Going Forward

Since I’ve recently been officially awarded the title of Grumpy Old Man, I now feel I have the necessary authorization to vent my spleen about anything and everything that really irritates me.

This morning I got my regular monthly credit card statement, something likely to put me in a bad mood at the best of times. However, at the end of the itemized list of payments, I found the following:

WE ARE PHASING OUT CREDIT CARD CHEQUES. GOING FORWARD WE WILL NO LONGER ISSUE ANY CREDIT CARD CHEQUES.

I don’t actually care about the credit card cheques – they’re a ridiculously bad way of paying for things anyway -  but what on Earth is the phrase going forward doing in that sentence?

I’ve taken a swipe at this monster once before, when I blogged about the Wakeham Review of Physics. The example I found then was

The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.

Aaargggh!!

Going forward is one of those intensely annoying bits of office-speak that have spread like Swine ‘flu into the public domain. Pushing the envelope is another one. What does it mean?  Why would anyone push an envelope?

Anyway, the worst problem with going forward is that it is now used almost universally in official documents instead of more suitable phrases, such as in future, or from now on. What particularly irritates me about it is that it is usually part of an attempt to present things in a positive light even when they clearly don’t involve any forward movement at all; often, in fact, quite the opposite. It is just one symptom of the insidious culture of spin that seems to be engulfing all aspects of public life, making it impossible to deliver even a simple message without wrapping it up in some pathetic bit of PR. Any kind of change – whether or not there’s any reason for it, and whether or not it improves anything – has to be portrayed as progress. It drives me nuts!

This sort of language is frequently lampooned by Laurie Taylor in his brilliant weekly column for the Times Higher.  The Director of Corporate Affairs for the fictional Poppleton University, Mr Jamie Targett, contributes regularly to his column, always in meaningless business-oriented gibberish of this type. In fact, shortly after reading the Wakeham Review quoted above, I sent a letter to the Times Higher (which was published there) accusing Jamie Targett of moonlighting from his job at Poppleton to work on the Wakeham Report.

In the case of my credit card cheques, the implication is that the withdrawal of the service represents some sort of progress. In fact, it’s just to save money. A friend of mine who uses a local gym told me today that the gym had recently announced that

Going forward, members of the gym will no longer be supplied with free towels.

They went on to portray this as a great leap forward in caring for the environment, but in fact it is obviously just a way of saving their costs. Likewise with a sentence I found in a railway timetable recently:

Going forward the 8.15 train from Paddington will no longer call at Didcot Parkway

At least it’s still going to call at Didcot when it’s going backwards, which is the obvious implication of this sentence.

I’m glad I’m not alone in my disapproval of going forward.  A year or so ago there was an article on the BBC website making much the same point. However, the amount of going forward has continued to increase. Robert Peston, the BBC business editor, once managed three going forwards in a four minute item on the Today programme.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has obviously taken this phrase to heart. Their website is chock-a-block with going forward. Here’s an example (referring to a budget cut)

It will result in an approximately constant volume of project activity going forward ..

Obviously, once you start going forward there’s no going back, even if what lies in front of you is financial catastrophe…

PS. Feel free to add your own pet hates via the comments box going forward.

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48 Responses to “Going Forward”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    ‘Ongoing.’ The present government has criminalised so many things which should never have been made illegal that we can at least hope it makes this ghastly non-word illegal. Nine times out of 10 it can simply be excised, without change of meaning; on the tenth occasion the correct word is ‘continuing.’

    But even language is a symptom, as George Orwell explained in his excellent essay ‘Politics and the English language’. You have to worry about the inner state of people who write drivel of this sort. Hopefully that worry is done with compassion rather than hate, although this is demanding when you are up against a bureaucracy.

    Anton

  2. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    Credit card cheques are an insidious method by which banks etc exploit their customers by offering them the chance to pay for things they can’t afford in a way which, unlike a normal credit card transaction, is subject to instant interest charges. They are going to stop sending them out not to save money (they are highly profitable), but because the government is about to ban the practice of unsolicited mailing of them. That these cheques will no longer be pushing the envelope is a very good thing, going in any direction you like.

    Incidentally Matt Prior looked very good going forward the other day, while it lasted.

    best,

    Andrew

  3. telescoper Says:

    Andrew,

    I had assumed they scrapped credit card cheques because people just shredded them like I do so the banks realised they were wasting their time. In this case the change in situation might be an improvement, but that still doesn’t give them license to be going forward.

    Peter

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I think that ‘pushing the envelope’ has a sensible origin, among test pilots seeking ways to better the performance curve of an aircraft as a particular parameter varies. It’s not a bad way to deal with bills that arrive in the post either.

    Anton

  5. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    Phrase like “going forward” are scarily like Orwell’s Newspeak. We’ve already got Big Brother, of course; another of my pet hates.

    Peter

  6. There’s “modernise” too – which is a positive-sounding synonym for “change” or “break”.

  7. Here’s one which I’ve seen in a few scientific papers: currently. It can almost always left out. If one is writing in the present tense, then it is clear that something written in the present tense, even without the currently, refers to the present when it was written, even if it is read in the future.

    Some languages have a special tense for something in the future at the time it was written, but where it is clear it will be in the past at the time it is read. The closest I’ve seen in modern English was embroidery on the back of a Hell’s Angels denim jacket: If you can read this, the bitch fell off.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: Grumping of the highest quality. Bravo.

    Considering the many rich possibilities for further outbursts, I think one has to decide which is the worst class of linguistic sin. Your complaint is about meaningless terms, but these are perhaps no worse than “um” in a speaker: in both cases, you just skip over them until something meaningful comes along.

    So my maximum ire is reserved for newspeak terms that try to replace a perfectly good existing word with one that has a more “businesslike” air: grey squirrels driving out red. In parts of Scotland, it’s legal to shoot greys, and I’m certainly tempted to give both barrels to anyone uttering the ghastly “upcoming”. I’ve seen this monstrosity recently on the front web pages of both the BBC and the Royal Society. I’ve asked both of these what exactly they have against “forthcoming”; no reply.

    • telescoper Says:

      John,

      I just looked up “upcoming” in the OED online and found that it has an ancient pedigree in English as a verbal noun, such as in this example from 1387:

      Me dradde {th}e arryvynge and upcomynge of straunge men

      However, the participial adjective form to which you refer is dismissed with a disdainful Chiefly US….

      Peter

  9. Um, what is a credit card cheque?

    In an upcoming post maybe you can explain what a credit card cheque is. And maybe going forward you could include a British to American dictionary.

  10. telescoper Says:

    ppnl,

    There seems little point in devoting an entire post to something that is being discontinued so I’ll just try to explain here. A normal cheque (or “check” to an American) is drawn against the funds in your bank current account (“checking account”). When the cheque is cashed by the recipient the funds are taken from your account.

    A credit card cheque works in the same way except that it is drawn against the credit limit on a credit card. It effectively allows you to use a credit card in a shop or other establishment that doesn’t take plastic but does take cheques. However, as Andrew rightly pointed out, as soon as it is cashed the credit card company charges interest as it would with a cash advance. It’s therefore a very expensive way to pay for something.

    Given that so few places prefer cheques to plastic anyway, they’re not much good from the point of view of the customer although they are potentially lucrative for the credit card company if anyone is daft enough to use one.

    I hope this clarifies the situation.

    Peter

  11. John Peacock Says:

    I looked up “forthcoming” in Merriam-Webster, and they appear to consider it a valid word (lacking the “chiefly British” disdain accorded to “colour”). I therefore submit that “upcoming” is needed on neither side of the Atlantic.

  12. Thomas D Says:

    The trains that ‘arrive into’ a station. No-one outside a train ever says they ‘arrive into’ anywhere… in English, we arrive AT.

    In Germany it was if anything worse: there is a famous form of announcement which goes something like “Due to delays in the operating schedule, Intercity 6923 from Dommelshof to Hunzelbad is expected to arrive about 20 minutes late.”

    In fact there are whole blogs with the title “Verzögerungen im Betriebsablauf”.

  13. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear ppnl,

    Credit card cheques may be peculiar to Britain. While the whole concept of the cheques is negative as far as the customer is concerned, what is particularly objectionable is that the credit card companies send them out unsolicited along with credit card bills. For those in financial difficulties, the temptation to use them to cover immediate costs can be overwhelming, but that then sucks them yet further into debt, from which the card companies then profit from high charges.

    Andrew

  14. Shoot, In America we just use one credit card to pay off another. We don’t need no stinking checks. As long as you can keep the debt moving you are rich.

    I don’t even have a credit card. I have a cash card. Someone would have to threaten to break my knee caps before I would pay card interest rates.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know how they work in the States but over here you don’t pay interest on a credit card if you pay the bill off in full every month within a certain time. I haven’t paid any interest on my card for years. I must be a very bad customer from their point of view. However, with a credit card cheque you don’t get the interest-free period, hence why they are crap.

  15. Anton Garrett Says:

    Use of “refute” where “deny” is meant is another abomination. When I hear somebody say, “I refute that” I would respond: “How?”

  16. Grumpy Old Woman Says:

    “Different to” instead of “different from”
    Nucular
    Feb-you-werry
    “Less than” instead of “fewer than” (A gold medal should be given to M&S, who had a checkout till in their food hall labelled “fewer than 10 items”. There were two young women in front of me, one of whom observed to the other ” ‘ere, why ‘ave thay put “fewer” than – it’s “less than”, innit?”)

    • telescoper Says:

      There’s also the imcomprehensible “different than”.

      I’ve already ranted about the difference between count and non-count nouns here

  17. “Due to delays in the operating schedule, Intercity 6923 from Dommelshof to Hunzelbad is expected to arrive about 20 minutes late.”

    Lost in translation?

    My mother tongue is English and I’ve lived primarily in Germany since 1983. I don’t see anything wrong with the above sentence (other, of course, the fact that the train system here has gotten worse and more expensive since privatisation, though it is nowhere near as bad nor as expensive as in the UK). What am I missing?

  18. Anton Garrett Says:

    People who have had the misfortune not to be decently taught often get the preposition wrong after ‘different’. I tell them to base it on “differs from” – you wouldn’t say “differs to” or “differs than”.

    Following Grumpy Old Woman’s lead, can we include things we particularly like (as well as dislike)? I am fond of ‘alight’ for ‘get off,’ and until recently London Underground advised passengers to ‘alight here’. Only in the event of a disaster is there ambiguity – “fire on underground train, passengers alight”.

    Anton

  19. John Peacock Says:

    Regarding “fewer than 10 items”, didn’t M&S get it wrong? These queues used to be “10 items or less”, but after the change, the threshold is one lower. Literally it now means “no more than 9 items”.

    This is a phenomenon familiar to all programmers. A friend of mine once enunciated his “integer uncertainty principle”: any time you use the variable i in a piece of code, you will find it should have been i-1 or i+1 with equal probability. This happens even if you stick to one language: if you migrate from e.g. Fortran to C, the level of integer uncertainty rises.

    By the way, being grumpy and undeniably old, am I the only one in the world who thinks it’s completely crap that C arrays have to start with element zero? Sometimes, this might be convenient, but not for matrix algebra. With Fortran, you can have your arrays start with element -42 if that’s your convention. How come C doesn’t offer this? And don’t get me started on semicolons…

  20. John Peacock Says:

    There is a “better way of indicating a covariant derivative”: see the appendix of the Penrose & Rindler spinor book. They do all GR manipulations with a graphical notation that looks like a pile of beetles indulging in group sex. Not a mu or nu to be seen.

  21. “By the way, being grumpy and undeniably old, am I the only one in the world who thinks it’s completely crap that C arrays have to start with element zero?”

    No, really in computer science that’s best. In a low level programming language you want as little between you and how the computer sees the world as possible.

    I’m not sure why it is a problem with matrix algebra. Besides you could cook up something to let you do FORTRAN style arrays very easily. I just don’t see why it would be worth the very minimal bother.

  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    If it’s minimal bother then why didn’t the writers of C do scientists a favour (or favor) and do it? I want as little between the world and my model of it as possible, and the first line is the first line not the zeroth line.

    Convert to Clifford Algebra as the way to express GR – mu and nu are *so* 20th century.

    Anton

  23. John Peacock Says:

    ppnl:

    “I’m not sure why it is a problem with matrix algebra. Besides you could cook up something to let you do FORTRAN style arrays very easily. I just don’t see why it would be worth the very minimal bother.”

    If you think this is trivial, have a look at Numerical Recipes in C and see the trouble Press et al. had to go to just to have numbering that’s sensible to a human rather than a computer. I’d be happy with your defence that C is a “low-level” language if people didn’t increasingly insist on using it for the sort of problem for which Fortran was designed.

  24. John Peacock Says:

    And with a complete lack of connection to my last comment, why is it that so many people seem to confuse “likely” and “probably”? You can say “sending comments to this blog is probably a waste of time”, but this sentence shouldn’t be used with “probably” -> “likely”. You need to say “sending comments to this blog is likely to be a waste of time”. For a peak of ugliness, combining all the above elements, one might speculate that interest on this topic will start to wane henceforth: “less comments are likely upcoming”.

    • telescoper Says:

      All that glitters is not gold, and not everything that ends in -ly is an adverb.

      • telescoper Says:

        Somebody just sent me an email accusing me of “pedanticism”.

        Fool!

        The word is “pedantry”…

  25. The problem IS that people are using C when they should be using Fortran. If everyone wrote Fortran and no-one wrote C, the world would be a better place.

    Of course, the statement is equally valid if one replaces “Fortran” with “VMS” and “C” with “unix”.

    There’s the C programmer who got mad when his airline said he couldn’t check in 3 bags without paying extra. Pointing to them and counting, he said “Where’s the problem? 0, 1, 2!”

  26. Another question for John, errrmm, Professor Dr. Peacock: Why do you have to program in C? What’s the point in being a distinguished professor if one’s underlings can’t maintain a Fortran compiler on the institute computers? :-)

    On the other point: enlighten us on the difference between “probably” and “likely”. One has a Latin root and the other a Germanic, but other than that, what’s the difference?

  27. OK, probably is an adverb and likely an adjective…I was thinking of something more subtle. :-|

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, adjectives ending in -ly are far from unusual in English. Excluding ones that can actually be adverbs as well – such as “daily” – here are some others:

      elderly, friendly, lovely, holy, lively, lonely, silly
      ugly, costly, curly, deadly, unfriendly, bodily, chilly
      cowardly, disorderly, easterly, ghastly, ghostly, grisly, heavenly, hilly, homely, jolly, kindly, leisurely, manly, measly, melancholy, miserly, niggardly, northerly, oily, orderly, quarterly, scholarly, sly, smelly, southerly, stately, surly, timely, unruly
      unsightly, untimely, westerly, wobbly, woolly

      So I don’t see why likely is such a problem for so many people.

  28. Because C is a low level programming language and you are dealing with high level concepts. C gives you the ability to efficiently build any high level data structure not just the ones offered in a high level language. For example the FORTRAN array handling routines may well have been written in C.

    Even C compilers are mostly written in C.

    At its simplest an array element is just a pointer and an offset. The first element is at offset zero. Zero is the array index we use to refer to that type. The second element is at offset one times the size of your data type. Its array index is one. And so on. This forces you to look at memory the same way the computer does. It is a low level view. The address of an array element is simply the array pointer plus the offset times the size of the data type.

    This is how all all arrays in any language works. The difference is that higher level languages hide the details from you. If you don’t need to know those details then it makes your job simpler. If you do need to know those details a high level language can make your job a nightmare.

  29. John Peacock Says:

    Philip: “why do you have to program in C?”. Because my collaborators and students don’t know fortran, and when they ask for my help finding their bugs, I don’t feel “go away and rewrite the code from scratch in a sensible language” is an adequate response. Or rather, I do give this response to undergraduates. In its wisdom, our Physics dept insists on teaching scientific programming in Java (something about transferrable skills, probably). So when final year undergraduates turn up to do projects, they’ve no idea how to read in numbers from an ascii data file, never mind a binary one. In these circumstances, it’s quicker to spend the first 10% of the project teaching them how to actually get something useful done with the computer.

  30. @ppnl: The whole purpose of a high-level language is to hide things from the programmer. Ever programmed in assembler? Or hex? Not something the typical astronomer needs to do. In C, arrays might have something to do with pointers, but not necessarily in Fortran, even if some Fortran compilers implement them that way (some are even written in C).

    The Fortran standard says very little at all about low-level stuff. Very little.

    Feynman once described a setup where cards were passed from one computer (meaning a young woman with a mechanical calculator) to another, each one doing some calculations, noting the result on the card and passing it to someone else. In principle, one could implement a Fortran compiler in this manner.

    Here’s my one-line STANDARD-CONFORMING Fotran compiler, by the way:

    $ WRITE SYS$OUTPUT “Program too complex for processor”

    I’ve even ported it to unix:

    # echo “Program too complex for processor”

    It really is standard-conforming, but the quality of implementation is low.

  31. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, Philip,

    I had the bad luck to be at school in the 60s/70s, when teaching grammar was frowned on. So I barely know the difference between a verb and an adjective.

    But fortunately, this is not necessary. Distinguishing right and wrong in English isn’t a matter of logic (as all foreign students discover): you just need to know the way it is. A native speaker reads enough text, and then their brain gets populated with a lookup table. So I don’t know why probably and likely are different: they just are.

    And this is probably why pedants like me resist changes to the language, such as “likely” driving out “probably”: if your look-up table gets corrupted, and if it wasn’t generated from a formula in the first place (which Good English is not), then you’re scuppered.

  32. “In its wisdom, our Physics dept insists on teaching scientific programming in Java (something about transferrable skills, probably). So when final year undergraduates turn up to do projects, they’ve no idea how to read in numbers from an ascii data file, never mind a binary one.”

    That’s what I feared. It would probably surprise them to learn how much real, serious computing outside the academic world is done in COBOL. Inside the academic world, there is still a lot of Fortran, especially in weather and climate research. Even within astronomy, there is still a lot of Fortran. I once heard someone at a conference whisper “Guinevere’s code is all Fortran”. Shame on her; naughty, naughty girl!

    I actually heard about someone who had applied for a non-academic job and listed Java and C++ on his resumee. His potential boss said “What’s the point in mentioning that you have skills in obsolete programming languages?” Go figure.

  33. Is our language evolving or decaying? Who knows, but this cartoon from Bizarro.com made me laugh:

    http://files.myopera.com/clean/files/bizarrocourtroom.jpg

    • telescoper Says:

      Omar

      I don’t really mind whether it’s evolving or decaying, just as long as it’s not going forward…

      Peter

  34. Anton Garrett Says:

    Philip,

    Apart from the difference of which you are already aware, that ‘probably’ is an adverb and ‘likely’ an adjective, be assured that there is NO difference in the grade of probability involved.

    An excellent book on the history of the concept of probability, prior to its quantification in the mid-17th century, is “The Science of Conjecture” by Jim Franklin. Mediaeval scholars had endless wrangles about this sort of thing and it still goes on on court today, where juries have to assign probabilities to somebody’s guilt or innocence given the evidence without ever getting quantitative. It was mainly in mediaeval law that the concept of probability was developed prior to its quantification; of 7 men prominent in early mathematical probability, all were either lawyers or sons of lawyers. (The first problems to be solved were gambling problems merely because those were the only ones too hard for intuition but easy enough for solution by the first generation of quantifiers.)

    It makes no difference what word you use – probability, credibility or credence, prospect, verisimilitude, likeliness, plausibility, chance, conviction, expectance, confidence, surprise, certainty factor, confidence coefficient, etc. The underlying concept is how strongly one thing implies another; or, more formally, how strongly one binary proposition (‘A’) is implied to be true upon supposing that another one (‘B’) is true, according to the known ontological relations between the referents of A and B. If you denote this by p(A|B) then the Boolean algebgra of binary propositions now induces an algebra for the p’s, which turns out to be the sum and product rules, as shown by the unsung hero RT Cox in 1946. On the basis of this isomorphism I call p the probability, but if any frequentists object then I am happy to say that the extent to which one proposition implies another is what you want in all real problems, and with these formulae (and one or two other ideas from symmetry) I can find it without wasting time in semantic arguments.

    Anton

  35. I particularly dislike people writing ‘could of…’ when they clearly mean ‘could have’, but mangle the pronounced ‘could’ve’.

    Also annoying is ‘try and do something’. Trying and doing are not separate, we don’t say ‘attempt and do’, but rather ‘try to do’.

  36. Many people confuse the probability of the data given the model with the probability of the model given the data. This can be quite important in court cases where circumstantial evidence is involved, in some countries literally a matter of life and death.

    Any reference to Bayes when explaining the difference is likely to go over the head of a typical juror or even judge. I once saw this nice explanation: My data is that a person is pregnant, and my model is that the person is female. The probability of the data given the model is about 3%. The probability of the model given the data is 100%.

  37. [...] If the phrase “going forward” appears anywhere on the STFC announcement page, then I won’t be responsible for my [...]

  38. [...] I wish you all a very happy New Year going forward! [...]

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