common errors in English language and words in the news things people say that I hate

Plain English Awards 2011

It’s the Plain English Awards season again, as Stan Carey noted in his recent post, and across the country winners are basking in the glory of an award or ruing their luck in being singled out as exemplars of gobbledygook.

One of the recipients of a “Golden Bull Award” (for the year’s ‘best’ examples of gobbledygook) was the British Met Office. Their particular crime was to refer to ‘probabilities of precipitation’ rather than, say, ‘the chances of rain’.

In their defence, they pointed out that the word precipitation covers all sorts of things falling out of the sky, not just rain. There’s also sleet, snow, hail and even, apparently, graupel. Furthermore, as they point out ‘The same weather system could produce snow, sleet and rain across even quite a relatively small area’ so it is not necessarily helpful to specify just one of those. They have a point, but the trouble with precipitation is that it’s thought of as a slightly technical term, in a way that sleet or hail is not. All three are black words in MED, so not among the most frequent 7,500 words in the language, yet only precipitation attracts a subject label in the dictionary entry.

But to my mind, a much more culpable abuse of language was perpetrated by one of the other winners, a low-cost airline, in a letter responding to a customer’s complaint. The first paragraph, of approximately 60 words, reads:

I believe that what has not been explained to you is that it is not a £4.50 card charge, in the process of booking a flight, you will have a booking fee which is for a Credit Card (return journey), booking fee £4.50 and Credit Card supplement £1.00, for a (one way) booking fee £5.50 and credit card charge £1.00.

The second paragraph is even longer, at 83 words, and no more comprehensible.

Surprisingly, the winner of the “Foot in Mouth” award for public gaffes is Silvio Berlusconi – who as far as I know tends to speak Italian. Among other gaffes, he reportedly said ‘I am pretty often faithful’. A gaffe, indeed, but hardly one that transgresses the norms of English.

The “Kick in the pants” award went to an organization that we used to call the Inland Revenue but now have to call Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (informally still known as the taxman, a name that might have been a suitable topic for our gender English month) for the simple fact of having generated ‘an unacceptable amount of public complaints received by Plain English Campaign in 2011’. One wonders whether the complaints were really about the language or about the message.

But as in all years, there are also awards for the worthy. This year’s “International Media Award” went to China Daily ‘For the clear communication of business news to a global audience.’ Congratulations to China Daily, and indeed to all winners of this year’s awards.

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Stephen Bullon

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