Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Plain English Campaign marks 25 years of style war


The Plain English Campaign yesterday celebrated the anniversary of a mission as vital, unglamorous and unending as sewage disposal.

For a quarter of a century, it has been struggling to cleanse the muck of jargon and circumlocution from British official writing.

The campaign was co-founded with the vehemence of a crusade by Chrissie Maher, a Liverpool woman furious because the official forms she received were indecipherable.

The group's combined tactic of public ridicule and backstairs training for repentant organizations can claim credit for the clearer forms and leaflets now seen in many health clinics, post offices and government ministries.

Yesterday its 7,000 supporters in 80 countries marked the anniversary by nominating their choicest item of gobblydygook from the last 25 years.

The winner is a sentence from draft national minimum wage regulations introduced by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government in 1998 (see factbox).

John Lister, campaign spokesman said: "It shows that even everyday words of one or two syllables can cause confusion when they are poorly chosen."

The campaign pays its costs by working as a consultant for organizations eager to improve communication with the public.

Its success in this job has inspired several rivals. Yesterday one of these, Emphasis Training, conceded that the Plain English Campaign's high-profile crusade had simplified the way businesses wrote to consumers.

"Unfortunately, the same isn't true of business documents," said Rob Ashton, an Emphasis director. "UK businesses waste billions every year paying people to write documents that their colleagues struggle to -- or never -- read."

Ashton added that an Emphasis survey of 150 companies found they felt an average of 17 percent of the documents they received were badly written, with e-mails the worst.

The top two worst examples of bad English

* 1989 National minimum wage regulations:

"The hours of non-hours work worked by a worker in a pay reference period shall be the total of the number of hours spent by him during the pay reference period in carrying out the duties required of him under his contract to do non-hours work."

* 1989 STC Technology Ltd document:

"There is an unavoidable conflict of terminology in naming the classes Class and Instantation. Instantation is not itself a real instance but a class [namely, the class of all real instances]. Likewise, Class is not a class of real instances but a class of classes (namely, the class of all classes of real instances). Instantation could be renamed Class and Class renamed Type to avoid this. In that case, the members of Class would not be classes and the members of Type would not be types."

Source: The Guardian

Sixty-four percent of companies cited e-mails, with end-of-year reports, letters, Web texts and technical language as the next worst offenders.

Faults regarded as most vexing were bad punctuation (34 percent), bad spelling (31 percent), jargon (10 percent), "generally hard to understand" (16 percent) and misuse of words (8 percent).

Unexplained acronyms and unclear technical terms also caused anger.

Emphasis has issued a dictionary of the 131 most misused terms.

"Concise writing means calling a spade a spade, not a manual earth-moving implement," Ashton said.

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