Bin Jargon

Monday, February 11, 2008 0:32 | Filed in Language, Public Sector

No, that’s not an Al Qaeda operative, it’s a command from IDEA who in the back end of 2007 posted a list of 100 words public bodies shouldn’t use as recommended by the LGA.

Yes, I know I really should have commented on it at the time, but I wasn’t aware of it before, and it was only when “Cuddles” from PSF mentioned it on the forum last week that it ever came to my attention.

So, apparently we have 100 words that shouldn’t be used. What’s interesting is while you can play buzzword-bingo with the list to some extent, there’s also a number of words on there that seem to have been widely adopted for use by public bodies: and yet here we have the Local Government Association telling people not to use ‘em.

I’m referring of course to words like:

  • customer
  • good practice
  • joined-up
  • outcomes
  • priority
  • sustainable
  • vision
  • welcome

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m all in favour of Plain English, cutting out the crap, avoiding beating around the bush and saying what it is that you’re actually setting out to achieve without dressing it up in flowery language. But a number of these seem sufficiently plain enough already. I mean, “welcome”?

Do we now need to have “hello” pages to introduce people to our websites?

Of course, it’s only natural that public bodies will want to put a positive spin on their achievements, and tell everyone what they have succeeded in doing, or in what they are planning to do. And it’s only natural that when public bodies are being measured against targets and each other for how they do in particular areas, that they are going to want to do well — and that they are going to reflect the language in these targets to show how they’re doing well.

Yes, by all means let’s cut out all the corporate buzzwords and converse with each other like reasonable adults, but that’s not the same as being forced to dumb everything down: by all means if ‘converse’ is more appropriate than ‘talk’, use ‘converse’ (just don’t use it by default).

And let’s not have one central department giving us a list of banned words when that very same department can also, whilst presumably keeping a straight face, deliver this:

To the fullest extent permissible pursuant to UK law, the IDeA disclaims all warranties expressed or implied, including but not limited to implied warranties of reasonable care, satisfactory quality or fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement of title.IDEA Terms & Conditions

“To the fullest extent permissable pursuant to UK law”? If you want us to use Plain English, let’s see you try it first, eh? Just compare that with:

You can download any of the material for your own use on the following terms.

  • You accept all risks from downloading, installing or using the material.
  • We will not be responsible for damage (including damage caused by viruses) to your computer or software, or any losses you suffer as a result of downloading, installing or using the material.

Legal Issues Page, Plain English website

Look, if you want Plain English to be used on websites and in dealings with other people, that’s great. But let’s set out three ground rules.

  1. This applies to all documents, regardless of who the anticipated audience is (i.e. something from a public body should be in plain English regardless of whether is talking to the public or another organisation)
  2. It applies to all public bodies. Parliament, the justice system, local authorities, central government, everything
  3. Plain English does not mean ‘dumbing down’. It means using the simplest, plainest language appropriate to that message

I’d back that campaign.

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2 Comments to Bin Jargon

  1. Rachel says:

    February 12th, 2008 at 12:46 am

    You really do have to laugh don’t you (otherwise you’d probably cry). Yep, I very probably should have read it too at the time, working part time in local government as I do. “We ‘welcome’ input on the ‘priorities’ of ‘customers’ as part of our ‘vision’ for creating ’sustainable’ ‘outcomes’ which are ‘joined-up’ and conform to the latest ‘good practice’”. (Translation: the government says we have to ask people what they think of our hair-brained plans) There ya go! All 8 words in one sentence! I’m sure if I try really hard I could get the other 92 in too….ooops! Better go pick up my P45 tomorrow, using language like that! ;)

    The sad fact is that too many people in the public sector do still talk like that, and much of it comes from the incomprehensible jargon-ridden edicts from central government and it’s many quangos. Yet another case of ‘do as we say, not as we do’.

  2. The Goldfish says:

    February 12th, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    I do get cross about plain English; it is a perfectly sensible idea, but it cannot be achieved by limiting vocabulary and pretending that every polysyllabic word can be adequately replaced. Some of the phrases on the list are best got rid of, but most of the words depend entirely on context. It is not the words so much as the way you use them which makes all the difference.

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