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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