Here’s a sentence for you. It comes from the deeps of Hell where toxic sentences smolder forever: Spring seasonal weather variations due to erratic planetary climatic shifts and wind circulation and moisture route changes due to oceanic adjustments in temperate zones can significantly alter daily and even hourly precipitation and wind currents over a specific land mass. This stupefying thing was written many years ago to explain delays in construction. It was composed by a nice person who thought she was “intellectualizing” information. She went to work for a distant municipality. I hope she doesn’t talk now the way she writes, in adulterated City-speak. I copied the sentence on an index card because I wanted to keep it as an example of how not to think, write or be. I dug it up after listening to city staff give vague, sometimes incomprehensible answers to neighbors’ questions at a planning meeting.
Take another look at the condemned sentence. Note its horrible use of due to, its repetitiveness, its ghastly meandering. Here’s how it should be written: Spring weather is changeable. Here’s how Shakespeare would have written it: “The uncertain glory of an April day.” Nobody expects city functionaries to be Shakespeare, but really, shouldn’t they climb up from that bog of obfuscation and give us simple facts?
I assume City-speak exists because the authors and speakers of this prose 1) think technical, abstract and leaden language is impressive and makes them appear to possess special, even scientific knowledge, or 2) they really don’t want you to know what they’re talking about, or 3) they don’t themselves know what they’re talking about, or 4) they’re trying to foist an injurious proposal on you.
Technical jargon rendered incomprehensible makes the listener or reader tune out. This is how Wall-marts get built across the street from your house and why you sign documents riddled with slippery clauses that escalate your costs on, say, Thursdays.
Efforts to correct this abuse of language have been around since Cicero. Shakespeare parodied it in Much Ado About Nothing, (which might also serve as an good title for some of the promises developers make). In 1946 George Orwell decried it in his terrific essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In 1979 a “Plain English Campaign” began in London to “combat gobbledygook, jargon and legalese.” On March 23rd of that same year President Carter signed Executive Order 2044 which stated that “Each regulation must be written in plain English and be understandable to those who must comply with it.” Unfathomably, President Reagan rescinded this in 1981, but a memorandum from President Clinton in 1998 revived it, with Vice President Al Gore given charge of PLAIN, the Plain Language Information and Action Network. But this is not a partisan divide. Neither party can lay claim to lucid prose; both employ focus groups and rely on them to frame positions in the most familiar and comforting language. This is why political pronouncements are so often so excruciatingly bland.
These problems, as noted, are not new. Our second president, John Adams, employed a high-minded version of City-speak that historian John Ferling describes as “turgid, legalistic jargon.” We’ll call it Elite-speak. In 1775 Adams wrote a pamphlet in which he declared, “This statum Walliae, as well as the whole case and history of that principality, is well worthy of the attention of Americans…’Nos itaque,’…” Then came an eighty-nine-word paragraph entirely in Latin. (Ferling notes that Thomas Jefferson could say the same thing, but eloquently, in two clear sentences in English). Adams was not speaking to the average citizen but to a rarefied, educated minority who were possibly impressed and flattered by the Latin. Maybe they quoted bits of it to one another to affirm their status.
Anyway, today’s new Latin can be found the specialized double-talk City-speak of an EIR (Environmental Impact Report). If you like flabby and passive language, crafted by consultants hired by developers to vindicate land acquisitions, you’ll love slogging through the droning, zombie prose of an EIR. There the writers call traffic invasion “Level of Service,” and nowhere in their report do they tell you that they assess traffic only by how many times a driver has to pause on a given route. They don’t analyze (or mention) pedestrian hazard, exhaust pollution, collisions, crashes, or gridlock. When these hired consultants say impact to depict traffic, it’s because impact is an overused word that has become so neutralized it conveys little visual imagery. They say things like, ‘Anticipated Level of Services issues will be of insignificant impact due to proposed project mitigations’—an utterly hopeless chain of common tech phrases that means a glut of traffic is coming your way and there’s nothing you can do about it. But good luck trying to get a traffic body count or lung damage report from these writers. Some people think this technical jargon impressive and its users “smart.” Others suspect that they avoid clarity on purpose. I think the doubters are smarter than those who think EIR writers are smart. The doubters know dangerous whoppers can lurk behind insensate terminology.
The EIR, for all its pretentiousness, is not an objective document. If it was an actual scientific analysis we might tolerate the specialized phraseology. But the language of science is precise. The EIR is little more than hired ad copy, dressed in dull babble to discourage us from turning the page. The same can be said of the crooked, arcane mortgages that helped topple the economy in 2007.
In the seventies a young Sacramento student, thinking she was helping to subvert a corrupt educational Establishment, made money ghost-writing term papers. A client asked for a paper on John Locke. “I’ve got all the ideas,” he said. “I just don’t have the words.”
Words. Those little things.
Because he was patronizing and dismissive she decided to educate him. She told him that ideas came in words. If you didn’t have the words, you didn’t have the ideas. She said John Locke himself thought in words.
He didn’t like hearing this, but was not equipped to argue. The paper was overdue. “Could you make it heavy?” he asked. Heavy was the seventies adjective for anything serious and consequential.
So she asked if he wanted it bloated with superfluous abstractions. After an unblinking stare he said that would be great.
He got his paper and she got a steady client for a year. He was a Business major and had a couple of teachers who tolerated mushy thinking and overloaded verbiage. The more passive and flabby the multisyllabic language, the more they liked it. The student’s theory papers could be written drunk. This customer-ghost relationship lasted until the ghost realized she had become an unregulated capitalist and quit the business. The client was dismayed. But she assured him he’d be fine: all he had to do with these two specific teachers was resubmit old paragraphs in a new order, and she was right. He graduated. Today he’s a developer-consultant in a Texas town that looks like a gargantuan spatter of mini-marts. He’s bi-lingual now. He speaks City-speak and Business-speak and repeats your name frequently when he talks to you. This is supposed to convey sincerity and create between you an intimate bubble of trust. It’s about as believable as an EIR.
I checked out the Plain Language.gov website to see if clarity was still popular with the Feds and if the battle was still on. It is, and it is. There’s “Plain Language Guidelines, Plain Language Training (yes, it has to be be taught), a Plain Language Bootcamp, Tips and Tools,” and even this startling admonition: “Plain Language—It’s the Law.” So now we know.
Hereafter when you’re assailed by jargon-spouting, double-talking, tech-term reciting, rhetoric oozing, babbling, bamboozling, pseudo-elitist City-speakers, you can tell them, plain English, please, or you’re going to Washington. To be retrained. Bootcamp. It’s The Law.