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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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:

23 September 2014

When less is more

"Punctuation matters," I claimed last week.

Grammar matters, too.

If you are writing to persuade, make sure you don't annoy the purists like me.

Last week, I opened a letter from one of my local electoral candidates. Like all the others that have dropped into my box in the run up to the election, it was asking me to select him as my candidate, and to give his party my party vote.

And his primary reason, repeated several times? His party believed in less Members of Parliament.

As readers of this blog know, the term 'less' is used for volume and other measures that can't be counted. When talking about a reduced number, the term you need to use is 'fewer'.

I spent a pleasant ten minutes, while I cleaned up the dishes, thinking about what non-countable measure I could apply to Members of Parliament. Less weighty MPs? They'd probably agree. Less voluble MPs? Less serious MPs? Less frivolous MPs? Less well-paid MPs? I could go on.

Dear electoral candidate. You lost any chance of my vote when you sent me an ungrammatical letter.

But you offered me a perfect example of when less is more.

19 September 2014

Punctuation matters

And BP Plc hopes the Texas Supreme Court agrees. An article in the Insurance Journal explains:
BP argues the drilling contract skipped a needed comma, and that the omission either granted access to coverage or created ambiguity that triggered an exception. Under Texas law, an ambiguous insurance contract would be interpreted in its favor, BP contends.
The clause in the drilling agreement reads that BP, its subsidiaries and workers would be “named as additional insureds” in Transocean’s polices [sic] “except Workers’ Compensation for liabilities assumed by [Transocean] under the terms of this contract.”
BP contends that because there isn’t a comma after the words “workers’ compensation,” this leaves open coverage liability for oil discharged from the well. Insurers could have inserted “standard language” to restrict coverage and “cannot rewrite the policies to add those restrictions now,” BP said.

16 September 2014

Clear concise disclosure that people can understand

All the world over, ordinary investors face the problem of understanding what investment offers. In New Zealand, the Financial Markets Authority has published some guidelines demanding plain English in investment documents.

Similar authorities overseas also see clear language as a priority. Witness this article from the Wall Street Journal:
To Be Clear, SEC Reviewers Want Filings in Plain English, Period

Here's a taste:
Most of Corp Fin's inquiries tackle tougher topics. But simplifying language to be better understood by investors is also a serious goal.
Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt made clarity a career mission, prompting the agency in 1998 to publish an 83-page "Plain English Handbook" that still circulates today.
"What we are getting to is clear and concise disclosure that people can understand," said Shelley Parratt, Corp Fin's deputy director for disclosure operations.

09 September 2014

Overcoming the fear of public speaking

There’s no doubt that fear of public speaking — or ‘glossophobia’, to use its technical term — is extremely common. Some estimate that as many as 75 percent of us experience this at some time in our lives.

I’ll readily admit that I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. Shaky hands, shortness of breath, anxiety: I’ve been there and felt it all.

Several years ago, I was asked to make a series of public addresses. To my great surprise, in doing this I experienced a public speaking ‘eureka moment’.

I’d been asked to speak to a group of retirement village residents during their weekly trip to the public library. I knew my content intimately, I’d met the group organiser, I was presenting in a familiar environment. But still I was racked with nerves.

My time to speak arrived. I cast my eyes over the audience: they seemed a kindly bunch, but would they like what I had to say? Would they ask difficult questions? Would they laugh at me if I made a mistake?

I cleared my throat and got started. Everything seemed to be going to plan until… someone started to snore!

I was mortified — I’d bored my audience to sleep (or so it felt)! My immediate impulse was to run out of the library and leave town. But then I saw the expectant faces of those still awake — I couldn’t let them down. They may also have been sleepy but their faces showed an eagerness to continue.

I suddenly realised that this was not about who delivered the speech — it was about what I had to say. My only failure up to that point had been to forget the nature of my audience.

I took a deep breath and carried on (although I did shorten the length of the address).

At the end of the speech, my listeners applauded with terrific enthusiasm, some nudging their snoring neighbours awake to join in the thanks. I felt an immense sense of achievement: I’d overcome an unexpected hurdle and ended up with happy listeners.

My ‘eureka moment’ was when I realised I’d taken myself too seriously and forgotten about the unique nature of my audience. I now use the lessons I’ve learned, combined with a number of coping techniques, to overcome my fears — and I even enjoy myself in the process!

Some of my colleagues at Write have shared how they overcome anxiety before a speech or presentation. Here are a few tips of my own.

Remember that:
* people are there for the content of your presentation, not to see you personally
* everyone makes mistakes
* it’s okay not to have answers sometimes
* public speaking can be fun!
Most importantly, be prepared and know your content well.

Find out about our speaking and presenting workshops.

08 September 2014

What’s going on in New Zealand to improve literacy?

UNESCO[i] declared 8 September International Literacy Day in 1966. The purpose of celebrating this day each year is to remind the international community that literacy for all makes a healthy society — socially, politically, mentally, and physically healthy, that is.

Almost 50 years after the first Literacy Day, many countries still struggle with basic education and literacy. Our friend Sandra Fisher-Martins[ii] tells a story about how written information affects the lives of people who can’t read. Listen to Sandra’s story about her neighbour Mr Domingos in her TED talk. 

And in New Zealand and Australia, many people in our own adult communities find daily information difficult to take in and use.

Find out what’s being done to improve adult literacy by subscribing to the valuable newsletters at Workbase New Zealand. As a not-for-profit trust, they support organisations and people to build literacy, language, numeracy, and communication skills for a modern economy and society.

Workbase brings literacy to people at their workplace. They know that people’s general health, their safety at work and their economic status is closely linked to their literacy. You can read Susan Reid’s informative blog about health literacy, and subscribe to Workbase’s monthly health literacy newsletter.

At Write Limited we help writers in organisations small and large apply plain language techniques to their information. Writers may have a higher level of literacy than the thousands of readers they write for. Our plain language solutions help writers make health information, financial information, legal information, any information easier to read, take in and use. Our newsletters will show you how.

[i] UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

[ii] Sandra Fisher-Martins established Claro in Portugal

03 September 2014

Why be concise when you can be creative?

My partner gave up his job as a librarian a couple of years ago to do what he’d always dreamed of: review music and write about bands he loves. He’s a man with plenty of ideas, and the words simply poured out of him. I came home many evenings to find the 500-word review he’d been working on had turned into a 3000-word monster. It was my job to help him chop it down.

Now, his writing is wonderfully original, and I can never fault his facts, logic, or strength of enthusiasm. But, in those early days of inspiration and creativity, he was clearly writing as much for himself as for his readers.

I pointed out that few people want to read a 4-page essay online. I pointed out that a short article could be just as descriptive and eloquent as a long one. I pointed out that he’d been given a word count for a reason.

But once the words were written he became attached to each one, and getting him to part with any was hard work. We had some tense evenings. Harsh words were spoken.

Let there be enlightenment

Fast forward to last Saturday, when he spent a morning rereading some of his early work. After some incredulous snorting, he turned to me and said, “Why did you let me waffle on like that? No one has time to read a 4-page review! And what’s up with all those adjectives?”

Help yourself to help your readers

Most writers who look back at their early work can see where they went wrong. The difficult thing is understanding what’s working better now, and keeping at it. Here’s four simple things I tried to teach my partner, that he eventually came to realise made sense.

1. Spend time away from your writing.
Even a day or two can give you fresh perspective and help you see where the problems are.

2. Always think about who you’re writing for.
Will your readers really read every word? Maybe not. Focus on giving them what they’re looking for.

3. Use as many words as you need to, but not more.
It’s tempting to add in long or unusual words to make your writing sound clever or important. Actually, you sound smarter when you write in a way people can understand.

4. Seek constructive feedback.
A fresh set of eyes can help identify holes, repetition, and waffle. Accepting feedback can be difficult at first, but you’re in good company — even Booker Prize winners can’t avoid this step.

Anyone can learn to write well. It takes time, practice, and humility. Good luck.