Tamsin Constable

No plain English in the Educational Jargon Generator

If you want to amuse yourself for a few moments, visit the Educational Jargon Generator. As well as a thoroughly useful and very comprehensive table of genuine jargon verbs, nouns and adjectives used in education, you can also get the generator to churn out random official-sounding combinations of gobbledygook for anything you key in.

Medical literacy: not about reading

Millions of people suffer health problems because they can’t read, understand and act on medical information. The American Medical Association estimates that nearly half of all Americans have health literacy difficulties of some form.

I watched the AMA’s video on You Tube (thanks to Cheryl Stephens from the Plain Language Advocates Group on Linked-In). It’s a bit long, so I thought I’d do a summary of some of the quotes, comments and solutions.

“I was sick a lot because I didn’t take the dosage right. I didn’t understand and I didn’t have the nerve to ask them to right way.”

“I had an abscess in my ear. I had to fill out forms that I couldn’t fill out. I ended up having to go to ER.”

“You’re talking to an intelligent doctor and these people are using words you don’t even know. So you come out of that room thinking, I hope I don’t make a mistake with my medicine, because I didn’t understand.”

All of these quotes support the findings of Professor Mark V Williams’ team at Emory University School of Medicine: that people with literacy problems are more likely to be hospitalised for chronic illness, at enormous cost to the economy ($50-$73 in the US), on top of unnecessary suffering.

There are legal consequences too. Someone who signs a consent form without understanding it has not, in fact, given informed consent to anything, signature or not. They can sue.

The answer here, as in many fields, is take the word ‘literate’ to mean ‘understand’ rather than ‘able to read and write’. Once professionals – health or otherwise – take that on board, they can think of simple, creative, elegant and effective ways to make sure that their patients (clients, customers, service-users etc) have got the message.

Like taping individual sample pills to a cardboard chart. Or explaining concepts using vivid ‘living room’ language and metaphors. Or remembering not to ask “Do you understand?” but to find other ways of checking understanding.

As one doctor, Cheryl E Woodson, said, “It almost doesn’t matter why they’re having problems understanding: it’s my job to overcome that barrier so I can get them the information they need to let me help them.”

Pensions in plain English

Baffled by pensions? Don’t really know how it works? What you might expect from the State? What happens to your pension if you die? At last, there’s a plain English overview of the current world of pensions in the UK. The maths is clear and easy to follow. Even if you think you understand pensions, reading through this is like a breath of fresh air. But then you’d expect nothing less from the folk at the Plain English Campaign.

What is ‘Finglish’ in plain English?

Keeping up the plain English pressure on financial folk, here’s a new word for you: ‘Finglish’ is the jargon-riddled English that financial folk speak. And it makes the rest of us break into a frustrated sweat. Finance people all too often talk in a way that tries to impress, rather than communicate.

A survey by Invesco of 800 investors looked at which finance words and techniques work best, and which don’t. The results (unlike Finglish) are clear as a bell. People absolutely loathe technical language.

So if you want a simple way to make your clients happier, speak in plain English. Please dump the Finglish (a phrase, in this instance, well-‘coined’.)

Invest in plain English = healthy returns

Financial information is notoriously tricky to communicate in plain English. But it can be done, as one online site has proved.

EToro covers a lot of very technical stuff. But although it is partly aimed at professional traders, the site also has many ‘everyday’ readers.

“There’s no reason to make things sound more complicated than they are,” says David Becker. “We know that a lot of our reading public is not extensively trained in finance, so why should we block them from getting the information they need?”

The site has proved that clear writing is a policy worth adopting. In the year since it was created, it has already accumulated thousands of followers.

Invest in plain English: now there’s a healthy return.

Manchester law firm adopts plain English

Gold star to the Manchester law firm that has just announced its commitment to plain English.

The firm realised that unnecessary jargon often prevented clients from fully understanding the documents they were signing. Staff then had to spend a lot of extra time going through the documents with clients to explain the meaning.

“Taking legal action, no matter what the reason, can be daunting and the client can already feel quite vulnerable,” said Andrew Kwan, head of litigation at Clear Law Solicitors in Old Trafford. “Anyone who has bought a house or sought damages … will know that legal documents can be complex and wordy – and that doesn’t really help anyone. Just making our client documents a little more modern, more human, and less stiff and bureaucratic has made all the difference. Clients are much more comfortable with the process now they understand what is in black and white themselves.”

Excellent. Who’s next?

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.