When Formality Obfuscates

Strategies & Exercises for Solving the Problem

OFFICIAL ENGLISH

 

An Example of the Problem

Note: Do not confuse the Official Style with English as an Official Language, which is a political movement, largely motivated by discrimination and a fear of otherness, that wants to make English the only language in a particular country.

Some people refer to it as Bureaucratic Language, some might just label it Corporate Jargon, but Richard Lanham’s term of Official Style seems most accurate. Official language and academic language clearly overlap, but there are big differences. Academic language typically needs to be complex because it is dealing with complex subject matter. Compare the general descriptions below with Lanham’s description of the official style. On the left you see general guidelines, but on the right, you see more negative descriptions of what writers would see as problems.

Academic Style

Official Style

   Use of Formal Language

   Impersonal (objective) style

   Precise and concise language

   Correct referencing & quotes

   Accuracy (in grammar, punctuation and syntax)

   Euphemistic

   Noun Style

   Impersonal constructions with the passive voice

   Takes time to get going

   Built from “is” plus prepositional phrases.

 

In other words, the Official Style is Academic (formal) English that has become so complex that it is opaque and unhelpful or just tedious and uninteresting. You might also consider the humorous take on the Gunning fog index, which describes reading level 20 as something “only government sites can get away with this because you can’t ignore them” and reading level 30 as when “the government IS covering something up.” Sometimes this obfuscation of meaning can be negatively referred to as Double Speak, which was coined by George Orwell.

Making certain information less obvious or attempting to hide responsibility is certainly one reason the official style exists; however, it also exists because more words suggest more time spent at writing and more time writing means more work for people who have to justify their jobs. The most significant reason for its existence though is simply intellectual laziness. Good, clear prose is hard work. If you disagree, then you should get busy making money on your own writing. 

Corporate Jargon generally follows the official style but is more euphemistic with its use of positive but empty power words rather than syntactical complexity. Consider an example from Netflix, which essentially says “sharing passwords costs us money, so we will charge more to do it.”

Other common examples include:

You’re fired.

We have a problem.

Your position has been terminated.

We’ve hit a speedbump.

Your position has been unallocated.

We have had a few hiccups.

Your duties have been determined to be redundant.

We’re facing some headwinds.

 

While the problem exists in academia, government, and business, it has had such a negative effect on shareholder confidence that the SEC published a style guide.