Churchill, Einstein and the origins of plain English

an english plane

An English plane….

 

Winston Churchill may be well known for the battles he waged in the name of the Allied Forces but it is the lesser known war he declared on the desecration of the English language that still rages.

At the height of the Battle of Britain with war all round him Churchill barked out an edict banning bureaucratese, legalese, officialese, jargon and other gobbledygook in favour of plain English. To him it was the fastest method of conveying concise, unambiguous messages to command.

As a practising plain English editor and writer and trainer, I can assure you this battle is ongoing and it is coming at us on many fronts from the supermarket shelves to the corridors of our national capital. It is fed by intellectual vanity, fear of looking dumb, lawyers and a general public that has been bludgeoned into submission by its heavy, dull, self-important pedantry. This enemy of clarity and friend of the obscurantist feeds off our numb acceptance of it in our everyday lives.

Speaking of lawyers, here’s a sample of something I recently had to turn into plain English for a law firm. “The conditions of chapters 13 and 14 shall with modifications deemed as necessary extend and apply to and in relation to this Section and others, without affect to the aforementioned in the sense of its generality, in particular with the modification that any reference to plastic or plastic products shall be construed as a reference to rubber products also in full. (58 words) Still awake? My solution was “what chapters 13 and 14 say about plastic and plastic products also applies to rubber. (15 words)”. Say no more!

Just as you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse neither should you be turning nouns into verbs. For those out there who practise these verbal gymnastics I have “benchmarked” your attainment and have decided not to “calendar” you a meeting so “access” your information on your way out my door before I “task” you a spanking. Mind you, it can sometimes work, for example US visionary Buckminster Fuller once described, “God as a verb not a noun, proper or improper”. Mind you he didn’t go on to say “I God you” but you get the drift.

Then there’s the buzz word salads that slink across my desk and curl up in the corner staring their evil stare. Buzzword users like “realise” rather than “do”, “facilitate” rather than “make easier” or my pet hate “utilise” rather than “use”. These jumbled assaults on my beloved English seem designed to intimidate, depersonalise and divert the reader from the fact that the writer may not have the answer. And scratch the surface and you may find yourself in free fall for these battalions of nothingness often carry no precise meaning at all. A case in point is the following blast of corporate verbage I edited for an annual report for a finance client this year. “By analysing and validating strategies moving forward we can better ascertain our total customer satisfaction base and thus better empower our interactive competency team process.” In other words “closely monitoring strategies teaches us more about customer satisfaction and improves our team work.”

Just remember real choice doesn’t exist unless we can read, understand and then act on information we are presented with. .

Two plain English things you can do right now!

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