The Bureaucratic Style in American prose


#1

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/04/14/beyond-passive-voice.html


#2

This is a frustrating aspect of UI error messages today, too.

“The comment didn’t post.”

WHY? Because it contains some word you don’t like? Because the internet connection is spotty? Why???

Or you type in login credentials and all you get is, “there was a problem” And you don’t know if the problem is you misremembered your password or were banned for mentioning your etsy store.

EDIT – I actually got this while trying to amend this very post


#3

Not telling users that the username is correct but the password isn’t is a security thing, supposedly.


#4

It’s all a security thing. It’s just that the user’s security isn’t always the security being protected.


#5

The error message couldn’t just say “u dun goofed”?


#6

I would like the sad trombone sound.


#7

You should feel lucky prol! Lucky this bulletin board thingee didn’t reach out thru the intarwebs, drag you out of your seat, break your nose, smash out a few teeth and give you a nice concussion or two.

Have a nice day! And thanks for commenting with <error, the following field contains no data, exception memory address 00001A7E> (while sad trombone sound plays)


#8

Though in that case you should still classify where the error happened:

“The username or password you provided is incorrect”

vs.

“Our server is currently on fire. The IT department has suffered heavy casualties. Run while you can”


#9

The article cites Orwell, quite correctly. But an even better reference might be Sartre’s “Patterns of Bad Faith,” wherein active/conscious/responsible agents (pour soi) seek to become things or roles (en soi), with no agency or moral culpability. The example he uses is a man trying to be a waiter, but I always suspected what he was really talking about were Vichy collaborators and Nazi functionaries (“just following orders”). Bad Faith is the eternal human quest to absolve ourselves of all moral agency and responsibility; it frequently entails use of the passive voice of course, because it is all based on moral passivity. But the end result is to talk of one’s conduct as if one is talking about the weather-- inevitable, and certainly no-one’s fault of course. It was a dark and stormy night indeed…


#10

Interesting to compare this with last year’s discussion of the way journalists use language to absolve police of any responsibility for anything.

Another rule I’ve noticed: never use a little word when a big word would do. Bureaucrats do not use language; they utilize it. And they never do anything, instead they facilitate.


#11

That’s one hell of an edge-case to code for.


#12

#13

If I might poop on the party, this kind of bureaucratese has been with us forever, and it’s been documented almost as long. The buck-passing syntax, the information-burying verbal lard, the over-reliance on jargon and euphemism, the officious vocabulary… It’s all standard now.

(I used to call it stewardess-ese when they would say things like, “And we DO ask that you check the area around your seat…” Okay, okay! I believe you!)


#14

Indeed it has been around forever. The new(ish) part is that now you don’t have to be the builder of the ziggurat, the castle, or the cathedral to have the power to be heard (or read). Big Brother and his ilk may be immortal, but the little guys are getting better at identifying and advertising his rhetorical transgressions.


#15

See, that would actually be useful because it tells me that the problem lies in my execution, and is therefore something I can resolve. “There was an error” tells me nothing that can be used to advance a problem solving approach.

Assuming, of course, that “u dun goofed” only gets displayed when I have done something wrong, rather than just any and all errors …


#16

Another favorite that almost fits the Bureaucratese style - business provides horrid service or product, customer complains about said service or product, respons:
“I’m sorry if you feel that way.”

If there’s anything to be sorry about, that’s not it. The “if” just makes it worse.


#17

Methinks another link to this is appropriate.


#18


#19

As a long time technical writer, I have made a career out of figuring out what is doing what to what, who does what to get a thing done, etc., because every action in the business style of writing is ass-backward.

I agree about the assessment of the statement. It makes it sound as if everyone were doing their job and no one had directed any action.


#20

I’m a bit surprised he didn’t end it with “Believe me.”

Believe me.