December 02, 2003

Clear Thinking Campaign gives "fogged spectacles" award to John Lister

The Plain English Campaign is in the news today for giving its "foot in mouth" award to Donald Rumsfeld. However, the campaign's spokesman, John Lister, needs to clear up the thinking behind his own rhetoric.

According to this press release:

"You won't need a degree in linguistics to hire a room at the University of Warwick" so says John Lister from the Plain English Speaking Society.

Mr. Lister is praising Warwick for re-writing its Terms and Conditions document to eliminate "legal jargon" and "gobbledygook." The new document is certainly clearer and better than the old one, but what does this have to do with degrees in linguistics? We linguists don't offer our students any instruction in understanding badly-written documents, nor do we expect them to develop such skills on their own.

I'm sure that Lister didn't really think this through. He's just using a thoughtless stereotypical turn of phrase, a "phrase for lazy writers in kit form," as Geoff Pullum put it in an earlier Language Log post. People often say "you (don't) need a degree in X to do Y", where the connection between X and Y is loosely associative at best. Ask Google about "need a degree in" and you'll find people writing that "you don’t need a degree in cultural studies to notice that Western society doesn’t have too many worthwhile heroes anymore," and "you don’t need a degree in mechanical engineering to drive a car with an automatic transmission," and "you practically need a degree in Botany to grow anything in this area," and "with some cell phones you practically need a degree in rocket science to operate the darn things," and on and on.

I have no idea what Lister's own academic training is -- it's not relevant at all -- but let me say that he shouldn't need a degree in philosophy in order to think about the content of his pronouncements as well as their form.

[Update: the reader should also refer to Geoff Pullum's argument that the "Foot in Mouth" award to Rumsfeld is based on a quotation that is "impeccable syntactically, semantically, logically, and rhetorically", and thus must have been selected politically.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2003 12:20 PM