Words that should be banned: Facilitate

I can honestly say that I can think of no possible situation in which I would find the need to use the word “facilitate”. It’s got far too many syllables, for a start.

(And the Plain English Campaign agrees with me, listing “help, make possible” as less pompous substitutes for “facilitate” in its highly useful pdf A-Z of Alternative Words).

Extra wordage

Compounding the word’s pretentiousness is that by its very nature, “facilitate” always seems to attract other unnecessary words whenever it’s used. So, for example, a recent announcement to passengers at my local tube station went:

The escalators are currently out of order, in order to facilitate maintenance (12 words)

It would have been more succinct – not to mention closer to natural speech – to say:

The escalators are out of order because of maintenance (9 words)

Bureaucratic evasion

But it’s not just the Latinate ostentation and word accretion that grates. It’s that whenever “facilitate” is used, there’s a distinct whiff of the bureaucrat at work.

I always sense that the writer who uses the word “facilitate” is trying to absolve someone of responsibility for actually getting something done.

Let me give you an example. Teachers are no longer expected to teach. According to one description of the job:

They facilitate learning by establishing a relationship with pupils and by their organisation of learning resources and the classroom learning environment.

Leaving aside the tautology crime “classroom learning environment”, what does this sentence actually say? You’ll notice that it carefully avoids the old-fashioned and prescriptive idea that teachers should teach.

Rather, it seems to say that a teacher’s role is merely to be nice to pupils and arrange the classroom such that it is conducive to learning.

One could even take it from this sentence that the kids themselves are responsible for their own education.

If the children don’t know their twelve times table by the end of the year, then don’t blame the teacher – his or her role was merely to “facilitate learning”.

No wonder no one can spell these days.

Teachers aren’t the only ones doing all this “facilitating”. A job description for their colleague, the school nurse, lists the following as among their responsibilities:

To negotiate and facilitate health promotion


Worried about your kid’s health? Don’t expect them to be treated or even cured. But the promotion of their health will be facilitated and even negotiated (nope, I’ve no idea either).

“Yes we can!” v “We probably won’t”

I suspect this tendency to evade responsibility for getting stuff done originates with the government. A 2006 Treasury report on the UK public sector proudly announced:

Government has created several units to facilitate change across the public sector

Notice how the author has avoided saying that the government will actually change anything – that would be a promise too far.

Rather, the government has charged a separate entity with the task of helping the public sector to, presumably, change itself. In other words, the government has cleverly placed itself two steps away from the process of change – and, of course, from accountability for actually effecting such change.

Taxpayer, reach for thy wallet.

No wonder the public goes wild when someone comes along promising to actually do something about the state of the world. Do you think Barack Obama – widely praised for his oratory – would have won so overwhelmingly if he’d promised to “facilitate change”?

Corporates just as guilty

And if you’re in the private sector, don’t think you’re not affected by this tendency to facilitate rather than achieve.

Indeed, companies are awash with facilitators facilitating facilitation sessions. (Chairing meetings, presumably, being way too fuddy duddy in this dynamic day and age.)

So to finish, here are some frequent uses of “facilitate” in the corporate world – and what they really mean:

Your manager’s role is to facilitate your career development (translation: it’s your fault you’ve not been promoted)

We are wholly committed to facilitating diversity in the workplace (translation: this statement is part of a paper trail designed to keep the lawyers off our back so everything can stay the same)

We’re dedicated to facilitating innovation (translation: we haven’t done anything new in years)

In my last role I facilitated improvements in business processes (translation: we re-ordered the way we did stuff to little or no effect. Oh, and someone else did all the work)

We will conduct weekly up-date meetings, in order to facilitate collaboration and communication (translation: we will host pointless gatherings in which each employee in turn is expected to share information that’s largely irrelevant to their colleagues. Everyone will dread them, except the annoying ones who like boasting about how great they are or moaning about how much work they’ve got to do)

Computer software will be introduced to facilitate efficiency gains across the firm (translation: we’re too cowardly to tell you yet, but mass redundancies are on the way)

HR managers facilitate the business strategy (translation: they’re the ones who’ll eventually tell you about the mass redundancies)

Can you add to this list? Or do you fall into the “facilitate” trap? Leave a comment!

7 Responses to “Words that should be banned: Facilitate”

  1. Debs says:

    ….oh curses….I was trying to edit the bit of my CV about my work in training…..it’s riddled with the word…. Back to the drawing board….

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Of course, your potential employers may be impressed by the word!

  3. Brad Shorr says:

    Excellent post! I love your point about using “facilitate” to dodge responsibility. That is very careless and/or evasive usage … perhaps not even done consciously.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Brad.

    I do think it’s very important to stay alert to how language can be used to manipulate or deceive (which seems to be what this blog is increasingly about).

    The fact that, as you rightly say, so many people seem unaware of the connotations of the word “facilitate” is, to me, a sign of just how prevalent misleading language is.

  5. Lennie Rose says:

    Facilitate is a word that reminds of a bag of rocks that you push into a sentence to look smart. Thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree more.

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Indeed, Lennie. You’d think people would have noticed by now that the smart prefer short, simple words.

  7. Bob Searle says:

    “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire,” Obama said at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish that goal.”

    Don’t let the usurper from Kenya fool you.

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