The Rube Goldberg machine of language

Posted on Tue 26 Oct 2010 @ 1.37pm UTC

Someone rather famous once said that we have to be pointed out the simple stuff that is easily seen, recognised or understood just to get by, let alone more complex things like The Truth:

“… we have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”

— George Orwell (1903-50), in a review of “Power: A New Social Analysis” by Bertrand Russell in “Adelphi” (January 1939)

Which leads me to reproduce the latest offering from Delanceyplace in full:

* * *

If you happen to work for a bureaucracy, you’ll need to know the subtleties of “officespeak”:

“This section deals with the technical aspects of officespeak, such as passive voice, circular reasoning, and rhetorical questions. These are the nuts and bolts of the Rube Goldberg contraption that is the language of the office. Obscurity, vagueness, and a noncommittal stance on everything define the essence of officespeak. No one wants to come out and say what they really think. It is much safer for the company and those up top to constantly cloak their language in order to hide how much they do know or, just as often, how much they don’t know.


Passive voice: The bread and butter of press releases and official statements. For those who have forgotten their basic grammar, a sentence in the passive voice does not have an active verb. Thus, no one can take the blame for ‘doing’ something, since nothing, grammatically speaking, has been done by anybody. Using the passive voice takes the emphasis off yourself (or the company). Here [is an] few example of how the passive voice can render any situation guiltless:

‘Five hundred employees were laid off.’ (Not ‘The company laid off five hundred employees,’ or even worse, ‘I laid off five hundred employees.’ These layoffs occurred in a netherworld of displaced blame, in which the company and the individual are miraculously absent from the picture.)


Circular reasoning: Another favorite when it comes time to deliver bad news. In circular reasoning, a problem is posited and a reason is given. Except that the reason is basically just a rewording of the problem. Pretty nifty. Here are some examples to better explain the examples:

‘Our profits are down because of [a decrease in revenues].’

‘People were laid off because there was a surplus of workers.’


Rhetorical questions: The questions that ask for no answers. So why even ask the question? Because it makes it seem as though the listener is participating in a true dialogue. When your boss asks, ‘Who’s staying late tonight?’ you know he really means, ‘Anyone who wants to keep their job will work late.’ Still, there’s that split second when you think you have a say in the matter, when you believe your opinion counts. Only to be reminded, yet again, that no one cares what you think.


Hollow statements: The second cousin of circular reasoning. Hollow statements make it seem as though something positive is happening (such as better profits or increased market share), but they lack any proof to support the claim.

‘Our company is performing better than it looks.’

‘Once productivity increases, so will profits.’


They and them: Pronouns used to refer to the high-level management that no one has ever met, only heard whispers about. ‘They’ are faceless and often nameless. And their decisions render those beneath them impotent to change anything. ‘They’ fire people, ‘they’ freeze wages, ‘they’ make your life a living hell. It’s not your boss who is responsible – he would love to reverse all these directives if he could. But you see, his hands are tied.

‘I’d love to give you that raise, you know I would. But they’re the ones in charge.’

‘Okay, gang, bad news, no more cargo shorts allowed. Hey, I love the casual look, but they hate it.’


Obfuscation: A tendency to obscure, darken, or stupefy. The primary goal of the above techniques is, in the end, obfuscation. Whether it’s by means of the methods outlined above or by injecting jargon-heavy phrases into sentences, corporations want to make their motives and actions as difficult to comprehend as possible.”

[Excerpted from pages 11-20 of Officespeak by D.W. Martin (New York: Simon Spotlight, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., 2005).]

* * *

Around four-fifths of Asians are unable to suss out (figure out) this disingenous way of using the English language. (That’s 80% for you percentage lovers out there.) That’s my experience; your mileage may vary.

This is mainly because people outside of the normal English-speaking countries are taught English mostly in the passive voice, so that this trick of language use often appeals to them as correct and unobjectionable.

For an authentic English speaker, it immediately raises red flags.

The excuse that correct grammar (whatever the hell that may be) requires written English to be different from spoken English is crap.

These people need to go back to school and relearn the meaning of grammar, which is about parts of speech. As such, written English cannot (and should not) diverge too much from the spoken form.

Which is why governments in foreign-speaking countries with a ‘tradition’ of using English (you know who you are!) also tend to get away with horrendously brain-damaged policies.

Journalists and academics alike (and ordinary people as well) brought up with that kind of language just aren’t able to tease out the meaning behind official and political statements that are couched in such a language because they’ve also been brought up to speak and write the same kind of language.

In other words, you can’t examine the meanings behind disingenuous talk when you yourself have been trained and become accustomed to the same kind of language.

A classic case of newspeak vs. oldspeak, if you ask me.

  • How can you examine something when you cannot look at it?
  • How can you look at something in a different light when you cannot compare it against something else?
  • How can you compare something when you cannot examine it?

* * *

About Delanceyplace

Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

Visit their homepage or sign up for their daily email at

Disclaimer: Learn English or Starve is unaffiliated with Delanceyplace.