Plain Language

People can be terribly averse to saying exactly what’s on their minds, and it’s very hard to know why.

What’s the difference between  On a weekly basis and weekly?  Nothing.

What are deliverables?

Why is an insurance policy a product, and not just a service?

Why do people say parameters when they mean perimeters?

Why do we handshake and input, instead of shaking hands and putting in.  Why do I see signs on the street advertising bargains instore?

These days, we leverage things, we kick cans down the road, we’re result-oriented, and yes, I’m holding my hands up in the air.  I’m not innocent of those transgressions myself.  I sonetimes find myself talking this nonsense, but at least I’m watching out for it.

What’s the point of it?  Well, in business, it exists to reassure mediocre executives that they’re all on the same page, singing from the same hymn-sheet and it allows juniors to get on the ladder by aping their betters.

I knew someone who was a normal enough individual until he got a job with a state agency, and then, suddenly, his entire demeanour changed.  He started talking a bizarre, cliché-ridden brand of English, not only at work, but in his day-to-day dealings with his friends.  Suddenly, he started plucking low-hanging fruit and shooting puppies.  When I set that against his fawning attitude to his bosses, I had to conclude that he was hiding his insecurities under the business-speak that his new job gave him permission to use.  Still, he was a real team player, going forward, even if he had no friends.

Why do people do that?  Isn’t language supposed to be thing that gets ideas out of one person’s head and into another’s as effectively as possible?

Well, maybe not.  Sometimes, language is used as a way of hiding facts from people, or intimidating them.  I had an argument about this with a lawyer friend because I have such a strong aversion to the language our parliamentary draughtsmen produce.  In my view, our laws are not designed to be simple.  They’re written in such a way as to confuse the ordinary lay reader, and when I say simple, I don’t mean simplistic.  The very best explanations by the very finest minds are models of simplicity because those who set out the arguments are in full grasp of their subjects.

My lawyer friend was adamant — we need all the whatnots and the wherefores and the notwithstandings, because otherwise, the law wold be unclear.

You’re saying this is designed to make it absolutely unambiguous? I asked him.  There can be no doubt as to its meaning?

Yes, he said.

Right, I replied.  But in that case, why do we need all these lawyers arguing about what it means?

No.  When it comes to vested interests, whether lawyers, civil servants, chartered accountants or doctors, the language is not a means of communication, but a barrier, setting them apart from the ordinary Joe.

Germany was able to produce a plain-language requirement for their law.  So could Britain.  So could Sweden.  Why not us?

I think the answer goes very deep.  Very often, when people speak publicly, or when they write something that others will scrutinise, they prefer to use an inflated, pompous style that they’d never dream of using at home.  And we Irish are extraordinarily prone to pomposity.  If you want an example, just look at the recent Garda report on the Phoenix Park incident.

Why are we like this?  I don’t know, but I could speculate.

It might be that we’re not used to public speaking or writing, and we have some notion that these activities deserve something better than the ordinary words we use every day.  But of course, then you’d have to ask what we mean by something better and that’s a study all on its own.  It could be a sense of inferiority that drives it.  About a year ago, I wrote a post on academic language, because I happened to proof-read two theses for friends of mine and I found that they were being pushed to write unnecessarily pompous language purely to satisfy the insecurities of  their supervisors.  It became clear to me that, in common with most of our society, the people overseeing the theses were not good with language.  Even though they might have earned PhDs in various areas, when it came to basic expression, they were as poor as an average 17-year-old, but their sense of academic importance drove them to require all manner of bad English in the theses of their post-grad students.

What do I mean by bad English?  To answer that, I need look no further than the axioms laid down by Fowler, translated into more modern language.  Avoid Latinisms: where you can, stick to the Anglo-Saxon.  Don’t use ten words where one will do.  Use familiar words.  Prefer concrete terms over abstract.  Use the active mood, not the passive, unless you have no choice.

It’s very obvious, simple advice, and yet people today will go to any length to avoid this giuidance and write or speak very bad English.

Let me add something to my definition.  I’m not saying bad English is something that  deviates from a set of obscure grammatical rules.  I’m saying that if it fails to convey an idea from your head to mine as efficiently as possible, it’s bad English.  Or bad Swedish. Or bad Japanese.

It’s bad language, but it’s more dangerous that that.  When jargon provides politicians and business people with a vocabulary that sounds convincing, scientific, knowledgeable and reliable, we end up with the sort of climate that gave us the banking collapse.  The bankers spoke the nonsense, the politicians repeated the nonsense, the banking regulator mouthed the nonsense in order to seem intelligent, and the public swallowed the nonsense, leading them to borrow huge amounts of money based on pure nonsense.

That’s a practical example of what can happen when sensible people ignore the need to speak plain language, but it’s far from the only one.

Here’s a nice American list of words and phrases that contribute nothing to human understanding.  Maybe next time, they might include Comic Sans in their list of abominations, but we’ll pass over that for the moment.



11 thoughts on “Plain Language

  1. It goes back, thousands of years! Look at Neolithic monuments like New Grange. Full of doodles already at the entrance. Instead of just making a plain nice tomb, they spent hours carving stuff on the entrance stone, that really doesn’t add to the meaning or function.

  2. +1 on most of the post. However, on ” handshake and input, instead of shaking hands and putting in” – both Handshake and Input are shorter words, so I guess maybe that’s why their used.

    One thing that really REALLY gets my goat – people who use the word “acronym” for any initialisation they see. “TMO” (used in sport for “Television Match Offical”) is not an acronym! It’s an initialisation! Arg!

    Also – “ATM Machine” and “PIN Number”!

    Oh yeah – go to the URL blahblahblah “backslash” blahblah. Trust me – unless your actually giving me the path to your webserver content directory, it’s not a “backslash”.

  3. Eschew obfuscation and circumambulate terminological inexactitudes! Language is for the people.

  4. I once spent half an hour on a witness stand where I was given to observe the amazing complexity of the english language. For that half hour I heard with increasing wonder an array of words and phrases that can be used to describe ‘not wet, but dry’.
    The availability of words in the english language that describe another english word or phrase, are truly amazing. I alighted the witness stand greatly enlightened.
    While it is clear that legal documents present cumbersome reading, perhaps it is only with the knowledge of such that those lawyer types may then handle with ease those simple phrases and words needed when dealing with the simpletons on the witness stand, as they often must do.

  5. Multitasking and multidialoguing in a multiglottalising society is verbing on the ridiculous.

  6. i was once questioned in court as a witness in a case where a scum bag ended up falling on the ground and knocking himself out while trying to assault a friend of mine

    Why did you feel there was a need for you to intervene in the fight, when you knew it was a dangerous situation

    to which i replied ” my friend was getting punched in the head, what would you have done?”

    could he not have just asked me why was i involved

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