Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

A Nasty Bit of Corporate Speak

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she takes aim at "corporate speak" at its most infuriating.

In the Copyediting webinars I presented this past spring, I discussed the problem of dealing with business speak. There's a subgenre of this jargon, corporate speak, that represents the worst of this type of language because its wordiness obfuscates the writer's true meaning. Someone taught these writers that direct language is always bad, when in fact a failure to be direct often results in a failure to communicate. If the writer is lucky, the result is simply that the message is confusing; too often, though, the result is that the writer offends the audience.

I came across a textbook example of this in a July 1, 2009 article in Editor & Publisher, about impending layoffs in the Gannett Co.'s newspaper division. The article quotes from a memo from the head of the division, Bob Dickey, to the division's employees in which he says, "Approximately 1400 employees will be impacted by the job reductions across the division."

The offensive part is not the use of impact as a verb — in business speak in particular, that ship has sailed. No, the truly objectionable aspect of Dickey's statement is his saying "1400 employees will be impacted by the job reductions" when he meant "1400 employees will lose their jobs." There's an impact on everyone who is left behind, too, and so it's both insultingly circuitous to talk about "impacting" people when you mean they will be laid off and dismissive of the remaining employees not to include them as being affected.

While we can't stop people from using impact as a verb, this use is still a red flag for editors. There is nearly always a better way to put whatever the writer is trying to say — and you just might save the writer from unintended consequences.

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.

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Thursday August 6th 2009, 1:46 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Apparently, that "impact" certainly made a nasty impact!
It takes a fair amount of critical thinking as well to accurately pen down the messages that need to be conveyed.....
Thursday August 6th 2009, 2:00 AM
Comment by: Craig D.
To Raju's comment: I respectfully disagree. Critical thinking is not what's lacking.

I think that it's simply a matter of an inability to state the obvious in unambiguous terms. One could argue that the degree to which the Corporation State has subscribed to its own version of spoken and written language is directly proportional to the lengths its employees go to stake their claim to Corporate notoriety, to avoid litigation, to divine more from Job/Document/Task/Project X than is practical, and, most egregiously, to avoid direct communication and accountability via almost constant use of the passive voice.

Take a look at almost any corporate memo or, better yet, any PowerPointless presentation, and you'll perhaps agree.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 6:57 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thanks very much, Craig!
But except for the purposeful deviations, the inability to state the obvious in unambiguous terms comes most of the time from the inability to sense the obvious vividly, I would have thought.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
Surely this is just a very poor attempt at being sensitive to the employees who are going to be victims of downsizing. A bad euphemism. Our language is impacted!
Thursday August 6th 2009, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Dave T. (Seabrook, TX)
I think it is more a matter of political correctness. People are afraid to speak their minds. Corporations are held back by their legal departments who are afraid of being sued when they tell someone the truth. So they hide the true meaning behind double speak and legal disclaimer.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: michele M.
My Irish mother-in-law gave me a good bit of advice, "say what you mean and mean what you say."
Thursday August 6th 2009, 3:02 PM
Comment by: Dan D. (Midland Park, NJ)
To see the most horrifying examples of obfuscate-speech, try to read, or listen to, statements from our various government officials, or the laws they pass. Is it any wonder our representatives never read the bills before they vote on them - Conyers (D, Michigan) had it right, they're incomprehensible. Would that the lot of them had Michele M.'s Irish mother-in-law.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 3:54 PM
Comment by: William T. (Phoenix, AZ)
So are you saying the E&P writer should have reworded Dickey's statement to save him from unintended consequences? I think quoting his ridiculous official statement was perfect. Shows what kind of person he is and represents Gannett's dismissive attitude. Let him be impacted by his own words.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 4:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
William T.: If I'm not mistaken, the advice about rewording goes out to the person in charge of editing Mr. Dickey's copy (assuming there is one!). There's nothing E&P can do about a direct quote, of course, other than to report it.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 4:45 PM
Comment by: Wendalyn N. (New York, NY)
That's right, Ben: I write for an audience of editors, many of whom work on corporate communications. Editor & Publisher couldn't have changed the text in the memo, and the fact that I found the memo in an E&P article is incidental to the point. I wanted to move the dialogue away from "Should 'impact' be used as a verb?"--that ship has sailed--to "Just because it's allowed grammatically doesn't make it a good choice in every context."

In fact, I would argue that using "will be affected" commits the same sins of euphemism and excluding the non-laid-off workers that using "will be impacted" does.
Thursday August 6th 2009, 5:45 PM
Comment by: William T. (Phoenix, AZ)
So the corporate editor of "writer" Dickey should have argued for clearer language? Good luck with that. The same person who edited the quote was probably the same person who wrote it, and Dickey probably loved the submitted text when he approved it. But, point taken that Nichols is likely addressing the corporate editors of Gannett's media releases rather than editors in general who allow reprint of such corporate speak (though that isn't clear). Sadly, I doubt Dickey would have approved unambiguous language, though ironically his is a newspaper company.
Friday August 7th 2009, 12:44 PM
Comment by: Michael L. (Clearlake Oaks,, CA)
'Twas brilling, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe
Saturday August 8th 2009, 12:41 AM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Shrewsbury, MA)
In his comment Madrigal falls into the trap of corporate-speak himself. Downsizing? Has there ever been a more offensive or tortuously evasive word? And, while we're on the subject of Orwellianisms, in my opinion "bad euphemism" is a tautology.
Tuesday August 11th 2009, 9:17 AM
Comment by: Patricia M.
William T. nailed it. I believe Mr. Dickey "said what he meant and meant what he said."

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Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner have some choice words to say about the verb "impact" and the adjective "impactful."
"Impact" ranks high on this list of business buzzwords that rankle.