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Oct 12, 2012

Come in Spinner: the perpendicular pronoun in business and politics

The lengths that politicians and business leaders will go to convey leadership and responsibility can mean some very irritating language choices, writes Noel Turnbull.

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Reflective politicians and managers often struggle with when to use the perpendicular personal pronoun and when to use collective ones. Collective pronouns can be great for conveying teamwork and/or sharing the blame around. The perpendicular pronoun is supposedly indicative of leadership and responsibility although it can also be very, very irritating.

The problem is illustrated by the forthcoming Melbourne lord mayoral election where the incumbent, Robert Doyle, is standing again. Doyle was a former Victorian Liberal opposition leader buried by Steve Bracks in a landslide. He has now been lord mayor for one term and may be re-elected as the ALP is running dead in this contest.

Two barriers to his re-election are: an array of candidates determined to preference against him; and, the irritation provoked, even among his supporters, by his habit of referring to “my” council and “my” city. As Doyle is also frequently pompous, pedantic and prolix, the habit manifests itself in a deadly context which is definitely not the deadly of indigenous Australian usage.

Someone in his campaign team may have mentioned this to him because his latest direct mail piece to voters may be the first set of sustained words from him which use collective pronouns more than the perpendicular one. This could, of course, simply reflect the fact that the voting pitch is for the lord mayoral and deputy lord mayoral team and be a victory for the pedantic part of Doyle’s approach. But it is a departure significant enough to suggest some forthright campaign advice may have come from someone or other.

Julia Gillard is also a serial offender when it comes to referring to “my” government and frequently uses the perpendicular pronoun when espousing government policy. In her defence this is probably safer than using “we” because that would probably provoke the tabloids and the opposition to accuse her of arrogantly using the royal pronoun. Margaret Thatcher, was a serial collective pronoun user and was accused, probably justifiably, of using it in the royal “we” sense. Westminster gossip suggested the monarchy was not amused by it either.

Most managers are better at this than politicians. The ones who use the perpendicular pronoun a lot also tend to be the sort of people who end up on the front page of business magazines — an infallible indicator of the wisdom of selling shares in the company they run. But better managers are careful about talking about “we”, the group, the team and similar words. One excellent indicator of someone worth working for is if the manager refers to the people who do as working “with” them.

Not surprisingly PR people spend quite a lot of time thinking about when to use which. Sacrifices, such as retrenchments, are always collective even when they are not, and successes can be the same. Corporate apologies are usually “we” because they tend to be prompted by group accountabilities. Political apologies vary according to whether it is a government or a personal failing, although getting someone to make a personal apology for a collective failing is also a proven way of trying to minimise collective blame.

Indeed, for people trying to deconstruct what politicians or managers are actually saying, the perpendicular or collective pronoun choice is a handy, if not fail safe, tell about real meaning.

Meanwhile, on the subject of meaning, Come in Spinner was delighted to discover that “Adlerisation” was a neologism coined by “our” own publisher, Eric Beecher, who now disputes the terms’ usage by Come in Spinner and The Age. However, as with all neologisms, meaning follows usage in ways the originator might not have envisaged. So, whether “Adlerisation” will mean consistent pressure to do something, or whether it will mean wielding an axe through staff and turning organisations upside down will only be known as one or other usage becomes more common. We may even need another neologism to convey both of the current senses of the word — although it might take a portmanteau creation to achieve that.

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