Monthly Archives: April 2012

The cost of living: a penny for your thoughts

Thanks to Nigel Grant on Twitter, I discover that Sainsbury’s receipts now carry this line at the bottom:

Based on price perception data, you can live well for less than you thought at Sainsbury’s.

Nigel asks the obvious question: “Eh??”

It can only mean: “We’re cheaper than people think.” Although of course they don’t want to sound cheap – they’re not Lidl, you know! – so they have to say it in a slightly roundabout way. They’ve also tried to mix dispassionate scientific authority with warm, personal encouragement, and the result isn’t entirely happy.

I know some of those Sainsbury’s shops are pretty big, but can you really live there?

And I think there’s another ambiguity (to the kind of perverse editorial weirdo who goes around looking for these things): you can live well for less what than you thought? Less money, they mean. But it could also be less time. It could mean that Sainsbury’s is so astonishingly expensive that buying their stuff will bankrupt and ruin you in less time than you could ever have imagined.

Silliness aside, I couldn’t find any details of this “price perception data” on their website, but it seems that what they mean is:

We’re not saying that our food will always be cheaper than other supermarkets (we’ll never compromise our commitment to quality), but it will cost less than you thought at Sainsbury’s.

(Let’s skate over the implications of the missing apostrophe after ‘supermarkets’.)

What they’ve done here is sneakily blur the distinction between the average and the individual. It may well be true that Sainsbury’s food costs less than people, on average, think it does. But that doesn’t mean that the food will cost less than you, whoever you happen to be, think it does.

Or maybe they do mean that. Maybe, if you do your shopping there and get to the checkout, you can say “Oh, I thought you’d be cheaper than that,” and get a discount.

You’re welcome to try. But I’m not as good a lawyer as you think I am.

What does the Plain English Campaign do?

The Plain English Campaign is an odd little beast. From its website, it seems to be partly a small writing/editing consultancy and partly an eccentric pressure group.

On the business side, it publishes some passable guidance on writing plainly, runs a string of training courses on plain English, and offers editing services to help clients get their publications up to scratch. Its Crystal Marks are badges of honour for the clients who meet the standard and pay the fee, but of course they’re also canny advertising for the PEC’s own guardianship of plain English.

On the campaigning side, the PEC seems sometimes noble but sometimes a bit tetchy. Its Golden Bull awards, mocking the worst gibberish of the year, are often richly deserved, although some of them misunderstand what works in different contexts. Its Gobbledygook generator is cute and painfully realistic. Its cringingly amateurish Plain English magazine reads like a minor political party’s parish newsletter – and the numerous pages about the PEC’s founder can seem, to the outside observer, numerous.

But the basic idea is a good one. A lot of corporate writing, including that intended for the general public, is needlessly hard to read. If people can’t understand their insurance terms and conditions, or how to apply for a passport, their lives become that bit tougher. Companies and government bodies ought to make their supposedly informative writing plainer, simpler and more successful at communicating. The PEC is undeniably the loudest voice in the UK nagging the guilty to move in this direction.

You might ask what gives these people the right to set themselves up as guardians of our language, but you could ask the same thing about dictionary publishers or, ahem, certain bloggers. They have as much right as anyone, and the rest of us are free to agree or not as we please. And there’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t work for free. I certainly don’t.

What is plain English?

So, what sort of language does the PEC promote?

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