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Deliver Us
November 2009

You may think the Royal Mail is a pretty useless organisation. I recently received a letter from Australia that had been mailed three weeks earlier. But, really, it is not so bad. Had the Royal Mail adopted the ambitions of our Labour government, it would have given up on delivering letters long ago. Instead, it would be delivering on postal services.

New Labour has always preferred to deliver on the things that people want delivered. For example, most want state schools to deliver their children an education. But in 1998 Gordon Brown announced that "it is clear that we have to deliver on education, skills and employment". And only last month Ed Miliband said that his "central challenge" as Energy and Climate Change Secretary, is to "deliver on climate change and energy security at the least cost".

What does it mean to deliver on something? It does not mean to deliver it. When Miliband says that he aims to deliver on climate change, he is not saying that he will deliver climate change. If anything, he means that he will deliver the opposite of climate change. Yet delivering on something cannot mean delivering the opposite of it. For, then, by promising to deliver on education, Brown would have been vowing to create a generation of ignoramuses, which cannot be the message he intended to convey.

The first step towards understanding "deliver on" is to see that, whereas "deliver" takes a concrete noun, such as "letter", "deliver on" takes an abstract noun, such as "postal services". 

This is its great advantage for politicians. It will always be clear whether a concrete thing, such as a letter, has been delivered. That is what makes life difficult for the Royal Mail. But abstract matters are never so simple. Who could say whether or not postal services have been delivered on? Since you do not know what it means, you cannot tell if it has happened. 

"Deliver on" inherits the connotations of clarity and of contractual terms that properly belong to "deliver" when unadorned with the weaselly "on". A politician who promises to deliver on this and deliver on that can sound as if he is making firm commitments to specific outcomes, even though he is doing nothing of the sort. When Miliband says he will deliver on climate change, what can you expect from him? 

Labour ministers have done much damage to Britain. They have eroded our liberty and destroyed the public finances. But they should also go down in infamy for their abuse of the English language. Not only do they blur important distinctions by intentionally misusing words — as when they describe all their spending, no matter how wasteful, as "investing" in public services — they display management consultants' disregard for the beauty of our language. "Deliver on". How revolting.

November 6th, 2009
8:11 AM
I think there is a secret factory of these absurd phrases -- possibly it is located in business schools? At any rate, it produces odd usages that replace the specific words we had before by new generic ones. I have in mind things like "industry" to mean almost any economic activity (the education industry, the tourist industry, the hospitality industry, the leisure industry), or "resource" (noun) to mean almost anything that may assist in an activity (a storeroom is a "resource room", an employee a "human resource", a reference book may be described as "a valuable resource"), or "product" (collective) instead of whatever-it-is-that-your company-produces. There may be a place for these words, but not in ordinary life. What does worry, rather than amuse, me is the way these vague terms drive out the more precise vocabulary we had in the past. It gets ever more difficult to remember that "we sourced our raspberries from X" really means something like "we bought raspberries from X".

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