Thursday, February 9, 2012

Guest Post: Malicious Obfuscation


I advertise myself (accurately) as a “linguistics expert,” so people often ask me questions about language usage. One recent correspondent was wondering whether—given all the usage “errors” people commit these days—the English language isn’t losing its nuance, becoming reduced to the lowest common denominator…generally being “dumbed down.” Maybe, the reasoning goes, if we lose too many important distinctions, we won’t be able to communicate at all.

To those people I say: chill out. (Unless you’re someone who likes to play gotcha games with other people’s speech “errors,” in which case I say: shut up.) Language is a complex system that won’t be severely impaired by a little variation and change. A much more urgent concern, because of its dire economic complications, is the spread of deliberately complex, opaque language.

Yes, paradoxically, although English prose has become simpler over the years (even sentence fragments regularly appear in print), the complexity of grammatically and mechanically perfect legal and financial jargon can create a dialect that’s unintelligible to most native speakers, even educated, literate ones.

Such writing (chief characteristics: specialized jargon, impersonal phraseology, extended sentences, useless repetition) can be merely tedious and opaque, but it can also become a vehicle for vagueness and evasion. Recently, legalese/bureaucratese has been exploited, by devious corporations, accountants, and lawyers, to supply a house-of-cards foundation to the financial machinations that caused the nation’s economy to implode. 

In “The Analogy of Avarice” (a review of James Stewart’s new book Tangled Webs: How False StatementsAre Undermining America), Jennifer Szalai says that the financial industry, unlike Bernie Madoff, never had to lie, because it was so good at creating complex financial instruments and hiding its duplicities under a fog of words.

“Banks structured derivatives and other securities to enable their clients to take on a massive amount of risk that was nevertheless legal; accountants and law firms ensured that those risks would remain hidden from investors, who could be counted on to trust the triple-A rating or to avoid the eye-glazing chore of reading the fine print… [There were] rules about ‘disclosure,’ [but those]… disclosures in a financial report could be buried in the footnotes and, with some clever wording, made sufficiently dull to ensure that they would barely be seen as red flags."

Want an example? Here’s a short selection from page 30, note 3 of Enron’s 2000 annual report, written just one year before the firm imploded:

“Securitization. From time to time, Enron sells interests in certain of its financial assets. Some of the sales are completed in securitization, in which Enron concurrently enters into swaps associated with the underlying assets which limit the risks assumed by the purchaser. Such swaps are adjusted to fair value using quoted market prices, if available, or estimated fair value based on management's best estimate of the present value of future  cash flow. The swaps are included in Price Risk Management activities above as equity investments.”

What does that even mean? Not much, according to Szalai:

“The text was undoubtedly fussed over by a platoon of lawyers in order to achieve just the right balance of disclosure and evasion [all emphasis mine]. The company might have sold some assets, or it might not have sold some assets; those sales, if any, might include securitizations, or they might not have included securitizations; the securitizations might have had a market price, or they might not have had a market price; if they didn't, then Enron's management gave them a price according to ‘management's best estimate’—which is to say, whatever management believed they were worth….

“All this would merit the word ‘monstrous,’ except the adjective implies an element of excitement and drama, whereas this is a system that thrives on obstruction and boredom. According to [its] conventions…the footnotes are more important than the main body of the text. Sentences are crafted so as not to be read. Language should confound rather than communicate.”

All too often, it does confound. And that obscurity—in an account of what companies are doing with the wealth of the people reading the account—is intentional. We don’t have the time or inclination to wade through it all, and it’s doubtful that clarity would emerge even if we did.

The principles of clear communication haven’t changed: shorter sentences, simpler words, less jargon, concrete examples, and clear explanation of technical terms. Disregarding them in order to confuse and deceive is unconscionable. Deliberate obscurity does irreparable damage to the thin bonds of trust that are supposedly encoded in words on a page. It buries—in a steaming pile of verbosity and BS—the premise that the writer is actually trying to tell the reader something.

Alan Perlman is an executive speechwriter and ghostwriter/editor. He has an AB from Brown University, an MA, and a PhD from the University of Chicago in linguistics. (His doctoral thesis examined variation in Hawaiian pidgin and creole.) He wrote executive speeches and other communications, mainly at GM and Kraft Foods, for twenty years, and he is the author of two books on speechwriting. As an expert witness and consultant, he advises attorneys on matters of language, including plagiarism, anonymous documents, trademark/copyright infringement, and document interpretation. Write to him at


Greg said...

"Unconscionable" presumes these "monsters" of ennui have consciences. Should we go back to the beginning and examine that idea? Good universities may turn out students who know better, but knowing better, it could be, doesn't pay in the corporation.

Alan said...

The abandonment of conscience in service of the organization when everybody else is doing the same is, unfortunately, well documented in both experiment and reality.

It will go on until organizations teach the opposite, which they never will, because groupthink always serves the organization's ends.