Jargon and officialese….

Jargon and officialese; grammar and punctuation; nonsense; tautology; nitpicking and pedantry; ambiguity



Jonathan Creek is back on our screens and The Times (28 Dec 2016) says: ‘Alan Davies’s consulting detective returns to help an old acquaintance get to the bottom of a mystery from her past revolving around her family’s foreboding home.’

Forbidding is meant, ie frightening, stern, hostile or unsettlingly austere, as in ‘a forbidding schoolteacher’. The word foreboding is best kept for the sense that something bad is going to happen – a feeling of unease or impending doom. As verbs, forbid means to order sb not to do sth, while forebode means to pretend or predict that sth bad may happen.

‘Amount’ and ‘number’

Is it time for sticklers to admit defeat in their rearguard action against the use of ‘amount’ instead of ‘number’, eg: ‘Mr Roberts’s remarks had upset “a huge amount of employees”?’ (Times, 4 Aug 2016)

The rule used to be simple enough: use ‘amount’ for mass nouns, ie singulars and commodities like bread, cheese, vinegar, and pork; use ‘number’ with count nouns, ie plurals like loaves, cheese pies, bottles of non-brewed condiment, and pigs.

Today, most people in the broadcast media seem to use ‘amount’ for everything, so it’s commonplace to hear ‘A large amount of children walked through the school gates’, as if children are weighed by the ton (obesity hotspots only). In a piece about the Internet Movie Database in The Times on 10 Nov 2016, Kevin Maher writes: ‘The StarMeter, especially, has changed the way movies are cast. It is utterly simple and brutally effective, and collated by counting the amount of clicks a star’s IMDb profile page receives.’ Also from the Times (31 Oct 2016), Simon Hughes sneaks this googly past the snoozing subeditor: ‘Adil Rashid’s lack of confidence in Test cricket is betrayed by the amount of different deliveries he tries in an over.’

Writing Leeds to confusion

Jargon and officialese survive, as a West Yorkshire resident has discovered. She herself used simple vocabulary and short sentences to raise concerns with Leeds city council’s highways department, as follows:

“I note that on Holt Lane, there are two main speed humps in the carriageway and separate narrow humps close to the kerb on each side of the road. On Farrar Lane there are only two humps.

I have concerns that the small narrow humps could be potentially dangerous to cyclists who are obliged to ride close to the kerb.

Is the installation of the smaller humps to specification?

Other speed hump installations seen on Spen Lane/Morris Lane between Queenswood Drive and Kirkstall Lane do not have the small kerbside humps. They do however have a wide white painted stripe close to the kerb.”

The council’s response, written by an assistant engineer, soon lurched into obscuranto. Students of that strange tongue will note, in particular, the author’s use of ‘vertical feature’ and a fondness for impersonal-passive constructions like ‘it is believed’ and ‘it is acknowledged’, traditionally associated with evading responsibility:

“The determination as to when to implement the ‘tear drop’ markings and humps at the side of the speed cushions depends on the width of the carriageway and the need to avoid leaving a gap between kerb and cushion or between cushion and cushion that is wide enough for a vehicle to pass through, but the road is not wide enough to have a three cushion layout as per Holtdale Approach. Farrar Lane is sufficiently narrow enough to require only one cushion within each lane, whereas Holt Lane is wider and the need to provide the additional features is present.

The Council moved away from using just painted areas some time ago, after it was found that drivers soon became aware that these areas could be driven through without experiencing any vertical feature. Whilst the lack of vertical feature is beneficial to cyclists, it was determined that the presence of a vehicle in that space would present a greater danger to cyclists. It was therefore determined that small humps should be used in these situations to prevent drivers from entering this space usually occupied by cyclists. It is acknowledged that the resultant situation does require cyclists to then pass through the same gap between the cushion and smaller hump, however it is believed that this is generally along a similar line to that taken by cyclists and drivers respect the position of the cyclist and will generally wait until past the speed cushion to pass, so as to not cause themselves undue discomfort in driving over the speed cushion incorrectly.”

If the city’s highway engineers write like this, there’s little wonder the Leeds inner ring road remains so tortuous.


Jargon for grown-ups

Plain-language devotees are not against technical jargon as such, as it’s a useful shorthand among the initiated. Cue this perfect example from the Times obituary of Chris Bell, self-taught bicycle engineer (2 Sept 2016):

‘The key to the oval chainring is that it eliminates the deadspot at the top of the pedal stroke on a circular ring because it has the effect of lowering the gearing at the point where a cyclist’s legs produce the least power.’

At least, it sounds like a perfect example. Only bike specialists would really know.

Run-on sentences

Santander Bank reminds us that the run-on sentence – also known as the comma splice – is still trampling conventional grammar underfoot, as its online service offers up this effort: ‘At 21:42 on 02 Nov your current balance is £2,693.34, please note your current balance may differ from your available balance.’

Why is a leading bank so shameless in not knowing where to put a full stop? Perhaps they don’t employ enough people who think it matters.

Andrew Bingham, MP for the High Peak [until June 2017], is a serial offender for the same crime. From his weekly newsletter, here’s a paragraph showing the blunder twice next to ‘however’:

‘As I said during the debate [about young people], the impact on social media on all walks of life has been huge. Many of these have been good and beneficial, however as with many things in life it can and has been used by some for the wrong reasons. The abuse through social media isn’t just restricted to young people, however the impact can be much greater on teenagers than on older people.’ (3 Nov 2016)

The whole paragraph is depressingly illiterate and clichéd for a modern MP, who presumably has staff to check what he writes. There’s the plural ‘Many of these’, which disagrees with the singular ‘impact’. Then there’s the bungle of writing ‘it can and has been used’, which should say ‘it can be and has been used’ – or preferably ‘some people misuse it’. And presumably ‘the impact on social media’ should read ‘the impact of social media’.

So, no ministerial job at the Department of Education for Mr Bingham. However, many locals praise his efforts on their behalf and at least he has a good reputation for responding quickly to letters and emails.

[8 Dec 2016] 

Tautology: how to avoid repetitions involving ‘reason’, ‘cause’, ‘because’ and ‘why’

We and most subeditors regard tautology as a stylistic fault. Many Ancient Britons will recall how they first encountered ‘tautology’ (repetition of meaning) – it formed part of the long-running panel game My Word on the old Home Service (which became BBC Radio 4). Participants earned points for spotting such examples as ‘They drank tea and also ate cake as well’ and ‘It grew from a tiny little seed’. (The latter occurs regularly on the BBC’s Countryfile and Gardeners’ World, to much gnashing of teeth here at Plain Language Towers.) Thus a generation became sensitized to the horrible habit of saying the same thing saying the same thing.

These days the tautological use of ‘cause’ words seems to be hard for subeditors of print journalism to spot, if recent examples are anything to go by:

‘The reason the quarto version [of Shakespeare’s King Lear] is missing 300 lines is because Nicholas Okes, the printer, underestimated the amount of paper needed to fit the play.’ (Jack Malvern, Times, 21 April 2016)
Read: ‘The reason…is that…’.

‘The reason Leave has won the economic argument is because of the nature of the decision facing us on 23 June.’ (Steve Hilton, Times, 13 June 2016)
Read: ‘Leave has won the economic argument because…’.

‘The reason I sought medical help was because I was experiencing some uncommon physical symptoms.’ (Sarah Vine, Daily Mail, 8 June 2016)
Read: ‘I sought medical help because…’.

‘The real reason Gatwick will never be a world-class hub is because it’s dependent on Southern Rail for its so-called Express service to London.’ (Sarah Vine – repeat offender – 15 June 2016)
Read: ‘The real reason…is that…’.

‘Paul Mason…claimed yesterday that the reason why most of the [Labour] shadow cabinet resigned two months ago was because they feared Corbyn [Labour party leader] would lead them to victory in a rumoured snap election.’ (Times diary, 29 Aug 2016)
Delete ‘why’ and replace ‘because’ with ‘that’.

Programmes where supposed experts demonstrate their skills use a ghastly form of tautology that’s prefigured by the first phrase of the utterance, so all the listeners can do is wait for the inevitable punchline with gritted teeth. That first phrase is ‘what I am going to do now’. It leads to this kind of statement: ‘What I’m going to do now is I’m going to show you how to cook this courgette/prepare this cutting/flog this dead horse/perpetrate this cliché…’ etc. They are all at it: Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Nadiya Hussain (TV cookery), and Adam Frost and Carol Klein (TV gardening). What I’m going to do now is I’m going to tell you it’s everywhere and there’s no escape.

What to do about all this? Vigilance is the single, sole and only cure. We’ve emailed Sarah Vine about her tautological tendencies, and she’s responded by promising to desist.

[4 Aug 2017] 

Subeditors a dying breed?

A useful website (https://stylematters.margaretashworth.com, full of editing hints and tips, highlights the gradual demise of traditional subeditors on national and local newspapers by showing, among other things, the blunders arising from unsubbed text.

Subeditors, or subs, are journalists who spruce up, tighten and often rewrite copy submitted by reporters to make it ready for publication and understandable to the readership. Old-style subs who really care about punctuation, spelling and grammar have become rarities, says the website’s founder, Margaret Ashworth, a former Daily Mail sub who worked for the paper for 39 years, in an article in Communicator (istc.org.uk, Spring 2017).

There’s also a fine piece about the changing job roles of editors, subs and writers on former journalist Hugh Dawson’s web page: https://www.tomorrowsnewspapers.co.uk/yesterdays-journalists/4557750139

Here are a few recent examples from our own files that would/should/could have been spotted by subs.

Forgo forgotten: The Times (3 Mar 2017) reports that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo chief executive, has been deprived of her $2million cash bonus for 2016 after 1.5billion customers had their accounts hacked. ‘She has also voluntarily foregone her stock awards worth millions.’ That should be ‘forgone’, from the verb ‘forgo’, meaning to do without. To forego means to go before, as in ‘As stated in the foregoing paragraph’ and ‘foregone conclusion’.

Situations rampant: The Sunday Times (20 Nov 2016) gets into a repetitious tangle with the ‘situation’ of footballer Wayne Rooney: ‘…here was the practical reality of the 31-year-old’s wholly unsatisfactory situation as he faces what looks increasingly like a crisis situation with his club and manager…’.

Tautology 1: The Times chess column on 10 Feb 2017 says: ‘Starting tomorrow, I shall be covering the best games [from the tournament] in this column. Here is a foretaste of things to come.’ Omit ‘of things to come’.

Tautology 2: Ann Treneman’s review of the musical Floyd Collins (Times, 30 Sept 2017) shows signs of the kind of hasty copy filing that subs rectify: ‘There is a fantastic pacy number performed by the journalists sent to Kentucky to cover the sensational story. In terms of the cast, Rebecca Trehearn, as Nellie, her voice piercingly clear, is exceptionally good in terms of singing.’ The double ‘in terms of’ is truly woeful in a truly woeful sentence.

Tautology 3: ‘The only reason why [Major] Booth’s body was identified nine months after his death was because of his engraved MCC cigarette case from England’s tour to South Africa in 1913-14 that was found among his remains.’ In this sentence, ‘reason’ and ‘because’ are doing each other’s job. Omit one of them.

Wrong idiom: ‘For Tara [Palmer-Tomkinson] knew she was desperately ill. While the pituitary tumour, as she was at odds to make clear in our interview, “seemed to have gone away”, a rare auto immune condition ravaged her body.’ (Daily Mail, 9 Feb 2017) For ‘at odds’, which means ‘in opposition to’ or ‘in dispute with’, read ‘at pains’, ie ‘eager’.

Refute versus deny: ‘Afghan officials accuse her [Captain Niloofar Rahmani) of lying. They have refuted claims that her life is at risk and demanded that the US reject the asylum application.’ (Times, 27 Dec 2016) To refute means to disprove, so here it’s likely that ‘deny’ was meant, since the report gave no evidence for what the officials said.

Oh Laud: In his Times rugby column on 3 Feb 2017, Stuart Barnes writes: ‘In France, more than any other country, the No 9 tends to laud it over the No 10.’ For ‘laud’, which means ‘praise’, read ‘lord’ which means ‘act in a superior way’. As prowling pedants, we try not to lord it over other humble scribes.

Take off and landing: You’d hope an alert sub would notice the incongruity in this sentence about Mary Tyler Moore, comedy actress, in the Daily Mail on 26 Jan 2017: ‘In 1961, Moore’s career began to take off as she landed the role of Laura Petrie, the suburban New York wife.’

[6 Mar 2017]