Words, Words, Words

“Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words.” So sang Eliza Doolittle in a musical My Fair Lady. In her case it was an expression of frustration at the old adage all talk and no action. Unfortunately this is often a view held about the world of business and government communication also, and more often than not the lack of action is sought to be covered over by more and more words.

Human Beings developed speech, and then writing, to enable greater clarity of communication. We seem to have reached the Zenith of that development and are now travelling headlong down the other side, where speech and writing have become labyrinths of confusion through doublespeak, verbal code and spin.

The jungle of circumlocution

PlainenglishforlawyersEven though government agencies and businesses purport to support its virtue, in practice clear unambiguous expression is still far from commonplace, particularly in legal and formal documents. These areas themselves are where its benefits are most needed.

I recently encountered a document purporting to represent heads of agreement between two parties. One of the parties was a fairly uncomplicated small businessman and the other a government agency. They needed to clarify a range of issues that would form part of an agreement between them and the latter offered to have the document drafted by their lawyers. The resulting product would have done justice to Charles Dickens’ model of total bureaucracy, the Circumlocution Office, as described in his book Little Dorrit.

In this case the document began with several pages of general preamble, definition of terms and citation of sources and references of legal precedents. The twenty-something pages even included provisions for the sharing of the cost of preparing this circuitous document. Having reached the end of the tome however, I had not identified one solitary statement of the terms to be agreed, The closest was a declaration that the parties would agree to enter into another agreement to set out the matters to be agreed. Yes Minister – surpassed !

Understandably the party of the first part was livid at the waste of time, energy and cost in preparing such a useless document.Tiger

In other cases the undergrowth of jargon and complicated phraseology actually conceal hidden dangers for those who don’t read the fine print. Detailed and complex documents are like the deepest African jungle. You never know what is likely to leap out unexpectedly from amongst the leaves.

Whatever happened to Plain English?

I admit to being quite an avid drafter of formal language and even enjoy unravelling complex paragraphs. However I hold one rule to be sacred and that is clarity before formality. Thankfully there are others who share that view – unlike one colleague of mine who endorses the maxim “Why say in 10 words something you can spin out to 40.”

There is even an Australian Plain English Foundation which provides training and resources to assist the improvement of workplace writing skills. The Foundation defines Plain English as “a flexible, efficient writing style that you can understand in one reading. It combines:

  • clear, concise expression
  • an effective structure
  • good document design.”

You can read more on the Plain English Foundation website.

 How can we encourage plain speak?

Some simple rules about keeping it simple (whether speaking or writing) might be as follows:

  • Start by putting yourself in the listener’s or reader’s place.
  • Don’t assume that because you understand complex terms or technical jargon that the listener/reader will also understand them.
  • Avoid long complex words or long complex sentences.
  • Avoid highly technical jargon or terms that only people with specific training will comprehend.
  • Use an active tense rather than typicalyl bureaucratic passive style.
  • Keep sentences to the point and avoid unnecessary verbiage.
  • Avoid padding and useless detail that does not contribute to understanding the core message.
  • Keep the core message central to the communication.
  • If necessary, support the core message with reasons, explanations, examples and evidence but keep it succinct and avoid unnecessary and unrelated descriptive material.grammarpolice
  • If detail is required, provide it in an appendix or attachment.
  • Logically structure the communication so that it is easy to follow.
  • Design any written communication so that it is well presented with meaningful headings.
  • Ensure grammar and punctuation comply with acceptable traditions.
  • Proof read, spell check and grammar check documents thoroughly before publishing.

And remember you cannot mean what you say if you do not say what you mean.

For some light relief about Grammar and Composition read Richard Nordquist’s – “The Lighter Side of Language at Grammar and Composition”.

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