On bureaucratese and gobbledygook

As a result of his influential stint as chairman of the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board in the 1970s, economist Alfred Kahn rightly became known as the “Father of Deregulation.” However, he also made a lasting impression on many due to the wider publication — initially in the Washington Star, and then the Post — of the following internal memo, sent by Kahn to his colleagues at the CAB shortly after taking the helm and circulated as a call for clearer written communications within the organisation. Little did Kahn know, but this document would soon attract praise from far and wide. From Kahn’s obituary in the New York Times, January 2010:

It generated a marriage proposal from a Boston Globe columnist, who gushed: “Alfred Kahn, I love you. I know you’re in your late 50s and are married, but let’s run away together.” A Singapore newspaper suggested that Mr. Kahn be awarded a Nobel Prize. A Kansas City newspaper urged him to run for president. And, shortly after the memo’s appearance, he was appointed to the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, a position he held until his death.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of Nera (PDF). Huge thanks to the wonderful Austin Kleon for bringing it to my attention.

Image: Nera



June 16, 1977


TO: Bureau and Office Heads; Division and Section Chiefs
CC: Board Members
FROM: Chairman Alfred E. Kahn (Signed)
SUBJECT: The Style of Board Orders and Chairman’s Letters

One of my peculiarities, which I must beg you to indulge if I am to retain my sanity (possibly at the expense of yours!) is an abhorrence of the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook.

The disease is almost universal, and the fight against it endless. But it is a fight worth making, and I ask your help in this struggle.

May I ask you, please, to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, drafts of letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose — as though you are talking to or communicating with real people. I once asked a young lawyer who wanted us to say “we deem it inappropriate” to try that kind of language out on his children — and if they did not drive him out of the room with their derisive laughter, to disown them.

I suggest the test is a good one: try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react. (And then decide, on the basis of their reactions, whether you still want them as friends.)

I cannot possibly in a single communication give you more than a small fraction of the kinds of usages I have in mind. Here are just a few:

1. One of our recent show cause orders contained this language: “all interested persons be and they hereby are directed to show cause….” The underlined words are obviously redundant, as well as archaic.

2. Every time you are tempted to use “herein,” “hereinabove,” “hereinunder,” or similarly, “therein” and its corresponding variants, try “here” or “there” or “above” or “below” and see if it doesn’t make just as much sense.

3. The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says “he was hit by a stone,” than “I hit him with a stone.” The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and human. (There are, of course, some circumstances in which the use of the passive is unavoidable; please try to confine it to those situations.)

4. This one is, I recognize, a matter of taste: some people believe in maintaining standards of the language and others (like the late but unlamented editor of Webster’s Third International) do not. But unless you feel strongly, would you please try to remember that “data” was for more than two thousand years and is still regarded by most literate people as plural (the singular is “datum”), and that (this one goes back even longer) the singular is “criterion,” and “criteria” is plural. Also, that for at least from the 17th through most of the 20th century, “presently” meant “soon” or “immediately” and not “now.” The use of “presently” in the latter context is another pomposity: why not “now?” Or, if necessary, “currently?”

5. Could you possibly try to make the introduction of letters somewhat less pompous than “this is in reference to your letter dated May 42, 1993, regarding (or concerning, or in regard to, or with reference to)….” That just doesn’t sound as though it is coming from a human being. Why not, for example, “The practice of which you complain in your letter of May 42 is one that has troubled me for a long time.” Or “I have looked into the question you raise in your letter of October 14, and am happy to be able to report….” Or something like that?

6. Why use “regarding” or “concerning” or “with regard to,” when the simple word “about” would do just as well? Unless you are trying to impress someone; but are you sure you want to impress anyone who would be impressed by such circumlocutions? There is a similar pompous tendency to use “prior to,” when what you really mean is “before.” “Prior to” should be used only when in fact the one thing that comes before is, in a sense, a condition of what follows, as in the expression “a prior condition.”

I know “requesting,” is considered more genteel than “asking,” but “asking” is more forthright. Which do you want to be?

7. One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of “hopefully.” That word is an adverb, and makes sense only as it modifies a verb, and means “with hope.” It is possible to walk hopefully into a room, if one is going into the room with the hope of finding something (or not finding something) there. It is not intelligent to say “hopefully the criminal will make his identity known,” because the meaning is not that he will do so with hope in his heart, and he is the subject of the verb “make.”

8. My last imposition on you for today is the excessive use of “appropriate” or “inappropriate,” when what the writer really means is either “legal” or “illegal,” “proper” or “improper,” “desirable” or “undesirable,” “fitting” or “not fitting,” or simply “this is what I want (or do not want) to do.”

9. A final example of pomposity, probably, is this memorandum itself.

I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?