Plain Language

If we want to make ourselves understood, then we must write in a way that is easy for people to read. That is so obvious, yet all the time we find examples of language that seem to be written to make it difficult to understand. Before getting down to what can be done, it is important to realise why it happens. The biggest cause is the desire to appear important - especially amongst petty officials. Then their is inertia - not bothering to improve the writing style even when they know it is bad. Beyond just plain ignorance, the last and most unfortunate cause is when there is a deliborate attempt to make things obscure - somthing that politicians do all the time, and is reflected in their writing and that of civil servants.

In the UK since 1979, Chrissie Maher has been campaigning for plain english - to start with on her own, but she soon went on to found the Campaign For Plain English. They have done a great deal to spread the message - especially to the commercial world, with their Crystal Mark recognition scheme which had made a real difference to documents such as insurance policies.

Do take a close look at their website, and make use of their free guides.

Let's start by looking at some gobbledygook words, and their plain english equivalent

Terminate End
Notify Tell
In The Couse Of During
Initially Firstly
Optimum Best
Alternatively Or
Appreciable Large
Authoize Let
Adjacent To Near
Aggregate Sum Of

Now lets look at two examples - both from real life.

Firstly, this sign was seen a couple of years ago on a station in London

It is forbidden to smoke on this station - by order

Firstly, what on earth does By Order mean. It already says you can't smoke. So, let's leave it out.

It is forbidden to smoke on this station

That's a bit better, but since the notice is on the satation, it's pretty obvious that it refers to the station, so let's drop this bit.

It is forbidden to smoke

It is forbiddden to smoke - by who. Why does it matter who - it doesn't say anyway. So how about

No Smoking

So you can see that the process is one of gradually reducing and simplifying. The guidelines to do this are:

- Use short simple words not long complex ones

- Use active verbs not passive ones such as "It Is Anticipated That"

- Use a clear reasonablyl sized typeface such as 11pt Verdana

- Use words like we and you not "the insured" - Keep sentances to 15 - 20 words

- Write like to (UK) Daily Mail or even the (UK) Maily Mirror

For our second example, we are going to look at a sign on a US airforce base.

Waste bins which are provided in offices are to be used only for the disposal of day to day waste paper. These boins are emtied daily. They should not be used to deposit waste food and drink, empty bottles and cans, or paper cups or tea bags. Such items must be disposed of in the plastic dustbins which are provided in the washing-up areas adjacent to the toilets

That's 70 words. What on earth does "which are provided" add to the meaning - presumably to reinforce the generosity of the provider! It's wrdy and full of passive verbs. Lets re-write it:

Waste bins in offices (emtied daily) are only for waste paper, not for food or drink, empty bottles and cans, or paper cups or tea bags. Put such items in the plastic dustbins near the toilets

Phew - so much simpler and easier to understand

What Can I Do?

You should always complain when you come across (find!) examples of gobbldygook. In the UK, write to them and ask them why they don't have the crystal mark. generally, writers in the US use much better english especially in "official" documents and signs. I guess that's 'cause they are not pompous and pompousness is the biggest cause of gobblydegook. Gobbleygook is unfair on people who have trouble understanding English or have reading or learning difficulties however mild. It's unfair on us the readers so never accept it - and never never write it!!!

Serendipity of the Alphabet