I Gobbledygook Your Blah Blah

blah blahBack in 1660, the king returned to England after a period of rule by the Puritans (an intolerant, fanatically religious, authoritarian government—like, say, the Taliban in Afghanistan). That same year, the Royal Society was formed as the first scientific organization. Writing about the history of the organization in 1667, Thomas Sprat described the intentions of the society, when reporting on science, to use the clearest possible language: “to reject all amplifications, digressions and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortnes…a close, naked, natural way of speaking…” Whether science has achieved this is another question.

The capacity of language, especially written language, to be complex and confusing has often been noted, as in the desire of the Royal Society to avoid what they felt was the ridiculous convoluted style of many writers before them. Lack of clarity is a problem we still deal with daily, 346 years after Thomas Sprat published his history.

In a different field of endeavor, in business, a lot of modern writing reads like this: “Pursuant to applicable GDI insurance regulations, this denominational notice is a reminder that all pro valorum policies purchased prior to updated interest changes will be held to remain in effect in the event of called-out charges, unless such charges are applied to intermittent policies.”

There is in particular a natural tendency in professional language to communicate badly. Among the reasons for this we can cite: (1) necessary technical language, (2) sloppiness and laziness by the writer, (3) an actual desire for obscurity, to keep outsiders from understanding, (4) a desire to create a legal protection against the reader, (5) a desire by the writer to project a personal image of particular qualities (educated, professional, intelligent, important, etc.).

Of the five reasons given here for miserable, useless writing, only one can be somewhat justified, the need for technical language. Even that explanation, however, merely hides incompetence as a writer when we can reasonably assume that the audience is not going to understand the technical language.

Sloppiness and laziness are never justified, ubiquitous though they be. A lack of knowing how to approach the task may also be an indication of lousy education. How many serious professional writing classes do you think people take? How many did you have? But even when someone knows how to write well, laziness may intervene, and the sheer effort involved can cause a person to say “Ah, to hell with it. It’s good enough.” Which it usually is not.

The third and fourth reasons for crapezoid trash writing are a desire for obscurity (often called doublespeak), or a desire to create a legal document as protection against the reader. Both involve a basic dishonesty, of writing something that is meant to create the illusion of communication.

As a desire to pretend to communicate, we can find phrases from government: “illegal combatants” (to hide the fact that these are actually prisoners of war, but we aren’t going to call them that, as doing so would invoke the Geneva Convention, which we don’t intend to follow); business: “downsizing” (firing or “laying people off”, but firing sounds so, you know, true). You can also find dishonest, snakelike language pretty much anywhere else you look, including in your own home.

An example of a company perniciously protecting itself can be seen rather vividly with “package inserts”, the small papers that pharmaceutical companies put in the box with drugs. Because these documents are almost literally unreadable (right down to tiny font sizes and almost no margins), it is clear that no one is actually expected to read them, but the inserts will serve as legal protection against the readers, who have been “informed”.

The fifth reason that prevents clear communication is almost the most interesting. If we gave little pondering to the topic, we might say that the purpose of writing is to communicate a message. As we see in the paragraphs above, this isn’t always true. In addition, every time we use language, we are also saying something about ourselves and about how we want to be perceived. If I want you to think I’m a qualified doctor, I may say that we’re going to do a “cardiopulmonary exam”, instead of looking at your heart and lungs. Or if I want you to think I’m a cool 15-year-old who’s not a derp, I may say “My mains are cray, but they’re good guys.”

In both cases I’m communicating a message, but I’m obviously saying something about myself at the same time. This is an inherent aspect of language and cannot be separated from it. This tendency to show ourselves can, however, be somewhat controlled when we seriously try to address readers clearly. It takes a lot of effort, but before the effort is even begun, we have to be comfortable with whether people will still think we’re smart/cool/etc. if we lose the bullshit and just try to be as clear as possible.

That’s a psychological issue about self confidence. As I sometimes said to my business writing students, “Are you bold enough to be clear?”


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