Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

8 thoughts on “Why do people mangle the language?

  1. Mark Baker

    In part this is because people instinctively create shibboleths. We need shorthand ways to recognize others of our clan and linguistic shibboleths are an easy way to do this.

    But I think there is something else here. There is a widespread belief that there is a single simple straightforward way to say anything and everything so that anyone can understand it. If this were true then it would be true that the mangling of language was widespread. But it isn’t true. There is not one universal language and a bunch of artificial islands of jargon. Rather, there are many separate communities of discourse each with their internal languages. Many of us belong to several such communities, but none of us belong to all of them. When you encounter language from a community of discourse you don’t belong to, it is going to seem deliberately and perversely difficult. It might be, but probably not. More likely it is simply the lingua franca of a community of discourse you don’t belong to.

    Many conventions of language are purely arbitrary. Different communities of discourse use different constructions. Those constructs may seem mangled to you, but your constructs would seem equally mangled from the other side of the fence. Neither is objectively more mangled than the other, they are just different pieces of arbitrary usages that different people are accustomed to. All language is local.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      I agree up to a point, Mark. But I’m convinced that there are domains in which — either because the people in those domains tend not to be good writers, or because of a culture that’s built up around the things that Neil James cited — written communication is ineffective, to the detriment of everyone in the domain.

  2. Bart Leahy

    I recall hearing in grad school about a study that was done with U.S. Navy captains. They were given two messages: one in plain language, one written in passive-voice Militarese. They were asked which message was most effective and would take more seriously. Most of them invariably chose the Militarese because that was the language they were used to reading for official business.

    That said, I had my own experiences like this at NASA a couple times. One engineer was convinced that a document I wrote wasn’t “correct” unless it was written in confused/garbled Engineerish. I had to request that he only do content reviews on what I wrote because otherwise he’d make hash of my writing…I was writing for a non-engineering audience. Another time an engineer asked me if it was “allowed” to write about engineering matters without writing in the typical engineering style. I assured him that it was not only allowed but appreciated.

    As has been noted above, specific ways of writing become ways of gatekeeping: If you don’t use the approved nomenclature and style, you’re obviously not “part of the club.” Over the years I’ve learned how to adjust to the engineering tribe, but I have been unable to make the same transition into the science community. So it goes.

    There have been times I’ve allowed my work to be written in Engineerish, but if I’m given free rein, I will write in the plainest English I can manage.


    1. Mark Baker

      It is important to remember that technical communication is never just about information. It is about the confidence to act. Sometimes a official or formal tone can increase confidence to act, even if it diminishes ease of comprehension. Technical communication achieves nothing until the user actually acts. We can’t measure ourselves by comprehension alone, since comprehension is not action. We must measure ourselves by action. And to get people to act, we must do those things that give them the confidence to act.

      1. Larry Kunz Post author

        No doubt, Mark: an official or formal tone is often warranted. And Bart is right that people often expect formal language to sound like “Militarese.”

        But we can achieve an official or formal tone without having to resort to lofty vocabulary, mangled syntax, or audience-inappropriate jargon. “Keep off the grass” sounds no less official than “refrain from impinging on the grassy surface.” In fact, I’d argue that it sounds more official because of its directness.

  3. Pingback: Why do people mangle the language? – Technical Writing World

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