In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations

Tony Proscio

2000, 61 pages; published by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 250 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10177-0026, 212-551-9100.

We've all seen them, or worse, even written them: proposals and papers that promise to empower targeted entities to promulgate comprehensive cutting edge paradigms and strategies through proactive collaborative linkages based on intensive learnings and extrapolations that impact at-risk populations through best practices.

Jargon-laden prose like this prompted the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to commission and publish a report, brimming with both wit and wisdom, entitled In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations.

"We all know how jargon comes about: a term that sounds fresh and evocative in January grows dry and meaningless by June, at which point its use begins to multiply exponentially," Michael A. Bailin, president of the Foundation wrote in a foreword to the book. "By September, the term is appearing regularly in every paragraph of every document, like mile-markers on an endless highway. It ricochets around our seminar rooms and conference tables and professional meetings. We utter it and type it without thinking. We hear it in our sleep. By this time, of course, we're also hearing it from our grantees."

Tony Proscio, a former editorial writer for the Miami Herald, takes the foundation world to task for what he calls "a lethal combination of the dense and the tedious, a congregation of the weirdest and most arcane words, crammed unhappily together like awkward guests at an international mixer" as he picks apart "Foundation Speak, ca.2000." However, he does it with a dry humor that makes the diagnosis less painful than it might have been coming from a less-skilled writer.

He devotes extra attention to some of the worst offenders such as "impact which, like an uncivil word which begins with 'f', seems to have acquired the powers of nearly every part of speech" and "the celebrity status of comprehensive." Proscio also takes the time to trace how certain words, such as that "monstrosity of management research, benchmarking," made the journey from "technical term to ubiquitous usage to jargon."

In Other Words is a slim volume, only sixty-one pages, but it should carry a lot of weight with those of us who are all too guilty as charged and need to heed Proscio's helpful hints for making our writing clearer and simpler.

Review by Deena Epstein, The George Gund Foundation