Gowers Against Jargon

On Sir Earnest Gowers and his Complete Plain Words, one of the books on writing I recommend to people, an article from the Telegraph titled, not surprisingly,  Speak Plainly. Nothing new but some entertaining examples. Gowers hated jargon “above all,”

partly because it was impossible to understand, and partly because it demeaned people by making them feel stupid. The more monolithic bureaucracies became, Gowers felt, the more they reinforced their remoteness by using impenetrable language. He suggested three golden rules that everyone in government and business should abide by: “Be short, be simple and be human.”

. . . At this point I shall throw in this recent example from a report commissioned by the Government Equalities Office for bad measure: “Finally, in pursuit of the above, it is also a shrewd moment to take advantage of a more open stance in shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms. . . . Open policymaking, therefore, is a naturally structural corollary to behaviour change on the agenda of modernising government and driving effective ­public policy.”

. . . Then there are the buzzwords that proliferate like Duracell bunnies: “eventuate”, “leverage”, “modalities”, as well as the unholy trinity of “restructuring”, “rightsizing” and “shake-up” – all of which, of course, mean exactly the same thing: redundancies. And herein, perhaps, lies one of the reasons why jargon has become so widespread – because it enables people to do nasty things to one another without having their consciences tweaked.

. . . After the London bombings in 2005, the coroner found that there had been delays in caring for some of the victims because people working for the different emergency services had been unable to understand each other’s jargon. He went on to declare – irrefutably – “In a life-threatening situation everyone should be able to understand what everyone else is saying.” As a result of this, the various emergency services got together to work out a way of ensuring this never happened again. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that they decided the solution was to compile something called an “Emergency Responder Interoperability Lexicon”, which would then be “cascaded” through various training courses.

The rest of the article is less satisfactory. The writer claims that for Gowers, “Rules were essentially there to be broken,” which misreads him badly. He did write a book of instructions, after all, with a great many firm statements about what writers should do and not do. The writer himself clearly agrees with his condemnation of jargon, which expresses a rule – a rule to be generally observed and rarely broken –  even if he didn’t formulate it as a rule.

The writer’s evidence for his claim is Gowers’ statement that “One can no more write good English than one can compose good music by merely keeping to the rules” (note that “merely”). This is perfectly true and does not in any way suggest that rules are there to be broken, much less that they’re essentially there to be broken. It’s distressing that someone writing on such a book can hold such a silly idea and attribute it to Gowers.

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