Level Playing Fields and Hymn Sheets

Golden Bull Award Image

This week I received an email containing one of the most pretentious opening sentences I’ve ever seen.

My wife and I wanted a weekend away in London, so I emailed a well-known hotel group to enquire about booking a room. The emailed reply – from someone I’d never been in contact with before – read: ‘Dear Mr Heath, thank you for reaching out to me…’

‘Reaching out to me’? I wasn’t aware that I had. I thought I was just asking a straightforward question about room availability. Perhaps I’m so emotionally lacking that I failed to see the innate cry for help in my initial email.

So why am I irritated by this? I think it’s because it represents the need some people have to view direct speech as, somehow, not impressive enough. They feel they must use sentences smeared with a patina of sophistication to try and add intellectual weight or emotion to it.

My accountant has it right. ‘Dear Mr Heath, thank you for your email of…’  A statement that is simple, informative and courteous. I don’t love my accountant, but I do personally like and respect Richard and his excellent team. They communicate directly, knowing that business words, like business numbers, must total the sum of their parts.

‘Reaching out to me…’ is a marshmallow of a sentence that collapses as soon as your brain tries to ingest it. It smacks of false warmth and sentiment and implies a relationship that, in actuality, doesn’t exist.

So where does all this lead? I can think of no better place to show you than the execrable examples cited by the Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull winners. You’ll find the 2011 victors here.

So no more ‘level playing fields’; let’s substitute the word ’fair’ instead. And, while we’re at it, let’s replace ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ with ‘agree’. Oh, as I’m on a roll now, will people also please stop saying they are ‘putting it on the back burner’

I hope you agree with me. After all, I’m really reaching out to you on this.


Hi Mick,

That's definitely an odd way to greet a stranger! The thought that immediately occurred to me, on reading your blog, was whether English was not their first language? But I'm well aware of my brother's intolerance of pretentious, flowery and artificial language!

Which reminds me. I accompanied mum to Church at the weekend, and I noticed that amendments had been made to some of the wording of the prayers and liturgy. There used to be a line in the Nicene Creed, which you'll remember went something along the lines of, "I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, of one being with the Father." I was a little taken aback when I heard the new version, "I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, consubstantial with the Father." Yuck! When I railed and ranted afterwards about these verbal sins, mum told me that that line was actually the original version, was changed, and then changed back again!

Take care. Peter.

Thank you for your blog, Michael! It's not a rant, it is a useful hint. Linguistic simplicity and clarity has always been the art of the Great.


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