3. Abstract language (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience)

Does your organisation publish reports that aim to influence senior decision-makers? Richard Cheeseman offers some advice.

3. Avoid abstract language


Window of opportunity or just a window? Image courtesy of papaija2008 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My first post in this series dealt with the danger of summarising your knowledge to the point of obscurity. The second considered the opposite: how packing too many ideas into a single sentence leads to unwanted complexity. Both are bad habits that prevent readers from quickly and easily grasping your policy message.

The use of abstract language is another common fault that hinders comprehension. It can suck meaning out of even the simplest sentence, and turn a complex one into a morass of half-formed or ill-expressed ideas.

What do I mean by “abstract language”? I define it as favouring figurative or imprecise words and phrases over ones with clear meanings. Creative writers do this all the time of course, often to great effect, but remember we are talking about policy writing, so clarity of meaning is paramount.

Here is Sir Ernest Gowers on the subject:

“The reason for preferring the concrete to the abstract is clear. Your purpose must be to make your meaning plain” [my italics]*

It is unlikely anyone involved with policy reports would argue with this. After all, what is the point of writing something your target readers cannot understand? In reality many ignore the principle as soon as they begin to write.

At its most basic the practice involves using abstract words to inflate the true value of the subject matter. For example, writing “logistics vehicle” instead of “delivery van”, or “air transportation node” rather than “airport” – or “we need to exploit dialogue opportunities” as a substitute for “talk to people”. The tennis coach, Judy Murray, has spoken of her bemusement at finding something labelled “moisture infusion bar” in her hotel bathroom; it was soap. This kind of thing is annoying and pretentious rather than a serious barrier to comprehension. However, the problems really start with the use of metaphor.

It is almost impossible to avoid metaphor completely because English is shot through with simple words and phrases that are in some way figurative. “Shot through” is a good example. However, the temptation to use elaborate or clumsy metaphors is a trap that lies in wait for all writers.

A common example is the word “window”. This is a concrete noun meaning an open or glazed hole in a wall that lets in light and air. It is now often used in a metaphorical sense as “window of opportunity” – a hackneyed phrase meaning an opportunity that presents itself for a limited duration or in specific circumstances. Absurdity creeps in when writers extend the metaphor by using window in an abstract sense as a synonym for opportunity, as in “we have a December window for release of our product” (what kind of company releases products through a window? McDonalds?). But real obscurity begins when writers use the overworked noun as an agent in a sentence like: “This product window should focus on market development.” How can a window focus on something? The net result is uncertain meaning and a lack of precision.

Bad writers often use abstract language to add bogus depth and meaning to a sentence, as in “let’s unpack the issues”. Often this simply means “I am going to list the issues”, but writing “unpack” implies (often without justification) that the writer is offering a carefully considered opinion. Another example in this vein is the word “rewire”, as in the figurative sense “we plan to rewire the organisation’s approach to human resources”. As with unpack, this implies deep thought or meaningful activity, when maybe the reality is more mundane (we are preparing a new HR manual).

One last example: “holistic”. This abstract adjective is often used by writers who really mean something like “comprehensive” or “complete”, but want to sprinkle a little stardust over their text (an holistic solution has to be better than a comprehensive one).

Summary: mistrust any abstract word or phrase that seems to inflate the meaning or importance of the writer’s message.

* The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers. Third edition, revised by Sidney Greenbaum & Janet Whitcut, HMSO, 1986.

Next post: 4. Avoid passive language

2. Complexity

1. Obscurity


About Richard Cheeseman

Freelance writer, speechwriter and editor
This entry was posted in Writing and editing advice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 3. Abstract language (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience)

  1. Pingback: 5. Devalued words (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

  2. Pingback: 4. Passive language (10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience) | Richard Cheeseman's blog

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