Saturday, March 29, 2014

Using euphemism to cushion the blow of request rejections

It’s tempting to say that plain, simple, and forthright English is the best way to phrase a response, but there are highly sensitive situations when it could be such a terrible aggravation. For such situations, we need to take recourse instead to euphemism—an indirect, gentler phrasing of our message so it won’t cause offense or arouse hostility. This is the kind of English that I would advise when, say, rejecting applications for a requested service like a credit card, a postpaid smart phone facility, or perhaps a car or housing loan.

Let’s hear from DMP, a customer service representative who asked me for advice recently on how to deal with such tough on-the-job communication situations:

I recently started working as a customer service representative, and part of my job is to inform customers about the results of their service applications.
 Most of the time, I do not need to provide specific information on why their applications are being approved or rejected. However, there are instances when a customer demands an explanation, and we are then required to elaborate. This often makes me very uncomfortable, especially when the reasons are sensitive in nature.
 For example, when the rejection is due to their bankruptcy status, or because their company is winding up, or that a family member has called in and told the company that the applicant is mentally unsound.
 Would you have any suggestions on how to gently phrase those three situations to customers? I would really appreciate your help.

My reply to DMP:

When turning down somebody’s service application for reasons that are sensitive in nature, you will need to say it in something other than plain, simple, and forthright English. You have to take recourse to euphemistic language, or an agreeable or inoffensive statement that won’t suggest something unpleasant. This, of course, is nothing less than applied diplomacy—the skill of handling affairs without arousing hostility. It’s an art form that needs to be learned and practiced purposively and rigorously both in words and in action.

Let’s see how you might euphemistically phrase your responses to the three situations you presented:

1. Rejection due to bankruptcy status: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due an unfavorable report we have obtained about (your, your company’s) current credit status.”

2. Rejection due to impending company closure: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to advice we received that your company will be ceasing operations in the immediate future.”

3. Rejection due to negative feedback from the applicant’s family: “We regret that we will be unable to approve your service application at this time due to unfavorable advice we received from your family regarding the need for the service.”

General statements like these are usually designed to redirect the onus of the rejection from the entity making the rejection to an agency other than the applicant himself or herself. The statement need to be phrased in a way that doesn’t pointedly pass judgment on the applicant but encourages a quiet, nondefensive self-reappraisal of why he or she can’t be given what is being requested or asked for.

I trust that these thoughts will be of help to you in fashioning your service rejection letters. (March 30, 2014)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why are legal papers and contracts written in gobbledygooky English?

Frankly, I tried to provide a balanced, dispassionate answer to the provocative question below by BonRuiz, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, about the English of lawyers. But I’m afraid that my bias for plain and simple English still showed through when I attempted to justify legalese, the jargon that lawyers use to communicate with their fellow lawyers and other legal practitioners. It just seems to me that the profound tendency of legalese towards complexity and obfuscation doesn’t have a proper place anymore in modern-day society.

Question by BonRuiz, Forum member (March 5, 2014):

Sir, I hope you can enlighten me on why legal documents and contracts use too many unnecessary words that are not direct to the point and hard to understand? Is this a lawyer’s standard procedure so he can be the only one who can interpret and make money out of it?
Most legal contracts and documents are too wordy, not direct to the point and confusing (terrible grammar). Is this standard practice in law? Why can’t they make it simple and precise?

My reply to BonRuiz:

Your first question is why legal documents and contracts use too many unnecessary words, words that you say are not direct to the point and are hard to understand.

The answer is that these legal documents and contracts use a language that’s called legalese—the jargon or specialized language that lawyers use to communicate with fellow lawyers and other members of the legal community, particularly justices, judges, and paralegals. This language presumes that the target audience—whether readers or listeners—is adequately knowledgeable with legal concepts and the legal system. This is why to laypersons not equipped with or are not privy to this knowledge, legalese would read and sound much too wordy for comfort and, very often, beyond understanding and comprehension.

Your next question is whether the use of legalese is a standard procedure of lawyers so that only they can interpret the document or contract and thus be able to make money from those who need or have use for those documents and contracts.

I think that this is a very harsh assessment of the motivation of lawyers in writing or speaking in legalese. Here, from a lawyer who writes under the username WiseGeek, is I think a fair, levelheaded justification for legalese:

In law, words have very specific and clearly defined meanings, and lawyers are careful when drafting legal documents to say precisely what they mean, even if the meaning is only apparent to other lawyers. Some of the word use may appear unusual to people who aren’t familiar with the law, as ordinary words can have a different meaning in a legal context. For example, seemingly redundant phrasing actually isn’t, when the legal meanings of the phrase are considered.

In contrast, here’s a more candid justification for the complexity of legalese from a lawyer who blogs under the username SoMeLaw Thoughts:

Here’s one deep, dark secret about lawyers—we see risk everywhere. I can look at a picture of a man on a sidewalk and come up with a dozen potential lawsuits without batting an eye. And that’s before this hypothetical man crosses the hypothetical street. We lawyers spend years reading the most ludicrous cases you can imagine that involve chain reactions of people jumping onto moving trains, dropping bundles of fireworks that explode, and a concussive wave that tips over a large scale injuring a woman nearby (actual, famous case). It’s our job to see the worst potential outcome and help our clients avoid it.
 So when a client comes to an attorney and says “Hey, can you draft up some terms for my business so that we’re protected from lawsuits?” then the lawyer’s mind starts spinning like a rickety travelling carnival ride that was installed without inspection, has no safety restraints in the cars, and is operating at twice the recommended speed. Our minds are now racing to give our clients the best possible defense to a future lawsuit.
 That’s an important distinction—giving a defense to a lawsuit rather than preventing a lawsuit. Lawyers know that anyone can be sued by anyone else for anything. The question is whether the lawsuit has merit and will stick. Good terms and conditions will give you plenty of ways to dismiss the lawsuit with as little effort as possible, but you’ll still have to deal with the lawsuit. So that’s why these terms and conditions can run so long—they are trying to arm the company for a war that might come from the land, sea, air, space, other dimension, and in the case of some special litigants, parallel universes where your company is secretly in league with paranormal forces and therefore should pay the plaintiff one billion dollars. Drafting these terms are like packing for a trip when you have no idea if you’re going to Hawaii or Antarctica and you don’t know how long you’ll be gone…

Now, your third question is whether it’s standard practice in law to make most contracts and documents too wordy, not direct to the point, confusing—and also to have terrible grammar.

I doubt if it’s standard practice in law to deliberately and viciously make contracts and documents very wordy, not direct to the point, confusing—and also to make their grammar terrible. Legalese is, I think, simply the present-day outcome of centuries of overcareful, overzealous, overprecise, overwrought, and overbearing formulation, implementation, interpretation, and application of the law in evolving societies. It’s an arcane, stultifying language that generations of lawyers and other legal practitioners have not seen fit or bothered to simplify for clarity of expression and for easier understanding by laypeople. Indeed, for no better reason than convenience, modern-day legal practitioners still resort to and freely use many of the English-language legal templates and language quirks that date back to Victorian England and even earlier. They do so as if totally oblivious of the evolution of the English language in our Telecommunication Age towards accuracy, brevity, and clarity. I also think this is precisely why you’ve gotten the wrong impression that most contracts have terrible English grammar. Actually, on close examination, their English grammar would most often be aboveboard, except that their syntax and construction are those of a long bygone era, when those documents were still laboriously composed by longhand using quill and ink. In a very real sense, then, most contracts and legal documents today are composed by lawyers as if they are living in a time warp, making them—both the documents and the lawyers—sound terribly outdated, even archaic.

Your last question is whether it’s possible to make contracts and legal documents simple and precise. My personal answer is that, particularly in a democratic country like ours, it’s not only possible but highly desirable. In recent years, in fact, there has been a growing movement in North America and in the United Kingdom to use plain and simple English not only in contracts and legal documents but also in court litigation and in legislation, the better for laypeople to understand, appreciate, and follow the law as well as to assert their rights and fulfill their responsibilities as members of society. Read, for instance, “Lawyers Should Use Plain Language,” an article by Carol M. Bast in the Florida Bar Journal for a comprehensive discussion of the plain language trend and legislation in the United States.

Let’s just hope that the plain language movement and legislation will soon catch on in the Philippines as well.

For a much richer appreciation of how legalese differs from plain and simple English, read:

then compare to:

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why do many academics tend to encode their insights into turgid English?

In “Professors, We Need You!”, an essay that came out in the Sunday Review of the February 15, 2014 issue of The New York Times, op-columnist Nicholas Kristof set off a rancorous debate in the U.S. mass media when he argued that academics are beholden to a publish-or-perish tenure process and a culture that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”

Kristof observed that academics seeking tenure have a pronounced tendency to encode their insights into turgid prose. “As a double protection against public consumption,” he said, “this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.” He then quoted a Harvard University historian, Jill Lepore, who said that the result of all this is “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

As might be expected, Kristof’s views triggered an avalanche of denunciations and rebuttals from the academic community both in the U.S. and abroad. Before providing links to a sampler of them, however, I’m taking the occasion to present first my own take on the “publish or perish” syndrome, Philippine style, as articulated in “When Educators Befuddle,” an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times sometime in 2003. I think that reading that essay beforehand will put the debate on the issue in much clearer perspective particularly on how the usual run of academic English reads and sounds like.

I’m now posting that essay here as my own position regarding the English that a good number of Filipino academics use to formally present their ideas—a position that, sad to say, I’ve found no reason yet to change in substantial measure over the 12 years that I’ve been advocating plain and simple English. (March 2, 2014)

When educators befuddle

My son Eduardo, who was then in third year high, got befuddled one day by a source material he wanted to use for his school report on Philippine culture. He had chanced upon it on the op-ed page of one of the leading newspapers.

“Dad, I found a very impressive report on the effect of culture on globalization,” he said. “The only problem is that I can’t seem to understand what it’s saying. Can you help me? Listen:

Basically, globalization indicates a qualitative deepening of the internationalization process, strengthening the functional and weakening the territorial dimension of development.

You always told me that I’m good in English, but I just can’t seem to understand this one!”

“Let me take a look,” I said, getting the paper and quickly running through the passage. “Oh, no wonder! It’s those educators speaking again, with their imprecise and obtuse English. Well, son, what they probably meant was this: ‘Globalization is a deeper form of internationalization, one where a nation’s drive for development becomes more important than its territorial size.’ In even simpler English, a nation can be small but it can become a major world economic power.”

“That certainly makes sense,” he said, “but why do these educators say it the way they do? They are writing not only for English experts but also for people like me, aren’t they? Why then use such fuzzy words as ‘qualitative deepening’ and ‘territorial dimension of development’? Why even use them in a newspaper like this?”

“Son, this article was not written for you. It was probably done with the best intentions for their fellow educators and higher-ups, but somehow it landed on this newspaper without being adapted for readers like us. In any case, don’t ever think that anyone should use an ‘English for experts’ only. Linguists perhaps, but these educators, no. They should have used English that newspaper readers like us can understand.”

“So why publish at all if they couldn’t be understood anyway?”

“Well, son, in academic circles there’s a jaded saying: ‘Publish or perish!’ You must publish your work no matter how trivial or badly written, or you don’t count for anything. You are dead fish. So in some countries—ours included— there has evolved something called vanity publishing. It’s a growing industry that aims to meet this need—and also to massage some big people’s egos. Every now and then, of course, some good ideas with social value get across somehow through this mode, but more often they don’t, as in this case.”

“I see. But, Dad, here’s a great passage that seems to be clear enough for my school report. Listen:

The Philippine national culture is rooted in the people, their land, and their experience. From these develop their way of seeing and living, their systems of thought and values, their customs and traditions, their crafts and arts, their problems and their triumphs, that which they dream of and aspire for, and ultimately the national culture that they recognize in consensus and commitment.

Impressive! Do you think I can use it?”

“I’m not too sure, son. That sounds suspiciously trivial, more like a piled up definition of culture in general, but the authors just seem to have made it look like it was unique to Philippine culture in particular. You can apply the same thing to Kenya and Tobago and Palau and it will still be correct. In their own circles it’s called ‘rank tautology,’ a needless repetition of an idea in different words. In fact, they could have reduced all of those 62 words into the words ‘Philippine culture’ and nothing would have been lost.”

“Tough luck then! Now I’ll have to look for some other source material for my report,” he said, almost wailing. “But wait, Dad, here’s something that I’m sure will impress my teacher. Listen:

The third posits that education paves the way towards the designated type of society—which, to our belief, is a modern and humane society characterized by a comfortable quality of life in a peaceful, global and multicultural connection demonstrating adaptability and flexibility of a people without necessarily vitiating the core values that they hold or which define their culture.

Isn’t it great English? I’ll probably get a 95 for my paper if I used it!”

“Hold it, son, hold it! That sentence may sound nice but it actually says almost nothing. No new insight whatsoever. Notice how all of the 59 words are straining and groaning to define what needs no definition, because everybody already knows it deeply in his heart: that society needs good education to prosper. Don’t tell me that you still don’t know that!”

“You’re right, dad,” he said dolefully, “of course I already know that. But aargh! I guess I’ll just have to look elsewhere for something more substantial and readable for my school report.”
This essay originally appeared in the author’s “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 142 of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge. Manila Times Publishing ©1969 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.


Below are just a few of the responses pro and con to Nicolas Kristof’s op-ed essay, “Professors, We Need You!”: