Saturday, October 18, 2008

Plain Speaking

video

This late night appearance on the Tessa Dunlop show yesterday (once I'd raced home from the Festival Hall) topped and tailed my fortnight of press and radio interviews. That's 18 shows 'in the can' (ooh get me and my media talk). The night before (Thursday) I took part in a live on-air three-way chat on Radio City Liverpool with presenter Pete Price and Marie Claire, press officer for Plain English Campaign. The topics of discussion ranged from my book to my police career to swearing to punctuation but, running like a spinal chord throughout, was the subject of plain English. It's something I've championed for many years and have mentioned on this blog more than a couple of times. So I will take this opportunity (as I have some newer readers) to once again dispel some myths.

Firstly, plain English is not 'dumbed-down' English. It's just clear English. It means writing in a style appropriate for the anticipated readers. It means writing in a way that the average reader will understand it after a single reading. It means choosing clear, unambiguous words that promote understanding without changing or losing the meaning of what you're saying.

Secondly, it does not suck the joy out of English. I delight in my native language. I love discovering new words. But, like any skill, you adapt it to suit your audience. The way that I would phrase an informational leaflet is very different from the way I'd write a poem.

Thirdly, it does not ban big or difficult words. Hell no. It does the reader good to have their vocabulary expanded so you can use as many big words as you like provided (a) you explain what the word means at its first appearance, or (b) you do not let that word change the meaning of the sentence. For example, I began my introduction to Joined-Up Thinking with the line: 'An interesting and serendipitous thing happened to me a couple of years ago.' Now, if the reader doesn't know what serendipitous means, they have two choices here. They can go and look it up. Or they can ignore it and carry on reading. Not knowing that single word will not affect their understanding of the sentence. All they've missed is a tiny nuance i.e. the fact that the interesting thing was the result of a 'happy accident'. Of course, you don't drop an unfamiliar word into every sentence as that would soon become tiresome. Variety is the spice of life after all. Use a combination of short and longer sentences (although try not to exceed 20 words per sentence). And don't be afraid to write as you speak. I started that last sentence with 'and', didn't I? Horror! Sorry, but that's how we speak and I'll be damned if some 18th century scholar is going to tell me that I can't start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. The rule is nonsense, cooked up by people who wanted English to follow the rules of the divine language Latin. In fact, I believe that there is no grammar book that says you can't start a sentence this way (although you may want to try to prove me wrong). The Bible does it. Shakespeare and Dickens did it. And I will do it too, thank you very much.

So remember the Five Cs. Plain English is:

  1. Correct - Use the right words, grammar and punctuation;
  2. Clear - Any reasonable person should be able to understand what you’ve written after one reading;
  3. Concise - A lot of people will be reluctant readers. Their first reaction will be to look at the amount they have to read. Keep it short but not abrupt;
  4. Conversational - Use everyday words in an everyday style. That doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’. Write as if you are sitting opposite a group of your readers. Write the words that you’d use if you were talking to them;
  5. Considerate - Think about your readers’ needs before your own. Only use jargon if you are absolutely sure that all of your readers will understand it.

There. You've been told.

18 comments:

Me said...

I like those five C's, they make sense, unlike most of my ramblings..... x

Persephone said...

I used to proofread my friends' (and their friends' and acquaintances') term papers. The chief obstacle was their conviction that term papers require academic-sounding English, much as I tried to assure them that their professor were far more likely to assign high grades to papers that they could actually understand. One day, I was wading through a particularly obfuscatory essay when the young man responsible snootily told me that the reason I didn't understand was that I knew nothing of the Irish Potato Famine. I don't remember my precise words, but they were something along the lines of "Famine Shmamine! This &*%$@ construction doesn't even exist in English!"

Maybe I wasn't clear enough....

Lisa said...

I wish you'd come and work at the museum I work for. We aren't allowed to use big words because they are frightening. I've tried to explain that I learned, at a young age, to use a dictionary but they told me to 'bugger off'. We have to aim all our text for 7 year olds and hope that the adults don't mind the simplistic, childish tones. They usually do.
I might just have to print out your words of wisdom and staple them to forehead of our marketing manager who has a problem with people actually learning things. In a museum? Heaven forbid.

Lisa

Debby said...

This war a particlary fine post, Stevyn, expecially the 5 c's, which mattered a great deal, but most people and my dog do not understand. You got a gift, ya twit.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Me - It's not rocket science is it? I came up with the five Cs when trying to spread the gospel among fellow trainers. It worked, I'm pleased to say.

Persephone - Great story! While on air the other night I told this true story ... a few years ago I did an English degree with the UK's largest postal university. And, being academia, they expected my essays to be written in a particular style. And that bugged me because every essay was turgid, dull and full of pomp. So, as I'd accrued enough credit and knew that I could afford to fail on one assignment, I wrote an essay entirely in plain English. I still passed but had a stern warning from the tutor: 'We had to pass you because you covered all of the points required. But don't ever submit an essay like this again.' Amazing isn't it? Lambasted for writing something clearly!

Lisa - This is a common fallacy. It is a fact that the average adult reading age is somewhere between 10-12. Now before, dear readers, you begin to spit vitriol at our schools and colleges, bear in mind that 10-12 is actually okay. Take an average child in that age group and you'll find that they have a pretty huge vocabulary. Chances are, by the age of 12, you knew most of the words you now use in adult life. But that doesn't mean that you write as if your audience is 10-12years old. You write in clear, understandable English. And as a museum is a place of learning, help people to learn! Explain what the big scary words mean. Show how they are pronounced. If we shy away from expaining complex terms and concepts, we run the risk of dumbing our kids down. I, for one, found it stimulating and challenging to learn how to spell words like ankylosaurus, mitochondria, iridium and pshent ... and know what they mean too. Fight on, Lisa, fight on! I'm right behind you!

Oh, and welcome to the blog!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - I do believe those drugs might be kicking in ...

willow said...

Did this box eat my comment? Well, I like the five cs plain English.

Do you keep changing your picture, or is it my imagination? I feel like you are on live closed circuit and are watching me from your little screen!

Debby said...

I was making use of the 5 c's...

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - You're the second person who tells me that a comment has been lost. Hmmm. Blogger playing up again? And yes, I change my profile picture occasionally. As do you! Nice new B&W now. It was you looking all windswept by a lake before wasn't it?

Debby - LOL!

Persephone said...

. . .a few years ago I did an English degree with the UK's largest postal university . . . .
Wow, there must be really erudite mail carriers in England! I mean, real "men (and women)of letters"! Tell me, after being dressed down for writing plainly, did you "go postal"?

(I'm assuming this is something like the University of the Air?)

Stevyn Colgan said...

And there's me being SO good and trying not to mention the name of the University because they actually do a Hell of a lot of good stuff ... Clue: Not the Closed University.

University of the Air. I quite fancy that. Correspondence courses by balloon. Or free-fall examinations.

Lisa said...

Thanks for that interesting snippet of information there Stevyn. I have to attend a text group meeting tomorrow afternoon. We will be ritually disembowelling the hard work of the Curator of Community History and her text for an exhibition about nurses who came to England from all over the Commonwealth swiftly followed by the Curator of Archaeology's piece for a local church. They are forced to attend as their pieces are 'textually assaulted' as I've christened the process. If I may I will quote your information about adults having the reading age of 10-12. Should get the old goat from marketing choking on her HobNobs.

Lisa

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lisa - Enjoy! I for one will be dunking a HobNob in support of your efforts.

Janet said...

AMEN to that post, Stevyn!

Janet

Stevyn Colgan said...

Janet - Well ... it's not rocket science is it?

Lisa (via Stevyn) said...

Well, I managed a whole hour of text group before the overwhelming desire to stab them all in the eyes with a sharp pencil took over and I had to make my apologies and leave.

Lisa

(posted by me as I accidentally deleted Lisa's comment like the fat-fingered numpty I am. Sorry.)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Lisa - I will buy you a pencil sharpener for Christmas. And a good solicitor.

Lisa said...

Why thank you kind sir.

Lisa