Commentary: Dear public service, what do you mean by this jargon?
When public servants use phrases like “we must be future-ready” or words like “opine” and “enthuse”, one member of the Speak Good English Movement cringes.
SINGAPORE: I am pretty sure jargon is everywhere. Public servants are not the only guilty ones. But let me share my experience within the Singapore public service, where I have worked all my life.
The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers was published in 1957 at the request of the British government to improve writing within the British civil service. After half a century, it seems that nothing much has changed.
The much-publicised “only pizzas are delivered” style guide was issued in 2013, and then there was Lord Chancellor Michael Gove posting his “Ministerial Correspondence Preferences” online, warning his officials among other things to avoid being repetitive and not to use “anything too pompous”.
Did we inherit bad writing from the British? Our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had “noted this steady deterioration over the last 20 years” and in 1979 called a meeting of ministers and senior civil servants to discuss how government papers and minutes could be written in clear, clean prose. He said:
If we start with those at the top, we can achieve a dramatic improvement in two years, provided the effort is made.
Thirty-eight years have passed, and I still spend most of my time fighting jargon, gibberish, pompous writing, and bad grammar. New words and phrases have appeared. From where, I don’t know. Once caught on, they are used at every opportunity.
My first encounter was with “paradigm shift”. Then it was “silver bullet”.
Nowadays, I am bombarded with “mindshare” and worse still “to mindshare”, “will back brief you after the meeting”, “will give you a read back”, “we must be future-ready”, and “need to future-proof our economy”.
(Outdoing all this was “futuring our economy”, part of a headline in an opinion piece in a local news outlet I read a year ago.)
“Opine” and “enthuse” make me cringe, and if that’s not bad enough, I am hit with “emote with”!
“Announceables” has become the "in thing" especially among media and corporate communications people. I managed to contain myself with “to dimensionalise”, until I read another media outlet's post about Schooling having “a better record of medalling at international competitions”.
I suspect people think these words make them sound clever. And I painfully tolerate them in conversations or even internal emails among colleagues.
What I do not tolerate is jargon and gobbledygook in written work, whether it is a policy paper, a proposal, a news release or a reply in the forum page of our local media. I battle with them every day.
A recent example had to do with learning from others to “help us future-proof into the gallery’s concept and design” such that it continues to be a place that is relevant for visitors.
“What do you mean by this jargon?” I asked in the comment box. "Can you rewrite without using this horrible word?"
Of course it could be done, and it came back as “help us design the gallery in such a way that it continues to …” Plain words, as Gowers taught.
WHY USE BIG WORDS?
In 2014, during a 938LIVE panel discussion on clear communication in the civil service, I was asked why gobbledygook was used. I gave three reasons.
First, we try to impress with big words and phrases. “Apprise” certainly sounds more learned than “inform”, and a three-syllable word “utilise” is surely more convincing than “use”.
But try being succinct – use the smallest word that does the job. It doesn’t mean you cannot use big words. Just use them correctly and only when necessary.
Second, we try to avoid answering the question by being evasive and non-committal. You can recognise this when you see such phrases as “broad and comprehensive”, “holistic”, “facilitate coordination” and “put in place relevant frameworks and capabilities”.
The same vague and abstract expressions are used when our minds are not clear, and that is the third reason. As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. The result is convoluted sentences, mangled expressions, and sloppy writing.
MAKE THE EFFORT
I don’t believe that a complex idea or policy cannot be explained simply or in plain language. It can be done.
The thing is this – we need to apply ourselves and exercise our minds. Think through exactly what we want to get across, be clear in getting it across, and be short and sharp about it.
Being concise and succinct doesn’t mean using vague, nebulous words to “summarise” your concrete thoughts and actions. That is like packing all your colourful trinkets, ribbons and confetti into a cardboard box. You see the box and have no idea what lovely things it contains.
Mastering clear communication means unpacking that box – writing and speaking in clean, clear prose so that you are understood. Say what you mean and mean what you say because no one can read your mind.
Be precise – choose the correct words and give them their ordinary meaning. All this takes effort and time.
Unfortunately, we often think we cannot spare the time. So we end up overusing or misusing words, and here is where “optimal”, “optimise” and “facilitate” top the list of meaningless words. Someone wrote:
The outdated website design needs to be refreshed with a new look and feel for an optimal showcase of our articles.
This did little to enlighten me. I asked – what do you mean by “optimal”, when does it become optimal or ideal, not too much and not too little?
Back came the edited sentence – “We also want to refresh the design of the website to make it easy to read and navigate.” Could be improved some more, but much better, I thought.
Now I knew what the refreshed design was meant to do – help readers read and navigate the website more easily. It was as if a curtain or fog was lifted, and I could now appreciate the beauty of the landscape before me in all its finest and most glorious details.
Judith d’ Silva is an active member of the Speak Good English Movement. She has given talks on writing clearly at the Civil Service College and to HDB station managers.