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Plain Language is the Holy Grail of Communication

Officials are Urged to Use Plain Language - US Office of Insular Affairs
If people would say what they mean, instead of speaking/writing/hiding in cliches, jargon and obfuscation, might understanding be greater?

The Free Dictionary gives meanings of the little-used but useful word, obfuscation. To obfuscate is to make so confused as to be difficult to understand, to dim, to darken, make indistinct or obscure, often used of the truth. Expanded definitions include bafflement, befuddlement, bemusement, disarray, mystification and confusion. All the nuances can be wrapped up in how some people and organisations communicate written/oral information/instruction, and how many people respond.

Plain English, Plain Language

The Plain English Campaign is a commercial editing and training firm based in the United Kingdom, ‘fighting for plain English in public communication’. They oppose ‘gobbledygook, jargon and legalese’. Once, the language they oppose was found mainly in legal documents; nowadays it seems to be everywhere, partly driven by political correctness, and partly by us-versus-them attitude.

Founded in 1979, they work with companies to improve their language and present awards, like the Crystal Mark to show approval of official documents which have the clarity needed to be grasped by their audience; and their Foot in the Mouth Award for ‘baffling comment by a public figure’ (winners include George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and the Golden Bull Award for the ‘worst examples of written tripe’.

UK’s The Times January 2010 reported a Plain English Campaign push about ‘regular coffee’. Because ‘regular’ is meaningless and confusing and not readily understood, they want all coffee to be sold in ‘small, medium or large’. They just want it simple.

In USA, it’s Plain Language rather than Plain English and as evidence of some increasing determination to get to grips with better communication across the government machine, the Securities and Exchange Commission now produce a Plain English Handbook requiring ‘a new style of thinking and writing’. These simplifying ideas are spreading.

Business and ‘Professionalese’

The Plain English Approach to Business Writing (1997) by Edward P Bailey about which William A Donovan writing in Library Journal, said: ‘Stressing the value of using plain (i.e., similar-to-spoken) English, he presents a simple model for organizing most business writing and supplies tips on style, punctuation, layout, and writing methods for oneself or one’s staff’, is one of a legion of books designed to teach people how to simplify language.

Daniel H Pink, writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, July 2010, challenged readers to ‘only speak like a human at work’. He argued that just when customers crave openness and honesty, companies ‘talking professionalese keep customers and colleagues at a distance’.

He said that businesses which take responsibility for major inconvenience to paying customers (like airlines, travel companies, service providers) and merely ‘apologise for any inconvenience caused’, are fobbing people off with mealy-mouthed, unfelt words devoid of any sincerity. Even the way people are treated held in a queue waiting on the phone is indicative of off-hand disrespect.

He believed that with the world awash with consumer information and choice, clarity itself is now a source of competitive advantage. Local authorities, the world of education, medicine and any professional grouping have their own language of codewords, jargon, in-jokes and cliches that exclude non-members from their inner circle, but as Pink said, it’s time to experiment. ‘Don’t say anything to your boss, your staff, your teammate, your supplier, your customer that you wouldn’t say to your spouse or friend’.

Politics, Cliches and Jargon

As long ago as 1946, George Orwell (Eric Blair) recognised a problem in political prose that was formed ‘to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. His essay Politics and the English Language condemned poor language as a ‘contagion’; he advocated simple, plain English.

Leelefever writing on Common CraftJanuary 2009 reported a 12-month study of 1,214 American homeowners and investors that showed huge demand for simple, plain English communications. 84% were more likely to trust a company that uses jargon-free, plain English and President Obama should ‘mandate clarity, transparency and plain English to be a requirement of every new law, regulation and policy’. have examples of some of the cliches that people love to hate, but use. They include: at the end of the day; thinking outside the box; at this moment in time; buy into something; push the buttons or tick all the boxes; ‘the ball is in your court’; ball park figures; it ain’t over till the fat lady sings; Rome wasn’t built in a day; when it rains it pours, and ‘hot enough for you?’

Many of these come from sports, but whether it’s sports, politics, business, healthcare, education or local authorities, somebody, somewhere will be trying to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes; anything but tell the plain truth.

First published on Suite 101 on 5 August 2010.

Photo: Officials are Urged to Use Plain Language – US Office of Insular Affairs

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