Avoid Business Writing Mumbo Jumbo
I used the following sentence in a previous post:
An accreditation analysis was conducted of the performance level of the administration of the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism.
We learned that one problem with this kind of writing is nominalization — the stringing together of multiple nouns. Examples include “accreditation analysis” and “senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism.” But there’s more wrong with this sentence than just creeping nounism: it’s also what we call mumbo jumbo.
Mumbo jumbo is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Mumbo jumbo is writing that sounds impressive but doesn’t accomplish much. The meaning, if there is any, gets buried beneath piles of multisyllable words and awkward constructions.
Mumbo Jumbo can be found not only in the world of business, like the example above, but also in academic writing:
The political view of the author is made apparent in the final scene as one observes the introduction of evil-intentioned characters allegorically representative of pseudo-capitalism.
Say what? Mumbo Jumbo is also quite common in political writing:
Be assured that it is my intention to treat the aforementioned issue with the requisite sobriety and introduce the matter without delay to the appropriate committee chairman.
So how do you avoid creating mumbo jumbo? The place to begin is by checking your attitude.
The problem usually begins with the writer’s attitude and intentions. If he is desperate to sound impressive, he will be more likely to fall into mumbo jumbo by adopting a tone that he believes will impress his readers. If he wants to hide the fact that he has nothing valuable to say, he might load up his prose with meaningless phrases. Or, as in the case of the politician above, he might want to give the impression that he cares deeply – without actually promising to do anything. In any of these cases, the writing will tend toward gobbledygook because the writer is insincere.
To avoid an affected tone, you’ve got to have something meaningful to say and a desire to say it well. Be sincere. Write what you think, not just what you think the reader wants to hear. Trust your own voice, your own style. This attitude will come through in the words you write, and you will avoid mumbo jumbo.
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Jargon is terminology common to people in a particular field. Surfers, for example, might pepper their writing with terms like barrel, barney, grommet, and rag doll. Computer techs might throw around words like C moss, diags, and kernel. The point is, the more jargon you use, the more incomprehensible your writing becomes to the ordinary reader. Don’t assume your reader is familiar with obscure terminology. Use plain English words.
Mumbo jumbo: Your de-hiring is necessitated by a downturn in liquid assets.
Plain English: We’re out of money, so you’ve been laid off.
Circumlocution is “talking around” a subject. It describes writing that buzzes about the topic like a fly that never lands on anything. It is intentional wordiness. It’s stalling for time. Circumlocution is a temptation to students who are more interested in reaching the paper length requirement than actually saying something that matters. It’s also a trick of politicians who avoid a question by only seeming to answer it. Eliminate circumlocution by having a point and getting to it quickly.
Mumbo jumbo: Above all, let it be said without hesitation, and in all sincerity, that regardless of the potential personal cost to me and my loved ones and my many supporters, I accept whatever responsibility for the present situation might fall to my momentary lapse of judgment, however well-intended and out of character.
Plain English: I’m sorry for what I did.
“A salary increase was declined.” That’s the mumbo jumbo version of, “The board of directors chose not to raise salaries.” The important difference between these two sentences is the voice of the verb: the former is passive, and the latter is active. With passive constructions, things just seem to happen. Nobody acts. Passive voice verbs should be used only rarely. Active verbs are more lively and make clear the party responsible for behavior.
Mumbo jumbo: A solution has yet to be found.
Plain writing: The Board of Directors has yet to find a solution.
Similarly, mumbo jumbo prefers linking verbs like is, are, and become to action verbs like increase, envision and create. As a result, the writing is flat and dull. Use action verbs whenever possible. Make your subjects live and move.
Mumbo jumbo: Profits for July are in a state of decline.
Plain writing: July profits dropped by twenty percent.
The best way to avoid mumbo jumbo is to be sincere and write plainly in your own voice. Business writing may be more formal than other kinds of writing, but it should still be human.
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Great post. This made me think of a funny grammar related video. John Branyan talks about confusing Old English and then proceeds to recite The Three Little Pigs in (mostly) Olde English. It is quite hilarious! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxoUUbMii7Q
Someone shared that video with me some time ago, SG. Thanks for the reminder and the link. Very clever. 🙂
I like that link too. Some friends of mine showed it to me.
Feel free to share it, Rhonda! 🙂
My friends in academia need to read this post. :/
Well said. Bravo!