Last week, Stephen Bullon reviewed the 2011 Plain English Campaign awards, to which I’ll now add a few thoughts of my own. The awards aim to recognise the clearest, plainest public language, as well as the “worst examples of written tripe”. Browsing the winners of the Golden Bull category makes for instructive reading, and not just for the reasons you’d expect.
There is writing that has fallen prey to clichés and business-speak, writing that hangs on those vague abstract nouns (“Personalisation Implementation”) that I mentioned in my previous post, writing that seems to owe its oddness to bad translation (“graceful helicopter sprinkler has strong ornamental and funny”), and an outstandingly ornate chunk of “Episcopal legalese”.
Other recipients are less deserving of the unfortunate accolade. As Stephen reported, the UK Met Office was criticised for its “weatherese” (meteorologists’ jargon). But the examples are inoffensive. Temperatures really struggling is a bit vague and anthropomorphic, but excess surface water, though wordier than flooding, is a straightforward and transparent phrase. Overnight tonight is redundant, but that’s not a crime; besides, it might clarify matters if other nights are referred to, as they often are in a weather forecast.
Calling these phrases “tripe” is unfair. I think people’s fussiness can get the better of them. The law of the instrument says, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. If your instruments are an editorial pen and a critical eye, it’s easy to slip into excessive fault-finding – call it the red pen effect. Nitpicking has its uses, but sometimes allowances should be made for context and human fallibility.
Plain English is strong, supple and precise, leaving no room for buzzwords, fuzzy evasions, illogic and obscurity. But we’re all prone to loose language, not to mention typos. I misspelled a word in last week’s post and noticed it only later. Even the Plain English Campaign, which does admirable work in the service of exemplary communication, has a grocer’s apostrophe on its website.
Too often people, including editors, treat minor slips as though they were terrible, shameful acts. I see it a lot on Twitter. This can make people anxious about their language and nervous around editors. Criticism can be constructive and compassionate; why not keep the judgement and scorn to a minimum? Or as Kate Bush put it, be kind to my mistakes – and to other people’s, and to your own.Email this Post