Friday, November 27, 2009

Watch out for the language register of your English!

Except perhaps for readers of my column in The Manila Times way back when it started in 2002, not many people know that I had made it my self-imposed task to make Filipinos aware that if their English was bad, it was largely because of our society’s fervid addiction to legalese or jargon as its default English. My early columns therefore trained their guns on legalese and its kindred English varieties—corporatese, bureaucratese, academese, researchese—and advocated plain and simple English instead. I would then take a dig at how many of us write like two-bit lawyers or use big, fat words in the false belief that they will impress our readers or listeners and make them better disposed to what we are telling them.

One of my earliest pieces on this theme was a playful, satiric essay entitled “The Great Gobbledygook-Generating Machine,” which later drew a resonant response from a fellow communicator in the United Kingdom. This was followed by some shoptalk between us about corporate jargon and other forms of obfuscation. I am posting in the Forum my account of that exchange of views simply as a reminder that aside from good grammar and usage, we need a keen awareness of the language register or tenor of our English to communicate effectively with it.

Shoptalk on jargon and gobbledygook

An essay that I wrote for my column in The Manila Times away back in 2002, “The Great Gobbledygook-Generating Machine, was featured in January 2006 by, a well-regarded English-usage web magazine based in Massachusetts. That essay, which later became Chapter 12 of my book, English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, takes a playful dig at a little electronic device on the Internet that can churn out around 40,000 insights on how to run companies in grammar-perfect but nonsensical English. Click this link to read that essay in the Bookshop section of Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

I was quietly happy just to see that little piece of mine still alive and relevant even after the passing of the years, but I was truly delighted when I received a very touching congratulatory e-mail for it from a fellow editor and writer in Wales in the United Kingdom. Jude Roland, who runs a professional writing service in Monmouthshire, wrote me a note so evocative about the travails of putting other people’s English writing into good shape that I have decided to share it with Times readers.

Here’s that e-mail:

Dear Jose,

I enjoyed your piece enormously. Much of what I laughingly call my “career” has been spent in trying to de-mystify the corporate jargon and obfuscation of other writers, who seem to feel more important and knowledgeable when they issue incomprehensible communications.

For more than three decades, I have advocated and encouraged clarity and directness. But those of us who care deeply about the potency of English now have to contend with something worse than commercial nincompoops [mishandling the language]. In the UK in particular, for at least five years in the 1980s, educational “experts” had been saying that it was “more important for children to express themselves in writing than to worry about spelling and grammar.” And oh, have the chickens come home to roost!

Add to this the universal overreliance on computer spell-checkers with their inherent idiocies, and you have a formidable problem. Neither you nor I, alas, will be able solve it!

But please do go on fighting the good fight and continue writing lively, cogent essays. Perhaps, when climate change finally destroys Earth, some remnants of humanity will remain, and in the long, slow climb back from the brink, their leaders may again learn to cherish and venerate “the word.”

Jude Roland

And here’s my rejoinder to that note:

Dear Jude,

I apologize for this much-delayed reply. I have been so frenetically busy during the past two weeks doing a very challenging substantive editing job for a major client that I could hardly find time to deal with my correspondence.

I’m glad to know that you are a kindred spirit pursuing a career demystifying corporate jargon and other forms of gobbledygook, but I beg to differ with you by saying that I rarely find my job a laughing matter. It’s always a deadly serious business to be welcomed with wide, open arms. I’m sure that many professionals—medical surgeons, dentists, and physical therapists in particular—feel the same way about their work even if few of them would dare to admit it. In fact, I’ll probably be ruing the day when people all over the world have finally learned how to write English on their own clearly, precisely, and without obfuscation. By then, I’ll really have no choice but to pull down my shingle for keeps.

In the meantime, Jude, you and I will just have to continue the good fight for plain and simple English—both as an honest livelihood and as a thankless personal advocacy. We should do it in much the same way that the magnificent peacemakers of this planet have been suing for lasting peace on earth for thousands of years now—assiduously, sometimes so stridently, but largely to no avail.

(February 13, 2006)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 13, 2006 © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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