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?
The things that it deems to contribute to plainness include:
- the use of ‘everyday’ English;
- consistent and correct use of punctuation and grammar;
- an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words;
- plenty of ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ verbs;
- explanations of technical terms;
- good use of lists [i.e. with bullet points rather than long sentences];
- words like ‘we’ and ‘you’ instead of ‘the Society’ or ‘the applicant’;
- clear, helpful headings, which stand out from the text; and
- a good typesize and a clear typeface.
This seems fair enough, although parts of it – especially the first two – need more explanation (which the more detailed guidelines give). And, like most language tips, you wouldn’t want to apply them too mechanically.
What’s more, plainness in these terms doesn’t guarantee that writing will be good, and in many contexts (scientific journals, novels, opinion columns) a lot of the PEC’s advice would be inappropriate. The focus is simply on making sure the readers will understand – but in official writing that’s meant to inform, that’s a fine ambition.
But how does applying the standards work out in practice?
I found three documents with Crystal Marks to see what they were like. I don’t know how much of each was changed on the PEC’s advice, and I don’t know whether they’re at all representative of the quality of writing that gets the nod. But they did all get the nod, so here they are:
The first was a brochure [PDF] for a small financial services company. It’s not too bad: there’s a lot less jargon than you might expect. But it’s also not great. Its biggest failing is that it’s convoluted, which can destroy clarity as surely as overuse of technical terms.
Take the second paragraph of the Chairman’s introduction:
Although housing has long been regarded by investors as a valuable asset class, there has never been an accessible, diversified and simple way to benefit from housing. Castle Trust will fill a significant gap in the market by providing continuous access to the UK’s largest single asset class and delivering a much-needed solution to the problem of access and diversification for investors.
“Has long been regarded” is a weak passive in a vague statement, “accessible” and “simple” are treading on each other’s toes, and repeating “housing” at the end of the first sentence is clunky. In the second, what “continuous access” means is unclear to me. “The UK’s largest single asset class” is elegant variation, perhaps over-reacting to the previous repetition of “housing”; it could be a handy little factoid, but only for readers who already know it. “Delivering a much-needed solution” is clichéd corporate sales patter that’s already been covered by “fill a significant gap in the market”, and “access and diversification” are nominalisations and more repetition.
Here’s my stab at it:
Housing is the UK’s largest single asset class, but it has always been hard for investors to benefit from it. We will fill this gap in the market by letting investors more easily access and diversify housing assets.
It’s still not a thing of beauty, but that’s not the point. From 62 words, it’s down to 38. It’s more directly expressed and (I think) no less professional or authoritative in tone. There’s the same opportunity–obstacle–solution narrative, but I’ve moved the “largest single” factoid (now properly stated) to become a more concrete scene-setter. And the “this” ties the second sentence gently but firmly to the first. The rewrite has most of the substance of the original, and all of the significant substance – I think. And if the “continuous access” bit did mean something specific and important, later in the brochure may be a better place for the detail.
My version is far from perfect, but it shows that there’s plenty of room here for improvements that fit the spirit (and in many cases the letter) of the PEC’s principles.
Here’s another paragraph, from the explanation of the mortgages the company offers (this time I’ll just give a few broad comments):
It is a new type of shared equity mortgage, which is very different to previous private or government-backed schemes in terms of meeting the FSA’s requirements for Treating Customers Fairly, the design of the mortgage, and the type of customer it is likely to appeal to. Partnership Mortgages are only available to responsible borrowers under the age of 55, and are the first prime shared equity offering that is widely available to people with good credit records, and are suitable for both first-time buyers and those wanting to move into a larger home.
We have two pretty tortuous sentences here, although they both start reasonably well. The first degenerates into a hopelessly vague checklist. The second takes a point about availability, adds a point about novelty that’s premised on a related point about availability, and concludes with two points about suitability that have been welded into one. It all needs breaking up, slowing down and fleshing out: in this case I’d probably want to up the word count and, more importantly, the sentence count.
I’m not going to go into the other two Crystal Marked documents in such depth, because they’re easier to assess. One is a booklet [PDF] about pain management programmes for people with chronic pain. The vocabulary is commendably simple and the sentence structures generally straightforward:
This booklet may have caught your attention because you have persistent pain. If so, you will know that persistent pain can seriously affect the quality of your life. It affects your work and your home life. Often your family and friends can’t really understand what you are going through. You have probably tried various treatments and now you wonder if you are going to have to live with pain forever. Your doctor may even have said this to you. You may be wondering how you are going to cope when you are in such pain.
It seems well tailored to its audience, although in places the grammar is a bit iffy and there are some typos. I also felt – the converse problem to that of the financial brochure – that the simple style seemed a bit disjointed here and there. But that’s getting into aesthetics. Overall, I think the booklet does its job well.
The final document I looked at is the annual report [PDF] of a council’s pension fund, intended not just for financial experts but for also for scheme members, i.e. current and retired council employees. There’s plenty of jargon, although there’s a decent glossary – but if you need to keep checking it, you’ll still find the report quite hard going.
And financial lingo aside, the overall style is…
The membership of the pension committee allows for wider representation from all stakeholders, while keeping overall numbers to a manageable number to recognise the significant commitment, specialist knowledge and training that needs to be developed by committee members.
I’ve chosen a worse-than-average bit, but you get the rough picture.
Making such a report accessible to its declared non-specialist audience is tough, and I don’t think this one has succeeded. I suspect that it may not be seriously intended to be read, but is produced mainly to satisfy a legal requirement. In which case I’m not sure why it should seek, let alone receive, a Crystal Mark.
My tiny, feeble excuse for an investigation suggests that a Crystal Mark is not a guarantee of plain language, and that the PEC review process has a limited effect on writing that isn’t plain. But of course I’ve not seen the originals of those three examples; great improvements may have been made.
And I don’t want to be too critical based on so little evidence, because the PEC editors are probably as good as any others. I know that there are days, when the proofs are piling up and the deadlines are jumping around, when mediocre writing can sneak across my desk. And I know that my own writing could often stand to be plainer too.