Weasel words, pompous phrases and jargon
Recently, while proofreading a document from a government department, I came across the word ‘reablement’ and its companion, ‘re-abling’. These words set my teeth on edge! They are perfect examples of jargon – sometimes referred to as ‘weasel words’. I could guess what re-abling and reablement meant, in the context of helping older or disabled people to regain physical and mental skills that they’ve lost.
‘Reabling’ is a particularly nasty piece of jargon, since we have had a perfectly useful word to describe getting something back – ‘regaining’. It’s also wrong. What they’re actually trying to say is ‘enabling’. Enabling is easy to write, easy to say, and easy to understand. ‘Reabling’ looks wrong in print and is hard to say because of the breath needed between ‘re’ and ‘abling’ to avoid saying “reebling”. Re-abling is sometimes spelled with a redundant e —‘re-ableing’ which is as unnecessary as the e in ‘ageing‘. It’s ugly jargon that was invented, presumably, to differentiate what the practitioners of ‘reablement’ (which should, of course, be ‘re-enabling’, do that is different from what physiotherapists, nurses, teachers, social workers, GPs , psychologists, family and friends do to help people regain old skills or develop new ones for daily living.
As it was a government document aimed at a technical audience, I didn’t cross out these offending examples and replace them with the appropriate words, but just groaned and carried on proofreading. I hope they don’t slide across from in-group jargon to business language and into general acceptance!
Pompous and ponderous
Why am I wasting so much space and emotional energy on these jargon monstrosities? Because the use of such pompous rewriting of already good useful words not only takes the place of clear language, it causes the message to become confused. People having to use such jargon in their workplace may have a vague understanding of how ‘ablement’ differs from ‘enabling’, but the person receiving the action is unlikely to know what they are supposed to gain from it.
To enable your readers to understand what you are writing, you must put it in clear, straightforward words that say what you mean and mean what you say. Always avoid jargon unless you are addressing a group that shares that jargon. If you must use it, for some reason, then define the new term using everyday words.
Beyond jargon are the pompous, unnecessary phrases that people use to make their statements sound more important, impressive or to sound better educated. Most of them can be rewritten with one or two straightforward words. Here are just a few examples of weasel words and pompous phrases. I’ve chosen ones that particularly irritate me. You can easily find online lists of unnecessary, redundant or ponderous words and phrases. The key to avoiding such words and phrases is to use few words, short words where possible, and words that are generally understood.
Some redundant and ponderous phrases
- ‘Amidst’ – in. Or amid, but drop the old-fashioned st ending. The same goes for ‘whilst’. You mean ‘while’, so say ‘while’.
- ‘At the end of the day’ – what does that mean? ‘Eventually’? At the end of this meeting/speech/lecture/article?
- ‘At this time/at this point in time/at the present time’ – now
- ‘Close proximity’ – redundant. Proximity means near to or close.
- ‘Difficult dilemma’ – dilemmas are by nature difficult. No-one has an easy dilemma. Dilemma or difficult problem.
- ‘Going forward’ – Redundant. Of course you are, unless you’re in Star Trek’s USS Enterprise (“always going forward ‘cos we cannot find reverse.”). Just don’t use it.
- ‘Impact’ – (One of my favourite hates). Unless it’s an asteroid crashing into the earth, an action doesn’t usually impact on people or other actions, it affects. The result is its effect.
- ‘In view of the fact’ – because
- ‘Plan ahead’ – redundant. Would you plan after the event? Planning is always before the thing planned for.
- ‘Spell out in detail’ – another redundancy. Simply use detail.
- ‘Take action’ – act (“just do it!”)
- ‘When all’s said and done’ – huh? This makes about as much sense as ‘at the end of the day’.
Don Watson’s Weasel Words.
Although Australian speechwriter Don Watson wasn’t the person who invented the term weasel words – that credit goes to US President Theodore Roosevelt – Watson is known for his book, Weasel Words and a website exploring the joys and horrors of weasel words in political and government language. It’s a delight for all who deal with words.
Until next time,