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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28 September 2011

Enter your winning plain English or 'brainstrain' document today

Friday of this week is the closing date for entries to the Plain English Awards.

It's not too late to enter - there are 15 awards in seven categories. Category 7 is People's Choice, with awards for best plain English document, best plain English website, 'brainstrain' document, and 'brainstrain' website.

Why not enter your favourite document or website - or the document or website that does your head in (or all four)?

Or try your hand at the Best Plain English Sentence Transformation (Category 4), for an amazing prize.

The Awards website has details of how to enter, and of the awards in the other five categories (Plain English Champion, Best Plain English Document, Best Plain English Website,  Best Plain English Technical Communicator, Best Plain English Financial Document).

26 September 2011

Brit Tom Albrighton, on his ABC Copywriting blog,  has kicked off a 'Plain English Patrol' - under which name he promises to find, dissect, and repair badly written signs. He laments:
Bad English is everywhere, just waiting to leap out and chafe your sensibilities. And the heartbreaking thing is that just a little thought and effort would have made the difference between total calamity and total clarity.
In this first Plain English Patrol post, he looks at three signs. Here's an example:
It’s the small print about a competition that’s promoted on the bottle.
Open to those aged 12 and under. Parent/Guardian consent is required for participation…
So let me get this straight. By definition, we’re talking to kids – if the parent or guardian is already reading, there isn’t a problem. And we’re talking to kids as young as five or six. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, are we using words like ‘consent’, ‘required’ and ‘participation’?
The Flesch-Kincaid reading level of this text is 9.0, or US ninth grade – in other words, only likely to be comprehensible to children of at least 14. Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t spend too long thinking about the nature and concerns of their audience.
It’s puzzling because the understandable version is so obvious:
You must be 12 or younger to enter. Ask your Mum or Dad first.
OK, I’ve lost the ‘guardian’, but I’m sure kids with guardians will get the message. And with a grade level of 1.4 (clear to a six-year-old) I feel the trade-off is totally worth it.

20 September 2011

Kicking language into touch

I’m only a part-time rugby fan, but I’m enjoying the fun that journalists are having with language.

Country names, characteristics, and yes, stereotypes have given readers some great headlines. Last weekend, Rugby Heaven tempted us to read on with ‘Wobbly Wallabies in an Irish Stew’, ‘French a rabble but they can still fry us’, and even ‘French follies could be on the cards’. If you enjoy Hoagy Carmichael’s easy listening style, you’ll appreciate ‘Georgia on Moody’s mind’.

Metaphors abound. I enjoyed the ‘orchestrated performance of sustained passion and pressure from the pack’ in the Ireland v Australia game. Sadly, ‘Australia…never found a rhythm through the first stanza’, and ‘the All Blacks hit a speed bump on the road to playoffs’. Did you see the ‘Welshmen muscle up to the Island challenge in a crunch ‘Pool of Death’ clash’? And even a part-time rugby fan could see that ‘Ireland has laid an explosive charge under the whole tournament.’ Heavy duty language when you really need it.

Headlines can be sound bites as well. Duncan Johnstone had fun with ‘Cooper bites back over “boofhead” backstabbing’ in the Dominion Post on Friday, as Marc Hinton did on Monday with ‘Ka pai Kahui’.

Some reports are close to the bone. All players should be afraid of Sonny Bill Williams, our ‘potent weapon’. The Springboks will be disappointed to be ‘the old and the restless’, but ‘gallant’ is such a great word to describe Wales and Georgia.

We all knew that the game in New Plymouth on Thursday between USA and Russia would be a ‘Cold war clash’ and a ‘Clash of the Titans’—I felt their pain as the Eagles clawed the Bears in the Dominion Post on Friday. ‘Bringing the big guns’ (Radio NZ on Sunday) didn’t save the Russians. I grew up with the real fear of the real cold war, and could not have imagined back in the sixties, that we would one day use these words for sportive fun.

Enjoying language, and understanding how we play with it, is the subject of a New Zealand book just published, called Q & Eh, Questions and answers on language with a kiwi twist. The writers are linguists at Victoria University, Professors Laurie Bauer and Janet Holmes, Associate Professor Paul Warren and Dr Dianne Bardsley. They write a popular language column in the Dominion Post.

'Q & Eh' is a revised version of their Dominion Post columns. I’ve been dipping into it, but you could read it from cover to cover. It has several references to the language of sport—enjoy the two to three page answers to important questions, like ‘Is there always fighting talk in sports reports?’ and ‘Are you stumped when it comes to cricket?’ 'Q & Eh' uses cartoons and photographs to illustrate points, and has a helpful glossary of language terms, and an easy-to-use index. It's arranged by theme and is fun to read.

16 September 2011

A rose by any other name...

Neil James of the Plain English Foundation, in a presentation on the first morning of the IPEd Conference, challenged us to apply a simple test of public recognition. Ask your taxi driver, he said, what profession solves the problem, and what is the name of the professional practitioner.

Illness or injury? Medicine and doctor.

A complex tax return? Accountancy and accountant.

Breach of contract? Law and lawyer.

What about producing a document?

Thanks to historical contexts, the fragmented theoretical base, and rapidly evolving fields, we're unlikely to get the same response (or in some cases any response) from all the people we ask.

Neil suggests that we needed to promote editing and its communications siblings as part of a broader communications discipline, encompassing editing, technical communication, plain language, information design, and usability.

My question to you is what should we call this discipline? Neil suggests 'communicator'. My offering that day was 'scribe' - a word with a venerable tradition. Once, designers used to call themselves commercial artists. Does that make us commercial writers?

Thinking about it further, I'm leaning towards 'writer'. That's what I put on customs documents and tax forms. When people ask: 'What do you do?' I respond: 'I write'. 'What do you write?' With Hamlet, I reply: 'Words. Words. Words.'

Any preferences? Other suggestions?

15 September 2011

Linguistic Darwinism

To me, one of the most fascinating speakers at the IPEd Conference was Kate Burridge. Kate is Professor of Linguistics at Monash University. She gave us a quick history of the English language in several passages - from Old English, Middle English, and Early New English.

The English of 1200 years ago is impossible for an untutored ear to understand. Those who wrote Beowulf down around the turn of the first millenium would have been unable to read Chaucer, just 300 years later. But with the coming of printing, and widespread prose literacy, change slowed. And in the seventeenth century, English solidified.

For 500 years, as Kate put it, the written tail has wagged the spoken dog.

Kate suggests that change is speeding up again, fueled by the number of speakers for whom English is not a mother tongue, and by social media. Once again, people are using language to create community and express identity.

13 September 2011

Ebooks and the future of publishing

Epublishing was a recurring theme at the IPEd conference, with two plenary sessions and a number of workshops.

Many publications departments are integrating ebooks into their editorial or production workflows. Amazon already sells more ebooks than print books (or pbooks, as some call them).

Speakers at the conference argued forcefully for editors to manage the ebook process. Whatever the publication method, the content is still what matters. The purpose of publishing is to convey meaning - to send a message from writers to readers. Whether the document is a prize-winning novel, a mathematics textbook, a corporate annual report, or a government white paper, the publication doesn't exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the message.

The role of an editor is to ensure that the message gets through. In an epublishing future, editors are more important than ever.

12 September 2011

A matter of tone

Plain English isn't just a matter of well-chosen headings, straight-forward words, short active sentences, clear layout, and good structure. Tone matters, too. Tone tells your reader what you think of them. Meredith and I saw a Sydney Buses sign that was a great example of what can happen when you don't get your tone right. It said:

"No smoking. No drinking. No eating. Security cameras are operating on this bus. Plain clothes policemen may be present on the bus."

Then, having made it clear that we weren't welcome, and weren't to be trusted, it went on:

"If you need any further information, please ask for a copy of our 'Welcome Aboard' brochure."

'Further'? 'Welcome Aboard'?  For more about what Sydney Buses thinks about its customers, see here.

09 September 2011

IPEd Conference 2011

Meredith and I are in Sydney at the Conference of the Institute of Professional Editors.

We've lots of ideas to bring back - and will report when we've returned to NZ and caught up on sleep! For now, here's a few quotes:

"Just because anyone can publish doesn't mean that they should."

"Editors are really all about the user experience."

"As technologies change, editorial will be the calm centre of the storm."

08 September 2011

Shall we enhance?

At Write, debates about the accuracy of words are rife, and ‘enhance’ is one of our favourites. We categorise it as vague, euphemistic, and non-specific.

A computer geek who visited us trainer geeks one day barely got out of the office alive. He swanned confidently into our corner and cheerfully informed us that he had come to ‘enhance the functionality of our computers’.

You can’t get away with that sort of linguistic temerity with us. As one, we rose in horrified protest. ‘Functionality’ was bad enough, being a piece of IT- generated jargon, but ‘enhance’? Exactly what did he mean? The computer man became very nervous. He explained, carried out four separate adjustments on our four separate machines, and fled, a broken human being.

So I was ripe for the linguistic challenge put to me by a colleague. She’d discovered there was such a thing as an Eel Enhancement Company —and wondered just what they would do?

I said I’d pick up the phone and ask.

The person I spoke to acknowledged that I had the name right. ‘What do you actually do with the eels?’ I asked.

No response. ‘Do you make them longer?’ I pursued. ‘Or shorter?’ Still no response. ‘Thinner or fatter? Sexier?’ I wanted to know. By this time, my person was beginning to suspect a leg-pull and became reluctant to say anything.

I decided on being adamant in a last-ditch effort to gain clarity.

‘I work for a plain English company,’ I said. ‘We think businesses and organisations should use words accurately and be specific. If someone wanted to know what it is you do to eels, what would you say to them?’

And finally, the beans were spilled.

‘We breed them,’ I was told.

02 September 2011

Don't make bad news worse

Early definitions of 'health literacy' focused on the reader's ability to understand and use health information - as we discussed back in June. Recent work brings the health practitioner who writes or gives the health information into the definition.

Later, I'm going to blog about the financial cost to the country of poor health literacy, but let Elspeth Murray tell you about the human cost of badly-presented health information. As Elspeth's poem 'This is bad enough' reminds us, when you get bad news about your health, you want health information that cares about you. It should be clear, relevant, up to date, and make the reader feel it's written for them.

Go to our website for links to more blogs about health literacy

Read about our workshop Writing Health Information Clearly