Do you have a "banned list"? John Rentoul, Author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliche, joins the conversation to discuss the benefit of avoiding overused phrases. His book discusses the rules to bear in mind when writing or speaking clearly and simply.
Below find an excerpt from his book and tweet us what is on your banned list @thecyclemsnbc using #thecycle
The Banned List actually started as an email,now lost, that I wrote around 2000 with somerules for leading articles in The Independent.They should never begin with ‘So’, I said. Sincethen I have realised that this is only the firstof a rising three-part scale. Worse is to start anarticle with ‘And so’. Worst of all is ‘And so itbegins.’ Time can be saved by not reading onif an article starts with any of those. Althoughthat kind of sweeping judgement can lead oneastray, as it once did Martin Amis, to whom Ishall come in a moment.Most of my other rules were more specificto leading articles. (I said we should use formallanguage such as ‘leading article’ rather than ‘leader’, ‘newspaper’ rather than ‘paper’ and avoidcontractions such as ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t’; the otherrule that I remember was: ‘We never call for adebate, because we know what we think.’) Theguidelines also advised against the use of foreignlanguages, as did George Orwell, to whom I shallalso come in a moment, or dead ones, whichOrwell did not mention. I think there had beensome debate in the office about the use of theLatin word pace, in which it turned out thatsome people not only did not know what itmeans (‘with respect to’ in the sense of ‘contraryto the opinion of ’) but thought that it is a wayof citing someone in one’s support. Quod eratdemonstrandum.It would be a cliché, and wrong, to say thatI was standing on the shoulders of giants incompiling those guidelines, and this List. I amnot standing on anything; I am stealing. It wasHenry Fowler whom I burgled first. His ModernEnglish Usage is a fine browsing-ground forthose who care about clear writing, although,as David Crystal points out in his introductionto the 2009 reissue of the first edition, Fowlercontradicts himself repeatedly. People whoobject that ‘under the circumstances’ ought tobe ‘in the circumstances’ (a good point, now hementions it) are dismissed as ‘puerile’. He saysthat using the prefix ‘super-’ not in its primarysense of ‘above’ or ‘transcending’ but meaning‘of a superior kind’, ‘as in superman, supermarket,superministry … is so evidently convenientthat it is vain to protest when others indulge init’ (a lovely condescension).But, as Crystal notes, ‘when Fowler encountersa usage he does not like, his language alters’.For example, he refuses to tolerate the comingtogether of ‘forceful’ and ‘forcible’ — ‘suchwriters injure the language’ — and he condemnsthe use of ‘phenomenal’ to mean ‘remarkable’ ashaving had ‘unreasonable vogue’. He says that‘believers in sound English may deliver theirattack upon such usages with hope of success’.How wrong he turned out to be.Then came George Orwell, whom I admiremainly because his real name was Blair.Others admire him because he wrote well andpassionately against sloppy political writing.Not that his own writing is universally praised.According to Christopher Hitchens, MartinAmis ‘declined to go any further into NineteenEighty-Four because the words “ruggedly handsomefeatures” appear on the first page’. (Thefeatures belong to Big Brother in a poster.)Amis said: ‘The man can’t write worth adamn.’ Hitchens tells the story in his memoir,Hitch-22, and Amis confirmed it to MichaelEzra, a friend of mine. Amis would ‘never letfriendship take precedence over his first love,which was and is the English language’, wroteHitchens, who admitted that his friend hadonce rebuked him for using ‘no mean achievement’in an article. I have added that to theList too.Amis later grudgingly admitted that NineteenEighty-Four improved after its unfortunate start,but Orwell is cited here because he compiled anearly version of the Banned List in his essay,‘Politics and the English Language’, in 1946.He identified four categories of verbiage: ‘dyingmetaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious dictionand meaningless words’.His examples of dying metaphors were:Ring the changes on, take up the cudgelfor, toe the line, ride roughshod over,stand shoulder to shoulder with, playinto the hands of, no axe to grind, gristto the mill, fishing in troubled waters,on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel,swan song, hotbed.All of them I have added to my list, except‘fishing in troubled waters’, which is now extinct.I thought that ‘take up the cudgel for’ was sleepingwith the fishes too, but I found that JemimaKhan had stepped outside her Oxfordshiremansion to ‘take up the cudgels for humanrights’, according to my good colleague IanBurrell of The Independent in December 2010.The pluralisation of the original cudgel is oneof those subtle changes that clichés undergo overdecades. The ‘on the’ has dropped off ‘the orderof the day’, and ‘toe the line’ has been renderedso featureless by over-use that it is now oftenwritten as ‘tow the line’, which is a differentmetaphor altogether.‘Verbal false limbs’ was hardly an elegantphrase, but you see what Orwell meant whenhe explained:Characteristic phrases are render inoperative,militate against, make contactwith, be subjected to, give rise to, givegrounds for, have the effect of, play aleading part (role) in, make itself felt,take effect, exhibit a tendency to, servethe purpose of.I have added them all. They are all still current,although some are more offensive than others.(‘Militate against’ is a particular menace becausesome people confuse ‘militate’ and ‘mitigate’,which turns it into a nonsense phrase.)When he came to ‘pretentious diction’ Orwellseems to have run out of time to think of reallyobjectionable examples.Words like phenomenon, element,individual (as noun), objective,categorical, effective, virtual, basic,primary, promote, constitute, exhibit,exploit, utilise, eliminate, liquidate.Many of them are unattractive and shouldbe substituted by shorter, more direct wordsif possible, but ‘element’, ‘primary’ and ‘exploit’are perfectly good words of precise meaning.Others of his examples may have evolvedsince 1946. It would be fussy to rule againstthe use of individual as a noun now. But mostof them are objectionable only if misused.‘Promote’ and ‘constitute’ are useful words inthe right places and are pretentious only if usedto mean ‘encourage’ or ‘make up’. So I have notadded these, except ‘utilise’, which has no placein the English language as long as the ‘tili’ canbe excised.Orwell’s examples of meaningless words— class, totalitarian, science, progressive,reactionary, bourgeois, equality — also seemunnecessarily argumentative. What he means isthat they are often used to add value judgementssurreptitiously to statements about which thereader ought to be allowed to make up his orher own mind. Again, most of them cannot bebanned altogether, and even ‘progressive’, whichis on my Banned List, is permitted when makingan arithmetical point about tax systems.Orwell’s essay also set out six flawed rules tohelp write good English:1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or otherfigure of speech which you are used toseeing in print.2. Never use a long word where a short onewill do.3. If it is possible to cut a word out, alwayscut it out.4. Never use the passive where you can usethe active.5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientificword, or a jargon word if you can thinkof an everyday English equivalent.6. Break any of these rules sooner than sayanything outright barbarous.The first and the fifth are all right, but the othersdepend on the sixth to make sense of theirironic absolutism. It may be possible never to useforeign, scientific or jargon words, but not evenMartin Amis could abide by the first rule all thetime. Criticising Orwell for his ‘never’ and ‘always’might seem a bit rich — or even, to test rule five,a case of lese-majesty * — from someone whohas called his own book The Banned List. But itwould have been more use if Orwell had said a bitmore about the reasons for going against his rulesthan the avoidance of the ‘outright barbarous’.Barbarity is not the test. Sometimes long wordsare more interesting than short ones. Sometimes• Lese-majesty is actually an Anglicised phrase; the French is lèsemajesté.23The Banned Listwords that are strictly superfluous improve therhythm of a sentence, or make it funny. Thecommon complaint against sub-editors is thatthe first thing they do is take out all the jokes.It is possible to cut them out, so if the article istoo long they do so. (Although the complaint isoften unfair: if a sub-editor takes out a joke, thefirst possibility that ought to be considered isthat it was not funny.)And where would you stop? It would bepossible to cut out all but the first paragraphof most news stories, and some media organisationsseem to aspire to this model. WilliamShakespeare could have written, ‘boy meetsgirl and everyone dies’, but the play wouldhave lacked a certain ‘I know not what’, as theFrench say. Or we could all write nothing atall and abandon what Erich Fromm called thestruggle against pointlessness. Rule four is anexaggeration too. Sometimes, if only to vary themood, the passive is to be preferred (I cannotsay it, because it is on the List, but if you didsee what I did there, well done).With those qualifications, then, Orwell’s rulesare all very well, but we are particularly interestedhere in his lists of examples. They are one of thesources on which I have drawn in compiling theBanned List.Some of the List was put together from mychance dislikes that, like that stupid economy,caused me to sublimate my desire to shoutat the radio or television, or to throw downa newspaper in disgust. Increasingly, othersnominated their own dislikes for inclusion,which I accepted or rejected with arbitrarypower. Readers of my blog and other Twitterusers were my best resource. Contrary toGoogle’s being ‘white bread of the mind’, inthe loopy phrase of Tara Brabazon, a professorof media studies at Brighton University,the power of computers can be harnessed formutual self-improvement. Yes, there is a lotof text-message abbreviation on the internet,a lot of carelessly-written comment and a lotof badly-written pretension. But there is alsoa lot of good writing, a freshness of expression25The Banned Listand all kinds of new slang, some of which ishighly inventive and ticklish.The internet can allow people to dumb down,if that is what they want, but it is also a liberatorfor those seeking out quality. My experience isthat people care about language; pedantry isalso popular. The internet is not destroying thelanguage but giving us new ways of shamingits most prominent practitioners into using itbetter.Suggestions from people online now make upmost of the List, and their contributions revealthat there is a core of linguistic crimes thatcauses most offence. ‘Going forward’ is possiblythe current top irritant. ‘Around’ to mean about,as in ‘address issues around gender’, ‘iconic’ and‘no brainer’ are persistently nominated. Thenthere are the vogue phrases of commentary,especially political commentary, and especiallythose borrowed from business jargon, such‘the elephant in the room’, ‘perfect storm’,‘parameter’ and ‘pressing all the right buttons’.This core changes over time – as I have noted,some clichés go through a cycle like diseases:outbreak, spread, peak and decline. Sometimesthey become part of the language, as if theectoplasm of English has absorbed the infectionand turned it to useful purpose. There hasbeen a fashion that has lasted for some years,for example, for ‘verbing’ nouns: access, impact,foreground and address.Some readers directed my attention to listsother than Orwell’s that someone else hadprepared earlier. Matthew Parris and Paul Flynnmade a list called ‘Political Deadspeak’ for a BBCRadio 4 programme called Not My Words, MrSpeaker in September 2007. It had ‘dialogueof the deaf ’, ‘economics of the madhouse’, ‘notrocket science’, ‘level playing field’, ‘siren voices’and many more that I have copied and pasted.Allan Christiansen, an official at AucklandCouncil in New Zealand, sent me a list of his translationsof bureaucratic jargon, which included:Action point: Place where you go forsome action. Pub, nightclub, etc.Enhancement meeting: Hair appointment,facial, makeover or any other beautytreatment that looks great for fiveminutes and then reverts to its old self.Hot desk: Stolen.Work-flowed: The result of quickly liftingup your desk at one end. Also known asa planned-slide, or clear desk policy.Workstreams: Office flood.Some of his suggestions are on the list, althoughthe imaginary Committee ruled that the examplesabove were peculiar to large organisationsand have not (yet) seeped into general use.Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair,had a short list of journalese words, which hiswriters were not allowed to use. It includedopine, pen (as a verb) and inadvisable alternativesto ‘said’ (chortled, joked, quipped), whichI adopted, as well as injunctions against the useof funky, glitz and weird, which I did not.One of the words on Carter’s list was‘plethora’, which needs no further explanationbut is so much more interesting if it gets it. Likeso many of the worst items on the list it is notonly a cliché but it is usually used incorrectly.This was best explained by my learned colleagueGuy Keleny:Do we really need a word that meansa harmful excess of something which,in due measure, would be beneficial?Yes, actually, we do; and that is what‘plethora’ means. If we keep using itto mean just ‘a lot’, then we will losea useful word, which would be a pity.[The Independent, 28 May 2011.]Too late now, I suspect. But Guy’s ‘Errors& Omissions’ column in The Independent (itused to be called ‘Mea Culpa’, which was notstrictly accurate and not English but I ratherliked it) was one of my best sources for theBanned List. He not only identified candidatesfor inclusion, but drily explained why they areso objectionable.It was he who identified a new genus of waffle:‘those terms ending in “of” that amount to littlemore than preliminary throat-clearing.’ Theyinclude ‘the level of ’, ‘a sense of ’, ‘a series of ’, ‘theintroduction of ’, ‘a package of ’, ‘a basket of ’, ‘araft of ’, ‘a range of ’ and ‘the prospect of ’. As hesaid, ‘They can nearly always be struck out.’ [TheIndependent, 30 October 2010.] In one sweepingmovement, he added nine items to the list. ‘Allthe hallmarks of ’ makes it ten, and Liz Kendall,the MP for Leicester West and a former adviserat the Department of Health, added ‘a suite of ’policies, a phrase that she said was ‘beloved’ there.Thus my list grew. Sometimes it felt as if ithad grown too long. Some of my correspondentscomplained that it would be easier to publish alist of words and phrases that are permitted, orthat I was trying to reduce all communicationto grunts and clicks. This is untrue: English issuch a rich language that, no matter how longthe Banned List becomes, the scope for creativityand originality with what is left remains infinite.It would be hard, and beside the point, however,to list all the figures of speech ‘which you areused to seeing in print’.The List is not in the business of simplycompiling over-used metaphors, archaismsand jargon; it is a selection of the most irritating.Common or garden clichés are thereforepermitted. Their main interest — and it is notthat interesting — lies in their origins. The earliestuse of ‘common or garden’ identified by theOxford English Dictionary was in a 1657 botanybook: ‘The Common or Garden Nightshade isnot dangerous.’Provided that they keep themselves to themselves,that they are not trying to annoy, plainclichés may be waved through on a temporaryidiom visa. The scales falling from the eyes (thatwas Paul, or Saul, on the road to Damascus:‘there fell from his eyes as it had been scales’, Acts9:18; modern translations have the less poeticbut more informative ‘something like fish scalesfell from his eyes’); the biting of bullets (a oncegraphic reference to coping with pain duringsurgery without anaesthetic); the light at the endof the tunnel; the end game: trying to list themall starts off fun but becomes as interesting ascollecting bus numbers.Indeed, you could try to classify hackneyedwords and phrases; to devise a taxonomy. Thereare metaphors, such as those above. There aresubcategories of metaphor, such as sportingones (playing catch-up; sticky wicket; opengoal), which are bearable, because at least mostpeople know roughly what they mean; andsub-subcategories, such as American sportingmetaphors (step up to the plate; ballpark; HailMary pass), which are not. Nautical metaphors(on someone’s watch, trimming sails, full steamahead) are common in English, even though fewpeople have direct knowledge of the originals.There are similes, not so common (like a rollingstone; compare thee to a summer’s day; asif butter would not melt in her mouth). Thereare old-fashioned words (the batting of eyelids;the ploughing of furrows; the linchpin) thatsurvived in a niche because they fitted, or becausethey provided variety, but which are now partof the sameness. There are new and slang wordsto which the same applies.There are specialist words, and foreign words.Some of these have been assimilated and havebeen rendered harmless, such as cliché, Frenchfor stencil, which provides English with a wordthat it did not have and for which there is a need.None of these offend. Soubriquet, on the otherhand, which the dictionary tells me is usuallyspelt sobriquet, originally meant a ‘chuck underthe chin’, but it does not matter because we havehad enough of it: it goes on the List.The List, therefore, is not merely for clichés;it is reserved for those that grate, or that arewrong; it is for jargon so foolish that it impedescommunication; and for stock devices thatbetray an insulting lack of thought.