How to swat the gnats of language
The Edit Part VII
Continuing The Edit, our series on language in modern communications, with the charge sheet against buzzwords.
Language changes. To write well we must keep up. Yet it is easy to confuse good modern English with buzzwords and phrases that try to make the writer seem up to the minute and clever. Actually, they just get in the way of clarity. Modern comms needs brevity and informality; these words make things longer and more pompous.
Buzzwords are the gnats of language, buzzing in and out of your ears with no purpose other than to annoy, the Styrofoam of sentence construction only there to pad. The most frequently mocked – although it isn’t going away – is “going forward”. Here are other buzzwords we could live without.
Passionate about. It is no longer enough to support a cause or even to campaign for it. In a recent book review the neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen wrote: “I am passionate for an equal society.” Fair enough, but how does he manifest that passion? Pretty dispassionately, we would guess.
Reach out to. Nor can you just call someone or contact them. Instead you have to “reach out to them”. The Runcorn and Widnes World recently reported: “Taekwondo academy uses sponsorship to reach out to young people.” In an age where communication is easier than ever, we feel the need to inflate our language to make it look as if we are really trying.
The right thing to do. This phrase, usually preceded by the equally annoying verbal tic “that’s why it’s”, is politician-speak for “I want...” Here is John Longworth, chairman of the Leave Means Leave campaign group, on a no-deal Brexit: “The British people voted for a clean Brexit, that is the right thing to do...” It’s not hard to find someone who doesn’t think it’s right at all.
Speaks to. Alas, this no longer just means one person addressing another but has become a pompous way of saying “shows”. Here’s Forbes: “For whatever reason, familiarity breeds liking, and this speaks to why celebrity endorsements are so effective...” We bet familiarity never said a word.
Around. Usually preceded by “issues”, “around” has become the preposition of choice for the self-important. The security minister Ben Wallace recently told Radio 4’s Today programme he would increase funding “around” fighting far-right terrorism. We’d prefer a more direct approach.
Take ownership of. Used a great deal in business meetings. It is a posh way of saying “do”, “run”, “organise” or “manage”. Highbrook confesses the phrase has a certain seductive authority. We would surely much prefer to take ownership of the office washing up than do it.
Granular detail. Take this Guardian report from Paris Fashion Week: “This theme was reinforced from the venue to the clothes, in granular detail.” Or maybe just “in detail”. Perhaps only Tate & Lyle’s products truly could be examined in granular detail.
Deliver. It’s no longer the postman or even Amazon who delivers. “New UK pension scheme could deliver improved returns for millions,” says the government. Or just “bring” them. Or go without "deliver" altogether: “New UK pension scheme could improve returns for millions.”
Town hall. Workers at Deutsche Bank are worried about a possible merger affecting their jobs and lack of information from management. “The lack of a town hall or any meaningful discussion has frustrated those with concerns,” they told reporters. Why the lack of a municipal building should upset them is unclear, but actually this is a contagion from US grassroots politics, where candidates address gatherings in town halls. Fine if you use it like that. Otherwise it’s just a meeting.
Learnings. Forbes reports: “One of the learnings from the Boeing 737 Max crashes is that their crisis management protocols should have been triggered years ago.” Now learning is a fine and noble thing, but it doesn’t really have a plural. Lessons would be better.
Solutions. As in “fencing solutions” where simply “fencing” would do. We hope one day to write the slogan for a solvents company: “Solutions solutions.”