Plain and simple

Posted by on December 12, 2011

“What prospects are there for us post the proposals to tackle banana fraud?”

If you read this sentence at normal speed – and without my having drawn attention to it – you might have come briefly unstuck by thinking it has something to do with posting proposals. More careful examination shows that this is a red herring that results from post being used as a lone preposition in place of after (or maybe the writer meant concerning, regarding, in light of or some such phrase).

Subeditor Cathy Relf wrote about this line (with minor changes made for discretion) on her Ranting Subs blog. The usage of post caught her eye, as it did mine, and has done before. She wonders if the writer believed that after was “a bit too dull, straightforward and English”: maybe they wanted, unhelpfully, to “[jazz] things up with a bit of Latin”.

Post meaning after is a useful prefix whose use in moderation is unobjectionable (e.g., post-natal, post-production, post-dated cheque, post-9/11 security measures). But using it as a standalone substitute for after is in some circumstances likely to invite miscues and force readers to reconsider what they’ve just read. They will not thank the writer for this.

There is a tendency – widespread in officialdom but by no means exclusive to it – to jazz up language by replacing plain words with fancy ones for no good reason, for example with what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “vague woolly abstract nouns”. Somehow people feel that simple, everyday language is not impressive enough, and that what’s needed is more abstract and ostentatious vocabulary. Not so.

In a similar vein, I received a letter recently about renewing my driving licence. Referring to a certain piece of information (the possibility that I was dead, I may as well add), the letter asked the reader to “advise this fact” to the relevant government office. Advise this fact is the kind of jargon – officialese, you could call it – that results when let us know is mistakenly thought to be too informal, and tell and even inform too suspiciously plain.

These are minor examples. Every year, the worst types of unclear and convoluted language gain the dubious recognition of a “Golden Bull” or other award from the Plain English Campaign. Macmillan Dictionary Blog reported on the shortlist and winners a couple of years ago, and you can see the 2011 winners – announced last weekend – by browsing the categories on the Campaign website.

When prose is intended to convey information to a general audience, some of whom might not speak English as a first language, it is likely to be effective principally in proportion to its plainness. Plain English does not mean that the style is bland, insipid or unattractive; rather it implies clarity, precision, directness and a lack of pretension, with the most suitable words chosen and in their best positions. This is something to which any organisation can aspire.

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Comments (7)
  • Stan:
    Until I read your explanation, I thought the writer dropped the “to” before “post.” Good example of terrible gobbledygook.

    Posted by Marc Leavit on 12th December, 2011
  • Marc: It’s causing frowns and double-takes now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the usage were to become quite common within a few decades. I’ll be sticking with after, though.

    Posted by Stan on 13th December, 2011
  • Stan, my reaction was similar to Marc’s and was compounded by confusion over what could possibly constitute “banana fraud” . Do tell!

    Posted by Helen on 13th December, 2011
  • Thanks for your comment, Helen. In the phrase “post the proposals”, it’s entirely natural to parse post as a verb. Interesting that this remains the case even when the sentence is made an example of, so to speak. As for “banana fraud”, I suspect this is Cathy’s doing — a way to preserve the anonymity of the source, and to introduce some mystique for good measure!

    Posted by Stan on 14th December, 2011
  • […] Plain and simple discusses an awkward use of post as a preposition, before criticising the tendency — widespread in officialdom but by no means exclusive to it — to jazz up language by replacing plain words with fancy ones for no good reason, for example with what Arthur Quiller-Couch called “vague woolly abstract nouns”. Somehow people feel that simple, everyday language is not impressive enough, and that what’s needed is more abstract and ostentatious vocabulary. Not so. […]

    Posted by Preoccupied by plain language « Sentence first on 10th January, 2012
  • Sometimes bureaucratese is used to protect the writer from having to realize that what they are doing is absurd. Can you imagine even the most blasé civil servant writing “Please let us know if you have died since your last renewal?” Of course, what’s needed is a little more thought, producing something like “If the licence holder has died, please inform us by checking Box B”, or whatever.

    But writing those forms is hard enough without thinking. If one had to think while writing gobbledegook, life would be insupportable altogether.

    Posted by John Cowan on 10th January, 2012
  • John: That’s very true, though the letter the government sent me wasn’t as bad as that; in fact, it approached the matter quite sensitively, albeit wordily: “In some cases […] this letter may be addressed to a person who is deceased. This is deeply regretted as we recognise that this may cause some distress.”
    And then comes the “advise this fact” bit, which I’d sooner had been put more plainly.

    Posted by Stan on 10th January, 2012
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