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Teaching plain English

June 15, 2007

Hello again,
A business student asked me recently what the expression “blue-sky thinking” meant. I said it meant ...

...nothing. And I was being honest. This kind of jargon or cliché never conveys anything to me. Investors in People in the UK cite recent poll in which more than half of UK employees (54%) criticized management jargon, such as “think outside the box” and “the helicopter view”, saying it is a problem in their workplace. Over a third of employees (37%) say it results in mistrust in the workplace and makes people feel inadequate.
Almost two thirds of employees (60%) would prefer no jargon at all at work, yet, with over a third (39%) saying that its use is on the rise, the problem looks set to grow if left unchecked.

Yet no matter what people think, jargon and clichés are alive and well in everyday English, with politicians and broadcasters being the worst offenders. The Plain English Campaign lists its own most irritating expressions drawn from a survey of over 70 countries as: “at the end of the day”; “this moment in time” and “with all due respect”, the last of which in fact always means the opposite of what it claims, since it always prefaces a rebuttal of the previous argument. The list includes:
 24/7
 absolutely
 address the issue
 awesome
 ballpark figure
 basically
 basis ('on a weekly basis' in place of 'every week' and so on)
 bear with me
 between a rock and a hard place
 blue sky thinking
 boggles the mind
 bottom line
 crack troops
 diamond geezer
 epicentre (used incorrectly)
 glass half full (or half empty)
 going forward
 I hear what you're saying ...
 in terms of ...
 it's not rocket science
 literally
 move the goalposts
 ongoing
 prioritise
 pushing the envelope
 singing from the same hymn sheet
 the fact of the matter is
 thinking outside the box
 to be honest/to be honest with you/to be perfectly honest
 touch base
 value-added (in general use).

Such expressions come under the general category of gobbledygook, which the Plain English Campaign would like to eradicate. But you can have fun with the gobbledygook generator: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/generator.htm/. I tried it and got: “You really can't fail with total logistical matrix approaches.”

So, at the end of the day, I would say the fact of the matter is that, going forward, teachers should address this issue on an ongoing basis and seize the bull by the horns by getting students to study the Plain English Guide/ available at: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/guides.htm/.

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