When it comes to language, we all have our pet peeves: words that are overused, misused, or just plain abused. But should we go a step further and ban the worst offenders?
Of course, any talk of banning words immediately draws accusations of “dumbing down” the linguistic glory of the likes of Shakespeare and Churchill, Austen and Twain. I’m talking about the opposite: avoiding the inefficient, unclear and downright ugly words our great writers would never have put on paper.
Winston Churchill, for example, exhorted his nation to “fight on the beaches”, not to “engage in hostilities in the intertidal zones”. Shakespeare’s Hamlet pondered whether “to be or not to be” rather than “to give consideration to the identified options of being”.
Yet government writing today still dresses in a complex linguistic garb because this has more “gravitas” — even when it says the same thing as a simpler alternative.
The words to watch for fall into four categories.
Precision: simplify functional phrases
Let’s start with prepositional phrases. Too often we replace simple prepositions with several words that add nothing to the meaning:
contained in (in)
for the purpose of (for, to)
in connection with (with)
in order to (to)
in relation to/with regards to (about, for, to)
in the absence of (without)
in the event that (if).
All this does is dress up a precise word in an ill-fitting cloak. To paraphrase Jane Austen, a writer should not do anything slovenly. The use of four words when one will do looks careless at best.
Readability: shun the fancy-pants French
The next class of words we could banish goes back to the ’60s: the 1060s that is. When the Normans invaded England, they also supplanted English as the language of power. For several centuries, French became the official language in law, administration and the universities.
By the time English restored its official status, it had assimilated thousands of Latinate French words. This greatly enriched our language, making English the language of the synonym. We might, for example, choose to “start” something, or we could commence, begin, initiate, inaugurate, embark, proceed, institute, instigate or launch it.
But rather than choosing carefully from the available options, government writing puts on fancy-pants and defaults to the longer, Norman French word instead of a shorter Anglo Saxon option. We persuade ourselves that these words are more sophisticated, but they only make the message harder to read:
as a consequence of/due to the fact that (because)
at the conclusion of (after, at the end of)
in accordance with/pursuant to (in line with, under)
notwithstanding (despite, although)
the majority of (most)
the remainder of (the rest of)
This doesn’t mean that all long words are bad. Just don’t choose a long word where a short one says the same thing. Churchill captured this well when he wrote: “Short words are best. And old words when short are best of all.”
Efficiency: trim the process clutter
Government writing is particularly prone to the third class of clutter: process detail. A process mindset can needlessly frock up words and phrases by over-qualifying everything:
during the course of (during)
for a period of three years (for three years)
in a timely manner (promptly)
is in the process of recruiting (is recruiting)
is responsible for the management of (manages)
on a regular basis (regularly)
the risks associated with (the risks of).
The assumption here is that being “in the process of recruiting” or being “responsible for the management of” something is more complex and worthy than just recruiting or managing alone. It isn’t. Cut the clutter and get to the point.
Clarity: moderate the jargon
Finally, we come to the hardest of our four categories: the jargon. This is more difficult because jargon can capture a concept efficiently for those who are familiar with it.
If you are an auditor, for example, you can’t easily replace a term such as “material misstatement” because it has a complex meaning linked to a professional standard. Writing about a “major error” doesn’t quite cut it.
But there’s little point using jargon if your readers don’t understand it. My local council, for example, recently erected a sign warning the public of possible “tree failure” in a local park after a storm. Arborists may well defend this as the “correct” technical term, but the message wasn’t for them. It was for the public who needed to know about the danger of falling trees and branches.
Of course, this is more difficult when your audience includes both expert and general readers. If that is the case, you may have to resort to the Shakespearean strategy: use a complex term but also explain it, just as he did with Lady Macbeth lamenting the blood on her hands:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
So how far should we go in our ban? At the very least, dispatch the words that won’t earn their keep. Replace every prepositional phrase with single prepositions and avoid the fancy-pants French where a simpler alternative exists. Be ruthless on process clutter and consider your readers carefully before resorting to jargon.
Rather than “dumbing down” your writing, you will in fact be emulating our greatest writers. Once you’ve seen how this is done, you’ll never want to doll up your writing again. As Mark Twain once put it: “Don’t use a $5 word when a 50-cent word will do.”