This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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15 October 2014

Tackling the tentacles of technical talk

Three years ago my husband and I became proud first homeowners of a property on Wellington’s
south coast. As anyone else who has been through this process will know, it is a time of high (and mixed) emotions. 

On one hand, you’ve finally got your own nest, to personalise in whatever way you desire. On the other, you nearly die of fright every time you log in to your online banking and see the 6-digit home loan figure glaring back at you.

Buying a home is often the biggest investment a person will make in their entire life. It’s a very serious matter.

A second wave of shock

We had our home loan approved by a well-known bank, offering the best interest rate at the time. They were quick to sign us up, once we’d proved our worth, and soon enough the screeds of home loan documents arrived.

I’m neither a lawyer nor a financial expert, and so the thick wad of complex pages sent to us by the bank was – to be frank – overwhelming. The fact that this loan document was tying us to an enormous financial commitment didn’t help either.

It’s natural to want to fully comprehend what you’re getting yourself into in these circumstances. But with heavily loaded words such as conveyance, insolvency, liability, and execution all littered about the contract, I quickly got the feeling that I was out of my depth.

If only we’d known

My husband and I spent considerable time painstakingly picking our way through those documents. We eventually felt we’d got a decent grasp of our responsibilities. It was clear to both of us, however, that a simple (plain language) explanation of some of the more technical terms would have been worth its weight in gold.

If only we’d known about Write’s free ebook, Unravelling Financial Jargon. This tool gives definitions of, and plain alternatives to, many common financial terms. It’s the ultimate financial jargon buster!

Get yourself a free copy of Unravelling Financial Jargon here. And let us know if you’ve got any jargon you want busted – we’d love to add it to an update of our ebook!

Read about Money Week

Find out about Write’s workshops in technical writing

03 October 2014

Stitched up

At lunchtime, four of us walked over to the quilting exhibition at Shed 11 on Queens Wharf.

The quilt to the right was not part of the exhibition. It was a quilt made by a participant in the Shut-in Stitchers programme at Arohata Prison.

The programme, which has been going for 20 years, sees two (see update, below) Wellington women share their love of quilting with Arohata inmates. As this article and video clip explain, the programme gives the women the chance to work together, to learn a new skill, and to make something they are proud of.

The quilt I photographed was a first for its creator, but she is now working on another to give to a family member.

Shut-in Stitchers is supported by gifts from quilters and quilting shops, and by raffles to raise funds. So if you are in Wellington, make your way to Shed 11, and buy a ticket in the raffle that supports Shut-in Stitchers.

UPDATE: From an email sent by a quilter friend of my quilter friend: "Both June and Janet would be quick to point out that they are not the only tutors in the programme. Each of them leads a team of tutors from across the Wellington Region and a variety of quilt groups, not only Wellington Quilters' Guild. Sometimes as many as ten tutors are involved in the two classes that are run each Saturday."

02 October 2014

Using language to foster peace

In the late 19th century, a young Jewish physician named Ludwik Zamenhof became deeply troubled by fractions between people in his home city of Bialystok, Poland.

Zamenhof noted that Bialystok was populated by four distinct ethnic groups at the time: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. He attributed much of the unrest between these groups to their inability to understand each other. He felt language diversity was the greatest cause of separation between groups of people.

So what did this peace seeking idealist do? He constructed a new language. Zamenhof used his own linguistic talent to create a neutral communication tool that’s easy to learn, with an underlying goal of fostering peace and international understanding.

Zamenhof’s language, known as Esperanto, now has an estimated 2 million users in around 115 countries.

Find out more about Esperanto at

29 September 2014

Collective nouns can cause conundrums

I’ve studied the English language for years but its idiosyncrasies still occasionally have me scratching my head.
Take for example collective nouns. These words give a singular label to a group that has no fewer (and usually more) than two people or things. If we’re talking about groups of people, think team, committee, family, and staff.
When using these nouns to talk about groups of individuals, how do we pair them with verbs in a sentence? That is, are they singular or plural? Do we say ‘the family is’ or ‘the family are’?
Is there a right answer?
As it turns out, this question has several possible answers. American English, for example, refers to collective nouns differently from British English; Americans are more likely to treat them as single units. And there’s a lot of room for personal choice on the matter too (but think about who you’ll be debating with once you’ve made your mind up!).
To illustrate the conundrum, consider the following situation. Four family members get together to discuss whether or not they should sell their family home, and conclude that they should. Do we say ‘the family agrees’ (singular) or ‘the family agree (plural, referring to the family members)?
In theory, both options are correct, depending on whether you’re treating the family as a single unit or as a group of individuals. My natural instinct in this case would be to go for the plural option of ‘the family agree’.
Stick to your guns
It seems that the most important factor, when making a decision about using singular or plural verbs with collective nouns, is consistency. For instance, if you agreed with me in the example above and took the plural option, you’d have to be consistent with this choice. It would be confusing to say ‘the family agree but it won’t sell immediately’.
If in doubt
Luckily, there are a couple of easy ways to solve the problem. If you truly can’t decide on whether the collective noun is singular or plural, you can recruit additional words to clear up any possible confusion.
Adding the word ‘member’ can be useful. If you talk about ‘the family members’ rather than ‘the family’, your focus is now on the plural ‘members’.

The other option is to use an entirely different word to replace the collective noun in question. Instead of ‘class’, refer to ‘students’. In place of ‘team’, use ‘players’. ‘Staff’ can be ‘people’. That way, you break the group down into the individuals that make it up.

26 September 2014

Making healthy choices for children — add good eyesight and good health literacy to your skill set

Continuing the conversation about health literacy

Children are attracted to colourful drinks at their sports events. To know what these sports drinks contain, parents and coaches need good eyesight to read the small font on the label. And they need good health literacy to understand the many words for sugar and to use the information for healthy choices.

Moira Smith, Dentist and Lead Researcher in an Otago University study of children aged 10–12 years, found that children associate the sugar-sweetened and caffeinated drinks with sport and with our sports stars. Clever marketing indeed. The characteristics of the drinks — the colour, the taste, the image — are attractive, so they make it difficult for children to follow nutrition guidelines. The drinks are associated with poor health outcomes such as obesity and dental decay.

Clever marketing of food and drink at sports events is tough for parents. They need to be smart about what children perceive as ‘good for them’ — our elite sports people drink them, don’t they? Reading the label’s only the beginning. Applying what they know about sugar and caffeine to actions that promote healthy choices for their family is the hard bit. Moira Smith’s study found that New Zealand needs ‘improved public health mechanisms to support healthy beverage choices’.

Read more about this New Zealand study in Appetite journal, Vol 81, 1 October 2014, pp 209-217 

Or read local reports of the study here:

24 September 2014

Going further in fewer words

Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta’s forthcoming book ‘The Edge of the Sky’ takes an interesting approach to language and its constraints. He writes about a mind-bogglingly huge subject — the universe, and everything in it. But he uses only the most common 1000 words in the English language.

What do you think of this self-imposed constraint?

What would some of your everyday communication look like if you followed these limits?

About the book:
The thousand words: