Some old Greek philosopher once said that when he finished writing an essay he read it carefully, and if any passage struck him as particularly well-written, he immediately crossed it out.
His logic was simple: if it appealed to his own vanity, it was probably pompous and over-written, and even though he lived two thousand years before Fowler, if he had been writing in English he would probably have agreed with his five axioms of clear writing:
- Prefer the familiar word to the unfamiliar
- Prefer the concrete word to the abstract
- Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
- Prefer the short word to the long
- Prefer the Saxon word to the Latinism
I’d add another one:
- Prefer the active mood to the passive.
If you wanted to write in the obscure and pompous language of government, banking, insurance, academics and art, you could almost take those five axioms and reverse them.
We had a great laugh yesterday at the waffle that Fintan Walsh wrote, which was so bad I sent it to the Plain English Campaign. They wrote back to ask me if it was a wind-up, and when I convinced them it wasn’t, they entered it for their annual Golden Bull Awards, given annually for the year’s best examples of gobbledygook.
It reverses all five of Fowler’s axioms
- Prefer the unfamiliar word to the familiar: positionality
- Prefer the abstract word to the concrete : the basis for a border-linking, border-sharing ethical relation
- Prefer the circumlocution to the single word: sacrificial modes of signification
- Prefer the long word to the short: relationality
- Prefer the Latinism to the Saxon: matrixial, fragilization
Walsh eventually ends up unconsciously creating a parody of a self-important academic, which is both funny and baffling at the same time.
Twice in recent years, I was asked to proof-read post-graduate theses for friends of mine, and in both cases, I was appalled by the stilted, unnecessarily complicated and obscure language they were written in. It didn’t add anything to the meaning, it didn’t improve the precision of what they were saying or sharpen their logic. It just soundy stuffy and pompous.
The friends I speak of are both are well-educated, articulate people, but when they tried to write intelligible English, they were instructed to change the writing style.
The supervisors even argued about the title of one thesis. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but let’s call it A Survey of Ingrown Toenail Occurrences in the Community.
That wouldn’t do. It had to be called A Survey of Ingrown Toenail Occurrences in the Community Setting.
Why? Did the word Setting add one single jot to the meaning? It did not. If anything, it blurred the meaning, but the people supervising the degree wouldn’t let the thesis go ahead until it was titled the way they demanded.
Were they forced to change their style because they weren’t saying exactly what they meant to say?
No. The originals were in their own words and said exactly what they intended.
Was it because the words they chose to use didn’t convey the meaning correctly, and that only a technical term would do?
No. The replacement words meant precisely the same as the original.
Was it because there was some ambiguity that needed to be tightened up by the use of rigorous academic terminology?
No. What they wrote could be interpreted in only one way.
So why, then, were they forced to change the way they wrote?
I think it’s a combination of several things in the supervisors: pomposity, laziness, stupidity, illiteracy and lack of self-esteem, combined with a fundamental failure to understand how the English language works.
There’s a common fallacy that academics, lawyers, financiers, professionals of every sort are in some way more skilled in using language than the rest of society, but of course, that isn’t the case. For the most part, these are people who have followed a particular line of study in whatever discipline they may have chosen, and they have neither more nor less training in good writing than the rest of us.
In my experience, it’s much harder to write something short and simple while conveying the correct meaning than it is to write ten thousand words of waffle. Most people won’t or can’t make that effort, which is why most people think so sloppily, because we are a verbal animal, and words are the very stuff of our thoughts.
Therefore, when people arrive in a place like a university, a government department, a bank or a legal chamber, they find a ready-made linguistic comfort zone. They find themselves swimming in a sea of clichés that they can call upon to approximate what they were trying to say, while at the same time sounding important, technical, intelligent. This sends out a message to their colleagues: look, I’m like you.
It also serves another purpose: to make things vague. It would never do to say exactly what you mean, because if you did, you might be found out. Places like universities, government departments and banks are full of piranhas trying to eat each other, and nobody wants to be found out. It’s an unspoken agreement: I won’t question your incomprehensible waffle if you don’t criticise my inflated nonsense.
To make this consensus work, you have to prevent uncouth outsiders forcing their way in with disgracefully well-written, clear-thinking theses, reports and art reviews.
As I mentioned, being an academic or a senior member of a profession means nothing. Unless you have taken the trouble to learn how language works, you’re just as inarticulate as the rest of us. Worse, if you somehow find yourself in one of the descriptive disciplines, you’ll turn out to be a menace, because you’ll come to believe you have a licence to say things like fragilization and sacrificial modes of signification.
Of course it isn’t confined to academics. The Plain English Campaign has some lovely examples of utter waffle. Here’s one or two.
- High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.
Which means Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
- Your enquiry about the use of the entrance area at the library for the purpose of displaying posters and leaflets about Welfare and Supplementary Benefit rights, gives rise to the question of the provenance and authoritativeness of the material to be displayed. Posters and leaflets issued by the Central Office of Information, the Department of Health and Social Security and other authoritative bodies are usually displayed in libraries, but items of a disputatious or polemic kind, whilst not necessarily excluded, are considered individually.
Which translates to Thank you for your letter asking for permission to put up posters in the library. Before we can give you an answer we will need to see a copy of the posters to make sure they won’t offend anyone.
The use of Latinisms has an interesting history, and may well have its origins in the Norman invasion of England. Since French was seen as the language of the ruling classes, and Saxon the language of the serf, people adopted the new way of talking and began to think of the old as somehow inferior and coarse.
This is why today we have two parallel vocabularies, one of which is acceptable in polite company and the other not, even though they have precisely the same meaning. The short Saxon word offends, while the long Latinised form suggests authority.
Thus, you can say defecate on the six-o’clock news but not shit. You can say copulate but not fuck.
In Ireland, we created our own variation, by which we first abandoned our language when we came to see English as the language of government and prosperity, and then steadily abandoned Irish forms of the English language, and are now busily abandoning our local accents. As I said earlier, a lot of waffle has to do with lack of self-esteem.
Sometimes, it’s designed to avoid responsibility. Sometimes, as in social-worker-speak, it’s all about avoiding saying anything at all.
As for the rest of it, if you can convince your reader that he’s stupid, less-educated, somehow outside the loop, you might gain the upper hand and feel better about yourself. If you can bore him or baffle him, he might stop complaining. If you can make it obscure enough, he might pay you to represent him.
I’ll leave you with this thought from Germaine Greer
The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold.
How very, very true.