If you’re stuck for light reading at the moment, you could do worse than Robert Hutton’s ‘Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News‘. Hutton dissects and debunks many of the ridiculous but persistent terms that crop up uniquely in the media. These oddities – ‘lags’, ‘chiefs’, ‘to trouser’, etc. – make up much of the language of our newspapers, tabloids in particular.
But those in glass houses shouldn’t throw thesauruses. The charity world has at least its fair share of odd and impenetrable jargon. Which is fine, of course, between consenting engaged stakeholders, but we shouldn’t inflict it on innocent bystanders – particularly the media who will delete it before it reaches their readers, if they haven’t already deleted your email.
And beyond jargon, there are those terms that are so hackneyed it’s surely time to retire them.
Here in no particular order are some of my personal bêtes noires, with a charity focus. I’m not saying you should never use these – well, some of them I am − but if you find yourself writing these phrases, please stop and ask if it’s really necessary. With thanks to @ncvochlo, @karlwilding and @mattgilfeather for their suggestions.
- We know what we mean, but when talking to civilians, something like ‘the difference we make’ is far kinder.
- Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. No, I am a curmudgeon. But this has fallen irretrievably down the well of overuse. See also passion/ate.
- The approved scale of concern runs from somewhat concerned via concerned, very concerned and deeply concerned, to extremely concerned. Make sure you get it right or people will doubt your sincerity and judgement.
- Too many
- As in ‘too many children hungry’, ‘too many patients untreated’, ‘too many kittens dying’. We don’t know how many but it’s bad. Curiously implies there would be an acceptable level of hungry children, untreated patients or dead kittens. See also too often… and for some…
- No one knows what this means. Really, no one.
- Think piece
- A downright ugly word combination. Also, do some pieces not require thought?
- Voluntary sector
- I’ll be hung for treason for this one. But really, as opposed to the involuntary sector? Again, we (maybe) know what we mean, but we can’t reasonably expect the wider world to bend to our whims. You’ll rarely see this in an NCVO press release – we use ‘charities’ or ‘charities and community groups’ when talking to non-specialist media. It’s not perfect but neither’s voluntary sector. See also third sector.
- Preferably effective, with a diverse range of stakeholders.
- You know exactly where they are, and you can probably get the bus there.
- Safety net
- Usually vital, often part of an essential service.
- Clarion call
- An awful cliché which makes me wince every time I have the misfortune to read it. (Surely no one ever says it out loud.) Also has overtones of great pomposity. I’d rather you forcibly scraped my nails down a blackboard.
- I think you mean people.
I’ve been guilty of using some of these terms unnecessarily on occasion. Of course, it isn’t always easy to get language right. When I asked a journalist friend’s opinion the first thing she mentioned was service users. But we know why this term’s used, and no one’s come up with anything better. Some newspapers will tolerate it, others won’t. You need to find a balance between accurately (and in this case respectfully) describing what you do, and putting it in terms others will understand. It often helps to conduct the basic test of asking yourself how you would explain what you want to say to a friend in the pub.
Equally, I don’t want to diminish our language
Or make the words we say less good, as the Derek Zoolander school of ‘plain English’ zealots would have it. Words have distinct meanings and implications – there is a difference between use and utilise, despite what some believe. But there’s a place for poetry and complexity and a press release almost certainly isn’t it.
Media relations often involves doing things quickly – pause to perfect your phrases and you could be too late. But if you can get into the habit of using some more pleasant language, the diverse range of stakeholders you’re engaging with will thank you.
Any words or phrases you’d like to add to the list?
- Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner blog
- Headsup: the blog
- Government Digital Service style guide
- The Campaign for Plain English – who have an A-Z of alternatives to words they dislike
- The BBC College of Journalism style guide
Replies on Twitter
— Sarah Ashurst (@SarahAshurst08) November 26, 2013
— Brian Robson (@NHCBrian) November 25, 2013
— Bond (@bondngo) November 26, 2013
— Ochuko Adekoya (@ChuksieA) November 26, 2013
— richard caulfield (@caulfieldr) November 25, 2013
— Karl Wilding (@karlwilding) November 25, 2013