Monthly Archives: October 2011

The two types of jargon user

All that is necessary for the triumph of corporate jargon is that sensible people be lulled into internalising it.

There are people – maybe you work with some of them – who would rather say this:

Going forward, a resource has been tasked to action any additional issues experienced by customers around internal environmental controls.

When they could say this:

I have asked a colleague to deal with any other heating problems you have.

Of course, people have legitimate differences of taste in the kind of vocabulary and sentence structures they use, but preferring the former is clearly pathological. In my experience, there are two kinds of person stricken by the need to use jargon.

  • Type 1 jargonitis: ‘I’m not some nobody having a chat in a pub, I’m a proper professional doing serious business – and that’s the way I’ll talk.’

These people think jargon is great, that it makes them sound more knowledgeable and important and worthy of a promotion. The bolder and more imaginative among them are the ones who actually come up with new buzzwords and phrases.

I don’t mean to be harsh, but there is no hope for these people. Their failing is moral rather than intellectual: they believe that the conventions of language are there to be overturned in pursuit of self-advancement, not used for communicating clearly. They are past saving, and we can only hope that they’ll be correctly diagnosed and safely institutionalised. In practice, all you can really do is humour them and try to keep them away from the uninfected.

Fortunately, most people with jargonitis aren’t type 1 (the origin of which is unclear, but is thought to be congenital). Most have the second type, which is an acquired immune disorder.

  • Type 2 jargonitis: ‘Oh, everyone else seems to be talking like this. How odd. Well, I’d better learn some of these phrases so I fit in.’

I’ve seen good people laid low by this. I’ve watched them slowly dismantle their own natural fluency as they first adapt to communicating with more seasoned jargon users and then internalise it so that eventually they start spreading the affliction themselves.

But these people – apart from some extreme cases – can be cured.

What causes them to succumb is often inexperience or lack of self-confidence. They go along with what seems to be ‘the done thing’, even if they’re not initially comfortable with it, because they don’t know that business language need not be like this, or because they don’t dare push against the established approach.

They need encouragement and example, because part of the tragedy of jargonitis is that its victims are often unable to realise their condition.

If you’re in a position to influence new people when they’re at risk of getting infected or in the early stages of disease, let them know they’re allowed to resist. Suggest that they bear in mind what’s easy to read or listen to, rather than trying to follow some unwritten business-speak phrasebook. Reassure them that corporate jargon is every bit as alien as it first seems. It’s long-winded and abstract and impersonal and clumsy and really very boring.

And show them how to resist. In your emails, reports, presentations, meetings – let them see that talking and writing like a human being doesn’t make the sky fall in on your career. (Bosses who are long steeped in jargon can be a problem, but you may still be able to nudge them towards seeing that this very language is the box they’ve always been wanting to think outside of.)

Sure, you may have terms that are a bit technical and specific to your work; they’re fair enough. ‘Search engine optimisation’, for instance, is not exactly pretty – but it has a specific meaning. It does a job. But there’s so much waffle (see my example at the top) that sacrifices clear, direct language to nothing more than a misguided need to sound ‘official’ and ‘professional’. It’s not more professional, though – in fact, it’s just less effective.

Like a boring, ugly drunk at a party, jargon-laden corporate waffle can be hard to shake off. A great place to pick up some tips is the Good Copy, Bad Copy blog.

We needn’t be that restrictive

David Marsh makes an excellent statement of something I believed when I woke up yesterday morning: restrictive clauses (giving information essential to define the scope of a statement) should begin with ‘that’, while non-restrictive clauses (giving supplementary information) should begin with ‘which’. Thus:

1) The cakes that I baked won first prize. [restrictive: I’m singling out my cakes]

2) The cakes, which I baked, won first prize. [non-restrictive: the only cakes under discussion are mine, and I’m adding my claim to them as an aside]

And the following would be incorrect:

1a) The cakes which I baked won first prize. [supposedly restrictive]

But after reading some interventions from Stan Carey (expanded here), and an Arnold Zwicky post he linked to, I have recanted. Everyone agrees that 1 and 2 are right (everyone also agrees that ‘The cakes, that I baked, won first prize’ would be wrong), but now I agree that 1a is OK too. ‘Which’ and ‘that’ can both work for restrictive clauses.

Linguistic rules (or ‘rules’) may or may not be widely and consistently followed, but even if they’re not, they’re still worth hanging onto if they serve a useful purpose. The that-rule is on the niche side (lots of people, including lots of Respected Writers, ignore it), but I had thought it useful for clarity’s sake.

But it’s not. There’s also a difference in the punctuation of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. 2 and 1a are clearly distinct in a way that makes it hard to misunderstand: the aside in 2 is marked with commas. This suggests insisting on ‘that’ is unnecessary.

Is it always unnecessary?

David’s strongest counterargument is when we’ve got sentences with more complex structure – particularly with other asides and the extra commas they bring. For instance (my own examples, but based on his point):

Portugal is a nice country, like Spain, which I visited last year. [I visited Spain]

Portugal is a nice country, like Spain, that I visited last year. [I visited Portugal]

Abandoning the that-rule would cost us “a useful distinction here”, David argues.

Not necessarily. There are other ways to show the difference. For one thing, we could repunctuate:

Portugal is a nice country, like Spain (which I visited last year). [I visited Spain]

Portugal is a nice country (like Spain, which I visited last year). [I visited Spain]

Portugal is a nice country (like Spain) which I visited last year. [I visited Portugal]

And there are any number of ways to rephrase for clarity.

But what clinches it for me is that there are times when the that-rule positively leads to calamity (I exaggerate, but I have to maintain a sense of excitement in my life somehow). Some restrictive clauses just don’t work with ‘that’. Arnold offers:

The only case of which I have direct knowledge occurred in 1972.

It has to be this way: ‘The only case of that I have direct knowledge’ is a train wreck.

But could we handle such cases by saying that restrictive clauses should use ‘that’ rather than ‘which’ except when the clause begins with a preposition? Only at the cost of further complicating matters. And at the cost of missing other exceptions – commenting on David’s piece, shemarch offers:

The best use of a word is that which makes the clearest sense.

Another restrictive clause that would be absurd if introduced with a ‘that’ instead of a ‘which’. And I’d not want to rule out other types of counterexample.

The that-rule doesn’t work. And so, yesterday night, I went to bed having gladly renounced it.

(In spite of all this, I still think ‘that’ is usually better aesthetically than ‘which’ for a restrictive clause. Maybe it’s the sharper ‘T’ sound at the end, which gives a better sense of narrowing down or pointing out; maybe it’s association with the demonstrative use of ‘that’, as in ‘Look at that restrictive clause!’ So I’ll mostly stick to ‘that’, but no longer on grammatical grounds.)

Poor sustenance

From Guy Keleny’s Independent column:

A news item about the London Olympic stadium… set the reader a puzzle: “Its designers say it is the most sustainable stadium ever built, using as much as 75 per cent less steel – an expensive and relatively scarce resource – than other stadiums.” The question is this: why prefer the semi-opaque “as much as 75 per cent less steel than other stadiums” to the straightforward “a quarter as much steel as some stadiums”?

I don’t know, but I do know that whenever you see either “relatively” or “as much as”… you can be sure you are in the presence of fuzzy thinking, and probably an attempt to cherry-pick figures. To call a resource “relatively scarce” is to say nothing. Relatively to what? Sand, diamonds, Swiss cheese?

All quite right, but there’s another problem there: to say that it is “the most sustainable stadium ever built” is to say that it will be the easiest to sustain. So the stadium will survive while others crumble and perish? How does the low steel content help to sustain it?

The rot starts at the top, with the ‘Commission for a Sustainable London 2012’ going on and on and on about:

the world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games … Staging the biggest event in the world in a sustainable way … I look back on a great sustainable construction project and look forward to a memorable, sustainable Games

No. The Olympics will last from 27 July to 12 August 2012, and then stop. A particular occurrence by definition is not sustained, so any talk of its sustainability is a category mistake.

‘Sustainable’ can mean ‘good for the environment’ when talking about an ongoing process or enduring condition whose continuance may be under threat (sustainable development, sustainable forest management). But stretching it beyond that leads to gibberish.