Nounitis on the train


Just as I had settled into my seat on the train and was looking forward to a good breakfast, a voice announced that there would be no restaurant trolley coming down the train “due to a shortfall in staffing levels”.

What had happened? The announcement gave nothing away. Those dull abstract nouns “shortfall” and “levels” don’t conjure up any images of real people. I wondered if someone called Dave had just decided not to turn up for duty. Perhaps Betty had overslept and missed the train. Had Sam the supervisor put the wrong name on the rota? Could it be that the voice was taking revenge on a colleague, making sure he missed his shift so as to get him into trouble? Surely not.

I would never know. I didn’t like to ask the man in the restaurant car, once I had walked the length of the train to get there, as he was probably rather busy “due to a shortfall in staffing levels”. How uninformative those abstract nouns are, how useful to organisations that want to tell you as little as possible, in as vague a manner as possible, and thereby hope to keep up a good front.