A manifesto for clear writing and an indictment of the damage done to the English language by the use of jargon
John Rentoul examines how poor writing and a reliance on jargon have damaged our ability to communicate with each other and makes the case for the use of clear English. He addresses the verbification of nouns, the use of waffle to pad out a simple statement, and the importing of business jargon into everyday situations. Unashamedly polemical in tone, his essay condemning contemporary linguistic atrocities is the perfect read for anyone who has ever had the misfortune to read a public policy report on key deliverables or a newspaper article about the latest game-changer.
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About the Author
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday and the author of Tony Blair: Prime Minister. His popular blog features the ever-growing Banned List of over-used, meaningless words and phrases.
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The Banned List
A Manifesto Against Jargon And Cliché
By John Rentoul
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2011 John Rentoul
All rights reserved.
THE BANNED LIST
It all started with the television news and a scene familiar in homes everywhere. On 28 June 2008, I heard a political reporter for the BBC say 'It's the economy, stupid.' I don't think I shouted at the television, or threw anything, but you get the idea. No. No more. Never again. Within minutes, with the happy immediacy of the internet, I wrote: 'The phrase has been added to the list of Prohibited Clichés. By order.' I didn't have a list of Prohibited Clichés when I started writing, but, by the time I had finished, there was a list of five. The others were:
A week is a long time in politics.
What part of x don't you understand?
Way beyond or way more.
Any time soon.
Thus began the Banned List, the latest and longest version of which is before you now. It consists of more than clichés of course, because at least a cliché was shiny once, before it became dull from over-use, whereas many words and phrases have never been interesting. The list includes: pretentious words that people hope will make them look clever, or at least conceal their uncertainty; jargon intended to advertise membership of a supposedly expert order; and empty, abstract words that fill space while the writer or speaker works out what to say. They all get in the way. So here they are all laid down, never to be used again.
'It's the economy, stupid' was a particularly provoking phrase, not just because it is a cliché but because it is wrong. What James Carville, the wild and brilliant manager of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential election campaign, wrote on the whiteboard in the war room in Little Rock, Arkansas, was 'The economy, stupid.' It was the second of three reminders for campaign workers, the first being 'Change vs. more of the same' and the third 'Don't forget healthcare.' I am sure that photographic evidence exists somewhere, but the words were recorded by Michael Kelly, a contemporary witness, in a report for the New York Times, 'The 1992 Campaign: The Democrats', on 31 October 1992. (The War Room, a 1993 documentary in which Carville and his colleagues played themselves, also features the correct wording.)
I cannot remember what the BBC report was about, but presumably the reporter was saying that the state of the economy is a factor in politics. This is not always true. The recession did for George Bush Sr in 1992, but not for John Major a few months earlier. The assertion requires evidence and explanation. Instead, all we got was a phrase so memorable that everyone misremembers it. This was television, a stultifying medium, and the reporter had to come to a conclusion in under two and a half minutes.
At least the phrase was pungent once, even though it began to go stale in about 1993. It finally crumbled to dust when it was adopted by the Green Party in 2009 as the title of its manifesto for the European elections, it's the economy, stupid, which used the typographical device of putting the whole thing in lower case that had been fashionable in the 1980s.
Some clichés disappear eventually, and this may be one of them. It seems to be on the wane, although it has already lasted nearly two decades. 'A week is a long time in politics' has lasted nearly thirty years longer. It is even less authentic. At least part of 'it's the economy, stupid' is genuine. The legend of Harold Wilson's cliché is that he said it to lobby journalists around 1964, but no one wrote it down at the time. Nigel Rees, author of Sayings of the Century, asked Wilson in 1977, and he could not recall when or even whether he had said it.
The phrase may owe its durability to it meaning even less than 'the economy, stupid'. All it means is 'stuff happens'. In this it is curiously similar to 'events, dear boy, events', another unverifiable cliché-quotation from the time, attributed to another prime minister called Harold. Alastair Horne, Macmillan's biographer, told Robert Harris that he thought his subject might have been referring to the Profumo affair, which was in 1963, but the phrase was not recorded (as 'attributed') by the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations until 1999.
We do not know who Macmillan's 'dear boy' was, or what his question had been, although the gist suggests itself. Yet Wilson's cliché is even more persistent, perhaps because it can be varied so easily. 'If a week is a long time in politics, then a month is an eternity', or 'an hour is now a long time in politics'. The most ingenious recent variation was by Mark Field, the Conservative MP, in an article in 2010. Writing about parliamentary boundaries that would not be decided for another three years, he concluded: 'And as we know 156 weeks is a long time in politics ...'
Other clichés are intensely but briefly fashionable. 'What part of x don't you understand?' is defunct already. It was popular in the British press around the middle of 2008. Alice Miles, the Times columnist, had just used it to brutally dismissive effect in April, when interest rates were rising and some homeowners complained about market forces as if Margaret Thatcher had never existed: 'Coming to the end of a fixed-rate deal? Tough. What part of Two-Year Fixed Rate didn't you understand?' The economy changed in September — interest rates went down after the collapse of Lehman Bros — but the phrase itself was already cold ash. I have not seen it in print for years, although a search of an electronic database of national newspapers reveals a notably lame use in March 2011: 'The coalition promised "respect" to Scotland. What part of that word don't they understand?' But that was in the Scottish edition of The Express, so it hardly counts.
The use of 'way' instead of 'far' is a different kind of cliché: that of the over-use in serious writing of a young person's style of speech. When variations of slang are first used they can tickle the pleasure of recognition — assuming the slang is well known enough — or of simple novelty, but the trick works only once or twice. Usage can change, we all know that, but it is better for the writer not to be the abrasive edge that wears down the reader's resistance. One day, 'way' may be accepted as an alternative to 'far', but let second-rate writers achieve that if the market will bear it.
No such defence can be mounted for 'any time soon', even if its initial attraction was similar, as a compliment paid by the old — or the old country — to the young. The adoption by British writers of Americanisms follows the same cycle of freshness, irritation and selective acceptance, but 'any time soon' is not a different way of saying 'soon', just a longer one.
AND SO IT BEGINS
The Banned List actually started as an email, now lost, that I wrote around 2000 with some rules for leading articles in The Independent. They should never begin with 'So', I said. Since then I have realised that this is only the first of a rising three-part scale. Worse is to start an article with 'And so'. Worst of all is 'And so it begins.' Time can be saved by not reading on if an article starts with any of those. Although that kind of sweeping judgement can lead one astray, as it once did Martin Amis, to whom I shall come in a moment.
Most of my other rules were more specific to leading articles. (I said we should use formal language such as 'leading article' rather than 'leader', 'newspaper' rather than 'paper' and avoid contractions such as 'don't' and 'can't'; the other rule that I remember was: 'We never call for a debate, because we know what we think.') The guidelines also advised against the use of foreign languages, as did George Orwell, to whom I shall also come in a moment, or dead ones, which Orwell did not mention. I think there had been some debate in the office about the use of the Latin word pace, in which it turned out that some people not only did not know what it means ('with respect to' in the sense of 'contrary to the opinion of') but thought that it is a way of citing someone in one's support. Quod erat demonstrandum.
It would be a cliché, and wrong, to say that I was standing on the shoulders of giants in compiling those guidelines, and this List. I am not standing on anything; I am stealing. It was Henry Fowler whom I burgled first. His Modern English Usage is a fine browsing-ground for those who care about clear writing, although, as David Crystal points out in his introduction to the 2009 reissue of the first edition, Fowler contradicts himself repeatedly. People who object that 'under the circumstances' ought to be 'in the circumstances' (a good point, now he mentions it) are dismissed as 'puerile'. He says that using the prefix 'super-' not in its primary sense of 'above' or 'transcending' but meaning 'of a superior kind', 'as in superman, supermarket, superministry ... is so evidently convenient that it is vain to protest when others indulge in it' (a lovely condescension).
But, as Crystal notes, 'when Fowler encounters a usage he does not like, his language alters'. For example, he refuses to tolerate the coming together of 'forceful' and 'forcible' — 'such writers injure the language' — and he condemns the use of 'phenomenal' to mean 'remarkable' as having had 'unreasonable vogue'. He says that 'believers in sound English may deliver their attack upon such usages with hope of success'. How wrong he turned out to be.
Then came George Orwell, whom I admire mainly because his real name was Blair. Others admire him because he wrote well and passionately against sloppy political writing. Not that his own writing is universally praised. According to Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis 'declined to go any further into Nineteen Eighty-Four because the words "ruggedly handsome features" appear on the first page'. (The features belong to Big Brother in a poster.) Amis said: 'The man can't write worth a damn.' Hitchens tells the story in his memoir, Hitch-22, and Amis confirmed it to Michael Ezra, a friend of mine. Amis would 'never let friendship take precedence over his first love, which was and is the English language', wrote Hitchens, who admitted that his friend had once rebuked him for using 'no mean achievement' in an article. I have added that to the List too.
Amis later grudgingly admitted that Nineteen Eighty-Four improved after its unfortunate start, but Orwell is cited here because he compiled an early version of the Banned List in his essay, 'Politics and the English Language', in 1946. He identified four categories of verbiage: 'dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction and meaningless words'.
His examples of dying metaphors were:
Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed.
All of them I have added to my list, except 'fishing in troubled waters', which is now extinct. I thought that 'take up the cudgel for' was sleeping with the fishes too, but I found that Jemima Khan had stepped outside her Oxfordshire mansion to 'take up the cudgels for human rights', according to my good colleague Ian Burrell of The Independent in December 2010. The pluralisation of the original cudgel is one of those subtle changes that clichés undergo over decades. The 'on the' has dropped off 'the order of the day', and 'toe the line' has been rendered so featureless by over-use that it is now often written as 'tow the line', which is a different metaphor altogether.
'Verbal false limbs' was hardly an elegant phrase, but you see what Orwell meant when he explained:
Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of.
I have added them all. They are all still current, although some are more offensive than others. ('Militate against' is a particular menace because some people confuse 'militate' and 'mitigate', which turns it into a nonsense phrase.)
When he came to 'pretentious diction' Orwell seems to have run out of time to think of really objectionable examples.
Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate.
Many of them are unattractive and should be substituted by shorter, more direct words if possible, but 'element', 'primary' and 'exploit' are perfectly good words of precise meaning.
Others of his examples may have evolved since 1946. It would be fussy to rule against the use of individual as a noun now. But most of them are objectionable only if misused. 'Promote' and 'constitute' are useful words in the right places and are pretentious only if used to mean 'encourage' or 'make up'. So I have not added these, except 'utilise', which has no place in the English language as long as the 'tili' can be excised.
Orwell's examples of meaningless words — class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality — also seem unnecessarily argumentative. What he means is that they are often used to add value judgements surreptitiously to statements about which the reader ought to be allowed to make up his or her own mind. Again, most of them cannot be banned altogether, and even 'progressive', which is on my Banned List, is permitted when making an arithmetical point about tax systems.
Orwell's essay also set out six flawed rules to help write good English:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. ever use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The first and the fifth are all right, but the others depend on the sixth to make sense of their ironic absolutism. It may be possible never to use foreign, scientific or jargon words, but not even Martin Amis could abide by the first rule all the time. Criticising Orwell for his 'never' and 'always' might seem a bit rich — or even, to test rule five, a case of lese-majesty — from someone who has called his own book The Banned List. But it would have been more use if Orwell had said a bit more about the reasons for going against his rules than the avoidance of the 'outright barbarous'.
Barbarity is not the test. Sometimes long words are more interesting than short ones. Sometimes words that are strictly superfluous improve the rhythm of a sentence, or make it funny. The common complaint against sub-editors is that the first thing they do is take out all the jokes. It is possible to cut them out, so if the article is too long they do so. (Although the complaint is often unfair: if a sub-editor takes out a joke, the first possibility that ought to be considered is that it was not funny.)
And where would you stop? It would be possible to cut out all but the first paragraph of most news stories, and some media organisations seem to aspire to this model. William Shakespeare could have written, 'boy meets girl and everyone dies', but the play would have lacked a certain 'I know not what', as the French say. Or we could all write nothing at all and abandon what Erich Fromm called the struggle against pointlessness. Rule four is an exaggeration too. Sometimes, if only to vary the mood, the passive is to be preferred (I cannot say it, because it is on the List, but if you did see what I did there, well done).
With those qualifications, then, Orwell's rules are all very well, but we are particularly interested here in his lists of examples. They are one of the sources on which I have drawn in compiling the Banned List.
Some of the List was put together from my chance dislikes that, like that stupid economy, caused me to sublimate my desire to shout at the radio or television, or to throw down a newspaper in disgust. Increasingly, others nominated their own dislikes for inclusion, which I accepted or rejected with arbitrary power. Readers of my blog and other Twitter users were my best resource. Contrary to Google's being 'white bread of the mind', in the loopy phrase of Tara Brabazon, a professor of media studies at Brighton University, the power of computers can be harnessed for mutual self-improvement. Yes, there is a lot of text-message abbreviation on the internet, a lot of carelessly-written comment and a lot of badly-written pretension. But there is also a lot of good writing, a freshness of expression and all kinds of new slang, some of which is highly inventive and ticklish.
The internet can allow people to dumb down, if that is what they want, but it is also a liberator for those seeking out quality. My experience is that people care about language; pedantry is also popular. The internet is not destroying the language but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better.
Excerpted from The Banned List by John Rentoul. Copyright © 2011 John Rentoul. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents
THE BANNED LIST,
AND SO IT BEGINS,
WHY OH WHY OH WHY?,
'HOW TO BE TOPP',
ABOUT THE BLOG,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,