Tamsin Constable

Dear Doris and Bertie, here’s our annual report.

When investment guru Warren Buffett sits down to write a formal document, he sometimes pretends he’s writing to his sisters.

Result: A jargon-free report in Plain English.

Benefit: ‘You’ll be amazed at how much smarter your readers will think you have become.’

It’s a trick that really works, and Buffet has a reputation as an A* Plain English writer. In the preface to a guide to writing aimed at the world of investment and finance, Buffet describes trying to read some of the disclosure documents that public companies file.

‘Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said,’ he writes. ‘There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description. Maybe we simply don’t have the technical knowledge to grasp what the writer wishes to convey. Or perhaps the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.’

‘Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.’

Buffett’s takeaway tip is this: ‘Write with a specific person in mind… I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters… Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.’

I just wonder what his real letters to Doris and Bertie are like?

Here’s the handbook.

South Africa makes Plain English a legal requirement

Here’s a huge result for consumer protection, democracy and Plain English. In South Africa, as of this month, it is now illegal for business documents of any kind to contain language that is difficult to understand.

The Consumer Protection Act, which comes into effect in October 2010, contains specific Plain Language regulations which mean that every contract, booklet, leaflet or any other written material must be written in a way that makes their meaning clear.

The law also applies to marketing and advertising, as well as to consumer agreements. Fellow Plain English enthusiasts The Word Nerds, based in South Africa, have written a longer post about this – it’s well worth reading.

Boots label fun. Should I get out more?

I’ve been enjoying some more word sport, this time courtesy of Boots.

Here’s the label on one of their own-brand products.

I have three comments. On reflection, make that five.

1: It’s that irritating little apostrophe again. The face wash is for men. It belongs to men. It is the men’s face wash. It needs a possessive apostrophe.

By the way, it wouldn’t be mens’ because the word ‘men’ is the plural. When the possessive applies, we treat it as a singular. The same would apply to women’s and children’s.


The label says: ‘Refreshes, invigorates and softens stubble’

Written like this, the label claims that as well as softening your stubble, the product will also refresh and invigorate it. I’d imagine that refreshed, invigorated stubble is not really what your average man wants from his face-wash. Perhaps this would have been better: Refreshes and invigorates skin, softens stubble.

I think someone may have incorrectly applied the rule-of-thumb that says you generally leave out the last comma out of a list of adjectives before a noun. (I saw a big, hairy, green-eyed, stripy spider.)


Ginseng stimulates and protects

Is it just me or does that risk sounding like a description for a very different kind of product?


For good measure, I would be tempted to hyphenate the word face-wash as the phrase, like many others, is probably evolving in that direction (face wash… face-wash… facewash).


Oh, and I’d stick a couple of full-stops in there, too…

And now I see that I’m at great risk of becoming a hair-splitter. I know, I know, I should get out more.

Rubbish writing causes unseen damage

Your writing has a direct impact on those who read it. Never ever underestimate how much good it can do – or how much damage. Think about the impression you give and how writing reflects on you (your company, organisation etc). If you don’t, you’ll lose out – often without even realising it.

Last week I wanted to get rid of a rocking chair. It’s only a cheap old thing, but I’ve nursed two babies in it, children have played in it, and it was given to us. I want to feel good about giving it away.  (Read: I want to give my custom to someone I’ll be pleased to do business with.)

So I created an ‘Offer’ post on my local Freecycle Network, as I’ve done several times before. My goal: to get rid of the chair quickly, ideally to someone who would be vaguely grateful, reliable and polite.

Here are the queries I got back:

hi interested in your rocker

Hi has the rocking chair gone i would appreciate it if not

Hey! Is the rocking chair still available? If so please call me or respond to message. Thanks!

Hi, I’m really interested in your item. Is it still available? Thank You.

hi just to see if the chair has gone??

Hi would love this for my little girl in our new house if still available.

Hi, I would love this chair. It would be a fantastic addition to a loving home.
Could collect any day this week after 3. Feel free to call me on xxxx xxx if your in a rush. Regards,

hiya tamsin do you still have the chair available. hope to hear from you soon .thanks

This world be great for me to use as a nursing chair. I can collect if it is still available. Thanks

Hi there I have been after a rocking chair for sometime!  Everytime they come available on here I always miss them!  Is yours still available?  I would love to take this off your hands! Many thanks

Hey there, I am quite interested in your freecycle ad for the rocking chair, the thing is: I am thinking of putting it into a room where I don’t have a lot of space so I was wondering how big the chair is. Could you please send me a pic via e-mail, if it’s not much hassle to you? Also because I have a small car (Ford Fiesta) in case I decide to come and collect it I also leave you my mobile

Hi just wondering if you still have the rocking chair, thank you

I just  wondered what colour the wood is and could I have it please?

To me, the messages fall easily into three groups.

First, there are people who are clearly rattling off a quick message. They don’t think (or don’t care) about how demanding and rude they sound. Reading these messages simply got my back up. If they can’t be bothered to be polite, will they bother to turn up?

Then there are people who ask politely and give some sense that they would be reliable in collecting.

But the three best requests make the effort to include a bit of a narrative about why they would love to have my rocking chair. (One wants a nursing chair, the other says it would be fantastic addition to a loving home, and the third wants it for his little girl in their new house.)

See the power of ‘story’!

With Freecycle, I usually offer the item to the very first person to respond, as I think it’s the only way to prevent unfair assumptions. But in future I may start listening to my gut reactions when reading the messages. Not the grammar, the punctuation, the spelling – but the tone, the content – the picture the words paint. Is that fair? It’s my chair!

Translated into the commercial world, it’s this: I’ve got something (custom) you want. It’s up to you to make me want to give it to (do business with) you.

So make sure your writing does you credit. Or you may never know how much business / interest / uptake you’re missing out on.