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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Jobspeak, the Language of Work

Police car pulling over driver

At an age when young men are learning to shave, I was hanging out at police stations and courthouses. No, I wasn’t in trouble with the law. I was a newspaper reporter, writing about the legal problems of others and the policemen* who brought them to justice. In fact, the only crimes I committed were against the Queen’s English, and I blame police jobspeak, which crept into my initial articles.

Jobspeak is so seductive that it spreads like measles through a profession.

Police traffic reports, for example, never mention cars or trucks. Instead there are motor vehicles. An officer on duty might observe such a motor vehicle, blue in colour, travelling southbound at a high rate of speed on First Avenue before becoming involved in a collision with another motor vehicle at the intersection of First Avenue and Main Street. Sometimes these motorPolice car pulling over driver vehicles were completely destroyed or sustained extensive damage.

Translation: The officer saw a blue car speeding south on First Avenue toward Main Street, where it collided with another car.

I had to translate this verbiage into readable copy, but occasionally some raw material slipped through. I can still hear my grizzled editor barking, “If it’s at First Avenue and Main Street, it’s at an intersection!”

This was my dynamic introduction to occupational argot. I would encounter jobspeak repeatedly while editing documents created by engineers, academics, lawyers and, most flagrantly, businesspeople.

Jobspeak invariably blasphemes style, but its arcane nature gives practitioners a sense of privileged membership in their work culture. It does not communicate to outsiders, which seems to be its purpose. And it assumes uniformity. The police reports could have been written by one person.

A doctor who once befuddled me with his jobspeak explained it was simply professional shorthand. But it is seldom shorter than real English. At any rate, why didn’t he save it for his colleagues and spare his illiterate patient?

*PC exempt: no female cops back then.


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About the author

Wilf Popoff

When Wilf Popoff started editing, John Diefenbaker was prime minister, editors used pencils, and IBM mainframe computers were moving from vacuum tubes to transistors. Wilf is a former editor of Active Voice.

6 Comments on “Wasted Words: Jobspeak, the Language of Work”

  • Anita Jenkins


    In Alberta Education, we were required to say “human sexuality instruction,” not “sex education.”

    • Dwain Richardson


      Well Anita, that’s just too funny! In Ontario, we simply referred to puberty as “sex education.” Nothing more, nothing less. Better to be short than long, right? 😉

      • Frances Peck


        To answer your question, Dwain, EAC has offered my workshop on clear and concise style pretty regularly since the late 1990s. In May, for instance, it ran in Ottawa and Toronto. I’ve also taught versions of that workshop, plus one on plain language, hundreds of times for employers across Canada.

        From what I’ve seen there’s a real appetite, especially in government, to teach employees how to avoid the convoluted structures and bureaucratese that have plugged up workplace communications for so long. But in some cases, once employees are trained up, they still have to contend with the old-school thinkers who oversee their work. Until those managers retire or find something better to do with their time, some workplace writers will continue to see their clear, accessible prose polluted by verbiage during the review and approval stages—not, in my experience, out of any conscious desire to befuddle or deceive the public, but rather out of simple ignorance.

        • Anita Jenkins


          What Frances said. Many people think “un-plain” language is more “formal” and therefore more impressive to the reader. Not.

  • Dwain Richardson


    Congratulations for a wonderful text, Will. I couldn’t stop laughing when I read the excessive verbiage you came across in your police report example. This is wordiness at its finest.

    Aside from professional writing and editing, I dedicate ~75% of my career to translation. I often come across wordiness in my source-language documents. As I read your text, I thought of an example Grant Hamilton gave when conveying the French “au coin de” in English. If, for instance, your original text reads, « Le café Second Cup est au coin de Sainte-Catherine et Guy », you can simply translate this as “Second Cup is at St. Catherine and Guy” instead of “…at the intersection/corner of St. Catherine and Guy.” “The intersection/corner of” is elliptical; the sentence is still grammatically correct—and it reads better, especially if you want to write concisely. And who DOESN’T like plain, concise language?

    Clearly, some clients and businesses haven’t grasped the concept of plain, concise language. It’s a shame because people don’t realize how much space and how many words you can save on a page. It’s also unfortunate to learn that some newspaper editors (among other people!) haven’t grasped this concept. I guess it’ll be a matter of time before people wake up and smell the coffee 😛

    I’ll end my comment with a question: Do you think that associations like the EAC can organize and facilitate plain and concise language workshops for employers? If you ask me, workplaces can definitely take a sip of our medicine! 😉

    • Wilf Popoff


      I don’t know whether employers are really interested in plain and concise language. I have presented a few times, but often found my audience hostile. Employers have to see an opportunity for profit in such an exercise and employees have to want to express themselves better.

      When my editors of half a century ago cut verbiage they were inspired by two principles––improving style and saving newsprint. I recall reading at the time Bernstein’s criticism of the phrase “prior to,” which most writers think is smarter than “before.” Although “prior to” is only two spaces longer, Bernstein calculated that its use cost the New York Times a column of newsprint a day, which could be either used for another article or sold as advertising.

      No one worries about saving paper today, especially when the internet is paperless. And as for style, it seems to be a dying quality.

      (I’m not always this pessimistic.)

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