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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified.

Passives will be penned! The first three of these 10 clauses are not passives, but they are exactly the sort of limp, impersonal intransitives (“Things happen”) that writing advisers loathe, and often wrongly accuse of being passives. After that, though, come seven consecutive clauses that really are agentless passives of the evasive sort that Orwell so famously warned us against. No one should be worried if about 13 percent of their transitive verbs head passive clauses, because that’s normal in most prose. But seven short, blunt, mistakes-were-made passives in a row is a terrible piece of writing by anyone’s standards. (Nadella adds that Microsoft staff “must add numerous more changes to this list”; dear God, please no!)

Although grammar is not Nadella’s chief problem, his sloppily written prose does contain syntactic errors. This, for example, is ungrammatical:

We will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences, while maintaining security and privacy.

The complement of between must be either a plural noun phrase (between us) or a coordination with and (between you and me). Thus He divides his time between research and teaching is grammatical, but not *He divides his time between research, while teaching. Nadella’s sentence has the structure of the latter.

The deeper problem, though, is that even with its syntax fixed (“We will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences and maintaining security and privacy”), the statement is platitudinous. Of course the balance struck should be the right balance! Does any organization aim to strike the wrong balance?

Nadella is a fount of such vapidities.

“Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet,” he gushes. But every physical action has some impact on the planet.

“Obsessing over our customers is everybody’s job,” he insists (in one of his four uses of obsess). Are there businesses that admit to seeing their customers as unimportant?

“We help people get stuff done,” he burbles. Oh, for heaven’s sake!

The technology bloggers speculate that Nadella’s 3,100 words of vacant drivel mean that Microsoft doesn’t know where it wants to go today. Some are wondering how writing this bad could ever get produced and sent out to tens of thousands of employees.

Well, in truth your next article or mine could probably be this bad if we labored under Nadella’s disadvantage of being both powerful and unrefereed. It’s a dangerous combination.

His giant company’s near-monopolistic hold on personal computing, together with its creepy ability to foist bloated, sluggish software on users whether they want it or not, has made him one of the most powerful men on earth. Too powerful, it seems, for anyone to edit. Nobody dares tell him that his writing is vague, dishonest pothering, or that his memo should have been ruthlessly pruned and tightened, and given a content transfusion.

I could go on much longer about this. I really could. But I have learned the lesson of Nadella’s turgid document. You’ll notice I’ve said what I wanted to say (at one fifth the length of Nadella’s memo), and stopped.

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