Lecture 2: Word Clutter—Pompous, Ugly, Inaccurate

Needless, meaningless, misleading

“Word clutter” refers to unnecessary, meaningless, or misleading words and expressions. Like clutter on a desk or in a room, clutter in writing occupies space where it serves no purpose and obstructs our search for whatever we need to find. Written communications of companies and other organisations are full of clutter, which often serves to gloss over mistakes or provide window dressing for a paucity of ideas.

One way of thinking about clutter is as the build-up of sludge when words flow through various communications channels. As they are used and misused, whether by sloppiness or intentionally as camouflage, some words and expressions lose their original meaning and power to clarify and illuminate. Instead, they create ambiguity and confusion, or even become part of a nonsense language serving interest groups.

Few things rile critics of writing more than word clutter. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon,” says William Zinsser, a writer, editor, journalist, and teacher whose book On Writing Well has sold 1.5 million copies. “What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure explaining his costs and benefits? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain.”


Laborious phrases, “alternative facts”

The most basic sort of clutter is unnecessary words, such as in redundancies, when a person says the same thing twice, for example, using the suffix in “pre-order,” or placing “personal” before “friend.” Another common type of clutter is what Zinsser calls “the laborious phrase which has pushed out the short word that means the same thing.” This type of clutter involves using complicated expressions for simple words, such as “in the event of,” instead of “if,” “at this moment in time,” rather than “now.”

Other forms of word clutter include highfalutin but hollow expressions, gibberish, or doublespeak where words are contorted to into the opposite of their definition. Think of expressions such “alternative facts” and “fake news,” oxymorons which mean “falsehood” and “rumour.”


“Ugly and inaccurate writing”

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell decries “ugly and inaccurate writing” used “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” This is the sort of writing in which “pacification” is used to refer to “defenceless villages bombarded from the air,” and imprisoning dissidents without trial becomes the “elimination of unreliable elements,” Orwell writes.

In some domains, clutter has accumulated into distinct styles of writing and diction serving not to elucidate, but to obscure, thereby promoting the authority and influence of professional castes. Among the most notable examples are the styles of writing and diction used by people who work in bureaucracies, corporations, particularly marketing departments, officialdom, and legal systems. These linguistic sub-systems include, bureaucratese, officialese, marketing and corporate speak, and legalese.


Orwell rewrites Ecclesiastes in bureaucratese

To illustrate the potential of such idioms to rob words of their meaning and to muddle our thoughts, in his essay, Orwell quotes a famous passage from the Bible, and rewrites it in the bombastic, barely penetrable style of bureaucrats, politicians, and marketeers.

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.” (George Orwell’s satirical take on Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Ecclesiastes uses vivid images created by direct references to human experience: races, battles, the search for knowledge, power and money, and the inescapabilty of death. Reflecting on life with all the clarity he can possibly muster, that is, the light of the sun, the writer acknowledges, contrary to what mankind might like to believe, that luck may play a greater role in determining our fate than merit, effort, and sacrifice.

In contrast, Orwell’s rewrite uses pompous, meaningless vocabulary to express the same idea with such ham-fistedness that the reader can barely make out what the passage is supposed to mean. The use of abstractions and generalities contrasts with the sharpness of concrete language in Ecclesiastes. The rewrite evokes no direct experience of life. Rather, it conjures up an image of a writer existing in the bubble of a windowless office and relying on data reports and second-hand information.

“The secret of good writing,” Zinsser says in On Writing Well, is “to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”


Lack of awareness, defensiveness

Coming from a background in journalism, when I worked in business, I was struck by the cavalier ways in which colleagues often expressed themselves when writing about their fields of expertise. Whatever they meant to say was all too often impossible to decipher from the words they used, no matter how many dictionaries a reader might consult. Worse, when asked to translate into plan language, they often could or would not, pleading that their clients understood what to the rest of the world might seem intimidating and impenetrable, or derisory gobbledygook.

Journalists, at least those working for trusted news organisations, must pay scrupulous attention to the meaning of every word. They cannot afford to be sloppy. Carelessness makes them and their organisations vulnerable to the loss of readers’ trust. It also exposes them to lawsuits.

Businesspeople are generally not trained to write with such rigour, and do not have the support of phalanxes of editors unafraid to ask questions or demand rewrites. Neither do they benefit from readers’ scrutiny of their prose. Clients and customers who pay for the financial analyses of investment banks either find the reports helpful, or not. They are unlikely to offer constructive criticism to help economists write better.

The next few lectures and exercises aim to help students identify word clutter when they see it, think about what the writer intended to say, and suggest how they could have said it better. From learning to identify clutter in the writing of others, you will be more likely to recognise it in your own writing and weed it out.

For most people taking this course, the major consequences of word clutter are that their ideas get buried. But sometimes, word clutter does make an impact, in a bad way. Careless writing can backfire and create public-relations nightmares, tarnish a brand, or worse. You will get a chance to look at examples in the exercises at the end of this section.