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Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language Hardcover – May 9, 2005

17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The publisher of Lynne Truss' phenomenally successful Eats, Shoots & Leaves [BKL Je 1 & 15 04] now brings out a book on language that has been a best-seller in Australia. It is not, like Truss' book, a treatise on punctuation; however, it does share that book's passionate concern about the erosion of language, especially public discourse as practiced by businesspeople, academics, journalists, and politicians. Watson makes an eloquent, elegant, and sometimes scathing case for taking back the language from those who would strip it of all color and emotion and, therefore, of all meaning. Watson deploys devastating examples of the deadening effect of our current use of language by recasting the Gettysburg Address and Shakespearean dialogue in corporate business-speak. Furthermore, he argues that politicians use obfuscating language to foster a climate of deceit: "Spin abounds. Whatever is most hackneyed triumphs. . . . Language goes out the window, and with [it] many opportunities for humor, spontaneity, originality, and surprise." With admirable clarity and logic, Watson makes the decay of language an issue of prime importance for everyone, not just wordsmiths. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


…A fine and necessary book. Any citizen who neglects to read it does so at his or her peril. -- Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham; First Edition edition (May 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592401406
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592401406
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,356,541 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By en on May 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book was recommended by a friend in Australia, where it was a best seller. Watson's points--that management and political jargon are the enemies of both clear writing and the more poetic kind, while serving to obscure facts--are well taken. But they could easily have been made in 30 pages, rather than 150. A few examples of how to fix some of the sentences are useful, but the real-life examples of jargon like "Key Performance Indicators" (KPI) quickly grow tedious.

To get the same lessons in one-tenth the time, skip this book and re-read Orwell's essay "Politics and the English language".
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73 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Tom Holzel on June 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Nothing should be easier than to agree with than a book that takes exactly the same position on a subject dear to my heart--writing clearly and succinctly. Yet "Death Sentences," which does a good job of trotting out a shoebox full of mangled bureaucratese, only shows why clear writing is not the same as clear thinking. Australian writer/intellectual Don Watson's work starts sanguinely enough. He lists scores of examples of the deadening incomprehensible corporate-speak, military-speak and advertising-speak. "Employment outcomes," "quality participation opportunities," and "major change drivers," are just some of the oleaginous verbal slop thickly slathered on as mission statements, empowerment manifestos, or the proclamation of multicultural diversity.

At the beginning of the book I felt myself nodding in agreement with the many examples of the problem, a problem that not only offends sensibilities (of requiring writing to be understood), but which seems almost designed to conceal meaning.

Yet, after 40 pages of examples interspersed with homilies, I began to experience a sense of uneasiness. O.K., professional writing is going down the tubes; now what? By 60 pages I became impatient. Yes, much corporate-speak is abominable; what's next? Why, other than being ugly, is this bad? And is there a cure?

Well, there was nothing next--only another 120 pages of more of the same. No indication of the extent of the problem. No explication of any actual harm. And no cure was mooted. The only change of cadence was a lurch into a series of anti-Bush barbs, as if he were the only American politician who ever mangled the English language.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By The Honourable Husband on February 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Let me dissent from the praise this book has received.

I found Watson's style overblown and pompous. He criticises modern discourse for lacking both passion and clarity. Fair enough. But he confuses the two; passion doesn't make for clarity. Often, the opposite.

Some occasions demand a cool head, and the writing which describes them should reflect that.

For example, Watson spends most of page 31 arguing why he prefers the phrase "universities are under siege" to "universities are under pressure". The second phrase smells of "21st century secular Methodists", whereas the first calls to mind the Trojans, who, like their counterparts in academia, live behind walls and who "have something the besiegers want--not a woman in this case, but their submission certainly."

To use an old-fahioned Australian phrase, get your hand off it. "Under pressure" will do just fine, thanks.

Colour and metaphor are great. But too much makes for verbal sludge, just as thick and gooey as the bureaucratic double-speak Watson criticises.

I really don't need to hear that modern official language obscures rather than informs. Orwell and others established that long ago. Where's the new spin? Watson gives none.

On p. 139, he observes that Martin Luther King knew a good speech is like a song. A good book isn't. I personally found Watson's constant chorus of disgust a little hard to listen to, over and over, gilded with obscure references and going nowhere.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By The Lifelong Learner on November 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
The author makes excellent points about the wind of pompous, meaningless jargon and deceptive spin that has swept through government, business and academia. I personally trudged through a lot of this muck in the social "sciences" and share the author's concern for the erosion of the language. We are losing our ability (or is it will?) to say what we mean in a way that is easy to understand and worth the reader's time.

Chapter 1 should be digested by everyone whose job requires them to write or speak. In the beginning I thought the book was a 4; by page 58 I was thinking 3 stars; and by chapter 3 it was in freefall. His own writing bogs down in muddy thinking and poorly chosen examples. I lost sight of his sails as he drifted off point and disappeared in a fog of philosophical opportunism.

I still recommend chapter 1, but get it from your library. It's not worth the money.
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Format: Hardcover
Don Watson, Death Sentences: How Clichés, Weasel Words, and Management-speak Are Strangling Public Language (Gotham, 2005)

Are you sick of the idiocy that seems to be inherent in mission statements? Have you ever attempted to read a book of laws--the rules by which we are all supposed to live in this country--and given up in utter frustration at your inability to understand any word other than "the"? Do you wonder why no one's said anything original in a TV commercial in decades (assuming you don't simply record everything and fast-forward through the commercials, as I've been doing for years)? In that case, Australian curmudgeon Don Watson's rant on the dumbing down of the English language is right up your alley.

I tend to like my grammar books replete with footnotes and diagrams, but Watson is pointing out features of the modern language that don't require them; it's easy to find a plethora of examples of everything he attacks by just looking around us. Open up a company's annual report, or just look at the polished bronze plaque with the company's mission statement on the wall, and you've got examples out the wazoo. And lord help you if you attempt to read some of the crap that gets introduced in Congress. (Given that no one in Congress actually reads the legislation they vote on, which is common knowledge these days, you have to wonder--who's writing the stuff? No, I don't know either.) It all makes Watson (whose government, it seems, is as awful as ours when it comes to this stuff) want to beat his head against something pointed, and I have to agree with him. Given the book's bestseller status, I'm not the only one by a longshot.
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