most popular posts of the year, a list which features a few of my older efforts alongside excellent articles by Lynne Murphy, Vicki Hollett, Dan Clayton and others.

F. L. Lucas on clarity and brevity

October 28, 2011

A reference to F. L. Lucas (1894–1967) led me to his essay On the Fascination of Style, which is likely to be of interest to writers and editors, particularly those who practise the plain style.

A literary critic, poet and professor, Lucas was greatly concerned with how we express ourselves and how, if we apply ourselves, we can do so more effectively.

[T]hough one cannot teach people to write well, one can sometimes teach them to write rather better. One can give a certain number of hints, which often seem boringly obvious – only experience shows they are not.

Steeped as he was in the classics and traditional literary styles, Lucas held some ideas that apply especially to very formal writing and will seem old-fashioned by contemporary attitudes. (Anthony Campbell, reviewing Lucas’s book Style, says the author “didn’t much care for the typewriter”.)

For example: though Lucas admired Americans’ talent for imagery, he “wince[d] at their fondness for slang”, which to him seemed “a kind of linguistic fungus; as poisonous, and as short-lived, as toadstools”. Prejudiced not only against slang but against an entire kingdom of life!

But his insights on style mostly hold up very well. After six years in a war department, where wordiness could choke communication and opacity could have dire consequences, he emerged “with more passion than ever for clarity and brevity, more loathing than ever for the obscure and the verbose”.

Clarity and brevity, he felt, follow from one of the two cornerstones of good style: respect for readers. (The other cornerstone is that the writer “should respect truth and himself; therefore honesty”.) But while clarity and brevity are a good beginning, they are

only a beginning. By themselves, they may remain bare and bleak. When Calvin Coolidge, asked by his wife what the preacher had preached on, replied “Sin,” and, asked what the preacher had said, replied “He was against it,” he was brief enough. But one hardly envies Mrs. Coolidge.

Though Lucas acknowledged the world’s increasing complexity, he wondered “how many of our complexities remain futile, how many of our artificialities false”:

Simplicity too can be subtle – as the straight lines of a Greek temple, like the Parthenon at Athens, are delicately curved, in order to look straighter still.

You can read the rest of On the Fascination of Style here.

Weasel words and skunked words

June 13, 2011

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.

Critical learnings: a competition

May 25, 2011

There’s a competition that might interest you on Macmillan Dictionary Blog today. I’ve written a parody of corporate communication laced with buzzwords, management jargon, ridiculous metaphors and assorted gobbledygook. Here’s an excerpt:

Parties affected downstream are encouraged to utilise their forward thinking hats and realign their tool belts to the non-ongoing contract situation within a short timeframe totality. We anticipate dynamic new overarching metrics of holistic staff wellbeingness at the end of the day. Surfing where the waves are should galvanise a global blue-sky modality that will roll out and trickle down the Monday mood mountain into the value valley.

The challenge (and the fun) for readers is to translate the post into a more comprehensible form of business English. You can do it in a few sentences, or – if your productivity drivers are optimised – in more satisfying detail. Push the editors’ imagination buttons, and you could win a Macmillan dictionary of your choice.