The Perils of Important-Speak

Editing and Writing

The Perils of Important-Speak

You must have heard at least one of those very interesting statements issued by a police officer or other official public spokesperson. You know, the ones where they use “important” words instead of ordinary English?

For example, in describing the work it takes to dredge a body out of a lake, with the body encased in concrete inside a barrel, an officer might say they were dealing with “a substantial amount of poundage.”

A substantial what?

This is an example of what I call Important-Speak. It stems from someone’s vague feeling that using big words will add importance to whatever they are saying. Police spokespeople are notorious for using Important-Speak, but you’ll find it in countless business documents too. Words seem to multiply like rabbits, so you’ll read “at the present time” instead of the more concise “now.”

But many businesses and other organizations have recognized that what conveys importance in a document or a statement is the information itself, and not “important” words. So there’s a growing trend toward clearer language.

Some writers might object, though, that they don’t want to reduce their writing to a mere skeleton. After all, that can get boring, and bored readers are just as likely to miss important information if the writing puts them to sleep. So you might allow yourself a little variety in how you phrase things.

But when it comes to reports, business letters, public statements, and other sorts of writing that convey information, you want to clear “important” words out of the way as much as possible. That way, the clearer words will allow all that vital info to shine through, without being obscured.