Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Political content-free evasive English

Start the Week this morning was all about political writing referencing George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’ I’m always amused – and sometimes frustrated – by the evasive language used particularly by politicians. I guess they are always afraid of having something quoted back at them later when things haven’t quite turned out as expected. So they duck the issue. Often the statements are process only – content-free. “We’ll learn the lessons and take these forward in a robust response” – what is actually going to happen?

I used to laugh at – and then try to fix – statements in Young Enterprise annual reports. We often had sections like this:

“We had a brainstorming session to think of ideas for products and services. We eliminated suggestions that we thought were impractical or unlikely to be successful. We created a short list and voted on the items” 

Good stuff – but what were the rejected ideas (or at least some of them)? What were on the short list? What criteria were used to decide? What was finally decided? 

Another pet annoyance of mine is neutral words. “Outcome” is one and “robust” another. They both sound positive (perhaps they sound robust) but they cover a range of possibilities. The use of “outcome” in the context of a medical intervention is OK but it is much weaker than “objective” or “achievement” which give some sense of direction.  There was a wonderful interview a while ago about a new appointment by the Cabinet Office: the holder of the appointment spoke excitedly and enthusiastically about the new role – but in all the answers there was nothing about what she was actually going to do!

Some advertisements are only a little better: the Trade Description Acts have made commercial organisations much more cautious – no more “Guinness is good for you”!  Just look out for the ads that don’t really mean anything. Coke is “the real thing” a TV ad I’ve just heard “reduces the appearance of wrinkles”

Orwell in his essay rewrites a section from Ecclesiastes:

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.

Here’s his version rewritten in the then modern language:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel 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.

You can read the full essay here.

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