“Fighting for crystal clear communication since 1979”

Tomorrow the Plain English Campaign will award its annual prizes for clear language and its justly celebrated Golden Bulls for the, er, not quite so clear. The press release quotes the Bulls in mocking detail, if you fancy a smile.

It has always seemed to me that the Campaign suffers from a couple of key misapprehensions, which will have to be overcome if it is to remain relevant. I mean, naturally the People’s Republic believes it is a Good Thing. After all, its front page says that . . .

Since 1979, we have been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information

. . . and so have I, so that’s splendid! And ninety per cent of what its main guidance leaflet has to say is sheer common sense. Two quibbles only. The less serious is that it recommends staying away from passive verbs and I have an unreasonable love of the passive. It’s just another verb construction. It means a slightly different thing to the active sense. There’s nothing innately scary about it. Compare:

The king overturned the council’s suggestion.

The council’s suggestion was overturned by the king.

These are subtly different meanings. They each imply a whole alternative web of interrelations between king, council and the thing suggested. Here’s a little comprehension exercise for you to do for each version, just like at skool:

1. Are the king and the council in the same room?

2. Was the king expected to interfere with the decision, or did his intervention come as a surprise?

3. Suppose what happened next was that the council  sent a representative to the king to argue the point: how would you find yourself linguistically tilting this fact?

But I’m splitting atoms here. The Plain English Campaign is not meant for me and my superfine abstract discrimination and my kings and councils. It is meant for people writing letters and public information. Fair nuff.

The other quibble, though, I think is more serious. The booklet linked to above carries the following list of proscribed words, with suggested alternatives in brackets:

· additional (extra)· advise (tell)· applicant (you)· commence (start)· complete (fill in)· comply with (keep to)· consequently (so)· ensure (make sure)· forward (send)· in accordance with (under, keeping to)· in excess of (more than)· in respect of (for)· in the event of (if)· on receipt (when we/you get)· on request (if you ask)· particulars (details)· per annum (a year)· persons (people)· prior to (before)· purchase (buy)· regarding (about)· should you wish (if you wish)· terminate (end)· whilst (while)

Hm. Some of these I agree with. It’s only silly crossword-loving romantics like me who still use “whilst” before a vowel. But imagine you are an immigrant without much English (or perhaps you have been), and you are crossly working your way through a letter about council tax or bank accounts or some other unutterably boring topic with a well-thumbed dictionary. Alternatively, think about how you translate something from Italian, if you’re not that familiar with Italian. Is it the long words that trip you up? Of course not – you can look them up and write the meaning down.

It’s the colloquial constructions, isn’t it. If you don’t know that qu’est-ce que c’est means “what is” you could spend hours painstakingly looking up each element and end up with something like “what is it that it is”. An even better example in English is the phrase “put up”. Think of all the contexts that gets used in. You can put up a shelf, put up with something, or put up someone for the night. Of course, some items in the list recognise this point – substituting “if” for “in the event of” can rarely be a bad idea (unless you’re me, but we’ve already established that none of these rules apply to me). But “make sure” and “keep to” are exactly the kind of phrases I would exclude (keep out) if I wanted to make my letter comprehensible to everyone from all backgrounds.

The distinction in the list is that, for the most part, the proscribed words are Norman French and Latinate in origin, while the bracketed words are from Germanic English. In linguistics, Norman French words are said to be the “higher register” of English, a socio-linguistic consequence of the Norman invasion that is still with us. But there is nothing innately more comprehensible about Germanic English. Often, as in many places here, the Norman French word is actually punchier and more precise, and doesn’t need clumsy common verbs linked to it to make it work. These words have stayed in the language for a reason – there wasn’t a word meaning that precise same thing already.

The point about my scenario with the non-English speaking immigrant and the dictionary is that it is a 2007 scenario, not a 1979 scenario. We’ve all changed a lot in 28 years but I get the feeling that the Plain English Campaign is lagging a bit.


  1. Yes, a good point. Using fewer words in your active (working) vocabulary (words that you use) doesn’t simplify matters (things) if this means that the words that remain (stay) have to support (help) multiple (many) meanings.

  2. I feel kind of uncomfortable about the Plain English campaign, because they seem to me to be trying to institute NewSpeak (is there an Orwellian equivalent of Godwin’s law?). There is a time and a place for “plain English” over marketese. For example, the Virgin trains one is obviously deserving of the award, and the translink one (to a lesser extent) because they are meant as communications to the general public and therefore should be understandable by all. The Nestle one? That is perfectly clear and precise. Heterogeneous is NOT an exact synonym for different in a scientific context. [/daughter of scientist]

  3. Hmm. So, underlying the whole thing is a distinction between colloquial, Germanic, provincial English, and Latin-influenced, cosmopolitan English. The former can be more meaningful to some people, but more difficult to understand for others.

    I wonder if this isn’t just, in part, an effort to maintain uniquely English words and phrases for the sake of it, despite (or, if we’re feeling sinister, because of) the problems this might cause for foreigners. And, as you say, this is not justified by ease of spelling or comprehension or any innate suitability of older more ‘English’ Germanic words.

    Of course, sneering at the Continentals and their fancy words is an old tradition. George Orwell was quite clear about it:

    There is no doubt about the Englishman’s inbred conviction that those who live to the south of him are his inferiors;

    When nationalism first became a religion, the English looked at the map, and, noticing that their island lay very high in the Northern Hemisphere, evolved the pleasing theory that the further north you live the more virtuous you become.

    I can’t let the opportunity pass without quoting this bit too:

    There is nevertheless a real difference between North and South, and there is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of Southern England as one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards.


    Of course, this kind of snobbery runs in both directions and is as old as language itself. One of my favourite things about Chaucer is how he used language to convey social and regional differences and what truly astounds me is how much those differences still resonate today. So, I’m a little bit sympathetic to the Plain English campaign, because they’re keeping alive an old tradition which I suspect will still be with us in some form a few more centuries on from now.

  4. Good point, well made, Joe. I think.

    Yes, the Nestle one was borderline, and so (I think) were the Warwickshire Young Persons thingy meeting minutes. They were certainly pretty tortuous but they were obviously trying to explain a tortuous idea. And presumably everyone who is *likely* (as distinct from legally able) to read the minutes will know what all the acronyms stand for. I’m all for slamming proper marketese, especially when it’s being used to conceal extra costs to the customer, but there’s a difference between that and smugness.

    I think Rob is right (as per) and there is a subconcious element of English exclusivity even when the alternative is better. Reminds me slightly of the Academie Francaise campaigning against the use of “le weekend” and preferring “le bout de la semaine” or whatever it is.

    Wot, Scousers read Chaucer? No way 😉

  5. It is my usual habit to niggle about something completely irrelevant whilst failing to comment on the substance…

    So… put up someone? Is it not put someone up?

  6. Hm, do you always put the “someone” between the put and the up? Perhaps you do.

    Ok, I have another one though (and it really has been bothering me ever since that I didn’t put it in) – put-up job and being put up to something.

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