Tamsin Constable

Delicate meddling

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), used the extraordinary creativity inherited from her father, the poet Lord Byron, along with strict mathematical discipline her mother insisted on (to guard against dangerous poetic feelings), to foresee artificial intelligence. Today, she is credited with being the world’s first computer programmer – a genius who, more than 150 years ago, first understood what computers might be.

Ada worked with Charles Babbage to add copious notes to a paper describing his ambitious work developing an early computer, the ‘analytical engine’. When Babbage made the mistake of editing her words, she fired,

“I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note. You know I am always willing to make any required alterations myself, but that I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.”

He, impressed by her intellect, could find no fault with her, and resorted to poetry to describe her.

Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans – everything
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

So, on Ada Lovelace day, (says who?) a reminder that writing, in any form, is a personal act; others, if they must meddle, should take care to do so delicately.

Timber!

There’s a writing thing (yes, ‘thing’; don’t start,) I call the ‘Crashing Sentence’. It’s often long, and twisty. You usually have to read it twice, or more. If you look away, then look back sharply, you may catch it by surprise and believe you have startled some meaning from it. But, I’m sorry to tell you, you won’t have. For there is no meaning in a Crashing Sentence.

Crashing Sentences are those that, when someone like me comes along, sighing theatrically, tumble down the moment their own meaningless is uprooted. Edited in plain English, they wind up saying absolutely diddly squat. Bear in mind, dear reader, that someone has taken the time (ie, it has cost money) to construct the Collapsing Sentence in the first place.

Here’s a great one I had:

“We will improve our efficiency and effectiveness through introducing new and improved ways of working.”

Now I reckon this means:

“We will work better by working better.”

TIMBER!!!

(Yes, three exclamation marks. Like I said, don’t start).

Jargon wastes taxpayers’ money.

People won’t be able to get the help they need unless public bodies ditch jargon, the Local Government Association said today.

“During the recession, it is vital that we explain to people in plain English how to get access to the 800 different services that local government provides,” said Cllr Margaret Eaton, the LGA’s Chair. “From claiming council tax benefit and how older people can get a lift to the shops, to telling people how they can get their old fridges picked up or how to report criminals who flytip, people need to know what is available to them.”

The LGA today published a list of 200 words and phrases that it wants public bodies to stop using and sent it to councils all over the country. It suggests alternatives – use ‘buy’ instead of ‘procure’, for example.

But where the word or phrase was too dreadful even to merit an alternative, the LGA has instead written ‘Why use at all?’ And so, with nothing better to do (except two loads of laundry, which I’m ignoring), I counted the ‘Why use at all’ comments. There are 42. Hell’s bells, that’s nearly a quarter of the whole list! Words that, when cross-examined with ‘what does this mean, exactly?’, cough and sputter into meaningless nothingness and absurdity!

This is more than eye-rolling fun and smidgen of smugness. If jargon blocks people from getting the support they need, it could, the LGA says, “lead to more people ending up homeless or bankrupt.”

Mutating verbs

Here’s a quick tip for powerful writing. Keep your eyes peeled for verbs that have turned into nouns. Would your text be clearer (and, often, shorter) if you replace the noun with the verb it came from, or something along the same lines?

Example: We reached the decision that …
Replace with: We decided that ….

Example: The tutors were in discussion with the students about ….
Replace with: The tutors and students discussed

Example: Please contact me to arrange the cancellation of your order.
Replace with: Please contact me if you want to cancel your order.

These sneaky nouns-from-verbs are called, very un-plain-Englishily, ‘nominalisations’. Once you tune in to them, you’ll see them everywhere.

Nominalisations do have their uses, though, particularly if you’re trying to strike a more ‘formal’ tone. More on that later.