Banned list: the war on words
Verbiage and cliche; are signs the speaker is unsure what they're saying. John Rentoul on why certain phrases should be banned
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 16 October 2011
One of the reasons for caring about language is that verbiage is a reliable indicator that something is wrong. When Liam Fox started babbling about his friend Adam Werritty's "transactional behaviour" in the House of Commons on Monday, we should have realised that it was the beginning of the end.
That was an extreme case. Normally, politicians just surround themselves with the cotton wool of cliche when they are under pressure. David Cameron did this in June this year, when he announced the great reform of the NHS reforms. His speech was a wall of cliche: "pillar to post", "in the driving seat", "frontline", "level playing field", "cherry picking", "sticking with the status quo is not an option", "a National Health Service not a National Sickness Service", "one-size-fits-all", "reinvent the wheel", "let me be absolutely clear", "no ifs or buts".
So when Ed Miliband said, in what was inevitably described as a "keynote" speech this summer, "In the future the Labour offer to aspirational voters must be that we will address the new inequality by hard- wiring fairness into the economy," I knew he didn't really know what he meant. Or, if he did, that he could not be bothered to explain it in clear English. Either way, the listener feels insulted, and that is not good for a speaker seeking to be elected.
These are examples from politics, but the principles of The Banned List apply to every kind of communication. They were set out by George Orwell, whom I admire mainly because his real name was Blair, in an essay called "Politics and the English Language" in 1946. His first rule was the most important (and the hardest to observe): "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print." Well, "never" is a bit extreme, although coming from someone who tries to ban things and called his book The Banned List, that may seem a little rich. But I am aiming for realism here. I am not trying to expunge every cliché from public language; only the really, really annoying ones. If we could get rid of "going forward", "any time soon" and "a heads-up" from our national pidgin, our quality of life would improve by about 2 per cent.
You may ask: why should anyone care if a minority of pedants and fuddy-duddies want to ban words and phrases whose meaning is clear? I hope I have begun to explain that I am not concerned for my own tender sensibility. On the contrary, my only concern is for your own self-interest. I am assuming that you, the reader, on occasion write things. Or speak. And I want to pass on a tip. Well, a number of tips, obviously, which is why there is a long list here. But one meta-tip. Which is that if you avoid over-used, pretentious and abstract phrases people will think that you are cleverer than you actually are.
This is the opposite of the natural instinct to think that, in order to impress, we should use language that is intended to be impressive. Hence the mania for long words, grand abstractions and jargon thought to advertise membership of a specialist elite. They are all counterproductive. As readers and listeners, we admire someone who is clear and to the point, but, as writers and speakers, we are too often embarrassed by simplicity, fearing that it might expose the thinness of what we have to say. My purpose here is to try to counter that instinct: to recall that, however small an idea, it always seems more impressive if simply expressed.
This has been demonstrated by Google, which now rates the spelling and grammar of web pages to help it rank their trustworthiness and "quality". Clichés and jargon are like spelling mistakes or grammatical errors: they are markers of poor quality. Unclear expression may not actually betray muddled thinking, but people think it does, and that is what matters. Verbiage, or its absence, influences the unconscious Google ranking system.
The writer or speaker may think, "It'll do; my meaning is clear enough", but that is not enough. Most readers or listeners may not notice or care that a figure of speech is dull or obvious, but if a minority is put off, you are restricting yourself needlessly. Worse, that minority is a leading indicator. If some are repelled, more will be bored. Clarity, brevity and originality are rewarded, even if the audience is not aware of them.
If you write "way beyond" or "way more", most of your readers may not notice. A few others may notice, even subliminally, and think that you are a happening dude. And a few old fogeys may notice and may twitch, possibly also subliminally, with irritation. We may be morally wrong to do so, but the damage has been done, and you cannot go back and argue the point. The damage is greater, sadly, than any kudos that might have been earned by using the fashionable jargon of the in-crowd.
So you know what to do. Remember George Orwell's rule. Try not to use figures of speech that are familiar. Just take them out. The worst that can happen is that you make the opposite mistake, of trying too hard to think of fresh similes or metaphors, which read oddly and distract the reader from what is being said. Or of spending too long trying to think of new ways of expressing a simple thought. Never worry about a piece of writing being too short. This is a rare failing, and one to be sought rather than avoided. (When was the last time you sighed, "Did it have to end so soon"?)
If you have something to say, better to say it simply and clearly, even if you fear that it seems a little dull, or that it fails to do justice to your prowess as a writer, or to your expertise in your job. The trouble starts if you realise that you do not have much to say, or that it is a mere statement of the obvious. But then at least you know where you are, which is a step ahead of those many people who have no idea at all.
The reason for caring about clear writing is not because self-appointed guardians of questionable correctness go around trying to ban things that they think are ugly or thoughtless. It is a matter of your own self-interest. If you avoid clichés and jargon, people will hail you a success. I am trying only to help. I hope you don't mind.
Pet linguistic peeves
Sally Bercow: Funnily enough, all my proposed banned phrases tend to be trotted out frequently by my dear husband and drive me crackers: "I'll turn my mind to that in due course"; "With the greatest respect"; "We'll look at it in the round"; "I hear what you say"; "The reality of the matter is"; "Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the background". Ooh, and two others: "in the real world" and the faux-trendy "chillax".
Giles Coren: When I started as editor of the Times diary (diaries are always the worst for cliché, as they're staffed by over-educated public schoolboys desperately trying to be noticed), I wrote up a list of words and sentences I would not stand for. At the top was, "diminutive Antipodean chanteuse", which used to feature practically weekly in the diary of my predecessor. What Kylie Minogue is, I told my dribbling, pink-faced underlings, is a short Australian singer. If you think people need to be told that, tell them. That is not a cliché. That is just language. "Diminutive Antipodean chanteuse", however, is just bollocks. Indeed, it is bollocks on stilts (to use a cliché I have always rather liked).
Louise Mensch: "Stakeholders". I also hate "beyond imagination" used to trail movies, since, patently, it isn't.
Toby Young: I loathe it when British people use hackneyed American phrases such as "You know what?" It's bad enough when something becomes a cliché on one side of the Atlantic, but to see it cross to our shores ...
Tom Harris: "It's a no-brainer".
James Purnell: Can we ban "elephants in the room", "perfect storms" and "seal the deal", please?
The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché by John Rentoul is published by Elliott & Thompson this week (£8.99). Add your least favourite word or phrase at www.bannedlist.co.uk
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