'Plain English' activists combat 'gobbledygook'

'Plain English' activists combat 'gobbledygook'

5th June 2012, Comments 6 comments

Led by an American effort, activists from around the world fight for the use of plain language in laws, application forms, public notices, and even user manuals for television sets.

Why not say "change" rather than "effect modifications", or "publish" rather than "promulgate", or "pay" instead of   "remunerate"? So say plain speaking advocates fighting to end "gobbledygook".

Winning such a battle "would benefit everyone," said those gathered in Washington last week for a three-day conference aimed at banishing jargon from laws, application forms, public notices, and even user manuals for television sets.

The event was organized in the US capital by "Clarity", a worldwide group of lawyers, top managers and heads of government services who argue for the use of plain language in place of legalese.

And it drew people from 20 countries, including Australia, France, Qatar, Estonia, and the Scandinavian nations.

"How can you have a democracy when the citizen does not understand what the government is saying," said Annetta Cheek, board chair of the Center for Plain Language, at the event.

"It's becoming a more and more common perception in all sectors, that they have to be more inclusive in their communication."

The United States in 2010 adopted a law encouraging the simplification of administrative language.

The Swedish government, meanwhile, employs five lawyers to write its laws in simple language, and Portugal has introduced similar measures.

In France, for example, legal guidance on victims' rights is difficult to collate because there are so many documents and so many references that are "obscure", said Olivia Zarcate, a young legal specialist at the conference.

The aim of plain English campaigners is to heighten awareness in government and business circles about the damaging effect that obscure, badly-worded language has on the population.

Restore faith

"In the last five years there's been a big change," said Cheek, a former "plain language coordinator," at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates and oversees civil aviation.

But one cited example of government jargon showed that 36 words -- including "calisthenics" (a form of gymnastics) -- were used in a public health brochure to outline what people should do to lose weight.

The rather wordy sentence was cut down to a recommendation of, "do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week."

In a more sweeping suggestion, Cheek said the damaging effects of jargon had been seen in the global financial crisis in 2008, as waves of mortgage owners failed to understand what they were signing up for.

"The world financial crisis would have been less damaging if people had understood what those long documents said," Cheek said, referring to mortgage and credit applications, noting that finance is an area that affects everyone.

"If they had understood that, in five years, their interest payments would go through the roof, that if they didn't pay their credit card on time, their interest would go through the roof," less harm would have been done.

Joseph Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, said that the stripping out of jargon would benefit both the writers of documents as well as the people who read them.

"It pays off for everybody," said Kimble. "Plain language can restore faith in public institutions. Poor communication is the great hidden cost of doing business."

Fabienne Faur / AFP / Expatica

6 Comments To This Article

  • Christina posted:

    on 12th June 2012, 07:37:06 - Reply

    This is will bring a drastic change in English language. People from countries like Spain,France will find it more easy and comfort. But when it is going to happen.See below how the English made easy Spanish language. The UPC is doing really a great job improving the English in Spain
  • Bob Fiddes posted:

    on 6th June 2012, 22:38:07 - Reply

    should the powers at be ever manage to change all legal jargon to simplicity so that all could read and understand which I agree with, there would be an outcry from the lawyers and legal departments as their services would be drastically reduced, and their FEES also.

    I do not think it will happen in my lifetime
  • Rob posted:

    on 6th June 2012, 22:07:00 - Reply

    As an Englishman and legislative drafting counsel, practising law for 48 years- this has been extensively tried many times. Each pair of words quoted is composed of two words with different meanings. Sure it can all be cleaned up a bit. Even modernised. The more important aspect surely is to harmonise the English language.The Americans use "practice" as a noun and a verb. We use "practice" as a noun, the verb is "practise". American English, wellit was born 300 years ago out of a polyglot mother, not the true sources, I'd describe it as an American variation of Engish.
  • Ju posted:

    on 6th June 2012, 21:30:22 - Reply

    They need a law like this is Spain. Any letters from "the authorities" are deliberately misleading, ambiguous an incomprehensible, especially if it involves a parking fine. But why would they make things easier for their citizens and taxpayers?
  • Yank posted:

    on 6th June 2012, 12:45:57 - Reply

    A horrible idea! Why even bother with words, just use pictograms. If people are too unlearned to understand the meaning of words and are unable to use a dictionary it's their problem; they should have paid more attention in school. One of the many reasons English, and by that I mean American English, is the world's language is because it has such a rich vocabulary. Instead of dumbing down laws, forms, etc. we should be demanding students apply themselves ... at least in English class.
  • Michael Barker posted:

    on 6th June 2012, 11:59:03 - Reply

    An excellent initiative but which language will be used, American-English or English-English?