Friday, August 22, 2008

Corporate drivel

If you would like to develop the habit of clear writing, the first logical step is to break the habit of using fad words and phrases. With rare exceptions, all fad words and phrases today are attempts to evade clarity.

For example, consider this piece of corporate drivel from the 2007 annual report of Lehman Brothers:

Sustainability: As a global corporate citizen, Lehman Brothers is committed to addressing the challenges of climate change and other environmental issues which affect our employees, clients, and shareholders alike.” (Boldface added, to show fad words and phrases.)

It is appalling to see grown men write this way. I suspect that, if asked, the senior managers of the bank could not translate this sentence into plain English to save their souls.

The Takeaway: Do your best to stop using fad words and phrases. Learn to recognize them so that you won’t become contaminated. While you are reading, occasionally stop and ask silently, “What could that word (phrase) mean, in plain English?” If you can’t think of an answer, it’s probably a meaningless fad word (phrase). Try not to imitate that writer.

Update, Monday, September 15, 2008: Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. It now appears that, while the chairman was prattling in the 2007 annual report about how to make the whole world “sustainable,” the company was on its way to extinction. Lehman could not even sustain itself. However, the chairman did sustain himself: the board gave him a $22-million-dollar bonus in March.

Updated Takeaway: Drivel can make you sound like a fourflusher.

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