Zoë Blake – Plain English: Keeping language simple for maximum effect

‘Have you got what it takes to help deliver our challenging agenda? This exciting role combines equality and diversity responsibilities with social inclusion and promoting quality standards into all commissioning work streams.’

Job advertisement, Wolverhampton City Council

Did your eyes glaze over when you read the quote above? If they didn’t, perhaps you could work out what job is being advertised, because I couldn’t get to the end of the sentence without drifting off…

It may be a vacancy for a Rodent Operative (rat catcher) or a Street Orderly (Road Sweeper) – tough jobs, and unlikely to be made less so by a euphemistic job title. Or it may be a Community Leadership and Engagement Manager that they seek, which must also be tough in its own way, since the role is about getting people to ‘engage’ with the council – a task made harder by the fact that many people who don’t understand management speak think ‘engagement’ is what you do before you get married.

This kind of language is entirely typical of job and product adverts (if my trawl through today’s Guardian is anything to go by), though needless to say, it’s nothing like the way that we actually speak to each other. But why do we do it?

Of course the Admissions Officer at the university can’t say to the rejected candidate they don’t want you – they don’t think you’re good enough. He has to talk of the unprecedented high levels of competition. Sensitivity to other people’s feelings can make our language extremely evasive.

Understandable also is the drive to take gender out of titles, such as amending Fireman to Firefighter, which, in addition to taking women who do the job into account, is much more descriptive (though by the same measure, I’ve always thought that the word Chair, used in place of Chairman, needs itself to be replaced).

Before raising a cry of ‘political correctness gone mad’, it’s interesting to note that the move towards euphemism isn’t new. Ernest Gowers’ critique of official writing ‘Plain English’ from the 1940s takes civil servants to task for using redundant and obscure words:

“The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual.”

And in 1946, in the fight not just against ugly language but for the clear thinking that accurate writing allows, George Orwell wrote the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. In it he summarises his basic rules:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Or as academic Lincoln Allison says “Better, perhaps, to go with Ron Atkinson’s notorious saying when Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick against Poland in 1986 – The boy done great – in which there is arguably more than one mistake per word, than with what Sir Alf Ramsey might have said: One’s own evaluation with regard to the performance of the young man would be extremely favourable.”

So with this in mind, next time I sit down to write a CV for an Executive Action client, I’ll remind myself to ask whether Our situation with regard to coal is in a dangerous position sounds more impressive than We’ve run out of coal, screw up my courage and use the latter.

by Zoë Blake

2018-02-20T10:48:45+00:00December 14th, 2017|News|