business English

Nails on a blackboard: legalese and management-speak

Business English month continues with a guest post on legal English and management-speak.


My relationship with Business English began at university, where I studied Law. From legal summaries involving sentences that spanned over a hundred lines to words that I remain convinced were made up on the spot, the use of language depended entirely on which side of a case was argued. Legal language was my introduction to the fact that language could be less about clear communication and be more of an art form, clarifying or obfuscating points of law in order to sway an argument.

Despite being considered overly wordy, lawyers are very caught up in individual words, for the definition of a word, or indeed its absence in a sentence can be the pivotal point of a case. By example, one of the first cases students are taught is that of Adler v George. The law stated it was an offence to obstruct HM forces “in the vicinity” of a prohibited place. The defence argued that the defendant was innocent as he was “in” a prohibited place when he obstructed HM forces and not in the vicinity of it. The Judges didn’t agree but it goes to show how a case can hinge on a single word.

Legal language contains many phrases rooted in Latin that define specific legal concepts, such as mens rea or habeas corpus which have evolved as part of the legal process. These phrases don’t mean anything to many of us but they perform a necessary function within Law and are in their own way precisely defined. As such, I can easily tolerate their use in a professional context.

However, upon moving from Law to corporate business, I discovered that there was a vein of Business English I had been protected from: what we commonly know as management-speak, which I have loathed since I first heard it. It reached a head several months ago, when a man I’d never spoken with suggested that he “hit my imagination button”.

I have no issue with the use of metaphor in speech. However, within the business industry, usage seems to have spiralled out of control. Some management-speak phrases grate more than others: a friend of mine loathes “singing from the same hymn sheet” whilst I find “speaking with one voice” irritating. Equally, I find “going forward” problematic. Forward refers to distance and is inappropriate in referring to time. Particularly when phrases such as “in the future”, “from now on”, “soon”, “shortly” “imminently” and “at the earliest opportunity” are all viable alternatives.

A prevailing irritation is the curse of the noun-as-a-verb, leading to “transitioning into a new team” or “incentivating the workforce”. I find these nouns-as-verbs to be the linguistic equivalent of nails on a blackboard. These sentences are clunky and could be expressed in a cleaner way. For example, someone could “move” to a new team or “give” staff an incentive.

In an age when more of our business is conducted internationally and we have language barriers to cross, isn’t it time to promote Plain English?

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Briony Drimie

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