At the end of the day it's gobbledegook

Walter Humes

The Plain English Campaign's survey to identify the most irritating phrases in the English language has received plenty of media coverage. Of the top 10, I was particularly pleased to see the appearance of phrases that really mean the exact opposite of what they purport to say.

Thus, "to be honest" often precedes a pack of lies. "I hear what you're saying" signals a total disregard for your views. And "with all due respect" might more truthfully be translated "with utter contempt". Other phrases which received a significant number of votes but did not quite reach the top 10 included "the bottom line", "between a rock and a hard place", "it's not rocket science" and "awesome".

There were several contenders which are widely used in education circles such as "prioritise", "ongoing", "value-added", "singing from the same hymn sheet", "moving the goalposts" and "thinking outside the box".

The objection to these tired cliches is not that they offend against some arbitrary set of linguistic rules. Their overuse causes them to lose meaning and the message (assuming there is one) is missed by the listener.

As the Plain English Campaign press release put it: "Using these terms is about as professional as wearing a novelty tie or having a wacky ringtone on your phone."

I have, on occasion, attended staff development sessions where some addresses have consisted of little other than annoying phrases masquerading as serious concepts. The offence has usually been compounded by the use of a slick Powerpoint presentation, complete with text flying in from all directions and fancy transitions between slides.

In such moments, I am tempted to start a movement to bring back the quill pen. But I must resist these Luddite tendencies.

Let me give a few examples of the sort of thing I mean. Whenever the term "quality assurance" is used, the only thing that can be assured is that very little to do with real quality will feature.

You will get checklists and bullet points, lists of criteria and competences, quality indicators and benchmarks. What you are unlikely to get is a sensitive analysis of the complexities of learning and teaching which takes proper account of the dynamics of the classroom.

The pedlars of the quality assurance gobbledygook are, of course, generally dull bureaucrats, a collection of bean counters who get pleasure from holding others accountable.

Another phrase that sets my teeth on edge is "a culture of continuous improvement". This is really a political slogan disguised as a professional principle. It is part of the "feelgood" rhetoric so beloved of politicians who prefer the soft soundbite to the hard thinking which is really needed.

How the ritualistic invocation of this phrase is meant to help teachers is far from clear.

However, politicians do not have a monopoly of vacuous phrases.

Educationists are equally capable of coining them. Take "the whole child", for example. It is usually uttered as a great profundity, with strong emotional appeal, implying that the speaker has a special understanding of child psychology. What it often hides is a failure to explore the subtle interrelationships between social, emotional, physical, intellectual and moral development.

In education, cliches are offensive because they are a lazy response to situations that call for serious thought. Next time you are confronted with one, try a little irony on the perpetrator. Say something like: "Bear with me while I try to unpack your ideas. Tell me if I'm in the right ballpark.

If I've got it wrong, no problem. By the way, some of your language is mind-boggling".

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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Walter Humes

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