Friday, December 03, 2004

The joy of cliche

There was a report from the Plain English Campaign bemoaning the prevalence of cliche, particularly in broadcasting. Particular hates were footballer-ese like "a game of two halves" "at the end of the day" etc, "Don't go there". I must admit I don't really share this complaint. Eloquence is a rare thing. I am not at all sure what feats of Churchillian rhetoric it is reasonable to expect when you ask someone how they have managed to run 100m a little bit faster than the others, or how they feel after having scored more or fewer goals than the other team.

It's not that the language is misused so much that the topic is not sufficiently complex to merit more than this. And in any case, cliches are what people say; all people. Much better this than the sort of ponderous circumlocutions favoured by those in the past who were placed in greater public prominence than normal for their class and education, such as trade union leaders, taking refuge in long words to sound more like their "betters".

And anyway, the language is changing. These days the buzzword for web design is usability: designing user interfaces so that people can use them (as opposed to the old way, create an immaculate site that users find impossible to navigate, use, and in extreme cases, even load!). As a result, the focus is on making text as universally readable as possible, by using simple short sentences and avoiding esoteric terminology (when Madonna was preparing her pornography book and album, at the very last minute they changed the title to Sex, since they found a large part of their target audience didn't know what 'Erotica' was). FAQs ought to be genuinely frequent, rather than the spurious ones like "How can I send a message to Tony Blair congratulating him on his stance on Iraq?" or "Can you make sure you give my email address out to spammers?".

Much more pernicious than popular usage is what passes these days for educated prose. I glanced at a paper about standards in Law education, and was horrified to see that it was all about 'evaluated outcomes' and 'acquired skills' and 'performance criteria'. This style of writing is usually adopted when people wish to either soften their judgement (poorly-performing schools, challenging behaviour) or else to make what is obvious sound more complex and worthwhile. It is sad to think that the best legal minds have to tolerate this rubbish just as much as market researchers into a new dog food. They should have put a red line through the report and sent it back with the note "translate into English".

I'm not very good at committees because I don't have the patience to "say the words that must be said" - "It's a good draft except for sections 1-10 and the appendixes"; "Thank you for your witless and interminable contribution to the debate; I didn't want to get home before midnight anyway"; "I think the main point here is that everything you've said is wrong".

When reading Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, I'm amazed how many contemporary hates have been around for years (for example, the usage of "infer" for "imply" and "refute" for "deny", which I had though a modern horror, is in fact current from the 18th century and therefore arguably equally correct); I am also amazed at the long articles about abuses where I have absolutely no idea what the problem is. You almost conclude that you only need grammar for Latin - anything will do in English! (perhaps one could amend a quote I had as a Geography essay title once: "England has no climate, only weather"; "English has no grammar, only words").

1 comment:

sic said...

To quote Bart Simpson...

Grammar is not a time of waste!