Stephen Waddington on business jargon

The British are famous for being hopeless at languages. Yet when they get to work they start speaking another language. Unfortunately that language is business-speak. Former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Stephen Waddington has blogged a list of the worst examples of business gobbledegook.

Stephen gathered the list after asking his Facebook friends for contributions. I happily contributed ‘visibility’ – a fine word in a weather forecast but nonsense when used as a synonym for information. (“I don’t have visibility on this” means “I don’t know” in the English language.) He could have filled a book rather than a blogpost: companies and other organisations create bullshit phrases on an industrial scale.

Business speak gets in the way of communication. It deadens the senses. And it prompts clever and sensible people to suspend their ability to think what they are trying to say and use the right words to communicate a thought. You’d be ridiculed if you talked to your friends like this. So why inflict it on the people you work with?

Let’s reach out to each other to create visibility about a roadmap to axe gobbledegook going forwards…

PS: it may be unfair to point this out, as Stephen is one of Britain’s finest communicators, but his job title is itself an example of business bullshit. ‘Chief Engagement Officer’ sounds like someone very important at a dating agency. 

This post comprises a pedant and me

Bryan Henderson is famous – as a pedant. The world’s media put him under the spotlight last week for correcting the same error 47,000 times in Wikipedia. He hates the phrase ‘comprised of’ – arguing the ‘of’ is unnecessary. The story took me back to my days reading Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words in university in 1984: it was one of the phrases Gowers singled out as a howler.

I’ve never edited a single Wikipedia entry. But I felt a tremble of recognition when I read of Henderson’s obsession. As I get older, I get more irritated by language (and number) howlers. Here are some of my pet hates.

Language inflation. Build out; test out; off of. Just a few phrases that have suffered parasitic appendages.

Doppelgängers: words that have been replaced by identical sounding cousins: it’s/its; your/you’re; there/their/they’re. Years ago, it’s/its was the most common error, but your/you’re seems just as common now:  ‘Your welcome’…

Talking telephone numbers: companies that spend money on beautiful shop fronts and signs, but don’t know that the area phone code for London is 020 and Cardiff is 029. I’ve lost count of signs giving numbers starting 0207, 0208 and 02920.

No such code as 0207

Don’t try dialling 724 0055 

This Marylebone shop can’t get its own number right. Anyone dialling 724 0055 will get an unobtainable tone. The 7 in 0207 is actually part of the number, not the area code.

Does it matter? No, not compared with life’s real horrors. But accuracy does matter. Hats off to Bryan Henderson. Or hat’s off as some would say….

The return of the artisan

Around the time that Margaret Thatcher came to power, I learned a new word: artisan. My Cardiff High School history teacher, the excellent Dr Davies, explained that an artisan was a skilled manual worker. The question was prompted by Dr Davies’s lesson on the  reforms of Benjamin Disraeli’s first ministry, including the Artisans’ Dwellings Act 1875.

Little did I imagine back in 1979 that the word would become a marketing buzzword in the 21st century. Yet it has, as Kathryn Hughes examines in her column in today’s Guardian. As she puts it:

“The implication is that everything in these charming, gentle spaces has been done by hand, from scratch and on the premises. The coffee beans are ground to order, the soup was simmered in a battered old saucepan, and the cakes were made overnight in the basement kitchen. The interior design too hints towards “artisanal” without quite spelling it out. There are old refectory tables, chairs from an abandoned cricket pavilion and some mismatched crockery that came from someone’s granny.”

She draws parallels with William Morris’s arts and crafts movement of the 1870s (by coincidence the decade of that famous act of parliament). Morris was keen to improve the lives of workers. Yet few of those workers could afford the hand made furniture inspired by the movement. In much the same way, the new generation of artisanal products and shops carry a steep price tag.

I wonder if the coffee tastes better?

Visibility: I see a buzzword

Visibility: not what it used to be

Visibility: not what it used to be

Once upon a time, if people didn’t know the answer to a question, they’d say they didn’t know the answer. Now, if they work in a big organisation, they’re just as likely to say, “I don’t have visibility about that.” They’ll say they’re sending an email so the recipient “has visibility”.

I first heard visibility used in this way in Rebekah Brooks’ evidence to the House of Commons media select committee hearing into the News of the World phone hacking scandal in 2011:

“One of the problems of this case has been our lack of visibility and what was seized at Glenn Mulcaire’s home. We have had zero visibility.”

Where did this nonsense come from? I have no idea, but I’m sure it follows the belief that jargon and buzzwords are more impressive than plain English. The truth is the opposite. Language like this deadens the senses. People use it without thinking.

Here’s my earlier post about jargon and buzz phrases. Sadly, ‘roadmap’ and ‘granularity’ remain as common in office language today as two years ago.

You guys – the greeting that grates

Call me old fashioned if you like. But I hate the expression ‘you guys’.

I’m not sure why I dislike it so intensely. It may be because it seems vulgar – I’m not impressed when restaurant staff use it. (I certainly don’t want to be called sir, but ‘you guys’ seems crass and discourteous.) Or it may be because referring to women as guys seems a bizarre and backward development after women spent decades rebelling against the idea that references to men should be taken to include women. (A bit like the infamous 19th century book whose index said ‘for Wales see England’.)

I’m not alone – the Guardian has published a series of letters this week from readers rebelling against ‘you guys’. My favourite was the following:

Can I propose a new year’s resolution that the expression “guys” be banned unless one is actually named Guy.
Guy Sowerby
Bingham, Nottingham

I await a deluge of comments from women saying they’re perfectly happy with the phrase!

When cappuccino was called frothy coffee

Today’s Guardian carried a lighthearted editorial ‘In praise of … a simple coffee’. It praises Debenhams’ plain English coffee menu. Goodbye to latte, hello milky coffee.

The story made me think back to coffee time with Mum in 1970s Cardiff. South Wales has long been associated with Italian cafes: a legacy of the arrival of scores of people from Italy during the 19th century boom years. Mum and I used to go to Ferrari’s on Wellfield Road near Roath Park. I’d enjoy a frothy coffee after visiting the toy and book shops on Albany Road, or the library.

Years later, I discovered cappuccino. It took a while before I realised that it was exactly the same drink. But usually a lot more expensive – with the honourable exception of the 50p takeaway latte I bought in Giraffe in Richmond this morning!

In praise of Great Britain and London 2012

Great Britain: our country. Our greatest team.

Tonight marks the end of the greatest show on earth, the London 2012 Olympics. (Roll on the Paralympics!) It’s been a triumph for Great Britain as both host and the third most successful team.

I’ve loved the fact we’ve competed as Great Britain. I wrote during the Beijing Olympics how Great Britain is a far more resonant title for our country than United Kingdom. It’s small wonder that Churchill immortalised Britain in describing our battle for survival in 1940 as the Battle of Britain. He was proud to describe himself as Great Britain’s prime minister. ‘United Kingdom’ carries no such emotional weight. It simply refers to our country’s constitutional status. No one would die in a ditch for the ‘Youkay’. (Britain’s national anthem leaves me equally cold, given it’s all about the head of state not the country. I remain unmoved by the song even after 29 plays…)

(PS: Before anyone comments, I do know the difference between Great Britain and the UK. Perhaps some loyalists in Northern Ireland feel aggrieved that the media never use the Olympic team’s full title of ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.)

Deckchairs on the Titanic

‘Deckchairs on the Titanic’ is one of those clichés banned by John Rentoul in his Banned List book. So I should be wary about using it in a post, after praising John’s campaign for plain and fresh English.

But I’m prompted by a letter in today’s Guardian from Colin Shone reporting a promotion for Wrexham Lager ‘as served on the Titanic’. Is there an opportunity here for deckchair makers?

And so it begins*: the fight against jargon and cliché

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.