Robustifying Learnability

As cultural interfaces, universities are hubs for business, academia and language, and as such are linguistic nurseries. Individual disciplines generate a huge range of dense jargon, neologisms and quirky language use. Out of this comes one of the perennial conundrums of the Composition teacher: whether, as gatekeepers, we should enforce grammar standards which are orthodox and perhaps conservative; or embrace the sometimes anarchic flux that drives language change and keeps English as the fresh and responsive lingua franca which it is. As usual, there should be a balance between these extremes, and part and parcel of this is the ongoing process of auditing whether new vocabulary (neologisms and compounds) and novel language structures and word use, are efficacious—whether they make communication easier and richer, or whether they are symptoms of the lax standards and slapstick use of language which hinder rather than facilitate communication. A good example of such waywardness might be the title of this piece—the repurposed title of a real 2005 report from the US Federal Reserve, which remains truly awful!   

There are areas of human activity where such obfuscatory verbiage tends to conceal a lack of meaning and useful content—I am of course wagging a finger here at some aspects of Academic and Business English, which could perhaps more accurately be termed Content-free Speech. This problem arises when users need to distinguish themselves from each other in a densely-populated discipline. This can result in them doing so at all costs, confounding and confusing naive readers with such gems as inboxing, thought showers and bouncebackability. Users of Business English and career conscious academics are often consummate self-advertisers and creatively so, perhaps forcedly so because oftentimes the text they produce “reinvents the wheel” and restates known phenomena in a new way. This is not a criticism, incidentally, merely an acknowledgement that, well, plus ça change.

Terms like ping (to get back to someone) are not bad, just one example of the low-hanging fruit (most accessible things which require little effort) in the rich forest of jargon which academic, business and management cultures promote. Others, like square the circle, are just clutter, confusing everyone. Keeping a weather eye on this linguistic squall is vital. This is the balancing act of English Composition: keeping language fresh and attractive while also guarding against a devil-may-care laxity, whereby meaning can be left by the wayside in the pursuit of the new.

Most teachers of English of all specialisms, including Business English, know that it inevitably involves some shared laughter at the linguistic absurdities that come up—terms like imagineering and inboxing for example. And that is fair enough, because these terms are instant clichés and barriers to effective communication in the short term. But perhaps because they are ridiculous, creative and funny, they are often quite memorable in the longer term and therefore useful, even if only because of their chintzy awfulness. This classy/corny relationship is what keeps business English alive—despite its indulgences and excesses it remains the slightly sleazy, slightly soused cousin of plain-Jane English.

Many of the worst academic and business terms found in the wild, are prize- winning excretions, like that uttered by Howard Schulz as EC of Starbucks when he spoke of the company delivering an: “immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience”. A what, sorry? A “coffee-forward” experience? Aside from being a head-scratcher, this is simply terrible English and deserves a grammarian’s smackdown. “Clarity!” is the clarion-call of academic writing and that is certainly not on display here.

The classroom is certainly not exempt, from both sides of the professor’s desk, and I highly encourage keeping an eye on The Wall Street Journal’s Bad Writing Contest (judged by Denis Dutton among others) for the latest examples of vacuous prose. In such prose the -ism is king and everywhere one looks there is a new prefix declaring a pre-post-neo or ultra, variant of a term. The flipping of nouns and verbs has become de rigeur, and diplodocean (I’m claiming that one!) sentences of 15 or 16 lines can often fail to throw up an obvious active verb, anywhere. An amazing afforestation occurs, with quote marks and other punctuation marks being used to add ironic freight to a script. English is remarkably good at hybridising and creating useful neologisms, but more is not always better—only better is better.

  Similarly, sentences should not be there to bludgeon the reader into accepting your superior intellect—that is not communication but dictation. Some essays and articles simply seem to assume questions won’t be asked because doing so is to admit that you don’t speak the lingo, that you are an imposter or charlatan. In fact, such questioning is vital to keeping the airwaves clear. The use of complicated text is not evidence of the presence of serious ideas and it is surely clear that those who profess great wisdom, but who can’t actually seem to express it in such a way that people can actually understand it, perhaps need a spell of introspection. In short—if you don’t understand what you are hearing in a seminar or class, the fault may not lie with you. Always reserve the right to respectfully question both what you hear and the language used to express it! 

While it’s easy to find fault with the acreage of business and technical text which does little well or new, and it certainly makes one wince to witness the drawn-out death-throes of hackneyed terms such as synergize, ducks in a row or get granular, in reality we need to be alert to the fact that this is the dialect of the people who influence the ecosystems of the Business World, Financial Markets and Academia. Like it or not, these are the people whose voices are listened to, and whose money and philosophy change our world. Therefore, the answer is not a pointless crusade by professors to expunge every vestige of business or management-speak from the world, but to engage in a considered attempt to improve things, to teach those managers and would-be managers to speak a little more elegantly—to Brylcreem the tuftier bits, if you will.

Now, the Swiftean approach to such gibberish would be satire, a little gentle mockery with the goal of mending language. In these post-truth times of the spin doctor, misspeaking, and blue-sky thinkers, the need for considered speech and action, for precise and comprehensible language has never been keener. Simultaneously, we need to somehow retain the sheer joy of participating in a language which is so endlessly pliable that it can, perhaps with a little help, easily see off the assaults of a few more careless users.

For a little light relief, try the Plain English Campaign’s Gobbledygook generator ( if this site produces text you understand, then perhaps pause to think about how clear you are in your communication with others!

A certain amount of empty-mouthed chatter is to be expected in any social context, but English practitioners such as Composition professors have the complex task of ensuring accurate use of the language and encouraging enthusiastic use of new English, while also discouraging language use which is so ponderous that it fails to get meaning across.

 Similarly, many jobs encourage jargon, but too much jargon can exclude or preclude meaning. Staff and students who work in disciplines which feverishly pursue change are always on the hunt for the novum, some idiolect which helps them stand out. But when we use such terms as self-actualisation and getting our friends in the tent, we ought to consider whether our words convey anything more than noisy insistence. In the groves of academe as students and professors, or in thicketed technical contexts, or perhaps in the cubicled landscapes of business and corporate life, words must still get the job done.

As the internet inevitably merges our activities and globalises our cultural interaction, it is important to find a balance between a playful approach to language which is inclusive and universal, and that dizzying sense of being at a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where the etiquette and rules of the game are so tangled that nobody knows what’s going on any more, and frustration sets in. Anyone who has sat through yet another hour of Powerpointlessness (I’ll have that one too!) knows exactly whereof I speak.   

So, my point is not that Business or Management English, or indeed any other jargon-rich variant, should be somehow hunted to extinction, but rather that a cull might be wise from time to time, or at very least a garage-sale of the worst rubbish we hoard. Steven Poole of The Guardian newspaper in the UK, highlighted 10 of the worst examples of management-speak and I am now going to unashamedly onboard these: by end of play we should have all drilled down on this topic, discovering that if we are ever going to go forward together and action our individual desires, we will all need to overcome issues and deliver. There are no privileged users of English and all speakers are stakeholders who use their various competencies in the language to leverage change. That way, we avoid having the project of human communication sunsetted—that’s trashed, to you and me.

If that last paragraph has left you a little sparkled (dazed), perhaps remember that there is only one simple goal for the next memo, email, essay or website script you are writing and in which you feel tempted to reach for the swag-bag of blinged-out business, academic or management terms. Regardless of the funkiness of the language you use, your text must be clearly understood. That of course, is where English Composition comes in: use those bases of effective writing, and remember that Writing Lab! Robustify that Learning!  


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