How they abuse language

As we listen to all the statements on Jimmy Savile today and also remember all those other official comments on child abuse, the key is to examine the words that are used and thereby spot signs of evasion.

We are all now pretty used to some of the tricks of the trade; the non-apology apology, when the aim is to regret the distress or offence caused rather than the action; the use of downsizing for redundancies or Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s description of government cuts as “an envelope of resources on a downward trajectory;” and the readiness of senior civil servants to fall into meaningless management speak.

These are so easy to spot that I often wonder what they hope to achieve by using such evasion.

But there are so many other little tricks that media trainers love because their clients can still get away with it. Watch out for these and see how they are used to deceive.

First there is the approach – particularly beloved of a certain class of lawyer – of using sentences which don’t include a subject, verb and object.

And the favourite omission is the subject. Phrases like “It has been decided” or “agreed” mean you don’t have to say who has done so.

Here is a recent example – its cricket but it illustrates the point well.

When England lost to Australia recently in the World Cup, the last batsman was given run out even though play should have stopped because of an earlier decision.

The cricket authorities put out the result of its review, acknowledging the mistake and saying that “when the batsman (James Taylor) was given out LBW. No further runs or dismissals were possible.” They acknowledged that “the game ended incorrectly and that an error was made.”

The decision must have been taken by either one of the two umpires on the pitch, the third umpire or a combination of the three.

But the statement didn’t even mention the word umpire and the use of the passive meant that no individual or organisation accepted responsibility.

I have a fat file of examples – particularly from bureaucrats – which I will write up over the next few days. But the message is clear – always doubt the integrity of those who use the passive a lot and be suspicious when sentences have no subject..

Lets look at some more verbal tricks. Pick the wrong word out of a question when giving an answer. For example, this question could be put: “Isn’t the government’s failure to tackle crime a scandal.” And the answer would probably be that “the real scandal is the failure of the last government to build more prisons….”

Then we have the helpful whats.

: Phrases such as “What is clear… What is important…” are very useful in avoiding questions. For example the question could be: “Your government has failed to reach its immigration target?” And the  answer; “What is clear is that this government, unlike the opposition, gives top priority, to controlling immigration.”

Recently, I think it was Andrew Marr who asked Ed Miliband about allegations that he said he wanted to “weaponise” the NHS as an election issue. Q. Do you disown using the word “weaponise.” A. What I won’t disown… what I absolutely stand by is that we are in a fight for the future of the NHS and I don’t think this is about words we use etc”

: “What we said..” can be used as a prelude for rewriting history.

: Here are some effective ways to answer a different question to the one you were asked. Q. “Will you do abc?” A. “What I will do… something completely different.” Or you answer “What people want to know/what people need to know…” Or to the question “Isn’t it fair to say that the service is declining?” you say “What I will say…..”

Another approach is to ask yourself a question in mid-answer. Miliband was asked about his plans for the NHS. He said he was investing in 5,000 extra care workers. He continued: “Now why is that so important…” and answered his own question.

A couple more phrases

: “There is no evidence…” Utterly meaningless – it might mean no evidence has yet been found but it can’t mean there is no evidence at all.


: “The reality is….” or “The truth is..” – great ways to give a bogus certainty to what is almost certainly an unconvincing statement that contains neither the reality nor the truth.


: Saying “The right thing to do is…” is likely to mean you are about to avoid the question.

Language can also be used to avoid answering a direct criticism – Q. police have had to take people to hospital because the ambulance service could not cope – answer – police have given support to ambulance service as they have in the past.

There are ways of phrasing evasive answers. When asked about contracts for events like the Open Golf (before the BBC lost it), the question was phrased: Q. “Are you confident that you are able to keep this contract…”

The answer was to say “We are determined……..” Why couldn’t he just be honest and say that he could not be confident.

Then there are the dodgy words: “frustrated” – a clever way of implying that what has gone wrong is not your fault.

There are plenty of other ways advised by the media trainers.

These include: What we need to do…..; or The evidence is…..; or There is a need to learn lessons, which is more usually phrased as: we have learnt the lessons and implemented reform.

Then they using the word “clear” as in “It is clear…” or “It is really clear…” or “It is very clear…” – these replies usually mean that the last thing the answer will be is.

Moving away from the question – I think we have to look at this debate in the context of (move on to something else)

So always check how those in power fiddle with the English language to avoid answering the question or taking responsibility for anything


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