Declaration of bad writing
When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Writer to parody the Words which are written by most others, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that he should produce a representative Sample of the Words which impel him to the Mocking. He holds these Truths to be self-evident:
- that what follows is bad writing indeed and will make you cringe or smirk,
- that it is bad not in an egregious (and thus unrepresentative) way but in a small, ordinary, quotidian, commonplace (ie, representative ) way,
- that it serves as partial proof to the thesis advanced in the previous post about Writing with Fear (although the role of fear as the cause deserves to be developed in a later post).
I) The run-of-the-mill press release/PR email
Below I reproduce, the first PR email I saw in my inbox this morning. It is chosen for being the day’s first, not for being the day’s worst.
Hi, Andreas –
I’m reaching out with a new executive leadership announcement from [COMPANY]. [COMPANY] is continuing its expansion into the [OMITTED] sector with the addition of several new members to its key management team. … [COMPANY] announced today that it has added several key members to its senior management team. …
- For heaven’s sake, stop “reaching out” already. You can ask me, remind me, alert me, tell me, or you can simply … tell me without telling me that you will tell me, but keep your hands to yourself. Reaching out is in 2011 what proactive leveraging was circa 1995. (My colleague on The Economist’s language blog has covered this adequately.)
- How is “continuing an expansion” different from “expanding”?
- Since you mention the company’s “key management team”, please clarify which management team(s) is (are) non-key.
- Thanks for repeating the phrase, thus adding depth. I notice that the “key members” are now being added to the “senior management team”. Are they key but junior? Or key and senior? Are any of the senior ones non-key?
II) Examples chosen by Johnny
The subsequent examples are taken from our Style Guide, which is written by Johnny Grimmond, who has long been both a key and a senior editor of The Economist.
(Johnny has made three other explicit appearances here on The Hannibal Blog — when he clarified like vs as, when he decried bad editing as ‘desophistication’, and when he busted me for using “co-equal” – and one veiled appearance, when he was just being British as an after-dinner speaker.)
1) Pompous blather
From the Style Guide’s entry for Community (a concept to which I also devoted a post):
If further warning is needed, remember that community is one of those words that tend to crop up in the company of the meaningless jargon and vacuous expressions beloved of bombastic bureaucrats. Here is John Negroponte, appearing before the American Senate:
“Teamwork will remain my north star as director of national intelligence–not just for my immediate office but for the entire intelligence community. My objective will be to foster proactive co-operation among the 15 IC elements and thereby optimise this nation’s extraordinary human and technical resources in collecting and analysing intelligence. We can only make the United States more secure if we approach intelligence reform as value-added, not zero-sum….”
This short passage might be the motherlode of bad expression (“foster”, “proactive”, “optimise”, “resources”, “value-added”, “zero-sum”,…). And yet it is actually ordinary enough still to be representative.
Here is another example, this one from the entry for Jargon:
The appointee … should have a proven track record of operating at a senior level within a multi-site international business, preferably within a service- or brand-oriented environment…
Johnny seems to have found this in a job advertisement by … The Economist Group! I’m guessing that gave him a frisson.
At a national level, the department engaged stakeholders positively … This helped… to improve stakeholder buy-in to agreed changes…
This phrase came out of a report from the British civil service.
In the next passage, an esteemed think tank, Chatham House, explained that
The City Safe T3 Resilience Project is a cross-sector initiative bringing together experts … to enable multi-tier practitioner-oriented collaboration on resilience and counter-terrorism challenges and opportunities.
In the next passage, some British policy maker tried to say that teachers who agree to test their students will get money from the government. Here is how:
The grants will incentivise administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the competencies they seek to develop.
Try to guess what this phrase was supposed to express:
A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.
Answer: Go-karting lessons sponsored by the Luton Educational Authority (London).
2) Political correctness
Political correctness has it own entry in our Style Guide, but I will instead quote from the entry for Euphemisms, because I think Johnny just says it all here:
Avoid, where possible, euphemisms and circumlocutions, especially those promoted by interest groups keen to please their clients or organisations anxious to avoid embarrassment. This does not mean that good writers should be insensitive of giving offence: on the contrary, if you are to be persuasive, you would do well to be courteous. But a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners. Political correctness can go.
… Female teenagers are girls, not women. Living with mobility impairment probably means wheelchair-bound. Developing countries are often stagnating or even regressing (try poor) countries. The underprivileged may be disadvantaged, but are more likely just poor (the very concept of underprivilege is absurd, since it implies that some people receive less than their fair share of something that is by definition an advantage or prerogative). Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s enhanced interrogation is torture …