Grammatical accuracy taken to task

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

Evidence is the means whereby an assertion or theory is proved valid. So why use "evidence" as a verb?

For example: "The impact and outcomes of the work of some organisations are not consistently or systematically evaluated, recorded or evidenced."

Since evidence is a prerequisite of evaluation, that sentence would have meant exactly the same had it read: "The impact and outcomes of the work of some organisations are not consistently or systematically evaluated and recorded."

Or: "We evidenced that staff shared information with parents." Better to say: "It was demonstrated that staff shared information with parents." But not so impressive, is it? It lacks that tone of objectivity which "evidence" lends.

"Task" is another one. "We were tasked with rebranding the company." "We were tasked with developing a new website." It is almost always used in the passive form, something done to people, but it is never quite clear by whom. What is always missing when "task" is used as a verb is an active subject. Would the meanings not be clearer as "the management imposed on us the task of rebranding the company" or "our bosses set us the task of developing a new website"?

The modern usage, however, makes the process sound less authoritarian and less hierarchical, because the source of the imposition is no longer identified. The use of "we", which is the invariable subject for "tasked", suggests something consensual. Such verbal smoke and mirrors can manufacture the illusion of consensus or teamwork, but it creates neither.

We know what is meant by the source of a river or the source of wealth but what of this example of HR jargon? "We are looking to source candidates who have successful experience at headteacher level."

What would have been wrong with: "We want applicants with experience as headteachers."

Such language - evidenced, tasked, sourced, authored, leveraged, transitioned - is generally used by powerful, corporate institutions. When the language of the powerful makes meaning less clear and more ambiguous, it is time for probing questions. Such clouded, bureaucratic writing is as close to Newspeak as possible.

Sir Ernest Gowers wrote Plain Words, at the invitation of the Treasury, to improve the quality of written English emanating from government departments. My 1973 edition states: "Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer's job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely."

Strunk and White's wonderful little book, The Elements of Style, has, as its purpose, the encouragement of "cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English". Conveying ideas with precision, accuracy and brevity is a skill which, like my poor little nouns, is in mortal danger.

It is not always clear whether sloppy writing is the result of linguistic ignorance or if the linguistic errors flow from sloppy thinking. If the offenders want to learn why they should avoid such errors, they should read George Orwell's 1984. If they want to avoid making the errors, Gowers or Strunk and White would be instructive but would require some basic knowledge of grammar.

Curriculum for Excellence commendably recognises the role of grammatical knowledge in reading with understanding. It is profoundly disappointing that it fails to acknowledge the role of grammatical understanding in the development of writing skills.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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