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Pretentious Language Wastes Time

Carol Briam, a management communication specialist in France, offers an illustration of how unclear and pretentious language wastes management’s time, even in minor ways.

A few years ago, she was consulting regularly with the management of a subsidiary of a large multinational. One day, the subsidiary’s CEO and Deputy CEO called her in a panic because they had received a written request for information from their headquarters, and they could not figure out what one of the questions was asking. The question said:

“What is the degree of counter-veiling [sic] power in the market in respect of each product category” of the subsidiary?

The CEO (a non-native English speaker) and his deputy had scrambled around looking in dictionaries to find out the meaning of “countervailing.” Their search was complicated by the fact that the word had been misspelled in the headquarter’s request. The CEO and Deputy CEO also had asked several subordinates if they understood the question, but the others couldn’t figure it out either.

Given the context of the question, Carol surmised that the headquarters writer was really asking this very straightforward question: “For each product category, what is its relative strength in the market?”

This solved the immediate dilemma, and they could then answer their headquarters, an answer which proved to be exactly the information wanted.

This incident shows what an unnecessary time-waster non-plain language can be. Apparently, the headquarters writer was trying to impress people with his so-called knowledge of economics terminology. But in the process, he wasted at least 30 minutes of two senior executives’ time, not to mention subordinates’ and a consultant’s time. Multiply that lost time by more unclear/pretentious wordings, times thousands of company managers/employees, and one can get a sense of how such language reduces productivity.

Resources for writing plain language documents

Members of The Association of Professional Communication Consultants recommend these guides to writing plain language documents.

  • Bailey, Jr., Edward P. The Plain English Approach to Business Writing. Rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  • Bailey, Jr., Edward P. & Larry Bailey. Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking. (1996).

  • Cutts, Martin. Oxford Guide to Plain English. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). A short, to-the-point guide to writing plain British English.

  • Johns, Lee Clark. The Writing Coach. (Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Learning, 2004). A comprehensive guide to clear workplace writing.

  • Lauchman, Richard. Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing. (AMACOM, a Division of American Management Association, 1993).

  • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A Plain English Handbook: How to Create Clear SEC Disclosure Documents . Washington D.C., 1998.