Monday, October 20, 2008

A Worthwhile Written Report

One of the things that comes with a love of language is a sense of head-shaking disbelief at how it can be abused. I have often recommended the book Anguished English by Richard Lederer as a field guide to linguistic abominations, but you don't have to spend money on a book when examples abound all around you every day.

One of the things I'm occasionally called upon to do in my job is review government documents being proposed for release to the public, to ensure that they (the documents, not the public) are unclassified and suitable for widespread dissemination. Last week, I was asked to review for public release a set of briefing slides to be used at an upcoming conference. While I found the briefing as a whole to be suitable for public release, I also found it contained a slide titled "Deliverables," the first bullet of which stated that "(The) Workshop will produce a worthwhile written report."

Why do you suppose the author felt it necessary to specify that the written report would be worthwhile? Had this not been clearly spelled out, would the workshop have produced a written report that was not worthwhile? Or was even worthless?


Similar expressions are created when people feel the need to insert modifiers to make their statements sound more weighty. How often have you heard some politician seeking your vote promising that he (or she) will take effective action to accomplish some worthy end? Would you expect them to take ineffective action?

Well, of course you would, but that's not my point.

Another fingernails-on-the-chalkboard expression for me is the single most, as in "This is the single most tuneless, obnoxious, misogynistic rap song I've ever heard."

If something is the most, the implication that it won't be exceeded. Can you have two things that are the most? If you can have a single most, can you also have a double most? Or a triple most?

A third category of linguistic torture is provided by buzzwords. Buzzwords are those popular, if meaningless expressions that swaddle us in obfuscation, hiding and diffusing meaning to prevent someone's actually having to state something clearly and positively that could eventually come back to bite one in the ... um ... fanny. You know what I mean: "My administration will, at the end of the day, leverage the proactive utilization of synergies for an empowered and client-focused approach to the systematic resolution of blah, blah, blah..." You may have seen variations of the game called "Buzzword (or Bull...t) Bingo," in which players attending meetings or listening to presentations fill in bingo-like cards in which the spaces are meaningless buzzwords likely to be heard. You can find an assortment of useful cards here.

I could write more, but the hour grows late and it's time to pack my lunch and sally forth to my little corner of corporate America...where I will, hopefully, be able to avoid being possessed by linguistic evil spirits as I clutch my ballpoint pen and Number 2 pencil like powerful talismans of protection.

Wish me luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

You mean buzzwords like Maverick and Fundamental and CHANGE! (trying to hit on both parties if I can)

Gilahi said...

This article is one of the most singularly unique ones that I've ever read.

Amanda said...

Ok, I think I'll proof read my posts more carefully from now on :)

Amanda said...

Hi again! I just read your Sunday post. Thank you so much for the Superior Scribbler Award.

fiona said...

As wee say in the Auld Country
"All Fur Coat and nae knickers"
That's what Buzzwords are!

Mike said...

We be wit you on dis.

Sue said...

Oh thank GOD somebody put your link on their blog!!! I have not been here in... I don't know how long!!! I'm going to maul you, because I've SO missed reading your blog!!!

-Sue (I won the scribbler too!)

Bilbo said...

Andrea - you have hit the nail on the proverbial head!

Gilahi - thanks...I think...

Amanda - I am the king of the overlooked typo...I'm still finding them in posts more than a year old. And you're welcome! ;-)

Fiona - "All fur coat and nae nickers??" I would so love to hear you actually SAY that...

Mike - yew betcha.

Sue - hey, long time, no hear! The last time I tried to track you down, your blog had been restricted to invitees only or some such thing. Drop me a line (e-mail address hasn't changed) and let me know where and how to find you! And congratulations on the Scribbler!