Warning: great, big, long and a bit technical in parts. Non linguist-nerds may wish to get themselves some cocoa.

Simon Titley has an interesting post up at Lib Dem Voice about jargon, Liberal Democrats, for the use of. He’d like Focus writers in particular and the party in general to “fight and defeat jargon, buzzwords and clichés” and thereby learn to communicate more effectively.

I’m all for this, being very much a one-woman special ops unit in the cause of saving the world from hackneyed writing. Cliches quail at my approach, over-used adverbs slink away in shame and meaningless linkage words whisper my name in fear (except for “actually”, which for some reason I have made a pet of). And jargon, I agree, can be a particularly dangerous ingredient in bad writing, because it’s not just boring – it obscures the message.

There’s one small problem. Simon provides a long list of jargon varieties he would like to see vanquished from Lib Dem communications, and most of them contain plenty of words that aren’t jargon, and which do fulfil useful purposes in communication. Let me take them one at a time.

• Business jargon – Currently the most pervasive and pernicious example is ‘going forward’. You can strip this phrase out of any sentence and the meaning remains unchanged. Simple use of the future tense does the job better. The Liberal Democrats are not immune; for example, the terms of reference for last year’s Bones Commission talked of ‘stretch goals’ and ‘step change’.

On the whole, I agree with this, but I also think business jargon is sufficiently fast in evolving to kill off a lot of its own grim progeny pretty effectively. No-one uses “dropping the ball” any more except in sitcoms, but it was the buzzphrase of the late nineties. Interestingly, it gave rise to “John’s going to throw you the ball later today” which is still sometimes used.

The rule with business jargon is the same as with any linguistic evolutionary process – only the useful stuff sticks. Linguistic usage is a market whose purity would delight the heart of the crabbiest libertarian, brutally culling the weak and perpetuating the strong, but never discriminating against the young upstart. Dare I whisper it, we started using “going forward” for a reason. Just using a future tense verb, as Simon suggests, will not do the same job, because English has no long-term or speculative future tense (the futuristic equivalent of the Past Historic).

Compare:

David Cameron will order an internal investigation into the Derek Conway affair and make sure Conservative MPs uphold the highest standards of integrity.

David Cameron will order an internal investigation into the Derek Conway affair and make sure Conservative MPs uphold the highest standards of integrity going forward or in the future.

The last words are necessary here to make the meaning absolutely clear. Otherwise, perish the thought, we might suspect that David Cameron was only going to spot-check the integrity of the Conservative MPs and not worry about whether they kept to those standards in future. “Going forward” does add information.

And “going forward” also means something a bit different from “in the future”. That’s why it has stuck. “Going forward” implies action on the part of the plan/company/strategy under discussion. “In the future” implies passivity. This is a very fine distinction, and I still wouldn’t use “going forward” purely on the basis that it irritates so many people as a result of over-use. Give it 20 years and it will have assumed a modest place in the mainstream lexicon and will be acceptable on a Focus leaflet.

• American jargon – The use of baseball metaphors is wholly inappropriate in a country that does not play baseball. ‘Touch base’, ‘Stepping up to the plate’ and ‘Coming from left field’ are common examples. British people who use such phrases usually do not understand what they are saying themselves.

This strikes me as a very strange prescription. We don’t have bear-baiting in this country any more either, but still use the “bearpit” metaphor to describe the house of Commons at PMQs. You might well argue, of course, that this is a bit of a tired old cliche, and you’d be right, but that’s a different argument. It’s still a metaphor we have no contemporary experience of in the UK.

Simon’s comprehension argument is demanding as well. Many common metaphors are no longer instantly comprehensible to today’s users – “to pass muster”, “rain on my parade”, “batten down the hatches”, “the beam in one’s eye”, most biblical and nautical metaphors in fact. That doesn’t mean people don’t know in what context to use them.

• Media jargon – Presenters who say, “At the top of the hour”.

Never heard that one, but fair enough. I’d guess it derives from some practice of having each hour’s schedule laid out on separate bits of paper- either literal or metaphorical. It’s an interesting curiosity, but it seems to me it could cause confusion by referring to the hour just passed or the hour to come. So we’ll dump that.

Another media jargon example, apparently, is “reach” used as a noun. What do people feel about that? It seems we mostly mis-use it, because the page I linked to gives a very precise meaning and we tend to use it rather vaguely. It’s a very good example of a piece of jargon that has come out of its specialist closet and into mainstream usage (a process which Simon doesn’t think takes place – I suspect we’re both right and it can work in either direction).

• Young people’s jargon – Like, whatever.

“Like” is not jargon in the most commonly understood sense of a deliberately obscure and technical terminology. Words like “like” are linguistic fillers, in the same category as “um” or “y’know”. “Whatever” is slang rather than jargon – the reason I wouldn’t use it in a Focus leaflet is because it’s a hard-working word that can mean too many things. Unless you’re a very skilled writer, you risk misusing it and sounding too flippant.

• Trendy jargon – It’s a big ask.

I’m not sure what else falls into the category of “trendy” jargon, but I confess a fondness for using “ask” as a noun, for all that the marvellous Antony Hook once ticked me off for it. Back to the old linguistic rule – we’ve started doing it for a reason. There’s no exact equivalent noun. “It’s a big demand” is too strong – you wouldn’t say it to your boss for fear of sounding accusatory. “It’s a big request” is too weak and undermines the sense of “bigness” you’re trying to get across. We need a noun of intermediate weight. The nearest equivalent is “It’s a lot to ask.” This is just a sleeker variation.

The only reason I’d hesitate to use it in a Focus is overuse, but I don’t think it has suffered quite as badly as “going forward” has yet.

• Blog jargon – Disagreeing with someone in a condescending manner by replying, “Erm, no.”

This really is not jargon at all. There’s plenty of jargon associated with blogs, of course, but what’s Simon’s referring to here is a sort of pidgin/shorthand hybrid. This hybrid also encompasses emoticons, acronyms like ROFL and pretty much every word that has ever being bastardized by Lolcatz.

Again, it’s market necessity driving this development. People got online, they got into forums and onto blogs, they needed a way of communicating that would be as near as possible to communicating in person, with all facial tics, body language and tonal colouring. They needed to “write as they spoke”. They needed a way of implying condescension through the keyboard alone.

And the Darwinian rules of linguistic evolution are stronger than ever in this branch of language – what doesn’t work is ditched very fast on the internet. I use “erm” and “um” interchangeably to mean a range of things from condescension through puzzlement to shock, which shows how fluid the whole thing is.

Obviously I wouldn’t recommend using ROFL in a Focus leaflet, but don’t dismiss the idea of “writing as you speak”, possibly with fillers like “um” included. It can often result in much livelier, warmer prose. After all, you’re trying to do exactly what forum users and blog users are doing, aren’t you, communicate with people as if you were standing right there in their kitchen. One to think about.

• Political jargon – In an echo of Richard Nixon’s ‘moral majority’, politicians of all parties try to identify with ‘hard-working families’. Not content with this, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander persist with dismal variations on the theme: ‘hard-pressed families’, ‘struggling families’, ‘ordinary families’ and now ‘modern families’.

I’m mostly in agreement here, although Thomas makes the very good point in the original thread that “modern families” are a decided improvement on “hard-working” and “ordinary” families, and also contrast us to the Tories’ “traditional” or “nuclear” families. But generally, yes. “Hard-working families” was the only real wince moment I had reading Make it Happen.

Make it Happen, by the way, is an object lesson in how one can mostly avoid jargon, use plenty of plain English and still end up producing something fairly dull. It wasn’t terrible, by any means. But by god, it was safe. Plain English is not the panacea most people (including Simon) think it is – it’s supposed to be for making tax credit forms comprehensible, not making political messages exciting or inviting. If you apply the rules of the Plain English Campaign uncritically to your Focus leaflets you’ll kill them stone dead in a single morning.

• Liberal Democrat jargon – If I hear another Lib Dem councillor refer to something in his ward as “on my patch”, I shall remove his reproductive organs with a rusty boat-hook. Meanwhile, many Focus editors are using the same hackneyed phrases they were publishing 25 years ago.

Hywel very reasonably wants to know what the alternative is to “on my patch” – equivalents are “ward” or “division” but these, he rightly points out, are less easily understood. They’re also dull. This is a prime example of how using the “correct” word can sap all the warmth out of something.

Other than that, I can agree with Simon that I’ve seen some pretty dire writing in Focus leaflets.  Jargon, however, is not to blame. It’s often simply the result of a non-professional working with an ageing vocabulary (sorry, chaps). Writing is not easy, and keeping writing fresh and lively is less easy still, otherwise lucky swine like me wouldn’t get paid to do it.

I suppose this is my main problem – Simon gives such a wide prescription of “jargon” that he ends up including a lot of things that are useful, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what he excludes. “Short-selling” is a recent example of a technical jargon term that has lately passed into (fairly) common usage – but I hope nobody would omit it from their Focus leaflet. “Legwork” is an example of a jargon term from much longer ago that has passed into common usage, and it still does a pretty good job of meaning, well, legwork. There isn’t another word for that. Carry on using it (or “donkey work”, if you’re working particularly hard).

The trouble is one could follow Simon’s rules to the letter and still produce some terrible writing. Me, I’d advocate juicing up your vocabulary and turns of phrase as often as possible – and if that sometimes means using something on Simon’s forbidden list, so be it.

People are far too prescriptive about the “correct” way to write. I agree there are basics of grammar to be observed, but as long as your sentences are shortish and your paragraphs logical, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have fun writing a Focus leaflet. Just please, for the sake of the People’s Republic, stop using so many bloody exclamation marks. Not everything on there can possibly be that exciting.