Alex Steer

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We're always going forward 'cos we cannot find reverse...

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BBC News Online's Magazine section has declared war against an adverbial phrase.* The phrase in question is 'going forward', which is singled out as a prime example of 'office speak': the kind of professional jargon that, at least to the writer of that piece, 'cloaks the brutal modern workplace in such brainlessly upbeat language'.

Having just moved from the world of academic research and editing to a profession in which I routinely deal with people from a business and accounting background, and being as I am just across the Thames from the dreamless spires of the City, I can sympathize to some extent, if only by attesting to the extraordinary prevalence of the term. It's worth explaining, though perhaps with less of a wearied sigh than the BBC website has managed, that 'going forward' means, in essence, 'from now on', or 'in future'. I'd never heard it being used 'in the wild' until I consorted with business people, I'll admit. But my two questions are: why do they use it, and why is it so hated?

The answers to these two questions may be related. The key to both of them is an understanding of the nature of jargon. Jargon is what sociolinguists call specialized discourse, and what lexicographers still sometimes refer to as technical vocabulary. This is perhaps a slight misnomer, as it suggests that jargon is restricted to technical professions. It isn't: it can be found anywhere where people with shared expertise want to save themselves some time, be they painters, priests, or papyrologists.

Jargon of most kinds has the capacity to induce incredible loathing, indignation, and rage in the most mild-mannered of people. I say most kinds, because there are some kinds of specialized discourse which are so entrenched that they usually pass beyond lay scrutiny. No-one seems to object (thankfully) that scientific or mathematical papers are frequently incomprehensible to those without the appropriate training. (If you are interested in how scientists talk, I recommend Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the book which brought us a new sense of word 'paradigm', and with it the concept of the paradigm shift.) But it's not hard to find examples of people lashing out at specialized discourses which are perceived to be rather closer to what we might call 'everyday' or 'public discourse'. The jargon of literary theorists, for example, is frequently the target of scathing abuse, arguably based on the fact that literature is felt to be so much a part of public discourse in so many parts of the world (consider the role of vernacular literature in national identification and determination, past and present - and visit Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey if you don't believe me), yet literary theorists often talk about it in ways that require a lot of specialist understanding. Sometimes, of course, the charge of obscurantism can be shown to be justified. Very rarely, though, does anyone get around to suggesting that the popular idea of literature as public or national or communal is limited and incomplete, and that, by being rather anti-populist, literary-theoretical jargon might be reflecting another view of the history of writing, one that flows rather less smoothly through the world. (That's definitely outside the scope of a blog post, though.)

If you buy superficially my idea that literature is a type of cultural activity which is considered public and whose jargon is hated for unsettling that idea, then might we say the same about business? Far more central to the economy than the production of literature (on the whole), commerce has been a public discourse since at least the thirteenth century, when the first commodities trading associations began their work. 'Business' is now a huge part of the UK's economy, and millions of us are within its sphere of influence. It's so widespread that - unlike the language of literary theorists, or of pure mathematicians - the language of business routinely follows us out of the office and into the street, onto the television, into the newspapers. Little wonder, if so many of us spend so much of our lives using a shared jargon, we find it hard to put down at the end of the day, or assume that others outside the speech community will know exactly what we mean.

Perhaps that's why 'office speak' is so hated. So prevalent, always there, but always slightly jarring because slightly different. Terms like 'leverage', 'upscale' and 'capacity-build' aren't widespread enough to be unambiguously common currency: they will mark you out as a desk warrior just as surely as banging on about architraves will mark you out as a plasterer. Or a lunatic.

Of course, there is jargon and there is jargon. Jargon may be used to cover up painful truths or to disguise points of contention. In this case, I'd agree, it might be worth taking a stand, as George Orwell led the way for us to do with the concept of Newspeak. But not all jargon is newspeak. Is 'going forward' really 'cloak[ing] the brutal modern workplace' in a way that 'from now on' is not? My short answer is no.

So, to answer my second question first, what role does the term have in business jargon? Well, that's a bit of a false question, as it assumes that linguistic redundancy needs a reason, and it doesn't. But its prevalence should make us ask about its origin.

It seems to come from the practice of management accounting. Company accountants are, as you'd expect, necessarily rather concerned about making sure that their companies have enough money to be going on with in order to survive financially. Income can, after all, ebb and flow somewhat across a financial year. (Imagine you work for a company that makes greetings cards. While birthday cards may keep the money coming in all the year round, you can expect to see big spikes at Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day, etc.) So, when preparing accounts and budgets, accountants tend to take a company's income for the year, subtract its expenses, and see what surplus profit is left over (or, if they've overspent, what the deficit is). Assuming this surplus isn't given straight to the company's shareholders as a dividend, it is carried over onto the balance sheet for the following year. Thus a company that has a surplus that it carries over is said to have that surplus 'going forward' from one year's accounts to the next.

This term has solidified into an adverbial phrase and acquired a more general sense meaning 'in future', 'from now on'. But, you might say, in this use it scarcely counts as jargon: you gain no value from using 'going forward' compared to 'from now on'. This is true: in fact, it's a piece of jargon that has lost much of its technical sense. The technical sense is, of course, still widely used. You just don't hear it, as you'd expect, outside the context of management accounting, where it carries on harmlessly.

It seems perverse, then, to attack 'going forward' as a piece of 'office speak'. The problem is not that it's an inaccessible piece of jargon, but that it's not jargony enough. In the end, the problem is that it's a perfectly straightforward term that's still slightly unfamiliar in many contexts. And so, in the end, the attack on 'going forward' boils down to little more than some people encountering an unfamiliar term and slating the people who use it, because they prefer their own. To pretend otherwise is, I fear, to cloak the brutal modern world of public discourse with brainlessly upbeat cod-sociolinguistics.

* On a side note of unbelievable pedantry, the title of the above-linked article ('Are you going forward? Then stop now') ambushes the unwary reader slightly, as here 'going forward' is constructed from the present participle of the verb and the adverb 'forward', whereas in the phrase which is the focus of the article's loathing 'going forwards' is an adverbial compound. I did say it was almost unbelievably pedantic...

# Alex Steer (22/06/2008)