When Did Yoda Start Writing CEO Speeches?

Business English deserves its terrible reputation.

We invent jargon, rely heavily on clichés, repeat catchphrases endlessly, and restart sentences three or four times before finding a way to finish them. And to paraphrase Schopenhauer, every generation ridicules the other ones, and they are all right. Millennials think their elders speak in a lifeless monotone (think Ben Stein), and we think they use upspeak way too much. But for some reason, nothing pains me as much as the backloaded business sentence.

Let me explain. In standard English the subject usually comes before the verb: the boy ran up the hill. One of the reasons Yoda sounds so otherworldly is that he often inverted this: run up the hill the boy did. A lot of business folk seem to be under his influence these days. Instead of saying "Our costs are rising" they'll say "Things are not great right now, from a cost perspective."

What's going on here, I suspect, is that they know the overall sentiment they want to convey. In this case, it's not a good one; costs are rising. So on the fly they construct a sentence that leads with the sentiment (things are not great) and backloads with the reason why (from a cost perspective).

Sentences like these are grammatically correct, but they make my eardrums throb. I wince internally every time I hear a sentence end with 'from an xxx perspective,' 'from an xxx point of view,' or (worst of all) 'xxx-wise.' I find them rushed, thoughtless, lazy, and terribly imprecise, which is almost worse than being incorrect. As Orwell wrote in his landmark 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" one of the hallmarks of bad writing:

"... is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose."

He was talking about written English, but the same applies to speech. Yes, I realize it's a cliché to quote Orwell in any discussion of language. I also realize that people can be hugely effective and successful in business while being imprecise (by my definition) communicators. And I know that language is dynamic, and that the standards for correct and clear expression change over time; maybe backloaded sentences will soon become standard.

But I hope not. They signal imprecision and laziness, and signals matter. I wonder about someone who can't take the split second required to construct a standard English sentence about rising costs before opening his mouth. My fellow HBR blogger Kyle Wiens wrote earlier this year that he won't hire people with poor grammar. Why should we be more lenient toward lazy speech?

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