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The lazy uncertainty of the long-winded

We at Plain English Campaign know how empty and pointlessly complex business jargon is. Though it’s always good to have a renowned cognitive scientist behind us.

Steven Pinker, writer of many critically acclaimed books on the brain, language and behaviour, recently published a language style guide, The Sense of Style. In it, he heavily criticises office gobbledygook.

In a recent interview with City A.M. about the book, Pinker referred to a “narrow clubhouse” which forgets that “we don’t really think in words but in images – to understand something, we have to be able to visualise it.”

We’ve suggested reasons in the past for why business jargon thrives – among them, thoughtless ignorance and the desire to impress.

Pinker agrees. For him, people use business jargon “because they desperately want to solidify their position within their company. It’s partly just obliviousness to the fact that people who aren’t your peers know different things, and partly the positive desire to be respected by co-workers and superiors.”

He goes on to suggest that “it’s graduates who are most likely to use business jargon (which) contradicts the idea that you have to work hard to be impenetrable. Attempting to sound sophisticated comes maddeningly naturally – it’s far harder to make your words simple and clear.”

The argument goes: complex information needs complex language. This is simply untrue, and Pinker goes on to touch on a fact we all know well, complex language often hides a lack of confidence. Those using it are unlikely to admit as much “mainly because they’re being paid to reduce uncertainty,” suggests Pinker.

“Verbiage makes it seem like they’re on top of issues, that they really have an understanding of what’s at stake and what to do about it,” he continues.

So business jargon is potentially a roundabout confession from those using it that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

As Steven Pinker says, “saying you don’t know can inspire confidence – particularly because you may know how to find out.”

In the business world, suggesting you’re not sure about something may feel like an unforgivable weakness. As Steven Pinker emphasises, talking your way around uncertainty whilst saying almost nothing is surely a more serious offence.

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