A spat over language erupts at the World Bank

But arguments over an excess of conjunctions may miss the point

A WAR of words has flared up at the World Bank. Paul Romer, its new chief economist, has been stripped of control of the research division. An internal memo claimed that the change was to bring the operations department and research arm closer together. But many think that it was because Mr Romer clashed with staff over the Bank’s writing style. He had demanded shorter, better-written reports. In the most recent spat, Mr Romer questioned the excessive use of the word “and”. He proclaimed that he would not clear a final report for publication if “and” made up more than 2.6% of the text. His tenacious approach had, it is said, rubbed some employees the wrong way.

The prevalence of “and” is hardly the only or best measure of good style. But used to excess, it can render prose turgid and, at worst, unreadable. One of the Bank’s reports from 1999 promises to “promote corporate governance and competition policies and reform and privatise state-owned enterprises and labour market/social protection reform.”

The 2.6% limit set by Mr Romer roughly matches the prevalence of  “and” in academic work. By contrast, in this week’s print edition of The Economist, “and” accounts for just 1.5% of the text (excluding advertisements).

A study by Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre of the Stanford Literary Lab, a research outfit, analysed the language of the World Bank since its founding in the 1940s. Back then, the average report roughly met the 2.6% standard. By 2012, however, the conjunction took up about 6% of the words in its reports.

Other stylistic sins abound. Acronyms now account for about 5% of reports, up from 3% in the 1970s. Financial terms, such as “fair value” and “portfolio”, also became more popular.

The World Bank’s report-writers face other difficulties, too. In 2014 the Bank’s number-crunchers highlighted the unpopularity of its studies: of the 1,611 documents they assessed, 32% were never downloaded by anyone. Mr Romer has a point: if the World Bank wants its reports to be read, they should at least be readable.

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