Tamsin Constable

Golden Bull Awards for gobbledygook 2010

The Plain English Campaign has just announced its annual Golden Bull Awards for ‘the worst examples of written tripe’. Among the winners is a Foreign and Commonwealth job advert for a position that will involve:

‘Maintenance and development of job narrative around FCO and its value proposition, using insights from research and evaluation as well as knowledge of the evolving FCO strategy to inform resonant messaging….’

The PEC hazards a guess that this means: ‘Writing powerfully about what the FCO does using reports about:
* its research;
* how well it does its job; and
* its changing strategies.

Given the amount of egg-on-face press coverage the Golden Bull Awards always generate, it seems to me a just and wonderful thing that the FCO job ad is for a ‘reputation manager’.

‘I shot an elephant in my pyjamas’ (and other misplaced modifiers)

They’re the stuff that comedians feast on. Misplaced modifiers can be deliciously funny because they make a sentence mean something completely different to what the writer intended.

A modifier adds detail to the sentence.

I saw some ducks flying around the lake.

A misplaced modifier adds it in the wrong place.

Flying around the lake, I saw some ducks.

Here are some more.

Grandpa rode a horse wearing a bow-tie with red spots.

Will was referred to a psychiatrist with mental health problems.

We almost made a profit of £40.

Readers can often infer the correct the meaning (Grandpa was wearing the bow tie, it was Will who had problems, the profit was just under £40). No real harm is done. But a misplaced clause can also cause real confusion.

Take this:

On arrival at the conference centre, please take Tessa to the meeting.

Does it mean this?

As soon as Tessa arrives at the conference centre, please take her to the meeting.

Or this?

When you get to the conference centre, please take Tessa to the meeting.

Will Tessa be there already? Or should you get there first? Will you and Tessa be travelling together? It’s unclear, confusing, time-wasting etc.

So, when you’re writing, think about where to put those extra details, and avoid corporate-egg-on-your-business-face.

Here’s Groucho Marx, brilliantly: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I’ll never know.