December 16, 2005

Is there any gobbledegook?

I'm not even sure that Mr Morgan's sentence "The only thing which isn't up for grabs is no change and I think it's fair to say it's all to play for, except for no change" is "cliché-ridden" (see previous post). It contains two idioms meaning something like "open and available for consideration or negotiation": up for grabs and to play for. Another idiom with this meaning is on the table. He's saying that the one thing that is not on the table for discussion or negotiation is to simply continue without change. That is one hundred percent clear. And although it uses three tokens of two idioms, does that make it cliché-ridden?

Are there some among us whose speech never contains common idioms? Should we even try to speak in a way that never contains common idioms? Wouldn't that (by definition) involve speaking in a way that didn't really sound very much like being an English speaker at all?

The fact is, the Plain English Campaign has been so unrelievedly ineffective in its efforts to find examples of administrative gobbledegook from public officials that one is forced to wonder: is there any gobbledegook? Or are our public officials and political leaders doing a remarkable job, under often stressful circumstances (like talking to a roomful of baying reporters all hoping that you'll say something newsworthily stupid), and broadly using their native language fairly well, to communicate with us in a moderately clear way?

If there were really instances of officalese and gobbledegook being perpetrated by public servants all the time, you'd think the Plain English Campaign might, after looking for them all year, be able to find some. Could it possibly be that the Plain English Campaign is a bunch of pompous turkeys who don't really have very much to say as regards linguistic critique, because there isn't much gobbledegook around, and what little there might be they aren't very good at spotting? Could it? I ask merely for information.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 16, 2005 11:28 AM