Reverting to type

Posted by Martin Stott

Individual grammatical quirks and preferences are part of what makes language and literature fun, and in the vast majority of instances it doesn’t help to get bogged down in pedantry. However, there are limits.

When something is utterly and horribly wrong – and, worse still, when it’s a warped product of smug, condescending, essentially meaningless gobbledegook – tolerance is quickly exhausted. And this brings us to that soul-sapping trademark of perfunctory email correspondence, “revert”.

A recent email elicited the following response:

“Thank you for this. I will take a look and revert to you.”

Really? This appears decidedly unlikely – unless, of course, the respondent used to be me. Every dictionary worthy of the designation defines “revert” as “to return to a previous state, practice, topic etc”. It doesn’t mean “reply” or “get back”. Only habitual shape-shifters and those who believe in a very particular form of reincarnation could get away with the usage highlighted above.

How can this silliness have become so rampant? It’s certainly a tremendous example of the normalisation of deviance the unhappy process by which bad practice can very quickly become widespread, especially if the people who embrace and propagate it think they’re being terribly smart.

Given that it’s most often encountered in a business setting, it’s virtually inevitable that “revert” was initially endorsed by higher-ups and subsequently conveyed to and dutifully adopted by the rank and file. Alternatively, it may have been picked up from lawyers, who generally seem to take great pleasure in mangling the English language.

What I fear it boils down to is the warped belief that anyone who speaks naturally, using everyday words and phrases, is inferior and a bit thick. The sledgehammer implication is that someone who says “I will take a look and revert to you” is inherently superior, not to mention conspicuously more proficient, than someone who says “I’ll get back to you” – even though the former is hopelessly, pathetically, idiotically wrong.

The growing abuse of the reflexive pronoun is cut from the same cloth – as in:

“Please contact myself if you require further information.”

This could be deemed appropriate only in a vaguely Freudian sense. If the author were inviting us to establish contact with his id, his ego or some other aspect of his “self”, for example, then all well and good. Otherwise, sad to say, it’s pretentious and lamentably erroneous tat.

Again, though, its reach is considerable. The BBC is remarkably fond. Someone on good old MasterChef – which also serves as TV’s most fecund source of non sequiturs – is almost bound to employ it in the course of an episode. Chirpy DJs regularly fall back on it when introducing their programmes – “Welcome to tonight’s show, with myself, John Useless” – even though (a) there are actually very few things one can do with oneself and (b) most of them are far too inappropriate to broadcast anyway.

Unfortunately, the normalisation of deviance is precisely that: the misguided or mistaken gradually becomes accepted, often to an irreversible extent. Some might argue, perhaps quite reasonably, that this is a key element of how language evolves – that there’s invariably a tipping point at which sheer prevalence alone is sufficient to render legitimate (and maybe even preferable) something traditionally regarded as incorrect; but there’s more than a hint of Orwellian Newspeak about it, both in its sheer corrosiveness and in its creeping totalitarianism.

That’s why stuff like this is always worth moaning about, however tedious or futile the complaints might seem to some. When the weight of the corporate lexicon becomes so suffocating that even the most basic traces of warmth and personality are crushed, when even simple correspondence degenerates into a near-Pavlovian regurgitation of the same “cutting-edge” gibberish, it’s time for a rethink. It isn’t clever. It isn’t even professional. It’s just daft.

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