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 April 2012

Writing that kills

Here at Write, we spend a lot of time working on unclear forms and documents to fix tortuous sentence construction, poorly chosen words, and illogical layout. Often, we're called in after the organisation has been hurt, with negative customer feedback, lost sales opportunities, lost time fixing customer or employee errors, and other costs of failed communication.

Unplain English costs untold millions in lost productivity. And now and again, the cost is even higher.

An investigation into a train crash in Australia has found that the crash and resulting death were caused in part because workers were unable to understand what to put in a form.
The ATSB report, released on Friday, found that workers didn't clearly identify the location and type of work that would be carried out when filling out their Track Occupancy Authority (TOA) form, but this was due to a deficiency in the form.

As a result, officers assigned to the site believed the train had passed beyond the worksite before the work started.

24 April 2012

Three reasons to avoid multi-level paragraph numbering

Are you numbering the paragraphs you are writing? And the subparagraphs and the sub-subparagraphs?

Do you think you’re making your writing easier to read and refer to?

Do you think you’re saving time?

Be careful— you might be doing just the opposite. Here’s why we recommend writing flowing text.
  • You reduce complexity. You don’t want to destroy the flow of text by adding an unnecessary level of complexity. Only number paragraphs when ‘the frequency of cross-referencing demands it’ —when using bullet points would force you to write ‘see the second to last bullet point on page 15’. And don’t mix your numbering. Asking your reader to ‘see paragraph 5.2.1(a)’ defeats the purpose of using paragraph numbering at all. 
  • You keep your message clear and your reader focused. If you can’t keep track of what you are writing, you can’t expect your reader to. Neil James suggests ‘avoid[ing] decimal numbering that runs to three or four levels, such as,,, as this quickly becomes hard to follow’. Avoid confusing the reader by ordering your thoughts logically before you start to write. 
  • You make your task easier and quicker. You want your numbering to work and be quick to insert. You need to be tech savvy to use multi-level automatic paragraph numbers and avoid unstable numbering. Spend that time instead focusing on your text—what you want to say. 
It’s your message that you want your reader to remember, not the way it was numbered.

Rewriting public letters in plain language saves money

Rewriting a letter that goes out to hundreds of people can save thousands of dollars; and rewriting a letter that goes to thousands can save an organisation or government department millions of dollars.
How come? When we can read and understand a letter the first time we read it, we can take action on it immediately—compliance is cost-effective and timely. We don’t need to phone up to ask questions—phone calls cost time and money. We take the right information to meetings, and the right x-rays and notes to clinic appointments. Everybody wins.
Many government departments in New Zealand are working hard to make their writing plain. Good things take time.

17 April 2012

Gender-neutral pronouns

Johnson posts on an attempt by a Swedish author to use a pronoun ('hen', which is 'they' in Swedish) that doesn't give readers a clue to a character's gender:

"When I read the book to older children who can repeat the story, then the boys call Kivi 'him' and the girls called Kivi 'her', says Jesper Lundqvist.

..."When I thought about it a bit it adds something in a certain context. If someone was at the doctor's, for example, and tells about it and says 'he' or 'she' for the doctor, it paints a certain picture. It's interesting what it does to the picture when someone calls the doctor 'hen'. "
The Johnson post includes an interesting discussion of the use of singular 'they' in English:
Yes, singular they has been used for quite a long time in impeccable English sources. It has three gender-neutral uses,when the gender of an antecedent is

plural and mixed:  Everyone has their own opinion.

unknown: Someone left their book here.

unimportant: Anyone who works here should know they'll have to work hard.
And it includes a link to an article on an invented transgender pronoun, which makes the point:
Political correctness means ditching a clear and precise word in favour of a vaguer term, to spare someone's feelings. This is a case of using a new word because the existing words are imprecise. They do not serve.
So what do you think? He, his and him? They, their, and them? Or something else entirely?

05 April 2012

Junk food for sentences

H/T ('hat tip', meaning a tip of the hat) to PR Daily for the great image. Laura Hale Brockway used it to illustrate her blog '20 phrases you can replace with one word'. She has a great list of verbose nasties, and invites commenters to offer their own. I don't have a favourite - they're all complex carbohydrates for sentences. My advice: put your organisation on a diet of good, healthy, meaningful words.

04 April 2012

To boldly split...

Punch, Vol. 156, April 30, 1919
Johnson bemoans the rule in the Economist style guide, which reads:
Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.
The ban seems to have appeared during the 19th century, after at least six centuries of happy infinitive splitting. Since it made its way into school grammar texts, it has been memorised as a fixed rule, even though it makes no sense and isn't part of formal English grammar.
Theodore Bernstein said hopefully in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that “within the near future the split-infinitive bugaboo will be finally laid to rest.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the resistance to the construction as having “established itself in that subculture existing in the popular press and in folk belief.” Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the split infinitive in the entry Superstitions. John Bremner wrote in 1980, “This so-called rule has no foundation in grammar, logic, rhetoric or common sense.”(John E. McIntyre: You don't say]
So, for more than 100 years, style books written for professional writers give similar advice to the Economist: there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive, but don't do it because some people will think you've made a mistake. Johnson refers to an article on Language Log, 'Crazies Win'. Arnold Zwicky comprehensively demolishes both the split infinitive 'rule' itself, and the style guide ban. He says:
Whether teachers proscribe split infinitives because they believe in [No Split Infinitives] NSI or because they think that's the easy route around [Split Infinitives as Last Resort] SILR, their students grow up thinking that split infinitives are a Bad Thing. If, later in life, they come across SILR in the advice literature, what are they to make of it? What was once banned is now permissible, but in what circumstances? How to know when the alternatives are worse?

The advice givers have tacitly acquired their own tastes in the matter, but they can't assume that their readers (already) share these tastes. In fact, by formulating principles like NSI and SILR, they have failed to teach their readers anything useful about how they might judge different versions of infinitival verbal phrases.
In other words, Zwicky believes that the ban perpetuates the myth that there is something wrong with split infinitives. He finishes:
The objective fact is that split infinitives are standard English. So my advice is: split an infinitive if it suits you (or don't, if that suits you). Good writers do it. And you don't even have to have a defense for it; do it because it sounds right for you. Don't let the crazies win.