Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bureaucratese and gobbledygook

A treat for those who hate PR-speak. The excellent Letters of Note blog reprints a fabulous memo from the former chairman of the US Civil Aeronautics Board, Alfred Kahn, in which he instructs his staff to avoid "the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook".

A few extracts follow but go and read the whole thing on Letters of Note. Apparently when Kahn's memo was published it attracted an offer of marriage and the suggestion that he should be given a Nobel prize. This should be compulsory reading...

"May I ask you, please, to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, drafts of letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose - as though you are communicating with real people. I once asked a young lawyer who wanted us to say "we deem it inappropriate" to try that kind of language out on his children - and if they did not drive him out of the room with their derisive laughter, to disown them.

"I suggest the test is a good one: try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react. (And then decide, on the basis of their reactions, whether you still want them as friends.)"
He then goes through his pet peeves, which include...
Every time you are tempted to use "herein," "hereinabove," "hereinunder," or similarly, "therein" and its corresponding variants, try "here" or "there" or "above" or "below" and see if it doesn't make just as much sense.

The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says "he was hit by a stone," than "I hit him with a stone." The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and human.

This one is, I recognize, a matter of taste. But unless you feel strongly, would you please try to remember that "data" was for more than two thousand years and is still regarded by most literate people as plural (the singular is "datum"), and that (this one goes back even longer) the singular is "criterion," and "criteria" is plural. Also, that for at least from the 17th through most of the 20th century, "presently" meant "soon" or "immediately" and not "now."
Could you possibly try to make the introduction of letters somewhat less pompous than "this is in reference to your letter dated May 42, 1993, regarding (or concerning, or in regard to, or with reference to)...." That just doesn't sound as though it is coming from a human being.
Why use "regarding" or "concerning" or "with regard to," when the simple word "about" would do just as well? Unless you are trying to impress someone; but are you sure you want to impress anyone who would be impressed by such circumlocutions? There is a similar pompous tendency to use "prior to," when what you really mean is "before."

One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of "hopefully." That word is an adverb, and makes sense only as it modifies a verb, and means "with hope." It is possible to walk hopefully into a room, if one is going into the room with the hope of finding something (or not finding something) there. It is not intelligent to say "hopefully the criminal will make his identity known," because the meaning is not that he will do so with hope in his heart, and he is the subject of the verb "make."
Those who want more of the same should read Simon Heffer's Style Notes at the Telegraph

1 comment:

Mrs Wyld said...

I give you "to impact on". Aaarrrgh.