Monday, 29 August 2011

Language pollution

In the paper this morning, I noticed a comment from a police superintendent about the problem with gangs in Kelowna:

Gang activity is huge in this area right now and we have capacity issues in being able to deal with it... (Globe and Mail on August 29, 2011).

Why do people talk like that? Why not say:

Gangs are very active right now and we don't have enough people to deal with the problem.

Recently I read under the headline "Navy submarine's rust repair to restrict diving depths":

Materiel safety of the submarine would be maintained through a depth limitation caveat on the Windsor submarine's safety register (Globe and Mail, August 1, 2011).

What does that mean? Fortunately, the headline explains the incomprehensible jargon of the navy spokesman.

We encounter this kind of language pollution everywhere. On BC Ferries I'm told what to do "in the event of an emergency situation", and where to find "the washroom facility".  We read about "rain events", "flood events", "shower activity". Why all these unnecessary words?

And unnecessarily long ones. When I take my dog for a walk I pass a sign which reads:

Dog owners are required to remove excrement left by their dogs,

instead of

Please pick up after your dog,

and, believe it or not, instead of being simply told to close a gate, I am asked politely, to

Please preserve the integrity of the fence.


It is bewildering that people use language like this when they really want their reader to understand. I remember seeing as a young child the intriguing sign on a Western Australian railway station: Expectoration Prohibited. Perhaps it was considered impolite to say, Don't Spit. More recently I noticed in a New Zealand airport a notice which said Disabled Egress. And on the seat in front of me on a West Jet flight: Seat bottom usable as flotation device. It's just too bad if you find yourself in a predicament and you don't have the vocabulary to get yourself out.

Why do people write or talk like this? To make the subject seem more important? To make themselves seem more important? In some cases, perhaps.

George Orwell, in his essay "Politics and the English Language", had another explanation. He said that we write like this because it's easy. We don't have to think. The words are already in our head in prefabricated strips, and as we open our mouth or take up our pen, they just spew out. It is harder to write simply and clearly because we have to think about what we really want to say and choose the words carefully.

Or as Mark Twain is supposed to have written to a friend:

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Orwell ended his essay with a set of of rules for good writing. Two of them say it all:

Never use a long word when a short one will do.
If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

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