I love plain English. Not boring English, but English that is a pleasure to read.
The journalist John Rentoul feels the same way, as he has written a wonderful short book called The banned list: a manifesto against jargon and cliché. You can download it as an e-book or pick up a printed version.
In today’s online world, phrases move from vivid newcomer to cliché far more quickly. Rentoul mentions ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ as the phrase that first provoked him. This famous slogan is now 20 years old, and was a highlight of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.
By contrast, few of today’s new expressions will still be around in 2032. Take ‘roadmap’. This has spread like wildfire in the last year or so, almost replacing a perfectly adequate, and shorter, word: plan. Another phrase, or device, banned by Rentoul is the intensely annoying trick of using full stops for emphasis. (The.Best.Book.Ever.) This may have been clever once (though I doubt it) but it’s now just very irritating. It’s the linguistic equivalent of 1970s chocolate coloured bathroom suites.
Politicians are the worst offenders. They should pay 75% tax for a year if they use phrases like ‘hard-working families’ or ‘delivering on a promise (or agenda)’.
John Rentoul is following the example of Sir Ernest Gowers, who wrote Plain Words in 1948 to help civil servants write clearly. As Gowers said, the idea of writing is to get an idea from one person’s mind to another. Jargon baffles people while clichés can distract and also reduce a writer’s credibility. I bought Gowers’ updated book, the Complete Plain Words, when I was at university in the 1980s and applauded his intentions.
Rentoul and Gowers both argue that short words and phrases are usually better than long ones. Rentoul describes ‘opportunity’ as a way of saying ‘chance’ in seven syllables instead of one. There are many examples of this: ‘on a monthly basis’ is an ugly way of saying ‘every month’. ‘In terms of’ is almost always a wasted phrase: you can usually delete it. (‘Better value in terms of price’ just means ‘cheaper’.)
All this matters. Tired phrases don’t inspire people. And complicated phrases challenge the reader, who may give up or misunderstand what the writer is saying.
Part of the problem is that some writers think plain words are unimpressive. They think they need to use complicated words to show how clever they are. Yet the opposite is usually true. Clever, eloquent people use the right words and avoid clichés. Winston famously told Anthony Eden ‘As far as I can see you have used every cliché except “God is love” and “Please adjust your dress before leaving.”‘”
My own banned list
So… Why are people starting to start answers to questions with so? As in: “What’s different about the new product?” “So we decided to add…”
“Deliver on a promise”. This is a horrible expression. We used to keep promises. That’s a lovely phrase. So why the horribly ugly alternative? I blame politicians. (I complained about this in a letter published in the Guardian last year.)
“Granularity”. This just means detail. Only a management consultant could have thought this better.
‘Use case’. What’s wrong with ‘use’?
‘Form factor’. This is all too common in the technology industry. Like ‘use case’, the second word is superfluous.
‘The gift that keeps giving’. Shame on the Guardian for using this in an editorial about David Cameron and charities today.
* PS: I was being provocative using ‘And so it begins’ in the headline to this post. Sorry.