Lecture 4: Word Clutter, More Types
Pompous, Unclear Words and Phrases
Clutter includes speech or writing that is verbose, pompous, and unclear. One example Zinsser cites is "in the extremely unlikely possibility that the aircraft should experience such an eventuality," which means simply “in case of an accident.”
An investment bank analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on the commercial property used the phrase “restricted development pipelines.” I think the writer was referring to reduced construction of office space. Perhaps real estate professionals understand the term. Still, the expression is imprecise in that it does not clarify the extent of the restriction, in other words, restricted in comparison to what standard. It would help the audience if the analyst spelled out whether building companies have stopped work mid-way through construction projects, postponed new projects, or are scaling down but continuing building projects.
Clusters of abstract terms are often a sign the writer is waffling because they have not put sufficient thought into their work.
Officialese, bureaucratese, corporate speak
Word clutter often involves ambiguous, abstract, or pretentious language. This sort of writing has a name, depending on its context: bureaucratese, corporate speak, legalese, or officialese. Such gobbledygook is used to impress the audience with the speaker’s authority, power, and knowledge.
Sometimes such expressions are the result of laziness. Rather than think through the details of a problem, it may be easier to classify them as “unprecedented developments,” even when there are precedents. For example, many governments said the Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented. This ignores previous epidemics including SARS in China and Hong Kong at the beginning of this millennium, and the Spanish flu a century ago.
Officialese or bureaucratese is often the default language for people in positions of power to protect themselves from scrutiny. The functions of such language are not to communicate and clarify, but to obfuscate, to paper over mistakes, sanitise, or minimise consequences.
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.
Zinsser cites many examples of cluttered, nonsense language that waters down the facts for public consumption, for example, the Pentagon’s use of "reinforced protective reaction strike" as a substitute for “invasion.”
Pseudo-language creeps up from many corners of business communications. One area is thought-leadership content, produced to demonstrate a person’s or organisation’s superior understanding of an industry, expertise in managing certain issues, and ability to help others replicate their success. At least, that was the original idea of thought leadership.
Today, it has become a fashionable marketing tool for consultancies and other businesses to sell their services to other companies. Some companies allocate budgets for thought-leadership content as part of promotional strategies, sometimes without first determining what original ideas they have to impress their audience.
Here is a brief extract from a thought leadership study on innovation:
“The main barrier to innovation is embedding change and improvement in a sustained way. When brilliant ideas fail for avoidable reasons, a key ‘innovation killer’ is difficultly moving beyond small scale, as is poor implementation of ideas.”
The quotation marks suggest the writer was aware that the term “innovation killer” was problematic. But putting quotation marks around the expression leaves unanswered the question of what an “innovation killer” is, and how to know one when we see one. For example, if the engineering department of an aircraft manufacturer objects to a certain feature in engine, is the department guilty of killing innovation, or is it upholding safety standards?