Enervate, disconnect, revolt

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A conference I recently attended — I conceal its identity to spare the blushes of the organizers — had apparently forged enough connections to industrially applicable linguistic research to make it succumb to the blandishments of business-school jargon. (If one sups with the devil one should use a long spoon.) Every participant was given one of those fancy plasticized file folders to hold the program and so on, and on this fancy folder was emblazoned the following slogan:

• innovate • connect • achieve

I stared at the unrequested folder for some time, thinking of Orwell, and trying to imagine what ghastly school of business management Newspeak must have spawned the slogan.

Its syntax appears to be that of a succession of three imperative clauses: one pointless, one mysterious, and one scarcely even coherent.

The first instructs the addressee to be novel. But innovation is not that easy. And those who find it difficult are not likely to be helped by being instructed to do it. (Telling them to be innovative is rather like snapping "Relax!" at people who seem tense — not a good idea at all.)

The second imperative I take to have been drawn from E. M. Forster's maxim "Only connect", from chapter 22 of Howard's End, part of a speech that I feel I never really understood in the first place. And what of being told this at a conference? Were we being told to connect with each other, in the bar, perhaps? To connect things with other things at random? Perhaps we were supposed to connect up our innovations. I do not know.

And the third clause of the slogan seems frankly ungrammatical: to the extent that there are any verbs at all that uncompromisingly demand a direct object, they would be verbs like achieve, accomplish, abandon, accompany, keep, retain and so on, so inherently relational that the meaning can hardly be specified at all in the absence of a second argument for the predicate. As with innovating, those incapable of achievement will hardly be helped by being told to achieve. But at least innovate means something on its own ("make up new stuff"). What does Achieve! mean? Achieve what?

The slogan served only to make me feel somewhat distracted, bullied, and alienated. I resolved to disobey. I refused to innovate throughout the weekend; I did only things I had done before, like slipping out of sessions early to down a manhattan. I connected as little as possible. And I did not attempt to achieve. Management slogans affect me that way. I revolt. I choose not to be managed. If Language Log Plaza had a sign over the door that read "BLOG!", it would be done for as far as I'm concerned. Blogging, like speaking at a Quaker meeting, is something one must do only if the spirit moves one. Like innovation, and achievement. And commenting. Don't feel obliged. Really.

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42 Comments »

  1. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    Sorry, Melvyn, I don't like these things either, but I can't agree that the slogan is difficult to comprehend.

  2. mike anderson said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    The Orwellian exhortations that sprout like toadstools in the B-schools remind me of W. Edwards Deming's rule #10:

    10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force that ask for zero defects and new levels of productivity.

    Dress it up with fancy typefaces and bullets, it's still exhortations… Heck, " *innovate *connect *achieve" isn't nearly as poetic as "Let a thousand flowers bloom!"

  3. mgh said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    What led you to believe the inscription was intended as language, and not as decorative art — something like the popularity of Japanese clothing with (sometimes nonsensical) English phrases which seem to primarily decorative?

    You're just lucky not to have been scolded, at the end of the conference, that you had "failed to achieve, even in the modest task that was your charge".

  4. Garrett Wollman said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

    Intransitive "achieve" is certainly familiar to me, and apparently to the editors of the OED as well (see OED2 sense 8).

  5. Larry Horn (the other one) said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    Urm, I think one is allowed some hyperbole when ranting.

  6. John Cowan said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

    I take these not to be imperatives but rather abilities that one will acquire by attending the conference and paying attention to the speakers — or perhaps rather by buying the products, whatever they may be, of whatever sponsor paid to have the words put on the folder.

  7. Vance Maverick said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

  8. Josh Millard said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

    to the extent that there are any verbs at all that uncompromisingly demand a direct object, they would be verbs like achieve, accomplish, abandon, accompany, keep, retain and so on, so inherently relational that the meaning can hardly be specified at all in the absence of a second argument for the predicate.

    And what better mantra can there be than one built from so social a verb, meanly wrested from all context and held in solitary to repeat its own name ad nauseum until it sticks? As with the realtor's nominal "Location, Location, Location", so to the connected innovator's verbish "Achieve, Achieve, Achieve".

    (Discussion of the innovating achiever's "Connect, Connect, Connect" and the achieving connector's "Innovate, Innovate, Innovate" are beyond the scope of this comment and will be treated in a later missive — likewise the innovating sortepreneur's "Abandon, Abandon, Abandon".)

  9. Marc said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

    The perfect antidote to B-school nonsense:

    http://www.despair.com

    As they say currently on their front page:

    CUSTOMIZE. PERSONALIZE. DEMORALIZE.

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    I see only irony here, Melvyn:

    After reading this business jargon, you (and likely you alone) did the exact opposite the entire day. How novel! How (ironically) INNOVATIVE! Life gave you lemons, and you made a sandwich.

    When you returned, you wrote this blog post. This is the eighth comment, so you obviously CONNECTED with some people on some level.

    Which leaves achievement. What did you achieve? If you did indeed hold out for an entire day of noninnovation and disconnection, that in itself seems quite an achievement.

    I agree that this "slogan" is ridiculous, but for a different reason: They're just so obvious. Innovate, connect, and achieve are to the mind of any thinking man what "Eat. Drink. Sleep." are to the body. They might as well have just thrown "think" in the mix, too.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 1:30 am

    Exhortations to objectless action are not a B-school innovation:

    Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

    -Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833.

    The role of such homilies in rousing untethered emotions is suggested by the note that Thomas Carlyle wrote in response: "These lines do not make me weep, but there is in me what would fill whole Lachrymatories as I read."

  12. a. y. mous said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 2:48 am

    I have used Dack for a real presentation to add tag lines to Powerpoint slide headings, and trust me when I say, not one single suit batted an eyelid!

    http://www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html

    A new and improved version is available at http://emptybottle.org/bullshit/

    I will have to field test that as well.

  13. Richard Sabey said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:04 am

    Your description of your folder reminded me of an open day I attended a few months ago at the offices of a local employer. Each attender was given a goodie-bag containing, among other things, a ring-bound notebook with a slogan emblazoned on the front in large letters:

    plan
    design
    enable

    That "enable" seems to be at least as deficient as "achieve", in that you can't just enable, you can only enable something to do something or enable something to happen. Unless, that is, the company was exhorting us to enable disabled people, but that wasn't what the company demonstrated to us.

  14. outeast said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 4:08 am

    Is this post some kind of weird metajoke? Surely a linguist cannot have that much difficulty in parsing a slogan like this and extracting the intended meaning? It's no more unintelligible than the very non-businesspeak and non-recent 'turn on, tune in, drop out'…

  15. Peter said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 5:49 am

    Many of the criticisms of business language, such as this recent criticism of the language used by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/its-hard-to-pick-a-verb-on-wheel-of-political-fortune/2008/05/25/1211653841096.html

    claim that the language being used is meaningless. It is only meaningless to those observers who don't know the domain to which the language refers. These three imperatives will not be meaningless to any business manager, particularly any manager in a large organization where hundreds or even thousands of middle-level staff may not innovate, connect or achieve. The three instructions may be "motherhood" (ie, obvious, although even that is arguable), but that property is not the same as being meaningless.

  16. Eyebrows McGee said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:30 am

    "These three imperatives will not be meaningless to any business manager, particularly any manager in a large organization where hundreds or even thousands of middle-level staff may not innovate, connect or achieve."

    And yet running around shouting "innovate! connect! achieve!" seems unlikely to cause any of the three to occur. I worked at one of those places where we were constantly leveraging our this and innovating our that and all I really wanted was for the slogan people to go away and let me do my friggin' job. My boss was always saying crap like, "How can we integrate a holistic paradigm into this project to maximize our productivity?" and I was always thinking, "How about you tell me what you want done and I go do it? How would that work?"

  17. Peter said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    Is printing three imperatives on a binder the same as running around shouting them?

  18. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    The Sydney article about Rudd says, 'Eunson, a writing lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, is completing a PhD in Plain English and Jargon.'

    Right. So what else is new?

  19. Andrew Clegg said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 9:34 am

    Much as I agree with Melvyn's general sentiment, I can't help feeling that intransitive 'achieve' must be allowable or else its nominalization 'achiever' (and indeed 'underachiever') would be senseless without some sort of modifier.

  20. DT said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    I'm just as bad as you are! I was recently at a conference with the slogan:

    real people • real places • real solutions

    Was there concern that attendees might have thought that the conference as about imaginary people, imaginary places, and imaginary solutions? I came up with several talks that were made inappropriate by the repetition of "real"

    - Lilliputians in Never-Never Land performing cold fusion
    - Santa Clause down the rabbit hole driving a car that runs on M&Ms
    - Munchkins in Atlantis flying with fairy dust

    The conference was actually pretty interesting, but that stupid slogan kept distracting me.

  21. Abhishek Upadhya said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    " Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.

    Explore. Dream. Discover. " –Mark Twain

    It has been said before. So this isn't something new.
    It's a stupid slogan, no doubt. But, certainly not far-fetched.

    Also it the periods in between help in emphasizing the words. This is precisely the effect the company/organization wants to create. People tend to remember these flowery words.

    [ Sentence punctuation to indicate slowed speech rate
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=188 ]

  22. Michael Roberts said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

    Metabolize!

  23. Vance Maverick said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

    I would bet good money that Twain never said or wrote that. Got a citation?

  24. Paul Wilkins said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    If I told you that I knew of a way to take money out of your wallet and put it into mine, would you be interested?

    * Attend. * Open'd. * Spend.

    (my conference; u'r wallet; everything in it)

  25. John Cowan said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    DT, I believe the implicit antonym of "real" here is not "imaginary" but "hypothetical"; conference speakers in some fields are notorious for presenting only hypothetical examples.

  26. Sili said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    And to think that my main complaint about slogans like these is the use of all-lowercase …

    Yesh … I'm finding it hard to shed my prescriptivist tendencies.

  27. Josh Millard said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    That "enable" seems to be at least as deficient as "achieve", in that you can't just enable, you can only enable something to do something or enable something to happen.

    There's an excellent paper by Dr. Quince, Enablers, Enablers, Enablers: On the Language of the Family Dynamics of Alcoholism, that undermines this otherwise reasonable argument. I only wish I could find my copy.

  28. Abhishek Upadhya said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    @Vince Maverick: I stand corrected. That quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, without any citation/source.

    The point that I was trying to arrive at ,remains the same. Minus the flashy quote.

  29. Vance Maverick said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    Well, as for any usage question, it matters whether the source is a widely admired writer.

  30. misterb said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    Interpreting management speak is like reading fortune cookies. You append "in bed" to the fortune cookies, and you append "as management intends" to management speak. Now the slogan becomes:
    innovate as management intends, connect as management intends, achieve as management intends

    The underlying assumption to all business communication is that it is the inferior's job to divine what the superior wants before the superior knows what that is. You can choose not to play the game this way, but you will not succeed (as management intends).

  31. Steve Harris said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

    I think there's an honest linguistic lesson in this trinary imperative:

    First let me standardize the punctuation and capitalization: I interpret

    1) innovate [dot] connect [dot] achieve

    as PowerPoint for

    2) Innovate; connect; achieve.

    I think that's a straight-forward transformation (bullet as an ambiguous-level separator, much like semicolon or period). One could instead have

    2') Innovate. Connect. Achieve

    but that's not as natural, at least in my understanding. So I'm going to do with (2).

    The prima facie interpretation of (2) is that of three imperative verbs; but that's not entirely how I read it. Rather, I interpret (2) as

    3) Innovate and connect; then you'll be able to achieve.

    That's not a forced reading on my part; that was my initial reaction to it. Does that accord with anyone else's initial impression? If not, then the rest of what I have to say isn't on point; but I'm minded to think that my reading is not idiosyncratic.

    So how do I get from (2) to (3)? It strikes a memory chord with me, of other instances I've seen of 3 simple imperatives strung together, "X; Y; Z.", with the clear implication that Z is the goal and X and Y are the way-stations recommended for getting to the goal. But I'm not having any luck dredging any examples up from memory.

    It's the rhetorical rhythm of three one-word phrases that seems to carry the force here. The original, perhaps, is Caesar's "Veni; vidi; vici." Even though those aren't imperatives, it has the same semantic rhythm: . We don't read that as *merely* "I came and I saw and I conquered." Rather, the very clear implication is something much like "I came and I saw; and therefore I conquered." (Perhaps with something of a boast: "I came and I saw; and that's all that was necessary for me to conquer.")

    I want to emphasize that it's not the syntactic form that's of import here, other than that the form be parallel: "X; Y; Z." does not mean "X and Y lead to Z" unless Z is clearly the goal. This imputing of "lead to" is derived from the semantics of the sentence, from the significant difference in interest-level between, on the one hand, X and Y, and, on the other hand, Z.

    (Which reminds me of another instantiation of this notion of "three things means the punch is at the end": the phrase "crushing hand" invented by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their novel "The Mote in God's Eye". The authors posit an alien race vaguely humanoid in shape, but assymetrical: One shoulder has two delicate arms, the other has a single, very heavily muscled arm. This race has evolved a metaphor template, "On the one hand, X, on the other hand, Y, and on the crushing hand, Z." The idea is that X and Y are the prima facie alternatives, while Z is the twist, either cleverly combining or surprisingly refuting both X and Y. Probably a twist on the old thesis/antithesis/synthesis template.)

  32. Abhishek Upadhya said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 5:25 am

    @Steve Harris: We had a teacher who used to write
    Analyse. Simplify . Solve
    on the board, to show a typical problem-solving approach.
    Your X;Y;Z method works here.

  33. Richard said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    I always felt like business speak is to normal language like pop music is to music in general. Business language is driven by trends, attitude, and flashiness. It's more important to use a good word than it is to convey a subtle idea. In the same way, pop music is less about expression, but attitude and style. It's not that they're void of content, they're just sacrificing some content for style.

    Also, there's way more money in business speak and pop music than in their broader counterparts. Are we starving linguists just jealous?

  34. Bloix said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    Steve Harris beat me to it. This is obviously "Innovation is crucial but innovation on its own is not sufficient; innovation must be integrated into existing systems in order to achieve a desired goal." I think this post is a good example of choosing not to understand something in order to ridicule it. That doesn't mean the slogan isn't ridiculous; all slogans are, more or less. But the claim that it's unintelligible is intentionally obtuse.

  35. Kate said,

    May 29, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    THANK YOU.

    Business speak is constantly bleeding over into my field of work (urban planning) and slowly but surely leeching the meaning out of practically everything we write. It's extremely frustrating and intellectually lazy.

  36. Olga said,

    May 29, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    The university I used to work at once sent us memoranda with a quartered circle drawn on them. One verb was written inside each quarter:

    Think
    Act
    Check
    Do
    (This is a German university, but the words were in English, probably to show how international and businesslike we all are)

    I think it was supposed to illustrate our work process, or maybe not — I was never sure what would count as "acting" and what would count as "doing". Anyhow, innovate*connect*achieve strikes me as the same thing. Downing Manhattans is a very good reply to this.

  37. speedwell said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Come. now. It's no more and no less than a magic incantation. They think that by reciting the words, they can create the reality.

  38. John Cowan said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    Steve: for "crushing hand" read "gripping hand".

    –John Cowan, Language Log's non-resident copy editor

  39. Rick said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

    Bloix writes:
    I think this post is a good example of choosing not to understand something in order to ridicule it. That doesn't mean the slogan isn't ridiculous; all slogans are, more or less.

    Agreed. There is something in it of the snobbishness of the typical academic who turns his Olympian gaze to peer upon the grubby world of business. The academic linguist has only to analyze language; the businessperson is struggling to do something with it. If you, the linguist, wish to suggest how the businessperson might do it better, speak up. Or would that be too prescriptivist of you?

  40. Peter said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 6:27 am

    "Veni; vidi; vici."

    The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper a few years ago ran a competition for updates to this slogan. Among the winning entries were:

    Veni; vidi; video: I came; I saw; I took photos.

    and

    Veni; vidi; versace: I came; I saw; I looked fabulous.

  41. Bloix said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    Now Olga's example really is unintelligible. How can you "act" before you "do"?

  42. Bev Rowe said,

    June 3, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

    I was somewhat inclined to agree with Rick: this whole thread has a snobbish tinge. But on reflection I suspect that the slogan was devised not by a business person, as such, one whose struggles to express something one might admire, but by some PR hack who knows perfectly well that he is churning out twaddle that will please a client.

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