To coin a word or drop a clanger, that is the question

On misusing or fumbling a word, is it better to hold your hands up to it or to compare yourself to the world’s greatest playwright?

For Sarah Palin, apparently, the answer was easy. Her use of the entirely made up ‘refudiate’ was no error; indeed, inventing it was akin to something Shakespeare himself would have done (oh, when will the comparisons between those two end?). Last Sunday, in response to proposed plans to build a mosque at Ground Zero in New York, Palin begged ‘peaceful Muslims, please refudiate’ in a Tweet. While the message was later deleted, she eventually followed it up with one declaring, ‘Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!’

Of course, this ‘new word’, judged by those with dictionaries to be an accidental combination of ‘refute’ (meaning to prove to be false) and ‘repudiate’ (to reject as having no authority), still wouldn’t quite work in this context, if at all.

More appropriately, perhaps, Palin also aligned herself with George ‘Malaprop’ Bush, the ‘misunderestimated’ president who was ‘mindful not only of preserving executive powers for [him]self, but for predecessors as well.’

The English language always has and always will grow and change. But the question now is: should we all refudiate words entering the language out of sheer unwillingness to admit we got it wrong?

The campaign to ban the bull

In our e-bulletin, we like to take a wild specimen of business-writing bull by the horns and tame it, so that it can be understood by all.

The Ban the bull campaign was inspired by our gobbledygook amnesty back in 2009, which brought us the following offending sentence.

And, despite the subject matter, there’s nothing natural about this sentence …

“In respect of a natural habitat, the sum of the influences acting on a natural habitat and its typical species that may affect its long-term natural distribution, structure and functions as well as the long-term survival of its typical species within, as the case may be, the European territory of the Member States to which the Treaty applies or the territory of a Member State or the natural range of that habitat.”

This 72-word monster is more likely to leave you dizzy than well-informed about natural habitats, assuming you even make it to the end. Sentences that have to be re-read numerous times are only going to annoy your reader, and could well make them put your document aside – permanently.

This sentence has actually been doing the rounds – in several slightly modified forms – in assorted EC Directives and national regulations for over a decade. (It speaks to the dangers of repeatedly using cut-and-paste, that this example is perhaps the worst.) Where it was previously broken up into numbered points, these have now been crammed together, with additional phrases haphazardly piled onto the end.

So how might we re-build this into something more manageable?

Start plainly

Even bearing in mind that this is taken out of context, the opening is vague and unclear. In what sense is it ‘in respect of’? It would be best to make this obvious at the beginning, so the reader is prepared with a premise to add the rest of the information to as they go on.

After a little research, it seems this is probably defining an official way of deciding the conservation status of any natural habitat. Would the reader have known that?

This would be better: ‘The conservation status of a natural habitat can be measured by looking at …’


Avoid such overly long, opaque constructions, typical of the language of legislation. Even when lacking in individually mystifying jargon words – as this one mostly is – the sheer length of such sentences is a huge obstacle to clarity. Effective use of punctuation is vital for making meaning explicit, so use it wisely: an infinite number of commas won’t clarify a poorly put-together sentence.

Break it up

When you’re dealing with a list in your text – in this case, a list of factors – consider using bullet points. These instantly make the piece more accessible, because the reader is no longer faced with a block of text. They also help to make separate ideas more distinct.

Cut the filler

Phrases like ‘as the case may be’ sound rambling and wishy-washy. Better to actually state your case, and cut these out.

Keep it simple

Unless you’re sure every reader will understand a particular word, pick a more straightforward one.

So that would leave us with:

The conservation status of a natural habitat can be measured by looking at:
•      every influence, both environmental and human, that affects that habitat and the species within it
•      how these influences will affect that habitat’s long-term distribution, structure and function; and on the future survival of its typical species.
In this context, these definitions apply to the range of natural habitats within Member States of the European territory included in this Treaty.

Now, armed with this knowledge, we can all move forward into a world where business writing is safer for everyone.

If you ever spot any baffling business-speak, be it in a report, letter, email, flyer, website, or proposal, please join our campaign by sending it to us to unravel. Alternatively, just leave a comment here at our business writing blog.

‘S Dickens, innit

He began by turning Shakespeare into txt spk. Now it’s Dickens for da yoof of today.

Martin Baum, a father from Bournemouth, has rewritten Dickens in ‘yoof-speak’ in order – he claims – to get children interested in reading. ‘Kids today have invented their own language,’ says Baum.   ‘And I use this language to try and engage them.’

Judge his alleged mission as you will, while you contemplate his opening to Da Tale of Two Turfs: ‘It was da best of times and, not being funny or nuffing, but it was da worst of times, to be honest …’

Cutting weasel words? I’ll get back to you

We might all have certain choice words that we resist saying to our work colleagues or boss at times. But these are probably quite different from the list of taboo workplace words and phrases recently published in Forbes Magazine.

The article asserts that phrases like ‘we’ll see’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I’ll get back to you’, as well as so-called ‘weasel’ words like ‘if’ and ‘try’, should be struck from our office vocabulary, if not our lives. ‘Take a scalpel and cut them out of your thinking, speaking and writing,’ declares the author, psychotherapist and business consultant Linda Durré. ‘Words like these only weaken you and make you sound noncommittal, undependable and untrustworthy.’

No doubt most of us favour certainty and a ‘can do’ attitude in our business dealings. But the problem with such a blanket ban on these words and phrases is that they can actually be pretty useful. In an ideal world, we might all know everything in the instant that we’re asked. But in reality, sometimes you need to buy time in order to double check or do some research before passing information on to a client. Infinitely better that they should have to wait for an hour and get all the facts the first time, rather than potentially acting on misinformation you blurted out on the spot, under the pressure of not being able to say ‘if’.

Good business relationships depend on someone saying ‘I’ll get back to you’ and doing it, ‘try’ and meaning it, and ‘I don’t know – but I can find out’ as necessary, not on cutting such phrases out altogether.

Literacy is key to success at work

Poor literacy at work is still a major problem, new research has found.

The report, Literacy: State of the Nation, examined the UK’s literacy levels both in schools and in the workplace.

While a quarter of young people see no connection between reading and success, the research results made the link clear. Two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women with low literacy levels had never received a promotion.

The knock-on effect could be costing the rest of the country too, according to the National Literacy Trust, which published the report. The findings are ‘extremely worrying’, says Jonathan Douglas, the Trust’s director. ‘It is estimated that poor literacy costs the economy £2.5bn a year.’

Worrying indeed.

Texting turnaround on literacy

There’s been another U-turn on the effects of texting on children’s literacy skills.

The latest research, conducted by Dr Clare Wood at the British Academy, suggests that, far from damaging their ability to read and write, using ‘textisms’ like ‘LOL’ and ‘plz’ is actually a sign of sophisticated phonological development.

Great news for the future generation, certainly. But is anyone else dizzy yet?

The offence of bad language

Finally, a House of Commons report that is a cause for celebration.

This is Bad Language: the Use and Abuse of Official Language – the result of an investigation into the many ways in which politicians and civil servants may baffle and intimidate readers with their use of jargon-heavy, euphemism-filled waffle. By making such official documents virtually unreadable, the report points out, the public is effectively denied access to political policies that affect them.

The committee behind the report are planning to crack down on perpetrators by issuing penalties for instances where poor use of language has damaging results, like a person failing to receive benefits or services they are entitled to.

And while their plan is to refer to the offence of bad political language by the rather jargon-y term ‘maladministration’, we really can’t do anything but applaud these announcements.

Police wasting time

The police often have a hand in giving out long sentences. Now they’re writing them.

A potentially record-breaking 102-word single sentence appears in the Association of Chief Police Officers’ comeback to a government report on policing. Here’s the offending passage (note – do not attempt to read this before operating heavy machinery):

“The promise of reform which the Green Paper heralds holds much for the public and Service alike; local policing, customized to local need with authentic answerability, strengthened accountabilities at force level through reforms to police authorities and HMIC, performance management at the service of localities with targets and plans tailored to local needs, the end of centrally engineered one size fits all initiatives, an intelligent approach to cutting red tape through redesign of processes and cultures, a renewed emphasis on strategic development so as to better equip our service to meet the amorphous challenges of managing cross force harms, risks and opportunities.”

If you made it to the end: well done. This kind of meandering, jargon-heavy sentence would almost certainly lose most readers a quarter of the way through: 35 words should be the maximum length in such a document.

Although a spokeswoman did hold her hands up on behalf of the police chiefs’ verbosity, she also posed the defence that the piece was written primarily to persuade civil servants. She claimed it was therefore written in ‘a language familiar to them’.

The civil servants we’ve worked with certainly deserve a lot better.

But if she’s right about ACPO’s audience, it’s little wonder that we’re all prisoners to paperwork.

Is it a feathered sky-dwelling nest-builder? Is it an aerodynamic pan-destinational person carrier? No, it’s Sloganizer!

Are you struggling to come up with a new nugget of corporate gobbledegook? Could your report benefit from some indecipherable doublespeak? Are you floundering from a lack of filler? Never fear. Sloganizer to the rescue!

The new application for the iPhone brings the old paper Sloganizer right up-to-date – and right into your office.

When it became obvious in the 1970s that ambiguous nonsense was the latest staple of boardrooms around Britain, Sloganizer was born. In its first incarnation, it was made of paper and offered up to 1000 random three-part combinations of meaningless business lingo, such as ‘decentralization of participative ambiguity’.

The latest downloadable version will reveal up to 375,000 internally interchangeable – and utterly incomprehensible – phrases with a simple shake of your iPhone. Some highlights include:

Multi-disciplinary bureaucratic strategy determination
Integral prognosis of fields of tension
Functional conservative alternative behaviour.

While the last one might well refer to David Cameron’s conduct and policies as he tries to elbow Gordon Brown out of the PM spot, we can guarantee that 99 per cent of the slogans will mean absolutely nothing. This is the jargon jackpot.

Please note: Emphasis and the makers of Sloganizer bear no responsibility for any loss of time, money or respect while using this product.

Microsoft to improve 'buying experience at retail'. (That's 'shopping' to you and me.)

Microsoft has announced it’s to open its own shops, in a clear bid to grab a slice of the Apple retail action.

Apple trades on its image as the quintessence of cool: all innovative design and sleek lines. Microsoft may face an uphill battle in this respect, at least if its press release announcing the move is anything to go by.

It quotes Kevin Turner, Microsoft’s chief operating officer, as saying:

We’re working hard to transform the PC and Microsoft buying experience at retail by improving the articulation and demonstration of the Microsoft innovation and value proposition so that it’s clear, simple and straightforward for consumers everywhere.

‘What?’ you may ask. Good question.

I was going to offer a translation, but I’m afraid it’s stumped me. Some ‘clear, simple and straightforward’ language might be a good start, Mr Turner.