Uniquely meaningless

HMS Unique: confusingly, one of 49 identical submarines

Ah! The irony. Dataram Corporation’s recent press release about measurable performance contains exactly two numbers. The first one is the information that Dataram Corp was founded 42 years ago. The second is that it was founded in 1967. So, to be strict, the press release has one number which is expressed in two different ways.

For each of those 42 years of precision measurement Dataram has apparently been:

delivering meaningful operational improvements and measurable total cost of ownership reductions… Dataram memory solutions have a track record of delivering significant performance and optimization improvements in critical applications.

I’d quote more, but then you’d have to kill yourself.

Trying to get useful information from this release, as with so many crappy self-congratulatory corporate web pages and marketing-driven white papers, is like banging your head against a giant marshmallow. It is vague wherever the precision of which Dataram boasts would be helpful. None of the many extravagant claims in the press release can be usefully understood: the company just speaks well of itself for a few hundred words. It describes operational improvements as meaningful, insight as unique, its applications as performance-driven, the performance itself as significant, its specialists as highly skilled (as opposed to all those generalist specialists out there). The result is a substantial performance improvement. It is, we read, a tremendous opportunity because performance (again) is high and the customer’s cost of ownership is substantially lower.

In other words, two paragraphs of bugger all, if that’s specific enough for you.

I write about this stuff and I have no idea what Dataram is doing here, or has been doing for 42 years, or how well it does it (is “meaningful” 10 per cent or 80 per cent? How low does something need to go before it becomes “substantially” lower?). I could read this tripe for 20 years (which sort of sums up my career so far) and still I’d have no idea.

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.

On Factiva’s database of press releases there’s no clear trend upward or downward in the use of any of the non-words that Dataram employed to such non-effect. That would be too much to expect. Non-words have nowhere to live; so they just lie around in documents year after year, pretending to tell us something. For example, look at the graph of the use of significant and unique since 2002:

Nothing much to see there unless, of course, you are concerned that one in 12 press releases in the last eight years claims that something is unique. This seems to be setting the bar low for one-of-a-kindness.

There is, though, a worrying trend in the data. Since 2002 the frequency of press releases with just one of these annoying non-words remains roughly constant; but in 2009 you were three times as likely to find a release that claims all four of our meaningless words – that something is simultaneously significant and substantial and meaningful and unique:

Non-words are banding together to destroy our ability to think clearly. It’s literally a vague threat. Dataram’s press release is just one example of the wider problem that meaninglessness is becoming more concentrated, if such a thing is possible.

7 Responses to “Uniquely meaningless”

  1. 1 Matthew Stibbe March 10, 2010 at 11:09 am

    This is a significant, substantial, meaningful and unique post. And not, you know, in the bad way.

    I simply don’t understand why press release ‘writers’ think that adding more words and especially adjectives will make the press release more effective.

    In fact, anecdotal evidence and my own experience as a journalist and now as a marketing copywriter, suggests that the exact opposite is true.

    Research by Jakob Nielsen about reading online has shown that hype-free, concise, well-signposted, factual text is twice as memorable as the usual yada yada.

  2. 2 Kimmo Linkama March 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    When writing, these non-words are easily avoided. You can always either skip unnecessary adjectives and adverbs altogether or ask the client for quantification.

    When you’re translating, especially companies’ financial stuff, you often run into problems. Most of the time the vagueness is calculated and must be conveyed in the translation as vaguely.

    Still, it would be nice to circumvent the no-nos. Can anyone point to any good sources?

    • 3 Tim Phillips March 12, 2010 at 12:41 am


      Take your point that when you’re translating you are dragged down to the level of the original document, but my opinion is that there’s really no excuse for the original author to put it there for you to translate.

      Financial reporting especially suffers from an excess of nuance and a shortage of hard information, and copywriting in general often uses the idea that it’s better to be positive yet non-specific. And yet most potential customers who might act on what you write, in business terms, will need more information – the sort of specific information you’re deliberately withholding (It always seems odd to me that we’ve got so accustomed to propaganda and manipulation that this is considered good, or at least normal, practice).

      So vague waffle is most likely to impress people who don’t pay it much attention, and that doesn’t seem to me to be a valuable audience.

      Unless you’re selling sausages. As I understand it, the less you tell your customers about what’s really in a sausage, the more you sell. So for any sausage makers who are reading, I guess claiming “significant” amounts of actual meat and “major reductions” in eyeball content is a positive message.

  1. 1 The tyranny of non-words « Qwerty2009’s Blog Trackback on March 8, 2010 at 2:36 pm
  2. 2 Significant, substantial, meaningful and unique: words to avoid - Bad Language Trackback on March 11, 2010 at 4:31 pm
  3. 3 Speak English, for goodness sake! « CLIVE COULDWELL talks Trackback on March 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm
  4. 4 Significant growth in substantial uniqueness « Josh Mehlman Trackback on July 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm

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