Monday, December 29, 2008

Stephen Fry's Podgrams

I am a language pedant, I'll admit it. Not always, but often.

I also know that pedantry is of limited use (at best), and I frequently quote Charles Caleb Colton on pedantry: "
Pedantry is the showy display of knowledge which crams our heads with learned lumber and then takes out our brains to make room for it."

In his latest podgram, Stephen Fry takes on pedantry and makes a well-reasoned argument against it. For example, what's the real point of being irritated by signs that read "Ten items or less"? Granted, "Ten items or fewer" is the more correct phrase, but does the incorrect usage prevent you from understanding the writer's intent?

However, there is one noticeable omission in Mr. Fry's argument. He argues that campaigning against the verbing of nouns (e.g., "I've been tasked with actioning four of the agendaed items"). According to Fry, the usage may be new, but that does not make it wrong. Language, he says, evolves over time. Common usage makes such changes correct.

I do not dispute these arguments. However, these arguments do not address the issue that I object to in these usages. What irks me most about the verbing of nouns and other forms of business-speak is not the heresies being committed on the English language. Rather, what irks me is the attitude underlying such changes. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these usages are coined by corporate management who do it to prove how creative they are.

They refer to "growing" their businesses because they believe that it imparts the image of their business as a fragile garden that must be tended and cultivated, lest it should wither on the vine.

I have yet to see a corporation to which a garden metaphor is appropriate. Additionally, the terms "growing one's business" is actually quite vague: does one intend to embark on an advertising campaign to bring more customers into an existing location, or does one intend to open new stores, or does one simply intend to hire a lot of new employees in the mistaken belief that ten men can dig a hole ten times as fast as one man can? There is almost always a more descriptive word or phrase that one can use.

They issue memos that the term "brainstorming session" might possibly be offensive to epileptics, so in future, staff should instead use the more sensitive term, "thought showers."

They "task you to do [x]" because it takes more words to say "give you the task of doing [x]," so they're just being efficient.

I would like to point out that I find it easy enough to forgive the "ten items or less" signs precisely because the meaning is still clear, even if the usage is not. However, one of the hallmarks of corporatisms is the fact that they are ultimately more confusing than helpful, and the speaker's intentions would be more clearly communicated if they were to stick to more conventional phrases.

Despite this omission, like all of Mr. Fry's podgrams, this episode is interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking. If you've not been listening to them, go subscribe and catch up.

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