Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ready Shreddy Go

As my regular (and indeed constipated) readers will know, I am something of a champion for plain English. This doesn't mean that I hate big words or flowery prose or acronyms. It means that I firmly believe that the ultimate courtesy is to write in a style that suits your readers. When you think about it, the main purpose of writing is to communicate the thoughts of one person to the brain of another when face-to-face contact is not possible. If that communication is written in a style or form that the predicted reader won't understand, then the communication has failed.
So when I see sentences like 'A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit' (Luton Council), or 'Aligning the drivers, values and principles with the objectives is the key to unlocking the strategy. When they are fully aligned, they will illuminate the actions that need to be taken in the region' (South West of England Regional Development Agency), I get quite annoyed. There are many people who would not understand these terms. And there are people with reading difficulties, or for whom English is a second or even third language, who wouldn't have a clue what they mean. The rule of thumb is that if an average person won't understand what you've written after one reading, it's not plain English.
I guess the best way to look at it is that if you're a microbiologist writing for other microbiologists, it's perfect acceptable to use complex language and scientific terms. There's a shared lexicon. But if you don't know who you're writing for, or you're writing for a large cross-section of the public, keep it plain. The main advantages of plain English are:
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.
Plain English isn’t Janet and John writing; you don’t have to over-simplify words. It doesn't change the meaning of your message - It just makes it easy to understand. Banks, insurance companies and solicitors now produce plain English documents without losing meaning. Even the South African constitution was written in plain English. It promotes good grammar, but doesn’t insist on perfect grammar. In fact, some of the older supposed ‘rules of grammar’ are complete nonsense. It doesn’t ban new words or long words. And it is not an amateur version of English. In many ways, it is harder to write in plain English than in Gobbledegook. It’s not quite as easy as it looks.
So there you go. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because Plain English Campaign - the bane of those who would write in gobbledegook - is 30 years old this year and, to mark the occasion, it is launching a global shredding campaign to rid the world of officious forms, ridiculous business jargon and idiotic acronyms. I've done my small part by designing the mascot for the campaign, Ted the Shred. The drawing you see here was the finished design (I've also included an earlier version in red). He's now been simplified for animation purposes and you can see him in action at the brand new Global Shred website. There are wallpapers to download and, as the year goes on, the website will expand.

Want to more about plain English? Email me or Plain English Campaign. Glad to help.


The Factory said...

Totally agree, people like this are ruining our language. I think they hide behind this nonsense due to the fear that we might all realise that they have no idea what they're doing. Time for them to be unmasked.

John Soanes said...

Nice pictures!
In addition, you are congnizant of my tendency to concur with your declarations in relation to clarity of vocabulary (or the lack thereof), for have we not conversed upon such matters heretofore? I like to think so...

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