A new year, a new language (please)

Looking back on last year, it seems that 2011 saw the English usage debate heat up, with plain English advocators angling their bayonets against the mountain of corporate jargon that permeates the modern workplace. And as an e-learning supplier, this is a matter close to Saffron’s heart.

National Plain English Day, which took place at the tail end of last year, saw The Plain English Campaign’s ardent members shredding jargon-filled documents to mirror the event which took place on Parliament Green in Westminster in 1979, at its founding.

But it wasn’t only the Plain English Campaign that stepped in to defend us from the gobbledygook clotted annals of the public information machine last year. Indeed, back in April, one of the Saffron IDs blogged about Orwell’s six rules of simple English, providing tips for how to improve the language used in e-learning courses. Another of my colleagues sent me an article on the topic by Dan Pallotta, from the Harvard Business Review. Through the link, you can cast your vote for your ‘all-time worst business buzzword’- at the moment, ‘thinking outside the box’ is winning and it’s due to the ubiquitous use of terms like these that Dan bemoans how he doesn’t ‘understand what anyone is saying anymore.’ He’s not alone. More and more bloggers, journalists and TV presenters are starting to talk about the terrible state of language in the workplace.

Of course, this debate didn’t begin in 2011. The host of ‘tone of voice’ and writing consultancy firms that promise to banish jargon from your corporate culture for good haven’t popped up overnight. One Independent columnist wrote back in 2007: ‘I think my choice of word for banning would be “workshop.”’ Other terms that get poo-pooed in the article are ‘elephant in the room’, ‘it’s not rocket science’, ‘push the needle’, ‘shoot the puppy’, ‘touch base’, ‘hit the ground running’, ‘mentoring’, ‘heads up’, ‘solutions’ and ‘get our ducks in a row.’ My favourite example of this trend towards jargon busting comes from a man quoted in a newspaper article on the topic, who shall remain un-named:

“Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a w***er.”

Why does non plain English usage generate such hostility? Is it because it makes people feel stupid? Or is it because it divides people into in-groups (those who know the jargon) and out-groups (those that don’t)? Language certainly can be divisive. It was one of the catalysts for the Protestant Reformation, has caused controversy in Irish courts when defendants have asked for the right to give evidence in Irish and creates a lamentable division along social lines (think of the ‘common flower girl’ who passes as a ‘Lady’ by changing her accent). Whatever the reasons, I’m not sure that I agree that all jargon is meaningless and am uncomfortable with the Plain English Campaign’s ‘purification’ tactics or the idea of ‘banning’ words from our language.

Dan Pallotta is surely right when he says that the over-use of jargon in the workplace means that he, and perhaps many others, don’t understand a lot of what’s being said anymore. But jargon is only jargon if you don’t know what it means. The feeling of bewilderment that Dan describes in his blog is usually caused when people use language without considering their audience, as the Plain English Campaign rightly acknowledges in its aim to rid all public communication of jargon. Whilst we might not thank our doctor for telling us that the pain in our chest is caused by aortic calcification we wouldn’t object if our doctor reported a diagnosis of aortic calcification on the prescription that you’ll hand to the pharmacist.

But perhaps this is an unfitting metaphor. After all, aortic calcification is a precise term that refers to an equally precise problem. Business-speak’s many detractors would say that terms like ‘joined up thinking’ and ‘moving forward’ are general terms used precisely when people don’t really know what they mean or what they want to say. But I might have to disagree, at least in part. As cringe inducing as terms like ‘joined up thinking’, ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘deep dive’ and ‘off the shelf’ are, they do seem to mean something to the community of people who uses them. In which case, as long as it’s kept within the office, business speak might aid as opposed to hinder understanding.

Plus, is business-speak any more cringe inducing than some of the plain English that seems to be replacing it? Take Innocent’s brand literature as a case in point. Their fruit smoothie bottles tell you to ‘shake it up baby’ before drinking and promises to always eat its greens. I don’t want my fruit smoothie to have a personality. We’re grown ups and it’s belittling. Pret’s ‘hello I’m your new toastie, please eat me’ packaging is even worse.

I don’t disagree with the Plain English Campaign’s original complaint, but it seems that we’ve gone from one extreme to another when it comes to the language used in public communication. I don’t want to be spoken to by HMRC’s disembodied cipher or a personified toastie. Here’s to hoping that 2012 brings a new, more moderate, use of the English language.