Going forward, I give up. Until a month ago I thought the way forward was to protest at the use of this horrid phrase. But now it is time to admit defeat. “Going forward” is with us on a go-forward basis, like it or not.
The defeat became plain last month in a speech given by Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was trying to persuade the financial sector to drop its traditional prose style, which has become so convoluted, legalistic and boring that retail investors routinely sling all documents in the bin unopened. Instead, he urged them to try short, clear and profound instead. They should aim at the style he once used when talking to a young woman. In just four plain words he said: “Will you marry me?” With even more impressive brevity, she replied: “Yes.”
Mr Cox’s speech was funny and clear and true and was one of the best pleas I have seen for clear language. Yet sitting in the middle of it was the following sentence. “Still, although the learning curve will certainly flatten as we go forward, this year it was steep.”
As we go forward? The fact that such a decent wordsmith should say this in a speech on plain English is devastating. It shows that the fight is lost. One might argue that “as we go forward” is better than “going forward” but the difference is minimal. The first trouble with the phrase is that it is almost always redundant. Here is a typical example taken from a recent report by the Federal Reserve: “Increased uncertainty has the potential to restrain economic growth going forward.” The last two words could and should be simply crossed out.
If, on occasion, there is a need to spell out the idea of the future, we have some perfectly good words already. For pompous people there is “henceforth” and, for the rest of us, there is “in the future”.
The second trouble is that “going forward” seems to gesture confidently towards the future, but is utterly vague on timing. Worse still, the phrase conveys the cheesy and misplaced idea that we are on a purposeful journey to a better place. In fact, the future comes whether you like it or not, with no effort from us. And, in terms of progress, history has confirmed that the future can be a lot worse than the present.
Alone, these problems might be excusable. What is not excusable, however, and what makes “going forward” so lethal, is the way it clings to the tongue of the speaker so that it is uttered again and again. It has become a Tourette’s syndrome for people in the financial sector.
Brady Dougan of Credit Suisse recently managed no fewer than four “going forwards” in one brief interview with the Financial Times. In each case the words attached themselves to the most stupid of utterances. “There’s a lot of liquidity out there ready to actually move into situations where there is value and where there’s viewed to be value going forward,” he said.
If I translate this into the language of “will you marry me?” it means: “There is money in the market ready to be used to buy things that people consider undervalued.” And then you see what nonsense it is. Investors never buy anything unless they think it undervalued. That is how markets work.
“Going forward” is so infectious that it has spread from inarticulate bankers and analysts to people who once had a fine way with words. John Makinson was the head of the FT’s Lex column when I joined the newspaper in the mid-1980s and he used to tell me off for bad writing. Now he is head of Penguin and was quoted in the FT two weeks ago saying “we’ll keep a careful watch going forward . . .”. John, how could you?
Going forward is not only infectious, it is constantly mutating into new ugly forms. There is “the way forward”. There is “on a go-forward basis”. There is a new tendency to use it as tense modifier for people who can’t grasp the future tense. So you stick in a going forward, and then proceed in the present. “Going forward, we give feedback at every milestone.”
My personal crusade against the phrase has done no good at all. In fact, it has done harm. A year or so ago I became a non-executive director and in my first board meeting the others were debating whether to write “in the short term” or “in the medium term” on a press release. I piped up: how about “in the future”, and then, putting on an ironic voice, suggested “or going forward, as it is now known?” The irony was missed, and fellow directors seized on it. “Ah yes!” they said, and “going forward” was put into the document. This was very discouraging. I had been hired on the board to take jargon out, not put it in.
I’ve tried to find where this phrase comes from and it seems it may have been created by the SEC itself. Its rules on “forward-looking statements” require that anything about the future be weasel-worded and the “going forward” construction suits it well.
This explains why the phrase sits so comfortably alongside the feeblest ideas, but feels wrong against anything lucid. This being the case, “going forward” does serve a purpose after all: it is a signal that the listener can switch off without missing anything. But no one would ever say: “Will you marry me going forward?” It would invite the answer: “No thank you. I’d rather spend my life with someone who knows how to talk.”