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Bad language

G10th May 2012

C2 Comments

Tgeneral, rants

It’s time to take a stand! My list of the six most common examples of bad English and corporate jargon used in 2012.

It may sound old-fashioned, but the quality of a person’s written English says a lot about that individual, hinting at their level of education, comprehension of concepts and attention to detail.

So what does some of our modern language say about ourselves?

Unfortunately these days, there are a lot of bad habits in writing and speech that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Many of these form part of a meaningless jargon designed only to prevent periods of silence or to obfuscate the truth. Such a style of writing or speech would have been considered ‘uneducated’ just a few years ago but increasingly, such woeful examples of English are becoming normal in the most unlikely of places.

Many people have written about bad modern trends in language.

I understand that it’s a well-worn path and I am not trying to suggest that the English language is in a rapid decline. Nor am I going to participate in a popular Australian tradition and blame “the Americans” for all of these awful pieces of language either.

Nevertheless, I feel that I should document these particularly common examples in the hope at it will cause just a few people to consider how they express themselves verbally and in writing.

This is my bad English “hit list”:

1. You (as in I)

Here’s an example of a statement written in last Thursday’s Herald Sun by columnist Wendy Tuohy:

Quite often, you have to remind yourself that it’s only April Fool’s Day once a year, so as crazy as it sounds what you’re reading must be true.

This is, perhaps, the most common of the vocal offences and I am alarmed to find such poor expression now appearing in the columns of Australia’s most popular daily newspaper.

No, Wendy, I do not need to remind myself that it’s only April Fools’ Day (note the apostrophe) once a year. Perhaps other people might? A far better way of expressing this may be:

Quite often, I have to remind myself that it’s only April Fools’ Day once a year, so as crazy as it sounds what I’m reading must be true.

Or, if speaking generally:

Quite often, we have to remind ourselves that it’s only April Fools’ Day once a year, so as crazy as it sounds what we’re reading must be true.

I won’t even get into Wendy’s problematic suggestion that writing has a sound, but I am confident that you (yes, you dear reader!) understand my point. People are increasingly substituting the words I or we or even one for you. It’s wrong, yet is increasingly prevalent.

2. Repurpose (v.)

This particularly ugly word was delivered to me by an American speaker at a conference a couple of years ago. My colleagues and I, confused, looked at each other with amazement whilst the fellow kept uttering the word with a straight face as if it was legitimate. It isn’t.

According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, purpose is normally a noun that refers to the reason that something is done or made an object to be attained, amongst other meanings. It can be used as a verb, but such use is archaic. In the 16th century, to purpose was to propose. Five hundred years later, such usage is unheard-of.

The word repurpose exists on the assumption that purpose is a verb that can describe how an object is given its function. For instance, I cannot say “I purposed this crate to hold milk bottles” as it is utterly nonsensical. Yet if I turn that crate upside down, according to some I can say “I repurposed this crate into a stool“.

If I resuspend an object, it means that I could have suspended it in the first place. If I redelegate a task, it means that I could have delegated it previously. The re- prefix before verbs in this context suggests that something is carried-out a second time. So you can see that repurpose makes no sense at all  because it couldn’t be purposed to begin with.

3. Incentivise (v.)

This is another nasty piece of jargon. The -ise (or -ize in US English) suffix is appended to nouns or adjectives and means “to make”. So to privatise means “to make private”; to socialise  means “to make social” and capitalise means “to make capital”.

Presumably, incentivise means “to make incentive”. It doesn’t of course, because it’s not a real word, especially in the manner in which it’s used: “We need to incentivise our workers to be more productive“.

No, you need to provide an incentive for your workers to be more productive. Yes, it’s a few more words but it makes a whole lot more sense.

Monetise is another horrible word that also fits into this category.

4. Speculate

This particular  example of inappropriate use appears to be popular with our politicians, most notably treasurer Wayne Swan. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary lists speculate as a verb that now usually means to “consider, conjecture, wonder”. In essence, a person who speculates doesn’t know.

So this response of Wayne Swan’s made no sense at all when he was asked by ABC’s 7.30 what may or may not be included in the upcoming federal budget that he was preparing himself:

“Well I’m not going to buy into speculating about what is or is not in the budget in relation to any number of areas of policy”.

Back in 2009, he more-or-less said the same thing to Ali Moore, telling her that  he was “…not going to speculate about individual items in the budget”. Yes, his budget.

This particular affliction isn’t limited to Mr. Swan. State National Party MP Damian Drum told the Bendigo Advertiser on 1 May 2012 (p.4) that “It would be improper to speculate on whether any item in particular is included in the (state) budget…”.

The problem that these folk have is that they know what is in the budget. They just don’t want to say. If they truly are speculating, then that’s an even bigger concern.

5. Learning (n.)

Learning is a singular noun that describes “the action of receiving instruction or acquiring knowledge”, taken from the verb learn.

Can you have a learning? I’d have thought not.

Yet it seems in today’s corporate world one can use learning as a synonym for lesson. If you don’t believe me, here are some recent quotes from public officials and prominent businesspeople:

  • City of Warrnambool City strategy co-ordinator Lisa Gervasoni said of a festival “It has been an honour to share our learnings about great Warrnamboolians of the past with the community and to meet their descendants.” (Warrnambool Standard, 9 May 2012, p. 2)
  • Australian Submarine Corporation CEO Steve Ludlam told AAP MediaNet “The insights and learnings that can be taken from the Collins Class submarine project will be instrumental in the development of the future submarine” (3 May 2012)
  • Maroochydore Chamber of Commerce president Ross Hepworth told Kawana Weekly that “David’s passion for sharing the Tasmanian experience will no doubt provide valuable learnings for our own regional economy” (3 May 2012, p.3)
  • Rupert Murdoch even managed to squeeze the word twice into a single sentence when he was quoted in the Australian (27 April 2012, p.12) saying “Just as one of the great learnings for us as a business has been not to allow an operating company to investigate itself without absolute transparency to the corporate centre, which I think is one of the learnings from the failure in 2006 and 2007 of News Corp to get to the bottom of this, I also think it is difficult to allow an industry in and of itself to control itself on a voluntary basis, given the concerns that we obviously all have”.


Clearly I am not the only person to become especially irritated with learnings. In an article called What the Heck are Learnings?, Maeve Maddox cites some even worse of examples of this word being used quite inappropriately in a number of surprising contexts.

As a word, learnings is especially horrible, but what hope do we have when even the Department of Education in Queensland uses it? Of all of the organisations within our community, I’d have expected the Department of Education to have heard of lessons!

6. Stakeholder

Our own Macquarie Concise Dictionary lists a stakeholder as “one who has a pecuniary interest in an enterprise, having contributed funds to it”.

Listening to contemporary corporate jargon, a person would have no appreciation of the true meaning because in 2012, stakeholder has come to describe just about anyone who has something even vaguely to do with an organisation. Of course, one must “engage” one’s stakeholders if one is to succeed.

For instance, Australia Post has a whole page dedicated to stakeholders, as does Woolworths Limited, Veolia and the Salvation Army. It seems that stakeholders are suddenly everywhere.


The Challenge

So how do we beat this? I really don’t know.

As a community, should we raise awareness? Should we engage our stakeholders? We clearly need to incentivise the population to adopt these key learnings and cease repurposing words. You know what I mean, right?




2 responses to “Bad language”

  • Written by Andrew on 11 May 2012:

    (not attempting to take great care with construction) I am not sure I agree with your first point. Isn’t saying ‘you’ve’ not a different way of saying ‘one’, which can sound affected? Doesn’t the apostrophe in April Fool require an historical knowledge of whether there was one April Fool or many? There are many now, but I think it is open to debate. For me, what she wrote is the printed form of casual speech, which is something I often aim for when I write in blogs etc.

    I never like to discourage people from writing because they can’t write well. I exclude Herald Sun newspaper comment writers from my charitable view.

    The rest, I agree with. Incentivise or incentivate are ghastly words, brought to us by either ex PM John Howard or PM candidate John Hewson. I don’t know if either invented the word, but it is truly awful.

    Your Challenge summary is very clever.

  • Written by Adam Dimech on 11 May 2012:

    Thanks for your comments, Andrew.

    I think April Fools’ Day is named for all such fools, just as Mothers’ Day is named for all mothers. I accept your point about a historical knowledge being required, but I am fairly confident that it is not so-named for one unfortunate soul!

    I agree wholeheartedly that non-professional authors or bloggers should be encouraged to write, especially online. I love reading the work of other bloggers, many of whom express themselves really well through a more casual or informal style of writing. I just expect a bit more from mainstream newspapers where trained editors and writers are employed.

    I wasn’t even aware of incentivate. What a horrible variant of incentivise.

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