When I’m not hunched over my novel or sneaking you these blog posts from the depths of the Writer-Cave, I do in fact have a day job: Software Developer, Business Analyst, Computer Dude. In the course of said job, I read a lot of business writing: e-mails, product documentation, sales pitches, and so on. While much of it is fairly clear and understandable, there’s a good chunk that sounds like this (made-up) example:
This application provides visibility into the activities of the workforce. Going forward in the near term, an enhancement will be developed that grants the ability to access the application via the Internet.
When what they mean is this:
This software shows what your employees are doing. Soon we’re going to put it online.
Why do people write that way?
There are a couple of reasons, I think. First, some people believe that utilizing sesquipedalian verbiage results in a perception of intelligence – whoops, I mean, that using big words makes you look smart. They may not believe this explicitly, but there’s a sort of instict that says anything official should use official-sounding, multi-syllable Latin words. Surely, words like “show” and “help” and “fix” are just too simple for business writing, aren’t they?
But the deeper reason, I think, is simpler. People do it because other people do it. It’s what they’re used to. When writing is not your main focus, you are (understandably) less inclined to spend a lot of time thinking about it, so you just use the first words that come to mind. And if half the stuff you read sounds like that sample above, then the first words that come to mind may not be the best.
Of course, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for writing a little fluff. Let’s say you’re drafting an e-mail where your real message is “You’re lazy, and you haven’t done a damn thing for three months, so let’s get moving, huh?” Perhaps you want to soften that a bit; perfect clarity is not always best. Yet even in situations like that, there’s no need to put your sentences through the kind of verbal gymnastics we saw earlier. You can obscure your true meaning skillfully without sounding like the Architect.
I’m not the first person to rant about this. George Orwell framed the whole issue beautifully in his essay Politics and the English Language, which I highly recommend (though I quibble with a few of his minor points). My favorite part of the essay is when he takes this passage from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
…and renders it in official-speak:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Sad, huh? But people actually write that way. I’ll slip into it myself when I’m not careful.
Do the world a favor. To facilitate comprehension, employ the vernacular.