Lose the Gobbledygook and Say What You Mean

By Kate Lister on 6 May 2011 (Updated 21 June 2011) 0 comments
Photo: 4nier

When did we stop talking and start reaching out? When did we start facilitating and stop helping? When did we start interfacing and stop meeting? Moreover, why?

“Let’s touch base on Thursday to see how we might develop synergies to facilitate the branding team’s launch.”

What’s wrong with: “Let’s chat about how we can help Jim and Sarah”?

Wikipedia defines Gobbledygook as, “any text containing jargon or especially convoluted English that results in it being excessively hard to understand or even incomprehensible.”

Or, to put it more simply, “any text that’s hard to understand because of jargon and obscure wording."

By the Numbers

Wikipedia’s definition includes 20 words, 43 syllables, and 6 big words. According to WordsCount.info, a website that assigns a grade level to a piece of text based on, believe it or not, its SMOG index (short for Simple Measure of Gobbledygook), it would take a post-graduate to fully understand Wikipedia's definition.

Mine, on the other hand has: 12 words, 21 syllables, 1 big word, and is written in a way that a 9th grader could understand.

By way of calibration, the IRS code would stump even a PhD, Time Magazine could be understood by a 10th grader, and even a 6th grader could comprehend Soap Opera Weekly — though there must be something better to read.

The big problem with gobbledygook is that it’s contagious. It’s like slipping into an English accent after you’ve shared a pint with a Brit. Whether it’s to impress the boss or just fit in, the whole corporate world seems to have caught the bug.

Now I’m not advocating that we dumb-down the world, but what if we all just said what we meant?

There Oughta Be a Law

Believe or not, as of October of last year, clear writing by federal workers isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law! While it somehow failed to make headlines, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 directs all federal agencies to not only write in plain English, but to teach their employees what it is and how to do it.

If the bureaucrats in Washington can find a way to speak in plain English, surely there’s hope for the rest of us.

And a Few Simple Rules

So, here are some tips to help you expunge the gobbledygook and write and speak more clearly.

  • Avoid jargon. If your grandmother wouldn’t understand, find another word.
  • Unless you’re writing/speaking to insiders, spell out or avoid acronyms.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short.
    • Bad: We are in possession of the information you require.
    • Good: We have the data you requested.
  • Use active voice.
    • Bad: This has been sent to accounting for payment.
    • Good: I have sent this to accounting for payment.
  • Write or speak for the average reader or listener.
  • Organize your writing with headings, subheadings, and bullets.
  • Be consistent in your use of past, present, and future tense.
  • In general, avoid words that end in ‘ly’, ‘ing’, ‘ful’, ‘ment’, ‘tion’, ‘ance’.
    • Bad: It was an oversimplification of the situation.
    • Good: It oversimplified the situation.
  • Avoid weak verbs. You’ll know they’re weak if you feel the need to add a word with ‘ly’ to help them along.
    • Bad: She spoke softly.
    • Good: She whispered.
  • Keep the subject, verb, and object close together in a sentence.
    • Bad: Jack, who was known for his jumping ability, cleared the candlestick effortlessly.
    • Good: Jack jumped over the candlestick.
  • Use single syllable words:
    • so instead of accordingly
    • clear instead of apparent
    • use instead of utilize
    • talk instead of converse
    • need instead of require
    • people instead of human resources
  • Avoid these words and phrases altogether:
    • bandwidth (unless you’re talking about computers)
    • core competencies (it could be the poster child for gobbledygook)
    • dog and pony show (unless pets and farm animals are actually involved)
    • facetime (another poster child candidate)
    • front burner (unless you’re cooking)
    • game-changing (unless you’re still playing PacMan)
    • impacted (unless you’re referring to teeth)
    • impactful (just don’t)
    • in other words (if you said it right, you wouldn’t have to say this)
    • interface (unless you’re referring to computers)
    • leverage (unless you’re in construction or finance)
    • moving forward (unless you actually are)
    • paradigm shift (gag)
    • procure (stilted)
    • reach out (oh please, just call me)
    • shall (unless you’re stuffy, or a lawyer, or both)
    • team (unless you’re talking about sports)
    • traction (unless it’s icy out or you’re a doctor)

And finally, the most important rule of all: less is more. Eliminate all unnecessary words. Seventeenth Century mathematician Blaise Pascal closed a letter to his girlfriend with, "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter." Let's all be a little more considerate of other peoples' time and take some time ourselves to write clearly and directly.

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