Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Understanding Turgidity

Since I work mostly with writers in the management sciences, I should say something about adminstrative "mumbo-jumbo" or "management-speak". In Compose Yourself (Penguin, 2003), Harry Blamires approaches this style as the ultimate form of "turgidity", i.e., swollen or inflated language, stylistic pomposity and bombast.

The business world has perfected its own brand of word-spinning, a category of the phoney, which consists in saying little or nothing as noisily as possible. It has given us the brand of usage known as management-speak, which has spread into many departments of life where meetings have to be held and business has to be done. (239)

As business scholars, we not only have to learn to see through it, we have to avoid the influence of this kind of writing. Blamires provides the following as an example:

[This] will require a partnership between a logical, integrated and comprehensive methodology that focuses on creating a well-grounded plan for action, and a business mind-set that appreciates both the issues and opportunities inherent in the current situation. (240)

As Blamires points out, the problem with this sort of statement is that it expresses what ought to be a general norm as though it were a specific recommendation. It says, essentially, that

success depends on a combination of planning and improvisation.

Now, it is possible to say something non-trivial about planning and improvisation, and it is even possible to say such things using concepts like logic, integration, comprehensiveness, methodology, action, mind-set, issues, opportunities and situations. But I think Blamires is right to single out the passage as "turgid" because it simply "inflates" the underlying idea with a lot of empty verbiage. The writer probably was not trying to say something more.

Note that the swollen phrasing conceals the basic tension (between planning and improvisation) implicit in the statement. If we assume that the other concepts are somehow necessary, the best way to rewrite it is to make the core statement first, and the unpack each side of the tension:

Success here will depend on a combination of planning and improvisation. While a plan of action should be grounded in a logical, integrated, and comprehensive methodology, it must be executed with a business mind-set that appreciates both the issues and the opportunities in the current situation.

(I even snuck in a classic argot from management-speak: "executed".) Notice how the "while" now emphasizes the tension that is already implicit in the first sentence. Blamires would still say that the second sentence states the obvious, but that need not be the case. The words"logical, integrated, and comprehensive" may set up a three-point checklist of virtues for planning. In that case the three words, while they together refer to something that is obviously true, also give us an opportunity to write three additional sentences to reveal their separate implications. And while Blamires may be right to say that "any sensible human being will appreciate the issues and opportunities inherent in [any] situation", it may be useful to distinguish between "issues" and "opportunities" as such.

In this case, though one can forgive Blamires for missing it, there is even a non-trivial occasion to emphasize the importance of keeping one's "business mind-set" "sensible". After all, too many managers abandon common sense once they have a logical, integrated, and comprehensive plan in hand. Turgidity is not always a sign that the writer is a "phoney". Sometimes it just shows that the writer did not have time to edit the text, that she did not get beyond merely mentioning the key concepts and on to actually using them.

No comments: