Churchill, Einstein And The Origins Of Plain English

This first appeared on the opinion pages of The Melbourne Age

Winston Churchill may be well known for the battles he waged in the name of the Allied Forces but it is the lesser known war he declared on the desecration of the English language that still rages. At the height of the Battle of Britain with war all round him Churchill barked out an edict banning bureaucratese, legalese, officialese, jargon and other gobbledygook in favour of plain English. To him it was the fastest method of conveying concise, unambiguous messages to command.

As a practising plain English editor and writer, I can assure you this battle is ongoing and it is coming at us on many fronts from the supermarket shelves to the corridors of our national capital. It is fed by intellectual vanity, fear of looking dumb, pesky lawyers (of course) and a general public that has been bludgeoned into submission by its heavy, dull, self-important pedantry. This enemy of clarity and friend of the obscurantist feeds off our numb acceptance of it in our everyday lives.

Speaking of pesky lawyers, here’s a sample of something I recently had to turn into plain English for a reluctant law firm. “The conditions of chapters 13 and 14 shall with modifications deemed as necessary extend and apply to and in relation to this Section and others, without affect to the aforementioned in the sense of its generality, in particular with the modification that any reference to plastic or plastic products shall be construed as a reference to rubber products also in full. (58 words) Still awake? My solution was “what chapters 13 and 14 say about plastic and plastic products also applies to rubber. (15 words)”. Say no more!

Just as you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse neither should you be turning nouns into verbs. For those out there who practise these verbal gymnastics I have “benchmarked” your attainment and have decided not to “calendar” you a meeting so “access” your information on your way out my door before I “task” you a spanking. Mind you, it can sometimes work, for example US visionary Buckminster Fuller once described, “God as a verb not a noun, proper or improper”. Mind you he didn’t go on to say “I God you” but you get the drift.

Then there’s the buzz word salads that slink across my desk and curl up in the corner staring their evil stare. Buzzword users like to hide in the vagaries of big words. They use “realise” rather than “do, “facilitate” rather than “make easier” or my pet hate “utilise” rather than “use”. These jumbled assaults on my beloved English seem designed to intimidate, depersonalise and divert the reader from the fact that the writer has no answer. Scratch the surface and you are in free fall for these battalions of nothingness often carry no precise meaning at all. A case in point is the following blast of corporate waffle I recently edited as part of an annual report for a finance client. “By analysing and validating strategies moving forward we can better ascertain our total customer satisfaction base and thus better empower our interactive competency team process.” In other words “closely monitoring strategies teaches us more about customer satisfaction and improves our team work.”

Not surprisingly, however, it is the bottom line imperative that will probably drive companies and governments to take up plain English. Recent US research demonstrates that Australian business may be losing as much as $2 billion a year through unclear communication which equates to about 35,000 jobs. This is based on a US survey of 3,000 customers about the promotional material they are emailed and mailed. It was found that up to a third were simply boycotting products that came with bad writing, costing the US economy about $10 billion per annum.

At the end of the day real consumer choice doesn’t exist unless we can read, understand and then act on information we are presented with. In the words of Albert Einstein, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

If you would like something to help you write better plain English feel free to email me on to receive my eight top tips for creating plain English.