Whatever happened to the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Terry Pratchett?
Len Smith laments a decline in clarity in English usage in both the private and public sector. He finds the villains and describes simple, practical ways we can all use to improve our written communications in the workplace and outside. Get rid of bad habits and think more clearly.
In his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language, George Orwell suggested that English usage was in a bad way. It had become ugly and inaccurate because of slovenly thinking and, in turn, its ugliness and inaccuracy made it easier to have slovenly thoughts. Full circle. A glance at today's private and public sector websites, promotional literature and internal communications confirms his speculation that things could only get worse.
Here are three current examples; one from academia, one from public sector and one from the private sector (don't worry too much if you feel the need to skip read. I had to):
1. "I think that Nayar perhaps goes too far when he suggests that [a] nonnative speaker is [stereotypically thought to be] a cognitively-deficient, socio-pragmatically ungraceful klutz at worst and a language-deprived error-prone wretch at best.... This dichotomy as overgeneralized, if not erroneous." taken from a recent web-based exchange between English language academics.
2. "The objectives remain the same and indeed it has been made clear by the prime minister in his speech yesterday that the objectives are clear, and the one about the removal of the Taliban is not something we have as a clear objective, it is, but is, but is possibly a consequence that as the Taliban clearly giving protection to Bin Laden and the UN resolution made it absolutely clear that anyone who finds them in that position declares themselves as an enemy and that clearly is a matter for these objectives." A key member of Her Majesty's Government
3. 'That the directors be and they are hereby generally and unconditionally authorised, pursuant to sub-section (1) of section 80 of the Companies Act 1985, to exercise all the powers of the company to allot relevant securities (as definied in sub-section (2) of that section) up to an aggregate nominal amount of £372,350,000 during the period expiring on the date of the annual general meeting of the company held in 1992 (or, if earlier, 8 September 1992) and at any time thereafter in pursuance of any offer or agreement made by the company before such expiry, this authority to replace the existing like authority which is hereby revoked with immediate effect.' Sorry it's so long, but it is a single sentence taken from a Times 100 Annual Report.
How on earth did it come about? I believe there are three major causes; political 'thought control'; a confusion between 'simplicity' and 'simplistic'; and finally, poor understanding of English usage.
Orwell anticipated political thought control in his novel 1984 with the concept of 'Newspeak' - a language that was 'managed' by a totalitarian government to corrupt thought by restricting ideas. Eliminate words such as 'freedom' and it becames impossible to comprehend the concept of freedom. As language becomes less expressive, it is easier to control thought. Orwell's warning was that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.
In 1946 it may have sounded fanciful, but it does smack of today's political correctness. Local authorities that ban references to black coffee? Australia has even banned the word 'mate'. Not too long ago I produced a promotional video for a leading business school and during a series of brief interviews with students, one commented on the fantastic social life - what a fun place it was to be in. This was exactly the sort of real-life comment I was seeking but it was blue pencilled because the comment was from a female (heaven forfend that we should ever suggest that females have fun). Thought control? The secret to combating thought control is to ask "Am I a man or a mouse?" But then, that could be sexist or even speciesist.
My second point was a confusion between 'simplicity' and 'simplistic'. Clarity in writing is a style in itself. The aim is readability. The problem is, most of us are terrified that simple, clear English might make our report/ brochure/ website/ whatever sound a bit like a Janet & John primary school book. It might lack gravitas.
The best person to dispel the myth is multi-billionaire Warren Bufet. In 2004 he won a prestigious award for his writing skills based on the clarity and persuasiveness of his annual reports for God's sake. His secret? Short, simple sentences using short simple words. Buffet explains: "When writing, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters. I just begin with 'Dear Doris and Bertie'." Is he right? Who are we to argue - has he become the second wealthiest man in the world? Yes, he can communicate.
There is a simple way to check the readability of your own work. If you use Microsft Word (who doesn't?) then there is a little know gem hidden away called the Flesch Reading Ease measure. Just click on Tools, Spelling & Grammar. Go right through the spell check and there it is. Ignore the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (it's not helpful). The Reading Ease measure will give a rating - the higher the score the better. As an example, I ran both the US Declaration of Independence and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights through it. One says things like
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The other, things like
"This charter reaffirms, with due legal regard for the powers and tasks of the Union and the principle of subsidiarity, the rights as they result in particular, from the constitutional traditions and international obligations common to the member states, the European Convention for the protection of human Rights and fundamental freedoms, the Social Charter adopted by the Union and by the Council of Europe and the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union and of the European Court of Human Rights." (a single sentence).
One scored 43.2%, the other 0% for readability. Guess which.
My third villain was poor understanding of English usage. It doesn't require an in-depth knowledge of the finer points of grammar or punctuation; just the basics. As a guideline:
1. Short, simple sentences enhance the effectiveness of short, common words. "Communication should be like a lady's dress. Long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to maintain interest." R A Butler
2. Take the opportunity of using personal pronouns. After all; no one ever talks to corporations, we talk to humans; we never really believe corporations, but we can believe humans. So: “I have committed….” rather than "Widget Company has committed..."
3.Use the concrete in preference to the abstract; the active voice to the passive. Readers understand the active voice more quickly and easily, because that's the way we think.
For example “The new division was acquired by the company…” (passive)
Could read “The company acquired the new division…” (active)
4. Avoid weak verbs and hidden verbs
eg “We will make an investment in....”
Is so much stronger when worded “We will invest in....”
5 Avoid verbal false limbs. They save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence. A verb becomes a phrase.
for: render inoperative read : break
for: militate against read : stop