SINGAPORE: I have been asked many times – is it really so important that we speak and write in good, plain English? We have progressed and prospered all these years, why sweat the small stuff?
We ignore the little things to our undoing. It is so easy to forget that it was the decision to make English our language of business and communication that had given us an economically competitive edge in the region.
MUCH TO LOSE
There is much more to lose than our competitive edge if we choke our sentences with jargon or gibberish. Sometime ago, I was looking at a caption for an exhibition which went “Last year, a rescue helicopter was activated for a medical evacuation of a cargo vessel crew”. I wondered if it was written by a robot.
I later found out that a rescue helicopter was flown to a cargo vessel to ferry a crew member who was ill to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. I wished it had been written the way it was told to me – in plain action words or verbs such as “was flown” and “to ferry”. I could then visualise the scene and feel for the crew member who “was ill”.
Gobbledygook boxes up these sensory details. It becomes abstract and lifeless when we start stringing together a series of nouns, such as “there was scope for better coordination and harmonisation of various activities to allow for an economy of efforts”.
But when we breathe life into our sentences with verbs and say “we could be more efficient in better coordinating and harmonising the various activities”, we bring it to ground level where there is life, and we immediately connect with the reader.
So, if we simply mean to “reach out more widely to civil servants”, why say “have a more encompassing engagement reach on civil servants”? In trying to impress with unnecessary big words, we lose our readers’ goodwill and patience. I have a few lengthy papers stuck in my cabinet, unread, because I could not get past the first page.
FORGET ABOUT GETTNG YOUR PROPOSAL APPROVED
The last thing we want is to lose the patience of the powers-that-be. As a young officer, I was constantly reminded that they are busy people, who do not have time for lengthy, garrulous and convoluted submissions. Forget about our analysis being read or our proposal approved if they have to plow through a morass of jargon and gobbledygook.
Sometimes we create our own jargon as we develop a project or plan a campaign, and over time we begin to use certain shorthand terms and phrases that we find convenient or expedient.
However, we often continue to use them when we write a paper to explain our project to our higher-ups or some committee. It is necessary to spell out in clear concrete words what we mean when we say things like “strong 3P partner involvement”, “story curation process”, “immersion visits”, and “speaker sessions”.
If we want them to approve our projects, campaigns or whatever, then we need to make it clear to them what we are doing.
Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. George Orwell went further:
If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.
So if we don’t want our bosses to think we cannot hack it, write in plain, clear and succinct English! When did jargon become our first language? Is it when we joined the workforce?
WHY IS JARGON EXPECTED IN STAFF WRITING?
Something strange happens when a staff officer is asked to draft an email. Suddenly, a simple “we would like to update you on” becomes “this email serves to update you on”.
“I have attached … for your review” becomes “please find attached … for your kind perusal” and “we have not seen the book” turns into “we do not have any visibility over the book”. A clear “as he would be away” becomes “in view of his travel schedule”.
Note takers think they need to embellish their minutes with lines like “he asked for the reasons behind the team’s reservations about using XYZ” when a short “he asked why the team was not keen to use XYZ” would have taken less time to write and read.
An officer who consulted me on a paper he was writing told me that he could not take in my edits as his superiors expected him to write with big words to impress. I think we should be sending all supervisors and managers to courses on effective writing and editing.
Why can’t we talk straight and say “we encourage everyone to take part” instead of “we encourage maximum participation”. Or say “the competitions will be held during the last week of school term” instead of “the competitions have been aligned to the last week of school term”.
And “we will facilitate the provision of dates to schools as early as possible” is highfalutin jargon for “we will help provide the dates to schools as early as possible”.
WE CARRY THIS BAD HABIT IN EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS
Organisations carry this bad habit to public forums. Many readers were floored by a spokesman who said that her agency “will re-balance the soft-touch regulatory approach ... and exercise greater oversight to ensure the needs of both patrons and hawkers are well served”.
Did she mean to say that the agency “will be tougher on the operators and watch them more closely so that they do not exploit their customers”? Your credibility is lost when you lack clarity and sound as if you are giving a non-committal response. In other cases, you may be seen as trying to avoid accountability.
Must we also sound as if we are issuing an order with “to facilitate wheelchair accessibility, commuters can enter MRT stations via an entrance near a taxi stand”? We could explain gently that “there is an entrance near a taxi stand for commuters in wheelchairs to move into the MRT stations easily”.
A more personal and friendly tone reflects sincerity and empathy. People will be more receptive to our views and explanations. Yet, very often, organisations sound as if they were a computer spewing out policy lines crafted by a robot. The officious tone alienates the reader.
And if you are in an industry or profession that has many technical terms to explain things with some precision, please explain them in words that the layman can understand. Consumers who cannot understand you will go to someone whom they can.
This leads us to websites where an organisation’s mission, role and vision are all condensed into two or three broad iffy statements of grandeur that sometimes leave one wondering what that was all about.
Vision statements are supposed to be short and sharp, but most times they are less sharp than short. For instance, in this aim “to bring about a greener and more inclusive public transport system, complemented by convenient options to walk and cycle from their homes or to their destinations”, I wonder what is meant by “a greener and more inclusive transport system”.
Which part of the transport system is green? What will it include that is not already there? And then who are the “their”?
How we write our mission and vision statements is a good indicator of how clear or garbled the rest of our website is. People access websites in search of information. They want to learn more, understand, check and clarify. So much is lost when jargon, code-speak and iffy phrases become the default.
Calling a spade a spade will also help us avoid jargon. Let pens be pens and not “writing instruments”, driverless cars be driverless cars instead of “autonomous vehicles” and lifts be lifts instead of “vertical transportation”.
So I am very happy to learn from a former colleague that the department she is in has begun a campaign on Instagram to promote plain simple English, starting with words it would like to replace such as interlocutor, concomitant, delineate and vis-a-vis.
I would add opine, peruse, cognisant and stakeholder. I hope this will inspire other departments in her ministry, then across the entire civil service, and to other organisations in the private sector, to get rid of jargon.
Yes, little things matter. I really believe we will be more efficient, and even more productive, if we write what we mean and mean what we write. As Ernest Gowers wrote in his book Plain Words:
Be short, be simple, be human.
Judith d’Silva was an active member of the Speak Good English Movement. She has given talks on writing clearly at the Civil Service College and to HDB station managers.