Tamsin Constable

Could bad writing lead to deaths?

Proof, should anyone need it, that clear writing is no luxury: it can be a matter of life and death.

The consumer association Which? found that bad writing can not only affect people’s health, but potentially cost lives.

It looked at the instructions that go with diagnostic health kits to use at home and found that the instructions and information are often baffling.

In one case, people were told to draw blood from the ‘hillside’ of the finger. Other words that could cause confusion included ‘separation membranes’, ‘desiccant’ and ‘in-vitro diagnostic device’.

The result is that people who test themselves at home could misinterpret the results. At best they’ll be worried for no reason.

At worst, they could think everything is fine, when it’s not.

The 100 banned words – what’s your score?

A few years ago, councils received a list of 100 words and phrases they should avoid using. This was compiled by the local government association (LGA), an association of English and Welsh local authorities representing over 50 million people.

The idea was to encourage local authorities to ditch jargon and use Plain English, so that the rest of us could understand what they’re on about.

Here’s the list – what’s your score?

‘Optics’ – pioneer a new business buzzword!

Here’s a chance to pioneer a new corporate buzzword. See whether you can be the first to introduce a hot new political word, ‘optics’, into business – an internal business email, for example. The game here is to see how long it takes for someone to echo it back to you.

Like many of the ridiculous words that seep into business, this one has its roots in a very different context; in this case, the conflict in Libya, as today’s Guardian points out.

It is, apparently, political shorthand for ‘public perception.’ As in, “the emotional optics of cruise missiles raining down, backed by coalition military briefings, [have] unwelcome echoes of Iraq”.

Or, put plainly, ‘Folk won’t like it’.

So you could, for example, write ‘If we raise our prices, the optics of the situation could lose us business. ’ Or ‘What would the optics be if we put less chocolate in a bar but charge the same?’

You get the idea.

Apostrophes – is there a trend to switch usage?

The school photos came home yesterday, along with a card for children to collect small images of their classmates. At the risk of becoming an apostrophe-botherer, I couldn’t really let this slip one by: two apostrophe mistakes in one go. The plural (photos) gets a possessive apostrophe. And the possessive (friends’ … ) gets treated as a plural.

Then it dawned on me… The more these two breeds of apostrophes are not so much randomly added or omitted as switched, the more such switching will become the norm. Heck… getting rid of apostrophes altogether suddenly feels like something to think about.

Pharmacists to use Plain English

What a fantastic week it is for supporters of Plain English.

First it was the coroner’s rant yesterday. Today, it’s the news that the instructions in medicines will from now on be written so that people actually understand them.

Researchers at the University of Leeds (including, by charming coincidence, my fellow local club runner and friend Dr Pete Knapp), ran tests to see how people interpret some of the instructions.

Take the phrase ‘avoid alcoholic drinks’ for example.

Never mind how clear the pharmacists think this is: it’s the patients that have to swallow the stuff.

‘The word ‘avoid’ can cause confusion,’ said Professor Theo Raynor. ‘Some people think it only means they should limit their alcohol intake. This phrase will now be replaced by the instruction: ‘Do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine’, which is far clearer.’

It’s hugely important – if patients don’t get the message, loud and clear, their health could be at risk.

I’m delighted with all this, of course. But I’d be even more delighted if Leeds Uni had sent out a tidier press release, as this one was clogged up with long, wriggly, passive sentences: it could have been a bit more Plain English itself.

Have a word, Pete!

Coroner’s rant about emergency services’ lack of Plain English

It’s not often I try to take notes with my mascara wand. But there I was, getting ready to go out, when a radio news item had me cheering and scrabbling to find something to write with.

Here’s what I heard. Yesterday, on the last day of the inquest into the 7/7 bombings in 2005, the coroner Lady Justice Haslett launched into a rant about the amount of jargon she’d had to endure during the past five months.

‘Frontline workers might not understand the ‘management speak’ used at an emergency scene,’ she said.

Laying into assistant commissioner of London Fire Brigade, she continued, “When it comes to managing incidents, people don’t understand what the other person is. I don’t know whether a crew manager is somebody who is responsible for supplies or is used to fighting fires. I have no idea…’

‘What worries me is all you senior people of these organisations are allowing yourselves to be taken over by management jargon and … I just think that you people at the top need to say, we have to communicate with people in plain English…’

‘If you could do anything when you meet up with your fellow senior officers, in whatever organisations, to encourage the use of plain English, I, for one, would be enormously grateful and I think it would make everybody just that little bit more effective.’

Plain English saves lives. And I’ve discovered a new font: ‘longlash sans smudge’.

Google’s good news for good writers

Over the past few years, many websites have used what can only be described as sweat-shop content to try to boost their page rankings. I’ve certainly noticed that my searches increasingly turn up sites stuffed with recycled, re-hashed, plagiarised or inaccurate content.

Much of it is, unsurprisingly, shockingly badly written. But that just proves the point – the role of this fodder isn’t for you to actually read it, but rather to get you to look at the website.

Now Google has – hurray! – changed its algorithms in an attempt to return ‘high quality’ sites to searches.

Here’s an extract from Google’s press release:

This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content…

For writers like me, it’s that last bit ‘original content’, that is significant. Key words will continue to matter, but the focus now is firmly back on people regularly publishing web articles or posts based on primary source material such as research, case studies, interviews, comment etc.

At last.