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.

To find out more about Write, go to or join us on Facebook at

22 February 2013

Get off the bus with that language!

I spotted this sign on one of the new Go Wellington buses.

The word ‘standees’ bothered me. I wonder if the sign could just say ‘Please don’t stand behind this line’.

At first I thought they’d made a laughable mistake, and that ‘standee’ meant ‘person or thing being stood on’. But no; Go Wellington has used ‘standee’ correctly. I checked the Oxford Dictionary and I stand corrected. Their use of ‘standee’ is spot on, even if it isn’t commonly used. The big book says:

standee: noun — a person who is standing rather than seated, especially in a passenger vehicle.

But is ‘standee’ plain and clear? If English wasn't your first language, would you immediately get the message? Many bus passengers are new to New Zealand and may not understand it on first reading.

And it’s exactly the kind of bureaucratic language that makes customers feel distanced from the Council, which does so much to serve them. I’m a big fan of the Wellington City Council and its services and amenities.

But this language is absolutely positively not reader-focused!


  1. On train platforms, the text says 'please stand behind the yellow line'. Simple and clear.

  2. Gerunds are our friends. Surely, the word 'standing' would have done the job? A 'Health & Safety' notice becomes a hazard when it does not communicate its message clearly, regardless of whether English is the audience's first language. Editors should not need to consult the OED, and visitors to the country's capital city should not have to wonder if they are standers, standees or both.

    @Judy - Nicely observed.

  3. Dictionaries are not always your friend. In the 1980s I had a disagreement with a management consultant in London who wanted to use 'disbenefits'. I said he could have it if he found it in a dictionary. Unfortunately I had two vast volumes of the OED on my shelves and he managed to locate it. The only observation I could make was that you could also find 'disbeautiful' in the weighty tomes, which was equally repulsive.