plain English

Fuzzy writing, fussy reading

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.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

17 Comments

  • Stan:
    When I was editor of a a tabloid entertainment section, I completed my work Thursday afternoon. Friday morning I picked up the published magazine, finding to my horror that I had misspelled a three-letter word in the page one title. People make mistakes; linguistic intolerance is still intolerance. By the way, “12 noon” is one of my favorite redundancies, but sometimes redundancies aren’t redundant.

  • Thanks, Gabe. Criticism rarely strikes me as malicious, but its tone is sometimes unkind and aggressive, which can be counterproductive (though occasionally justifiable).

    Marc: It’s often the short words that slip by — they draw far less attention to themselves. Patience with people’s mistakes is a more laudable approach than easy sniping.
    “12 noon” doesn’t bother me, but “12 pm noon” would be pushing it.

  • It always feels a little disappointing to learn that sayings which are so embedded in culture that we assume they are proverbs of long standing are, in fact, of recent and traceable origin. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” joins that list, next to “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and various others. The notion that such expressions didn’t exist when my parents were born is highly unintuitive, bordering on inconceivable.

  • Adrian: It is a surprisingly recent phrase, but I wouldn’t share your disappointment at learning that a familiar expression hasn’t been around for a very long time.
    Maybe there are traditional proverbs in other languages expressing the same idea.

  • “Temperatures really struggling” is obscure when one needs clarity. It’s unclear what they’re struggling to do, or why or how. “Excess surface water” is wordy and therefore breaks the rules of clarity. “Overnights tonight” was what the forecaster actually said, and it’s not even English. Roger Harrabin at the BBC is conducting an enquiry into forecasts’ accuracy but his commission seems likely to avoid looking at whether forecasts are understood by ordinary folk. A forecast can be 100% accurate yet only 50% comprehensible. The forecasters don’t speak meteorological jargon but a strange, folksy slang which obscures meaning. Ordinary folk don’t describe weather the way the forecasters do, so they’re unlikely to understand what’s being predicted.

  • Thanks for your comment, Paul. It seems safe to assume that “temperatures struggling” means they’re struggling to climb, i.e., that they’re remaining low. “Excess surface water” is wordy, I agree, but I don’t know what rule it’s supposed to have broken.
    Jargon is a potential problem whenever specialists communicate with a general audience, but I don’t remember ever having significant trouble understanding a weather forecast.

  • Good to hear from you, Stan, and thanks for the blog. For clarity one needs it to be more than “safe to assume” something about an obscure expression. If temperatures are low, say so. Wordy text breaks the rule against wordiness which, if you’ve just got 1:58 to forecast a whole nation’s weather, is crucial. My point about forecasters is that they don’t use technical words but a weird slang. When “specialists communicate with a general audience” it’s incumbent on them to speak normal language, not for us to learn theirs. You say “I don’t remember ever having significant trouble understanding a weather forecast” and I hope, in time, to prove that we think we understand more than we do because of the funny language used. It’s less what it says than what it fails to say. Forecasting costs taxpayers millions every year and we need our money’s worth (and not to get wet). BTW, please could the text in these boxes be black rather than grey?

  • Thanks for expanding on your points, Paul. They’re fair, and well made. I rarely see weather forecasters rushing their speech, so it didn’t occur to me that time constraints were a significant problem. But maybe they are, and in any case short and simple words are generally to be preferred: low rather than struggling, to return to that example.
    I don’t have a say in the colour of text in the comment box, but I’m sure those who do will consider your request, if it’s feasible.

  • Thank you, Stan. Forecasters have told me that they inevitably talk against the clock. As for “struggling”, we can only assume that it means “low”. That’s part of the problem of dealing with obscurity: you’re never sure that you’ve clarified it correctly because the starting-point is one of at least partial ignorance.

  • “Excess surface water” is, I suppose, to be replaced with “flooding”, but the one sounds like a little water on the roads, watch out for hydroplaning, and the other like feet of water, be prepared for detours.

  • The fact that we have to conjecture what the forecasters’ language might mean that it’s not clear, and the forecasters are addressing each other rather than us.

  • Ridger, Paul: Excess surface water sounds less severe to me too; maybe this consideration informed the choice of wording in the case referred to.
    Even the plain term flooding can be vague enough to require modification, as in heavy flooding, widespread flooding, localised flooding and so on. Sometimes forecasters’ utterances are unclear because they can only say so much, and can’t cover every possiblity or local situation.

  • Many thanks. Forecasters do work within time-limits but they waste a lot of that time with padding. If they cut the padding and used more accurate language, forecasts would be better, This can be demonstrated.

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