Can you make that clear?

E&T's recent coverage of bad business language proved so popular that we've started a discussion forum on the Internet about it.

You may have read an article in E&T back in May called 'The language of business - the business of language'. It was an important piece by a British novelist claiming that some sectors of the English language are deteriorating so badly that it is starting to lose its accuracy.

Nothing new in that, I'm afraid. George Orwell said as much in his classic essay 'Politics and the English Language' way back in 1946. But what particularly interested me about this article (and to judge from my inbox, many of you too) was the author's claim that the business world must share the blame for this with other culprits (such as electronic text communication, the Internet and railway station announcers).

More than that: the world of management has encouraged a new kind of language to evolve. It's a language where jargon words get thrown together into phrases that are totally devoid of meaning, but nonetheless sound important. It's called 'Management Speak'.

The author of this piece, Mick Herron, made the serious point that the use of this coded and fashionable language is a hindrance to clarity of meaning. Many professions have evolved their own language - it's called 'ideolect' - in order to remove ambiguities from medical, legal or political complexities. It's not always pleasant, and it can feel as though these professions are enclosing themselves with a barbed wire fence, but these ideolects at least have their roots in necessity.

However, as Herron points out, management requires the opposite and needs to achieve clarity of communication through simplicity. The speech managers cobble together in order to make things sound grander than they really are, to borrow a phrase from Orwell, 'anaesthetises a portion of one's brain'.

We are all guilty

Unfortunately, even the IET is at fault. You may feel that quoting your own faults is a form of self-flagellation, but it is in fact a cynical attempt on my part to deflect accusations of being 'holier than thou'. While reading a recent IET publication about mentoring called 'Lead the Way', I came across the extraordinary word 'mentee'. Part of a questionnaire attached to the pamphlet asked 'how many mentees are you prepared to assist at any one time?' I can see four actual errors in this fragment (it's not strictly a sentence). There may be more, but the one I am interested in is the word 'mentee'. The word doesn't exist.

What has happened here is that the writer has made an educated guess that the derivatives of the cognate 'mentor' will behave in the same way as those of a word like 'employer'. They don't, and any dictionary will tell you that. 'Mentor' is the name of a character in Homer's Odyssey who advises his pupil Telemachus. It follows that a mentor cannot mentor a mentee - a mentor offers counsel to a pupil or an employee. This may all seem to be off the beaten track, but if you imagine yourself to be an engineer with English as your second language this is what will happen: you go to the dictionary to find out what 'mentee' means only to find it's not there. The sentence is now meaningless and your pamphlet has ceased to perform its linguistic function as a tool for communication.

You can take the view that English is a flexible, organic medium, and to resist change is to prefer the fountain pen to the laptop, the penny-farthing to the electric car. Spelling is continually evolving (don't u h8 that?). But the fact that evolution is taking place does not entitle us to make words up as we go along.

Former (not 'ex') President of the United States, Bill Clinton and his wife are in the habit of creating neologisms when lying ('downcline', 'misspoke'), while current President, George Bush, has a habit of talking gibberish. If you don't believe me ask yourself if the prefix to 'misunderestimated' intensifies the level of underestimation or negates it. We all knew what Bush meant, but he is the president of a global superpower and he should speak properly.

The editor formerly known as…

Of course this sort of nonsense is endemic and even the compilers of dictionaries have started to give up. This is an outrage - what if safety manual writers took the view that it was all right to introduce procedures that are manifestly dangerous?

Recent dictionaries carry little boxes that look like government health warnings on cigarette packets advising 'careful users' on the correct use of 'that' and 'which'. Talking of which, no one seems to care if something is 'different to' or 'different from.' There is now no detectable difference in meaning between 'imply' and 'infer' and I have lost count of how often I see the words 'formerly' and 'formally' confused. The perfectly good 'oriented' has grown an extra syllable and is now 'orientated'; the word 'revolutionary' now means 'new' rather than something that revolves; paradigms bizarrely always seem to get 'shifted', while leaps are always qualified by 'quantum', despite quanta being, to the best of my knowledge, very small.

My favourite anecdote concerning this type of out-of-focus vocabulary goes back to when I was editing What's New in Design magazine in the early 1990s. My publisher introduced me to some very important marketing executives from a sensor manufacturing company as the 'erstwhile' (he meant 'esteemed') editor. I smiled politely and made a joke about suddenly finding myself unemployed at the start of a meeting. I expected everyone to laugh, the ice to be broken and pretty much doubles all round. But then it hit me: no one had understood the embarrassing error of his vocabulary.

It may sound basic, but the moral here is that you shouldn't really be using words if don't know what they mean.

I decided to do something about it, something that I have never done before. I instigated an Internet discussion thread, 'Management Speak - has business language gone mad?'.

I started by explaining that as the Management editor of E&T magazine I receive a lot - and I mean a lot - of press releases, corporate statements, government PR and so on. I continued in the vein that I have always been bothered by the lack of clarity in these communications from people who regard themselves as professional writers.

Press releases are riddled with junk English, rarely say anything, and when they do contain anything of value you need to extract the meaning in a process similar to getting the good bits out of a lobster.

However, I realise that writing press releases for clients who have nothing to say can be a thankless task and am prepared to accept that it is the managers that commission the releases who should take at least part of the blame. These are the same managers who 'run ideas up the flagpole', 'eventuate outcome scenarios' and 'manage people out of the business'.

Something has got to be done about this before our beautiful language chokes to death.

Management speak - time to get online

Within 12 minutes there was a reply - and not from some random net squatter, either. This was from a real engineer with pre- and post-nominal's and a member of the IET.

My correspondent informed me that this abuse of language is something that engineers do notice and that there is a feeling of 'despair' at the number of basic literacy errors in formal reports, most of which "could be caught even with a spell-checker". She went on to say: "I'm afraid that sometimes, purely for entertainment value, some of us engineers will create a buzz-word and drop it into a report to see how long it takes for it to become jargon and how many managers pick it up."

Positively seditious. I particularly like the idea that Vikki Quinn's managerial colleagues have been bamboozled into "pulsing a meeting to deep-dive the issues".

You should drop in to the new Management Speak discussion forum and post your best examples of language abuse. Whatever you do, don't 'sunset' this, or even leave it on the hillside and check for teeth marks in the morning. Because by then it may be too late.

Who knows, we might even start a revolution.

Now, why not visit related forum posting 'Management Speak' - has business language gone mad?

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