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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27 March 2012

The joys and perils of jargon

I’ve always been a fan of Peter Bromhead’s cartoons and writing. He has a quirky, irreverent style that’s both funny and insightful.

I was delighted to read an article of his last week that mocked out-of-control business jargon. Bromhead tells of being accosted by what he calls an ‘international creative evangelist’. The evangelist (presumably some sort of consultant or sales person) peppered his conversation with many of the current business buzzwords. Words like ‘innovation’, and phrases like ‘evolutionary push’ (used in the context of business growth), obviously infuriate Bromhead. And when someone flings about a non-word like ideate, his hackles really rise.

“Ideate” is one of those hackneyed phrases served up as garnish on the same platter as “innovation”, and is a term much loved by Palo Alto technology devotees’, he writes.

His strategy for dealing with those devotees and beating them at their own game is, well, innovative. When he’s asked by a consultant what is approach is to LP, Bromhead wonders ‘what on earth Lemon and Paeroa had to do with creating a brave new world.’ Rather than admit his ignorance, though, he retreats to the toilet to google LP on his mobile phone.

The result is a hilarious and jargon-filled explanation of linear programming, which Bromhead learns and repeats back parrot-fashion to the consultant. The man appears genuinely taken aback, and admits that he’s never heard of ‘Limited Production’ being described that way before.

Bravo Bromhead! You’ve managed to highlight in a humourous way the dangers of business jargon and acronyms. Jargon can have its place, when you’re talking to or writing for people who fully understand it. The problem is, often your audience takes from your jargon a different meaning from the one you intend. Acronyms are particularly dangerous. Does the acronym SME, for example, mean Small to Medium Enterprise, or Subject Matter Expert? It all depends on the context—and the audience. So keep it clear, and simple.

Here’s the link to Bromhead’s article. It’s worth reading.

A conversation about health literacy with Ann Privett, community pharmacist

Health literacy is the communication part of healthcare. It’s about being able to get the healthcare you need, to follow advice, and to use information to manage your health.

I had a conversation about health literacy with Ann Privett, a community pharmacist. Ann places the highest value on using the professional relationship she has with her customers to increase their health literacy. Every interaction in the pharmacy is an opportunity to dispense care with the medicines. Ann says: “The conversation has two parts. First I have a chat with a customer to find their health literacy, then I work with them to increase their knowledge and understanding and meet their needs.”

Pharmacists understand that taking medicine properly can be challenging for many people. Several language tasks are involved in taking the right dose of the right medicine, in the right way, at the right time.

But talking is only one way of increasing people’s health literacy. Ann gives practical support as well — printing medicine labels in large font; midnight blue paint on a pack or bottle of night-time tablets, and sunny yellow for day-time tablets for another customer; showing people who take warfarin, or people who have diabetes the line on the graph when she measures their blood levels. One customer now uses her three different eye drops properly by following a chart Ann made for her. The chart matches her eye drops to pictures of a left eye and right eye, and morning and night.

People have better health and a better quality of life when they manage their medicines correctly. And the government saves money because healthier people don’t need unplanned healthcare.

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

Read about our workshop Writing Health Information Clearly

Tumblr's terms of service: shorter than Shakespeare

The TIME magazine website has a nice article about plain English making its way into terms of service agreements.

The terms of service for computer software and web services are famously wordy. iTunes? around 20,000 words longer than Macbeth. Paypal? a staggering 36,000 words. Longer than Hamlet.

To read, or not to read: that is the question. All too often, faced with 36,000 words, the answer is 'not'. And with terms of service, not reading can have serious consequences.

Tumblr's terms of service are still quite lengthy at 5,000 words. But they are relatively clear and they include lovely, witty explanations in plain English. For example:

You have to be at least 13 years old to use Tumblr. We're serious: it's a hard rule, based on U.S. federal and state legislation, even if you're 12.9 years old. If you're younger than 13, don't use Tumblr. Ask your parents for an Xbox or try books.

21 March 2012

Wishing you the joys of … Limerick

Happy St Patrick’s Day … for last weekend. We’re celebrating late, not with Guinness but with words.

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical,
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Limerick is the third largest city in Ireland. There’s no doubt the verse is named after the place, but the reason is debated. Wikipedia says the link may come from a parlour game of nonsense verse that included a refrain ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’.

 We like a laugh with words when we’re not clarifying clauses and untangling the technical. Will you join in the game?

Post a comment — your favourite limerick. Keep it clean, and we’ll put them on Facebook. Here’s another, to start you off.

There was a young lass from Kildaire
Tried to steal out of church during prayer
The squeak of her shoes
So enlivened the pews
That she sat down again in despair.

14 March 2012

Do I need to number my paragraphs?

Are you numbering paragraphs as you write a document?

Maybe you’ve numbered every paragraph so far. You’ve got to 2.1.1 (level 3 numbering) and the indent spacing no longer seems to work. You’re a quarter of the way across a line before starting to write. And you’re wondering what to do next.

Remember, you're writing a crisp business document, not an academic treatise. Take a step back and ask: ‘Do I need to use any subparagraphs and sub-subparagraphs that require paragraph numbering?’ The answer will usually be ‘no’.

You might say, ‘Okay, I’ll use numbering after lead-in text. It can follow my paragraph numbering pattern.’ But what if you only have two points (1.1 and 1.2)? Remember: Paragraphs usually deal with a single theme, while listed bullet points support a central theme. So it might be better for you to use bullet points instead.

Use paragraph numbering sparingly, and then try to keep to level 1 numbering.
After all, as a reader, what would you want to focus on and remember — the numbering or the writer’s words?

08 March 2012

How to create content when you don’t have a clue

We liked this post from Copyblogger about ’22 ways to create compelling content when you don’t have a clue’. We’ll make free use of the suggestions — but this week we’re starting by simply linking to their terrific infographic.

05 March 2012

Colourful answers

Tibetan has a marvellous expression for a phenomenon that pervades politics: Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu, which translates as giving a green answer to a blue question.

Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu is number five of nine entries in Cracked's list of 9 Foreign Words the English Language Desperately Needs. I found the list through Johnson, the Economist's language blog. Johnson's favourite was number one on the list: pilkunnussija, a Finnish word that does not translate politely, but which means someone who is obsessive about minor details. Johnson says:
Punctuation and other matters of mechanics and usage are certainly important if you want people to take your writing seriously. But to have a pen on hand at all times so you can correct ill-written shop signs is to miss the fascinating forest of language for its most boring trees.

(I haven't linked to Cracked, because their juvenile humour is sometimes expressed in language that may offend - and you might want to stay clear of this particular Johnson post, too. However, if you want to proceed despite the coarse language warning, Johnson does have a link to Cracked.)