In my last post, I listed five of my top tips for clear communication. My favourite, by far, is the one urging writers to avoid overusing nouns. It’s my favourite because this crime against clarity is the feature of bad corporatese that I come across most often – and it’s easy to fix if you know how.
For those not lucky enough to have been taught grammar at school (i.e. most people under 40 – don’t get me started), a noun is a person, place or thing. (For more on nouns, see my earlier blog post on capitalisation. There’s a particular species of noun that is a particularly virulent inflictor of damage on the unwary writer’s prose: the abstract noun.
Abstract nouns refer to ideas, feelings and emotions – things that you can’t touch or see, and they often have endings such as ‘-ness’, ‘-ence’, ‘-ity’, ‘-tion’ or ‘-ment’ (e.g. ‘completeness’. ‘consequence’, ‘responsibility’, ‘exemption’ and ‘agreement’, all of which, incidentally, occurred on page one of a document I recently had to edit).
Inexperienced corporate writers think such words sound impressively academic, that they lend their prose an air of cool objectivity and near-legal uncontrovertability (did you spot ’em?), which will impress their boss, terrify their competitors, and mollify the regulators of whatever industry they happen to be in.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To those of us in the know, prose littered with abstract nouns may as well be labelled: ‘I’m desperately insecure about my intellect and I try to hide it by alerting my unfortunate readers to my ability to use long words’. It’s the literary equivalent of the cup of tea drunk with a crooked little finger in the air.
But laughable pretentiousness isn’t what I take issue with – it’s that reading noun-heavy prose is hard work. It’s like having to complete an obstacle course, in which every noun you encounter slows you down and depletes you of the energy to read on.
Most often, you’ll find that several words have been called upon when a single, perfectly good verb could have been used: ‘we will develop new products’ becomes in bad corporatese ‘we will pursue the development of new products’; ‘businesses achieve success and deliver growth at an impressive velocity’ rather than simply being successful and growing fast.
And it’s not just businesses that are afflicted. Here’s a particularly offensive example, quoted word for word from a newsletter that my local council sent to me a few months ago.
“Better information exchange mechanisms will be implemented and cross borough working encouraged in order to ensure better coordination of security activities, such as security patrolling and the effective collation of information relating to crime and any potential security threats to the area.” (42 words, 15 nouns)
As far as I can tell, what this writer trying to say is: “We will tackle crime by sharing information with other boroughs.” (10 words, three nouns).
What disturbs me most about this particular example is that it rather undermines the magazine’s obvious attempts to promote itself as committed to diversity, inclusion and accessibility (three of my favourites there). Turn to the back page and you’ll find a note telling the reader that the publication is available in large-print, Braille and any foreign language you care to mention.
It’s not just that I pity the poor translator that has to grapple with such nonsense, it’s that such obviously inaccessible gobbledygook completely negates all efforts at inclusion. Rather, it says: ‘This magazine isn’t really for the people who voted for us. It’s for the people who’ve told us we need a communication strategy.’ How I cringe when I hear the unmistakeable sound of a box being ticked.
So here’s my advice: hunt down all those abstract nouns and replace them with verbs if you can. You could start by ditching your ‘communication strategy’ – try ‘talking’ instead.