The Elements of Appalling Style

By Jeff Gainer

(Author's note: This essay appeared in the Cutter IT Journal E-Mail Advisor.) 

Recently I received a brilliant piece of marketing literature from a colleague. He had a product brochure which he scanned and sent me to see if I could determine just what it was. He wasn't quite sure what the product was or what it did, and asked if I had any idea. The brochure was filled with marketing buzzwords, describing the product as a "proactive, best of breed solution."  The product was "about e-business." It was "about quality." And for the life of me, I couldn't figure out exactly what it did, if anything. But nevertheless, the product was, the brochure asserted, "world-class."

I have a well-used copy of William Strunk and E. B. White's classic little book The Elements of Style. Every few months, I sit down and read it straight through, studying, reflecting, remembering. It is a small book and takes little time to read. I should like to be able to give a copy to every advertising copyrighter, every marketing maven, every salesperson in our industry. I just spent an afternoon surfing IT-related web sites and found an appalling number of egregious violations of E. B. White's rule #16: "Be clear."

In the spirit of Strunk and White, I present several examples of overused phrases, pretentious clichés, empty but impressive-sounding words, orotundity, tautology, and just plain bad English in the hope that I might, in some measure, discourage their use:

I qualify this list with the confession that I, too have sinned. I have been called upon to rewrite marketing literature and sales presentations. It is true that good intentions, a journalism degree, and a few hundred publication credits can get you into all sorts of uncomfortable assignments. In any event, I shall endeavor to excise these phrases from my own writing, or at least use them more carefully.  This is not merely for sake of clarity, but also to avoid being misunderstood, just as I take care to avoid describing anything or anyone as niggardly or crapulous.

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Some weeks after writing this essay, I realized that I had neglected one of the more egregious examples of marketing-speak: "content provider." When I first encountered this phrase, I was, like Molière's bourgeois gentleman, amazed to discover that I had been a content provider for well over a quarter-century and never realized it! To my continuing delight, I also discovered that I was also a card carrying, dues-paying member of the Mystery Content-Providers of America.

Mr. Gainer is a software process management consultant and writer. His management and technical articles have appeared in numerous publications and he is a frequent contributor to Cutter IT Journal, and the Cutter IT Journal email Advisor. He can be reached at or on the Web at Mr. Gainer lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Menton, France.

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(c2002 Cutter Information Corp. All rights reserved. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Cutter Information Corp., provider information resources for IT professionals worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the Cutter IT E-Mail Advisor, a supplement to Cutter IT Journal.

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