In this marvellous post, Tim Phillips rails against the proliferation of meaningless filler words in media releases.
Vague non-words like significant and substantial look like they’re telling us something, but they aren’t. They’re useful for people who have a deadline but no clear idea what they’re writing about; or people who know the numbers, don’t want to tell us what they are, but want to waste our time anyway because that’s what they’re paid to do. Often they are paid by the word, so chucking in a “substantial” here and there is basically free money.
To demonstrate this, he searches through the Factiva database. He found the number of media releases containing words such as ‘significant’ and ‘unique’ has remained fairly constant since 2002. However, the number of media releases containing all four words – significant and substantial and meaningful and unique – has tripled.
Matthew Stibbe picks up this theme and advises PRs to de-hype their text if they want to achieve better results. Sound advice; very few pieces of writing these days could not be vastly improved by taking out all the adjectives. And journalists are just as bad as PRs, in my opinion. Stibbe is rather cynical about the reasons behind it.
I think it is because PRs are paid by effort expended not results achieved and their primary audience is not (as you might think) journalists and their readers, but their corporate masters who pay the bills.
So how do we explain this incredible run of adjective inflation?
Phillips puts this down to “meaninglessness … becoming more concentrated”. Though to be truly scientific, he should not discount a significant growth in substantial uniqueness in the real world over the same period of time.