B&W photo of a lamp-post with a 'self-parking' sign that also has a drawing of a spaceship on it.

Flying flapjack, anyone?

I learnt today that what were once referred to as flying flapjacks, but what most of us probably remember as unidentified flying objects (or UFOs), now have an even more fun-sapping title: unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP).

The two label changes mark attempts by the United States Air Force and subsequently by NASA to be less restrictive in their definition: thus, UFO meant that objects of all sorts of shapes could now be considered, while UAP extended this to sightings made beneath the sea or up, up and away in space.

However, in becoming less restrictive both terms have become decidedly less colourful too, as the coiner of ‘unidentified flying object’, Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, himself admitted. The more recent of the two, ‘unidentified anomalous phenomena’, is also less plain in the sense of it not being easy to understand.

And that made me wonder: while generalising naturally means being less precise, does it also have to mean being less colourful and less understandable’?

Far more importantly, though—can you think of a snappier label than ‘unidentified anomalous phenomena’? If so, please let us know😁.

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Photo by Michael Herren on Unsplash

What kind of ‘tired’ are we? Let me count the ways

According to Mintel’s latest insights report, 2023 Consumer Trends, if you’re not already suffering from hyper fatigue you soon will be. It’s one of five major global consumer trends predicted to influence our behaviour over the next five years.

That many of us are feeling tired, if not necessarily to a hyper degree, was recently confirmed by a YouGov poll for the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). Based on a sample of 2,086 UK adults, its results suggest that 35% of us – that’s more than 1 in 3 – believe that tiredness is preventing us from making healthy changes to our diet and physical activity levels.

But as Emma Beddington of the Guardian points out (Guardian, 21 May 2023), tiredness and even hyper-tiredness come in many shapes and sizes. As she goes on to say, ‘… surely there must be better ways to describe what we’re experiencing? One word shouldn’t cover everything from a 50-mile bike ride, to five teething night feeds, to soul-crushing world-weariness’.

I agree, and am reminded of a series of LinkedIn posts I created a while back on the habit many public writers have of using one blunt word repeatedly instead of multiple precise ones. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll share them with you. I wonder how many of them you use? 😁

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Photo by Cris Saur on Unsplash 

An explosion in space

An explosion by any other name

Space X rocket undergoes ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’.

Shortly after its launch on Thursday of this week, the most powerful rocket ever built exploded. Since then, Elon Musk’s team at SpaceX has been learning that the names we give things don’t change what they really are, however much we might wish it.

Thankfully the ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’, both in itself and as a phrase, harmed no one in its making 😁. But not all euphemisms are so benign. What’s more, as readers we’re not always good at spotting them—benign or otherwise. Consider the disturbing acceptability implied by the concepts ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’; the dehumanising implicit in the terms ‘rightsizing’ and ‘re-calibrating’; and the denial of responsibility inherent in the labels ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘underprivileged’. You may well have a few examples of your own, and if so please do share.

If we truly want to make the world a better place, we public writers must be honest with our readers. As George Monbiot puts it: ‘If we wish to reclaim public life from the small number of people who have captured it, we must also reclaim the language in which it is expressed. To know what we are talking about: this, in more than one sense, is the task of those who want a better world.’

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(For more thoughts on euphemisms, or weasel words as the Chambers English Dictionary calls them, see my blog from 2013 – Jack Nicholson was right!)

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Photo of people protesting in the US

So, who gets your vote?

Doublespeak, a term derived from the concepts of ‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is language

‘that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. …that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. …that avoids or shifts responsibility, …that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. …that conceals or even prevents thought’  (William Lutz)

Put another way, it’s how individuals and institutions speak when giving us incomplete or incorrect information so that we form the opinion they want us to.

If you thought this was a relatively recent phenomenon, then think again. As far back as 1972, the National Council of Teachers of English in the US was so concerned by the amount of misleading language politicians and advertisers were peddling that it set up a Committee on Public Doublespeak to monitor it. Two years later, it introduced the Doublespeak Award. Its purpose was to honour what academic Doris Minin-White describes as ‘outrageous examples of misleading language in public discourse’ (my use of ‘honour’, being a minor example😁).

Thus, today’s

  • Donald Trump (winner in 2020, 2019, 2016—for, among other things, ‘perpetuating language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing and self-centred’), and his appalling acolytes:
  • Rudy Giuliani (2018—‘truth isn’t truth’) and
  • Kellyanne Conway (2017—‘alternative facts’)

…are yesterday’s

  • George W. Bush (2008, 2006, 2004, 2003—when talking about the Iraq War, climate change and Hurricane Katrina)
  • The tobacco industry (2000—for ‘abusing language in pursuit of their right to sell a deadly drug’), and
  • The National Rifle Association (1999—for the ‘artful twisting of language to blur issues, the invocation of patriotism, reverence, love of freedom, and the opposing use of dread words to colour the opposition’)

(With those last two bullet points I’ve just created my own ‘smoking gun’ 😅).

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Why does it matter?

For democracy to work properly, electorates must be well-informed. At best, that requires information-givers to be clear and honest with voters; at the very least, it requires voters to recognise when information-givers are being unclear and dishonest.

 

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George Orwell (1948). Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker & Warburg, UK. 

William Lutz (1989). Doublespeak. Ig Publishing, New York.

Doris Minin-White (2017) Political Speech, Doublespeak, And Critical-Thinking Skills in American Education. Hamline University. Minnesota. https://digitalcommons.hamline.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1105&context=hse_cp

https://ncte.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Past_Recipients_Doublespeak_Award.pdf

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Photo by DJ Paine on Unsplash

Female hand holding white cahlk and pointing to a small blackboard with calculations and E=MC2 equation on it

Common objections to Plain English #4

OBJECTION #4: My subject matter is too complex for Plain English.

Some of the world’s finest minds in science, medicine, philosophy and law would beg to differ. And so to end this mini-series, I shall leave them to speak for me.

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Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.’ Albert Einstein

  • Stephen Hawking: The renowned physicist was a champion of plain language. He believed that using simple language was a sign of clear thinking rather than a lack of intelligence.

Vague forms of speech have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard words mistaken for deep learning, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but a hindrance to true knowledge.’ John Locke

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The late Supreme Court justice was known for her clear and concise writing, which made her opinions accessible to a wide audience. She believed that the law should be understandable to the average person, not just to legal scholars.

The murkiness that plagues so much official and legal prose is usually generated by the writer, not by the substance. It comes more from bad style than from the inherent difficulty of the subject.’ Professor Joseph Kimble

The language of law must not be foreign to the ears of those who are to obey it.Billings Learned Hand

  • Neil deGrasse Tyson: The astrophysicist and science communicator is known for his ability to explain complex scientific concepts in language anyone can understand. For Neil, clear communication is essential for scientific progress and for raising public interest in important topics.

The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.’ Hippocrates

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Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Image of a little girl watering a flower and of a little boy pushing a wheelbarrow

Common objections to Plain English #3

OBJECTION #3: Plain English is ‘Janet and John’ writing.

For those of you too young to have met Janet and John (or Peter and Jane, or their US counterparts Dick and Jane), they were the main characters in a series of early reading books for children. The books were extremely popular in schools back in the 1950s and up to the 1970s.

Whether fan or critic, you will agree, I‘m sure, that their dull and simplistic content was never likely to set young pulses racing, as the extract below demonstrates.

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See Janet, Mother.                                            This is Father.

See Janet and the can.                                     See John and Father. ____________________________________________________________________________________

So while the books’ authors, Mabel O’Donnell and Rona Munro, may enjoy the kudos of having introduced millions of us to reading, I’m not sure they could be said to have introduced us to the joy of reading.

All of which leads me to why I disagree with Plain English objection #3.

1.Plain English does not make for dull reading. Quite the reverse, in fact. Plain English prefers fresh, sharp vocabulary and active sentences—precisely the opposite of the dull, stodgy, repetitive language used in most business writing. (Sign up for our 10 Top Writing Habits to find out more.)

2. Plain English is not oversimplified writing. There is a difference between oversimplifying something, i.e. describing something as simpler than it really is, and expressing something simply, i.e. in a way that’s easy to understand. The first is misleading; the second, helpful. And Plain English is all about being helpful.

3. For both those reasons, Plain English makes reading if not a joy—there’s nothing it can do about the subject matter 😁—then at least a more enjoyable experience.

 

Common objections to Plain English #2

OBJECTION #2: ‘Plain English is about banning new, long, unusual or interesting words’

I’m going to start my second blog in this series with a confession: I haven’t always been a fan of Plain English.

That’s because I believed this objection.

But as I soon learnt, contrary to popular belief Plain English / plain language (PE/PL) fans are not against new words. Nor, as I explained in a previous blog, am I. Just as well too, given that several thousand ‘new words, senses and sub-entries’ are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every year.

Furthermore, neither are we sufferers of hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. That’s the fear of long words, to you and me. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we don’t suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliomisia, or a dislike of long words. Only that one isn’t a real word 😁.

As for words that are unusual or interesting―and you can probably see where I’m going here―we’re not against them either, in principle.

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But yes, we do advise writers to say use, start and taller rather than utilise, commencement and increased, for example. That’s because when two words mean pretty much the same thing, PE/PL will always prefer the more familiar, precise and easy to understand.

For me the more interesting question is why so many writers plump for the word utilise over use, to continue our example. Again, I would welcome your own views on this.

I wonder if some do because they believe it lends their content (and possibly themselves) more grandeur or gravitas. They have yet to be persuaded, perhaps, that the goal of business writing is understanding not awe.

Others reject the simpler ‘use’, I suspect, because it fails to capture the shade of meaning they’re looking for. They have yet to discover that the trick is simply to pick the word that does―e.g. wield, brandish, exploit, insert, operate, apply, exercise, deploy, spend, handle, inject, manipulate, employ, consume, tap, develop, enjoy, exhaust…

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While not necessarily unusual, a few of the words I’ve listed above are uncommon in business writing. To me, that also makes them more interesting.

However, neither of those are the point here.

The only criterion that matters is whether the words you choose are the best at getting your information across precisely, concisely and understandably. That’s why PE/PL is not about banning new, long, unusual or interesting words; it’s about using the MOST APPROPRIATE ones.

And if that means having to use a new, long, unusual or interesting word―as I did with hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia―do what I did and explain what it means in terms readers will understand.

Photo courtesy of Freepik.

 

 

A vintage primary-school classroom scene in black & white

Common objections to Plain English #1

A number of criticisms have been levelled against Plain English. In this latest series of blogs I want to try to counter, mitigate or even celebrate, some of them. In doing so, I hope to reassure any of you potential Plain English converts out there who might be having doubts.

OBJECTION #1: ‘It’s all just grammar and punctuation’

I should start by saying that I’ve only ever heard this objection in relation to Plain English once. Nonetheless, I’ve included it in this series because it’s something people often say to put down language and writing guidance in general. That may be because they’re unsure of or put off by what they see as ‘rules’ when it comes to writing—a hangover from their schooldays, perhaps—but I’m not sure. If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

In my view, grammar and punctuation are neither elitist, nor irrelevant nor unreasonable impositions. Why? Because every time you speak, put pen to paper or press finger to keyboard, you use them. And most of the time you do so effortlessly and effectively, without thinking about it. If you didn’t use them, all you’d produce are endless strings of randomly ordered words that your readers would find hard, if not impossible, to make sense of [1].

COUNTER-OBJECTIONS

In terms of how much you need to understand grammar and punctuation when it comes to Plain English, I would make three points:

1.   Plain English is, first and foremost, about the language you use. It’s about 1) using everyday words and phrases that people are familiar with and which are unambiguous in their meaning; and, it’s about 2) putting those words and phrases into straightforward, natural sentences, as if you were talking to someone you know well.

e.g. ‘No football’, as opposed to ‘Recreational activities using a hard ball are not allowed’

And that’s it. If you can get into the habit of writing in those two ways you’ve cracked it, and neither grammar nor punctuation need be mentioned.

2.   That said, Plain English does have something to do with grammatical style. Lurking beneath your wonderfully plain sentences—and indeed your unplain ones—are certain grammatical constructions. But here’s the good news: You don’t need to know what they are to write clearly or unclearly.

If, on the other hand, you’re interested in that kind of thing or think it would help to know the theory behind the practice, we’d be happy to tell you more about the technical stuff.

Luckily for everyone, our TEPL training (Teaching English as a Plain Language) is unusual in that it caters for both learning styles.

3.   Finally, however, Plain English has nothing to do with punctuation. Full stop (pun intended😁)!

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[1] Some level of grammar and punctuation is essential if you want people to be able to understand you. However, not every ‘rule’ is. Take a look at both this sentence and the sentence this footnote refers to. Some grammarians will say you should never end a sentence with words like ‘to’ or ‘of’. I’ve chosen to ignore that here in favour of keeping things natural and conversational.

Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library on Unsplash.

 

 

Jack Nicholson was right!

In a poll conducted in 2009, Britons voted the line from the 1992 film A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth” – the most memorable movie quote of all time.

For those who don’t know, the words are uttered by Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup when his testimony concerning the death of a fellow Marine is challenged in a military court. The implication of the phrase is of course that some facts are simply too sensitive or repellent for us to know.

Wind forward nearly 20 years to the publication of The Chambers Dictionary (TCD) 12th edition, and it seems that the Colonel was on to something. For in its Word Lover’s Miscellany, TCD now has a page devoted to what it calls ‘weasel words’ – terms ranging from the ‘slightly evasive to [the] brazenly euphemistic’, constructed precisely with the aim of making otherwise unpalatable truths digestible.

The page lists just 37 examples – disinformation appropriately being one of them – but even within that relatively small number several unsettling observations can be made. The first of these is that the most common theme running through them (encompassing as many as 11 terms by my count) is that of war. Another eight words or phrases refer to making people redundant, while a further six allude to poverty or debt. Granted, there’s little call for euphemisms to describe uncontentious, happy subjects (there are none in TCD to do with sex so I’ve ignored that topic here). What does it say, though, of how far we’ve come that terms of warfare form the most populous category?

What strikes me next are the differences in the nature of each category’s euphemisms. When it comes to war it appears that anything can be justified, by reference to either our own virtuous motives (liberate, pre-emptive self-defence, regime change); the dastardly deeds of others (ethnic cleansing, unlawful enemy combatant); or extreme situations that force us to act extremely in turn (enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, asymmetric warfare). Even when we have nothing or no-one else to blame – e.g. blue-on-blue, friendly fire and collateral damage – the insinuation that certain outcomes are to a degree inevitable and therefore less deserving of condemnation is palpable.

Euphemisms for staff redundancies have a different quality. They peddle the belief that things are being made better, albeit according to some de-humanising, quantifiable formula – becoming leaner (downsize, headcount reduction); more efficient (rightsize, efficiencies, streamline); or simply different (change management, re-engineering, restructuring). By contrast, when it comes to the poor it seems we prefer our descriptors passive, carefully avoiding any nod to blame or cause (disadvantaged, underprivileged), while we like to dress up debt in a veneer of opaque business-speak (leveraging/deleveraging, liquidity shortfall, consolidation).

The examples I’ve presented thus far are probably all more or less familiar to you. Too familiar, perhaps, if you will bear with me, because my final observation concerns two less common phrases – certainly ones I had not previously encountered – as follows: wrong-site surgery and benign neglect. Both I find especially sinister. Why they particularly alarm me is that by inventing them we have given the ideas behind them a tangibility and legitimacy they do not merit: instances of operating on the wrong part of someone’s body are terrible mistakes, not acceptable inevitabilities; the other is a chilling oxymoron. What really worries me though, is the suspicion that several years ago I might have said exactly the same thing about the others.

So let me end with a lesser-known quote, but one we would be wise to remember too, from Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

An overcompensation of nouns

I’ve no idea if children are taught about collective nouns in schools these days. I hope so, because they make for some marvellous images – contrast a piteousness of doves with an exaltation of larks; be captivated by a charm of finches but beware a deceit of lapwings; does an unkindness of ravens lead to a lamentation of swans? And really, a rout of snails?

The origins of these so-called terms of venery are to be found in the late middle ages and the fashion at that time of developing specialist vocabulary around hunting. Then, being able to apply the correct terminology was viewed more as a sign of one’s position in society than a genuine attempt at being understood. In a hopefully more interesting than usual segue into this my latest blog, I would suggest that over five hundred years later the language of officialdom performs much the same role.

Moreover, one of the devices by which it does this is another category of abstract noun: the nominalisation. Here too, abstract nouns (i.e. not physical objects) are formed from an original verb. Thus, an overcompensation of nouns or a deployment of nominalisations – or as I would put it, the practice of transforming perfectly capable verbs into rather pompous-sounding nouns. Consider this real-life example below:

The initial stages of the inspection involved the dispatch of a questionnaire, known as an overarching protocol, from XXXX for completion by the service being inspected. External scrutiny of financial management during the inspection was provided by YYYY. The inspection also involved collaborative scrutiny with the Commission of Racial Equality … .’

And now consider the following re-wording:

In the initial stages of the inspection we sent out a questionnaire or protocol for the service to complete. We are grateful to YYYY for examining ZZZZ’S financial management processes on our behalf and to the Commission for Racial Equality for its help in assessing the service’s race equality scheme.’

I hope you will agree that not only are the verb forms perfectly capable of conveying the intended meaning, they are a great deal slicker at it.

The usual charge against nominalisations is that they make for turgid and passive language; that is, by removing the verb they somehow remove a sense of action too. I agree and I have a couple more objections to add.

The first is that they also impede the flow of sense. Look again at the “collaborative scrutiny” sentence above. It takes a lot longer to grasp the meaning of this term than it does its replacement, “help in assessing”. The same could be said of the entire original extract and its revised version. Hence nominalisations require more effort from the reader in order simply to understand what is being said.

If imparting information is your main goal, then overusing these stylistic devices is likely to be self-defeating. For the public sector, which appears to nurture the worst offenders while striving to be open and transparent, the caution is particularly apposite. As the Roman rhetorician Quintilian justly urged: one should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.

So why do so many persist in writing in this way? Well, to my second point. As far as I can see much of the use of nominalisations is about aggrandizement. In our example, the simple acts of sending out a questionnaire and then analysing its results are given a makeover in order to paint the acts themselves, or the actors of them, as somehow more impressive or deserving of our regard. The premise is a little ludicrous but the truth, I suspect, not that far off.

If you remain unconvinced, then consider this last aberration – sortation facility. It reached me courtesy of an email from a well-known delivery company, alerting me to the fact that my parcel had reached what most of us would know of as its sorting facility. Why else would anyone change a perfectly explanatory and familiar term with something needlessly contrived?

Despair not, though. How often do you come across specialist hunting vocabulary these days?