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Wordiness and Gobbledygook

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We have all had the unfortunate experience of being bored to death by someone who is talking and talking and talking without really saying anything.  Good grief, sometimes that “someone” is us!!  When we read such nonsense, of course, we are able to close the book.  When we are the author, it is time to cut that gobbledygook out!  We don’t want readers to close the book on us!

The Biggest Offenders…University Students!  Coming to university is a big change and a real challenge for most of us.  Unless we have a wildly inflated ego, most of us feel just a little intimidated about entering “the big league.”  We feel especially insecure about our writing.  No matter how well we did in high school, we have a suspicion that standards at university are going to be much higher.  So, we make the biggest mistake of our writing life…we start to INFLATE our writing, making it WORDY and PRETENTIOUS, TOO FORMAL AND STIFF in our attempt to be INTELLECTUAL and to seem KNOWLEDGEABLE.  As a result, we make a lot of grammar mistakes, use a lot of inaccurate words, and come off, like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, as just plain silly! (Example: from one student: Maltreatment of children has an immaculate effect on children as they develop! ) By the way, this kind of misuse of words is called Malapropism. The term comes from an old play with an Archie-Bunker type called Mrs. Malaprop

The first step to heal yourself of this gobbledygook is to recognize it.  Admit that you are not writing about what you believe or have even really thought about, but are just trying to fill space to impress the teacher and get a good grade. Discard that idea.  Believe me, if you are looking at learning in this way, 10 years from now, you will not remember the grade, the teacher, or even the course!

The second step is to assure yourself that the best kind of writing is not writing with the largest number of polysyllabic words.  Good writing, first, is sincere, honest writing, created from the heart and the mind in union.  Don’t write to impress people, even your teacher; write to express something that you believe, that you know, that you have learned, that you are in wonder about, that you care about.  Be passionate, mean everything you say, get swept up in the excitement of your own ideas and of the new ideas you are learning.  This excitement you will remember, even 10 years from now.  This kind of writing is a worthwhile expenditure of time.  Life is short; make every moment count.

So what should be your writing goal?  Honesty.  Clarity.  Coherence.  Cohesiveness.  Correctness. Passion.

Examples of Gobbledygook – How Not to Write

Can you interpret these famous sayings which have been gobbledygooked?

  • It’s important to effect the verbalization of concepts through the utilization of unsophisticated terminology.
  • Percipitation entails negation of economy.
  • He who expresses merriment subsequent to everyone else expresses merriment of most superior quality.
  • Pulchritude is not evinced below the dermal surface.
  • Exclusive dedication to necessitous chores without interlude of hedonist diversion renders John an unresponsive fellow
  • Speak simply.
  • It never rains but it pours.
  • He who laughs last laughs best.
  • Beauty is only skin deep.
  • All work and no play makes John a dull boy.

Gobbledygook Surrounds Us!

When the department store Sears entered our community, it advertised for new staff.  One of their advertisements was for a “facilities maintenance leader” who would be responsible for the “efficiency of the phsycial building and equipment in order to support the achievement of sales and profit goals for the unit” (The Nugget classified).  They were looking for a cleaner.

Comics frequently make fun of inflated language. One comic strip in particular, Manager Training by Scott Adams, makes gobbledygook its main theme.  In one strip, the pointy-headed office manager is on a manager training course and is being given “handouts [which]contain nonsense phrases that can be used in any situation” when the managers do not understand what is going on.  In the next clip, the manager has gone back to his staff and is saying “…so, let’s dominate our industry with quality implementation of methologies.” The company’s yes man is saying, “I’ll get right on it.”  In yet another strip, the manager is advising the computer expert that he has created a good report, but that he needs to change the word “use” to “utilize”, “help” to “facilitate” and “do” with “implementation phase.”  He then worries that it is still “a bit too readable” but the employee suggests reducing the size and running it through the fax!

Signs frequently advertise with gobbledygook.  When I see the sign in front of the Country Style Coffee and Donut Shop,  which advertises “coffee and fresh food ideas,” I always fill tempted to go in and ask to purchase 3 ideas.

It seems that politicians are expert at gobbledygook.  Ex-vice-president Dan Quayle made mind-boggling statements like “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.  Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful.  How true that is.”  Or “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.”  Or, “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy—but that could change” (5/22/89). Unfortunately, Quayle has not been the only government official expert at gobbledygook.

George Orwell and Doublespeak

The terms “doublespeak” and “doublethink” were coined by George Orwell when he wrote his famous novel 1984. Doublespeak is a blanket term for language which pretends to communicate but doesn’t and doublethink is the process of accepting two contradictory beliefs at the same time.

Gobbledygook, overwhelming the listener or reader with unfamiliar words, is a kind of doublespeak.

An Award for Doublespeak!

It may be hard to believe, but there is actually an award given for doublespeak.  In the U.S., the National Council of Teachers of English have a committee which is a kind of watchdog of public officials who use language to mislead, distort, deceive, inflate, circumvent, and obfuscate.  The award is given as “an ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered” (NCTE’s website)

Examples of Doublespeak

William Lutz, once the chair of the NCTE, gives us many examples of doublespeak in his essay “The World of Doublespeak”:

“When shopping, we are asked to check our packages at the desk ‘for our convenience,’ when it’s not for our convenience at all but for the store’s ‘program to reduce inventory shrinkage” (60).

A diet means “nutritional avoidance therapy” (60).

A toothbrush is a “home plaque removal instrument” (60).

Lutz reports that the U.S. government once decided that in annual reports it would not use the word “killing” but rather “unlawful or arbritrary deprivation of life” (60).

The neutron bomb of the 1970s was called the “enhanced radiation device” and killing the enemy was called “servicing the target” (60)

Sometimes the doublespeakers can get fooled themselves.  Lutz informs us that the US navy paid $2,043 a piece for simple steel nuts when they were called “hexiform rotatable surface compression units” and the US airforce paid $214 a piece for “Emergency Exit Lights” (flashlights!) (62).

In 1982, the Secretaryof State in the U.S. at the time, Alexander Haig, revealed perfect doublethink when he stated that the weapons build-up by the U.S. was “absolutely essential to our hopes for meaningful arms reduction” (63).

A Word About Jargon

Jargon is actually a legitimate use of a specialized language specific to certain professions or trades.  It helps colleagues in a particular field communicate quickly and efficiently with each other.  It becomes doublespeak when it is used with people who are outside the knowledge field and done so in order to impress, confuse, and manipulate.  Unfortunately, this misuse of jargon happens in every profession and field—business, legal, medical and education!

Orwell’s Advice

In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell criticizes writers for using pretentious diction, eliminating simple verbs, conjunctions and prepositions in favor of phrases, overusing passive voice, and using metaphors that are worn-out and overused.

Orwell gives this advice to writers (79):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive when you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Other Practical Steps You Can Take to Avoid Wordiness and Gobbleygook

  1. Eliminate tautology –unecessary words that repeat the meaning
    Ex. That material is too coarse in texture.
    “Coarse” is only a texture, at least when we speak of material.
    Correction: That material is too coarse.
  2. Delete repetitious words
    Ex. Each and every student voted to strike in protest.
    Correction: Each student voted to strike.
  3. Simplify wordy expressions:
    Ex. Madame Curie was a person who had a scienctist’s curiousity.
    Correction: Madame Curie had a scientist’s curiousity.
  4. eliminate unnecessary words “there” and “it”
    Ex. There are many repairs to be made on that house.
    Correction: Many repairs need to be made on that house.

Note: For a discussion and examples of ambiguous references using words like “it,” review the notes on ambiguity found as paper handouts in room A201 or linked here on this website.

Common Wordy Expressions and Their Possible Reductions:

Owing to the fact that…..because/since
The fact that he could not be found….his disappearance
She is a person who….she
Used for study purposes….used for study
In the vicinity of….near
Call to your attention….remind you
In regard to…about
Question as to whether….wheterh, question whether
In a defensive manner….defensively

Examples of Wordiness (many from students) and “Gobbledygookness” with Alternatives:

  1. Does education really lend a hand toward the three main factors of     life: love, happiness, and success?
    Alternative: Does education bring you love, happiness and success?
    Alternative: Is education a guarantee of love, happiness and success?
    Alternative: Does getting a good education mean that you will find love, happiness and success?
  2. I feel that underpolicing in Ontario is becoming a greatly overlooked          situation.
    Alternative: Underpolicing in Ontario is being (or becoming) overlooked.
  3. Those are the reasons why Nipissing is a good choice to attend to obtain a degree.
    Alternative: Those are the reasons Nipissing is a chood choice.
  4. The student population is small compared to other students which is    an important aspect.
    Alternative: Significantly, the student population is smaller than that    of other universities.
  5. Choosing to obtain a degree at Nipissing University offered the most    benefits to my needs.
    Alternative: Attending Nipissing benefited my needs.
  6. It produces quite an offensive spectacle for the eye to bear.
    Alternative: It is offensive to look at.
  7. There are fines you can be subject to.
    Alternative: You can be fined.
  8. Illegal dumping is not only an eyesore through public views, it is illegal.
    Alternative: Dumping is illegal and an eyesore.
  9. We don’t often get a chance to interface (or dialogue) anymore.
    Alternative: We don’t get a chance to talk anymore.
  10. Childhood is a very important factor in shaping one’s life.
    Alternative: Childhood is important in shaping one’s life.
  11. Our childhood experiences dictate the type of environmental, moral,    educational and social background which will hold several experiences that dictate the type of adult that we will become.
    Alternative: Our childhood experiences—environmental, morel, educational and social—dictate the type of adults we become.
  12. Although technology has many beneficial aspects…..
    Alternative: Although technology is exciting (fun, mind-boggling,         entertaining, useful, great, amazing, efficient…)
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