Plain bad language

Posted by on December 07, 2009

©Victures / Fotolia“Perhaps I could say, by way of introduction, welcome to our stakeholders. We look forward to our engagement, as we roll out our dialogue on a level playing field, so that, going forward in the public domain, we have a win-win step change that is fit for purpose across the piece.”

That was Dr Tony Wright, chair of the Parliamentary Public Administration Committee, at the beginning of a session during which the committee was to take oral evidence from four witnesses in preparation for a report entitled “Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language“.

Dr Wright’s tongue was firmly in his cheek as he uttered that introduction, but it’s a serious enough topic. According to the report, some tax forms are so badly worded that “unintentional errors” made by people filling them in result in around £300 million in underpaid tax each year.

Incomprehensible language has long been the target of Plain English Campaign, a group set up 30 years ago to combat “gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information”.

They are announcing their annual awards on Tuesday 8th – both for best and worst examples of written communications. There is also a “Foot in Mouth” award, for “a baffling comment from a well-known person”. (Lord) Peter Mandelson and Britney Spears are both on the shortlist, and past winners include current Prime Minister Gordon Brown for a 1994 speech in which he covered …

… ideas which stress the growing importance of international co-operation and new theories of economic sovereignty across a wide range of areas, macro-economics, trade, the environment, the growth of post neo-classical endogenous growth theory and the symbiotic relationships between government and investment in people and infrastructures …

We could quote more but 45 words is probably enough of a taster and that sentence still has another 44 to go.

If it were not for the fact that he is a fictional character, Sir Humprey Appleby would have been a strong contender for a foot in mouth award. He was the permanent secretary who served Jim Hacker in the BBC comedy series Yes Minister (and later Yes Prime Minister as the hapless Hacker rose way beyond his natural level of competence).

In one episode, Hacker needs to know the identity of a civil servant who many years ago had made a decision that was now costing the government millions of pounds. The culprit is of course Sir Humphrey, but rather than say simply “It was me”,  (or even “It was I”) he embarked on this triumph of obfuscation:

The identity of the official, whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion, is NOT shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume, but, not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one to whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of referring by means of the perpendicular pronoun.

I’d come across personal, possessive, relative, reflexive pronouns before, but perpendicular pronouns? Brilliant.

Comments (1)
  • Even in this webpage, there is the awful phrase “fit for purpose”.
    In consumer law, there was, and may still be, the statement that anything for sale should be “fit for its purpose”. A Member of Parliament once used the phrase without the possessive pronoun, which hurts me every time I hear or read it. It seems to have entered the language shorn of the pronoun. Am I at fault, and is that actually correct?

    Posted by Jan Barnwell on 19th March, 2010
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