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no-stumbling 10-point pledge

I posted my 10-point no-jargon pledge a while ago, regarding things I promised never to write. After watching some of the vids of me at Podcamp Toronto, I’m going to make a 10-point speaking promise.

I can’t promise to erase these verbal ticks the way I can with text, but I promise to try to erase them.

Because I value clear concise language, I promise to try to erase the following 10 words or phrases from my spoken vocabulary:

1. sortof
2. kindof
3. youknow
4. um
5. ah
6. like
7. actually
8. now
9. I mean
10. mebbe


  1. my favorite part is “the free-est free license there is”. ;-)

    I thought it was great. Nice job.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2007-02-27

    thanks…they actually streamed every session… and then provided the archive. pretty awesome. at one point I was skyping with a LibriVox guy from the UK and he was asking questions thru me. pretty cool.

  3. Char Char 2007-02-28

    I understand the desire to communicate more efficiently, but as a linguist, your 10 words from the first promise (and all the other words people added in the comments) are glorious. I love it when people hypercorrect, or use portmanteau words (how can you not love Lewis Carroll?) or just play with the productivity of language in general. Maybe it’s just the context in which people use the words that bugs you? In any case, I completely understand your second list. The guys from This Week in Geek posted the podcast that Tara and I sat in on and I say “um” quite a bit. BUT using words like that just means you’re stalling because you’re actually considering what you’re saying and thinking before you speak, so it’s a good thing.

  4. Hugh Hugh 2007-02-28

    nah, it’s not the context, it’s the words themselves. they are imprecise, and most of them are meaningless. it’s not about efficiency, it’s about clarity. that is, if you are writing in order to transmit info, then it’s your job to be as clear and easy to understand as you can be. how can you say exactly what you are trying to say in the most accessible, clear way? that’s how you should say it. inventing big words to replace small ones is bad.

    ps, what does “portmanteau” mean?

    as always, best thing is to read orwell’s essay:

    esp the 6 points:

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  5. Char Char 2007-02-28

    Here’s why I think it’s about context. In different situations, different words would be more efficient. For example, the whole use vs. utilise thing.
    USE • verb /yooz/ 1 take, hold, or deploy as a means of achieving something. 2 (use up) consume or expend the whole of. 3 treat in a particular way. 4 exploit unfairly.
    UTILIZE (UTILISE) • verb make practical and effective use of.
    I can use a feather to hammer a nail into the floor, but I wouldn’t be able to utilise a feather in that situation because that would be pretty ineffective. It doesn’t mean the same thing. In fact the word utilise is more specific than use and more precise.
    All the words that you have listed have their particular effective use in a particular situation. It just so happens that people use them in the wrong context and do so very often because they are trying very hard to sound more precise.
    Anyway, I think Orwell is off by a long shot, probably because I am a linguist and I try to think in a descriptive way as opposed to the prescriptive way Orwell thinks. Which is quite ironic when you consider the themes of 1984. Who has any right to tell people what is an effective way to communicate? It might not be an efficient way to communicate with YOU, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for other people. I don’t speak the same way with my friends as I do to a person I’m having an interview with.
    As for portmanteau words, they are blends of different words, like spork (spoon/fork) and slithy (lithe and slimy). Jabberwocky is full of them. Lewis Carroll coined the term. Humpty Dumpty explains the word slithy to Alice “You see it’s like a portmanteau— there are two meanings packed up into one word.” It’s funny because a portmanteau is actually a suitcase with two compartments. And the word is now used by linguists everywhere. The linguistic term translated into French becomes “mot valise”.

  6. Hugh Hugh 2007-02-28

    sadgkj dsakjg DLFKLJJGDF afjhkhfd

    … in other words, there is a measurable quality/quantity called clarity of writing. you can take a text and get 1,000 people to read it, and measure a) what the writer wanted to say b) what the readers understood. If a) and b) correspond well, then the writing is clear. If they don’t, it isn’t.

    The kicker, of course, is that complex ideas & writing are at a certain point irreducible. But the objective of a writer (of non-fiction … Lewis Carrol is a different beast) ought to be: to say exactly what she means in the most clear, and briefest way possible.

    In the above sentence I said: “Today the weather was mild, and I had soup for lunch,” but I bet you didn’t know that, and I’ll bet no one else would know it. I was using jargony words that no one else understands.

    some jargon is sometimes useful if it takes a complex idea or string of words/ideas and reflects that complexity in short-hand. But jargon, by definition, is understood only by those in the know. So if you are writing for a general public, then jargon is exclusionary, and should be avoided. Especially when it is unnecessary, and another word is just as good. “Open Source” is a jargon word, but there are no other words for it.

    One of the major themes of 1984 was exactly about manipulating language to obscure thought – which is what jargony, unclear writing does. it obscures the thought. The bigger point was that by encouraging certain types of unclear language, actual ideas could be manipulated (think “collateral dammage” instead of “dead civilians”).

    as for: “Who has any right to tell people what is an effective way to communicate?” the answer is: “the people at whom the communication is directed.”

    So in my case, I am saying, as a reader of things, if you want me to read your stuff, please make it clear.

  7. Char Char 2007-02-28

    Aha. I think I see the thing. You’re talking more specifically about non-fiction, where you are talking to a more general audience. In which case I agree: in that context perhaps those particular words should be avoided if one wants to be clearly understood. But like I said, that’s about context.
    I just wish people wouldn’t attack the words themselves. I don’t disagree with Orwell on the power of language, but I disagree with the idea that certain words are better or worse than others. I concern myself with the way in which people are using them, and in that area I completely agree that we can manipulate the perception of an idea based on our choice of words. But it’s the choice that is being made that is a concern to me, not the words themselves. You could bann the use of all those jargony words (as you call them) but people would still find others to replace them because people tend to puff up their speech to sound like those speakers their society thinks is best.
    I’m really just splitting hairs here. I find it funny when people say certain words are meaningless or superfluous or what have you because I think words can have whatever meaning we create for them, as individuals or as a society. I don’t think they can ever really be meaningless if we create a social context for them. Even if the meaning we create for them is “meaninglessness”. But that’s getting a bit circular.
    Is my stuff not clear? Do I use too many unneccessary big words? Or was that a general “you”? I don’t want you to not read my stuff! People reading my stuff makes me happy. ;)

  8. Hugh Hugh 2007-03-01

    it’s always a general “you” … I don’t write personal attacks … I happily debate ideas.

    there is a tendency in academia to say that any one thing is as good as another. to be frank, that is bunk. but it is bunk not for objectivist reasons (ie that “good” is an objective ideal), but rather for pragmatist and relativist reasons: “good” must always be defined in relation to other things. once you have decided what “good” must be measured against, then it just is not true that “certain words are [not] better or worse than others.”

    if you want to describe the colour of a stop sign, the word “red” is *better* than “blue.” better because you mean something by “colour of a stop sign” and “red” and by saying “the colour of a stop sign is red” you are making a statement that you expect others to understand, and understand to be true. You can write “the stop sign is blue” and mean “red,” but that is no good, in the sense that no one will understand what you mean. And if what you “mean” is the “colour is red,” and your purpose is to transmit that information, then it is bad/worse to say: “the stop sign is the colour of the fruit of the plant Fragaria virginiana.” Because only a very few people know what Fragaria virginiana is.

    It’s not that those jargony words should never be used in the universe, they should just never be used by people who “puff up their speech to sound like those speakers their society thinks is best.”

    As part of society, I am saying: “I think that the best speaking is not puffed up. If you puff up your language, I will think less of your language.”

  9. Char Char 2007-03-01

    Well, if people did that, what would I study? :P But the fact that you feel that way is part of the whole process of language change. I sometimes get really annoyed when people SAY “LOL”, but then I think about how it’s just language evolving and I’m ok again. I like to observe language more than participate in the prescription of it, but it’s almost a natural phenomenon to be annoyed by changing language. That’s pretty much the entire purpose of l’Académie française.
    I like the idea of describing a stop sign by the colour of the fruit of the plant Fragaria virginiana… because if someone said that to me, I would immediately look it up to find out what that would be. And now I want some strawberries. Damn you Hugh! Where will I find good strawberries in early March?

  10. […] I’ve had a few verbal (written or out loud) jousting matches with a number of academicy people of late. Curiously, all the debates were with women doing interesting things, mostly with an academic background: data liberationist, and GeoGal Tracey and I had a discussion about theory and practice as it relates to rethinking how politics happens. You can see most of that conversation over at the old dose. Web maestra and Atwater Media Centrist Miriam and I had a long debate about lists of people doing things on the web, and women, and technology, and various things like that. We’d previously had a more drunken exchange about the relative merits “meritocracies” and … well I’m not sure what the alternatives are, but maybe “fair-ocracies” or something. I’m all for meritocracies, as long as you define merit in interesting ways. Then I got into a heated exchange with mcluhan scholar, netizen and new media pioneer Liss Jeffery, about… well I can’t quite remember what, but it was interesting. It was partly about podcasting as one-way (rather than two-way) media (which I disagree with); and partly about open projects and getting things done. We’d crossed paths on the civicaccess mailing list, and Dr. J told me she thought I was a “60-year-old schoolmarm.” Which I am not. I am, however, a keen believer in anarchy with an iron fist, otherwise, in my opinion, things just don’t get done. But we had a spirited exchange about my apparently heavy-handed approach to things in civicaccess. I wasn’t conscious of being so … agressive … but looking back I can see why it might have seemed so. I’m keen to find out how civicaccess can be made into something more than a mailing list, and to date it’s been hard to marshall troops in any one direction. Which is frustrating. But we seem to be converging, with the instigation of Stephane on one small project, which is a good start. Finally, Charlotte and I had a conversation about clarity and linguistics. […]

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