…and a pox of participles
- Delivering learning for life within an aspirational culture.
This blog pretends to be about business copy, but everyone knows it’s really about copywriters. Hence, last week’s piece on parking behemoth NCP brought on a twinge of professional guilt. So what if the writer attempted an ‘About Us’ page and came up with a mess of tired and misapplied buzzwords? She must have had her reasons…
This week, the pangs are sharper. Our example text is from a small, benign-seeming educational establishment whose copy we imagine to be the product of one harrassed individual among a tiny crew of overstretched admin staff. But we couldn’t let the Arthur Mellows Village College off the hook, not after it emerged as outright winner in our Google search for the UK’s most hackneyed business statement. Besides, it afforded an open goal by publishing its mission statement, vision statement and objectives on the same page.
We’re singling out that vision statement for particular attention because it exemplifies an odd phenomenon — the Business-Oriented Non-Finite Clause or BONFiC (you saw it here first). The BONFiC requires more explanation than last week’s solutions epidemic, so please bear with us for a para or three.
Grammarians identify several classes of non-finite clause. Most common is the participial non-finite clause, an example of which is highlighted in red below:
Whistling the Marseillaise, he smeared mayonnaise onto the chips.
The red clause, which lacks an explicit subject and has an ‘ing’-type present participle for a verb, is nothing more than a linguistic hack, an extension to the more conventional sentence adjacent which allows the reporting of two simultaneous actions by the same actor. It’s ugly, it’s been around forever, and it didn’t trouble anyone until its co-optation for use in mission statements and the like.
Businesses and organizations worldwide got the mission statement bug a generation or so ago. Since brevity was essential, copywriters soon began experimenting with all kinds of condensed syntax. Among UK writers, a preference for the non-finite clause quickly emerged, and the BONFiC was born. Over recent decades, Brit readers have been exposed to tens or even hundreds of BONFiCs, and as a result have become desensitized to their peculiarities.
Let’s try to change that. Here’s the College’s vision statement again, this time with the BONFiC highlighted:
Arthur Mellows Village College
Delivering learning for life within an aspirational culture.
We’ll begin with the obvious clangers. Blue-pencilling that awkward double participle in the first two words is a good start.
Next up, there’s that weird concluding phrase, syntactically acceptable but ambiguous in sense. If we identify the explicit subject of the underlying verb — a good idea with a rogue gerundive — we must conclude that the College has gone into the business of selling its students’ own ambitions back to them. (It is after all they and not their school who do the aspiring.)
These issues must be considered in context. The BONFiC functions as a kind of syntactic twilight zone. In our example, while the tug of the missing subject is enough to cause a sensitive reader to infer a non-existent colon between the College’s brand and the mission statement, the connection remains implicit. In more extreme cases, the unattached participle may allow a delinquent organization to waffle about ‘raising standards’ or ‘challenging expectations’ without ever once subjecting itself to the discipline of an objective benchmark.
Our rewrite ditches the BONFiC while keeping the sense… and halves the wordcount. We’d be delighted if the Village College and its copywriter were to spearhead a movement to restrict business statements to finite verb constructions.
Arthur Mellows Village College
Let education follow aspiration.