Plain English Please

It is not what you write, it is what you think.

Schools take notice!

If you’ve ever struggled to understand your child’s report, you’re not alone. Here’s an entertaining article from a US parent pleading for school to write in common sense language. “By the time I read to the end of a sentence, I’ve forgotten what the beginning was about,” writes Catherine Porter.

“My daughter ‘is reminded to stay on task, particularly for literacy centres, so that other peers also benefit from this work time’,” she writes. “Does that mean she chats too much during reading time?”

“My son ‘has demonstrated having had some difficulty following a series of specific instructions or steps to establish priorities and manage time to achieve goals.’ I think that means he’s unfocused.”

If the teachers can’t write clearly, what hope is there for the children?

 

Singapore financial institutions urged to end bad writing

Write your finance prospectuses in plain English! That’s the message to finance institutions from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. The regulators are fed up of seeing wordy jargon littering investor finance publications.

A consultation document released today found that much of the information about financial products that goes in prospectuses is so technical, vague and convoluted that it is difficult to understand. This prevents potential investors from making informed decisions. Common problems they identified include:

a) long, wordy and repetitive disclosures;

b) unnecessary, irrelevant or immaterial details;

c) material information concealed by the use of legal, financial or technical business jargons;

d) vague boilerplate disclosures which may not be meaningful to investors;

e) convoluted descriptions or explanations;

f) terms and conditions of contracts or agreements which are lengthy and difficult to understand, or reproduced in their entirety.

Clear writing, the Monetary Authority of Singapore states, is critical.

“The use of plain English is the setting out of information in a clear, concise and effective manner so that investors would be able to understand the information at their first reading. Using plain, everyday English makes prospectuses easier to understand and encourages investors to read prospectuses. You should always draft prospectuses with retail investors in mind as they are the audience with the greatest need for the information required to be disclosed in a prospectus. Prospectuses drafted in plain English are likely to help all investors to make informed investment decisions.”

You can read the full consultation paper here.

Council Chief Executive rant about gobbledygook

A council chief executive is so fed up of poorly written council meeting papers that he says is going to start sitting down with the authors to make sure he knows what they mean.

The anonymous executive writes that the gobbledygook he comes across has turned him into a plain English fan.

Well, hurray! But to have to sit down with authors in order to understand what they’ve written? Goodness me, what a waste of a chief exec’s time… Why not train the authors to write clearly in the first place?

Here’s the link to his piece I’m on a Plain English Crusade on the Local Government Chronicle.

Clear writing helps National Trust website win award

Congrats to whoever’s in charge of the writing for the National Trust website – it’s helped them win the Plain English Campaign’s ‘clearest website’ award.

Judges look for sites that are:

– written in plain English;
– attractive but not at the expense of clarity;
– make it easy for the reader to find their way around; and
– make it easy for the reader to get the information they are looking for.

The PEC said: “The National Trust website is a fine example of an accessible, readable and easily navigable website… the overall effect is that of a highly professional website that offers a fitting companion to a fine organisation.”

Foot in Mouth award

The Plain English Campaign’s 2012 award for the worst spoken gobbledygook goes to Mitt Romney for ‘literally dozens of examples’.

Here are two beauties:

“I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s
the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.”

“When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no —
and you can’t find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft,
because the windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real
problem.”

Go and do something useful

I enjoyed Motivated Grammar, a blog by linguistics researcher Gabe Doyle that ‘ corrects misinformed grammatical pedantry and looks into why we say what we say’. I often hear my children referring to groups of items as ‘them’ rather than ‘those’ – as in ‘them bricks’, ‘them people’ and ‘them apples’. They’re entirely  Yorkshire born and bred, and I’m entirely not, so I notice this. I know that they’ll learn to use ‘those’ and ‘them’ correctly in formal writing. But colloquially? I agree with Gabe: ‘Ask yourself if disobeying the grammatical “rule” you hold so dear really has a calamitous effect. If it does, go ahead and say something.  If not, go put your energy toward something useful.’

Glutes, zips and eggs: gym-speak

Fitness instructors don’t just use their muscles to impress clients – they use gym-jargon, too.  And de-coding it can, if you’re not familiar with it, be some workout.

Josh Stolz, a senior fitness trainer inNew York City, says that trainers can sometimes get too wrapped up in using anatomical terms to impress clients. (Article.)

In gyms, people can be baffled by instructions to ‘fire your glutes’, ‘relax your traps’, ‘lengthen your spine’, or ‘engage your core’, he said.

And Sara Ivanhoe, a yoga instructor, admits that anatomical terms often don’t translate well. “If I’m telling someone to soften their floating ribs in, or rotate their inner upper thighs back, people often have no idea what that means,” she said.

It reminds me of my experience with a physiotherapist, who used a brilliantly graphic way of describing what I had to do in an exercise.

‘It’s called the Zip-and-Suck,’ she said. ‘Imagine you’re zipping up your trousers and picking an egg up with your tummy button. At the same time.’

I chose to imagine a quail’s egg, because I really couldn’t fit a hen’s egg in my navel. Once I’d got that bit straight, I knew exactly how to do the exercise.  Although it did make me go a bit cross-eyed…

Eurospeak adds to the confusion

Eurozone leaders partly rely on the lack of understanding of jargon among ordinary tax-payers to push through crisis measures, according to Raoul Ruparel, an economist analyst at the eurosceptic Open Europe think-tank inLondon.

He is quoted in an article on the increasing use of obscure acronyms and obscure ‘eurospeak’. ‘Along with losing popularity among Europeans over its clumsy handling of the debt crisis, the EU risks further alienating its citizens with the latest tide of opaque and convoluted jargon,’ the article says. You can read the full piece here.

Calling all climate change scientists: help us understand by using plain language.

Researchers in the States have identified poor communication as one of the reasons why there is such widespread public confusion about climate change. Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol of the Climate Communication not-for-profit project in Colorado set out to try and understand why the public and policy-makers fail to take the threat of climate change seriously.

They found several factors, including economic instability, ‘disinformation campaigns’ (motivated by a variety of interests), scientific illiteracy and the way the media presents issues.

But key to the problem is the way that scientists communicate.

‘Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often,’ say the authors. ‘They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more [scientists] say, the less [people] hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world.’

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific term

Public meaning

Better choice

enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

Read the full report on Physics Today.

Contact

tamsinconstable@gmail.com