Plain English and Golden Bulls

Yesterday the Plain English Campaign announced the winners of its Golden Bull awards 2009, a dubious honour given to individuals and companies who have unleashed the best gobbledegook upon an unfortunate reading public. And by ‘best’ I mean ‘worst’.

Unfortunately, the page is littered with erroneous apostrophes. Part of the problem seems to be a formatting glitch, which I’ve noted before: WordPress and some other self-publishing platforms automatically curl apostrophes and inverted commas (AKA quotation marks), sometimes the wrong way. That the apostrophes have been transformed into double inverted commas is another matter:

But that’s enough cosmetic griping. And since I drafted this post, a representative of the Plain English Campaign has contacted me to say they will soon fix the problem.

Among this year’s Golden Bull winners were Coca Cola, who “outsource some aspects of our Finance transactional processing activities”, and the UK Department of Health, who report that primary disease prevention “has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease”. I must admit I like this description, in the same way that I like terrible poetry, but I understand why its use by the British government should invite censure and even ridicule.

I will pause a moment, to allow your nervous system to ready itself for a final example:

Neither the execution and delivery by the Consultant of this Agreement nor the consummation by it of any of the transactions contemplated hereby, requires, with respect to it, the consent or approval of the giving of notice to, the registration, with the record or filing of any document with, or the taking of any other action in respect of any government authority, except such as are not yet required (as to which it has no reason to believe that the same will not be readily obtainable in the ordinary course of business upon due application therefore) or which have been duly obtained and are in full force and effect.

This snippet of extreme legalese, a stupefyingly convoluted clause in a contractors’ agreement, comes courtesy of the Dublin Airport Authority. It is so tortuous that it is virtually incomprehensible, yet one suspects that what it purports to convey is really quite straightforward. Legal diction, however, is “almost necessarily obscure”, as Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words.

If it is readily intelligible, so much the better; but it is far more important that it should yield its meaning accurately that that it should yield it on first reading, and the legal draftsman cannot afford to give much attention, if any, to euphony or literary elegance. What matters most to him is that no one will succeed in persuading a court of law that his words bear a meaning he did not intend, and, if possible, that no one will think it worth while to try.
All this means that his drafting is not to be judged by normal standards of good writing…

Double standards therefore do apply, and with good reason, but problems arise when legal jargon is selected for its own sake, or because one suffers from jargonitis — an inability to avoid using jargon even when plain English alternatives are possible and appropriate. The condition may be contagious.

Since I am not a lawyer, I will not try to translate the Dublin Airport Authority’s example into readable and unambiguous English. I will instead refer readers to an earlier post on Sentence first, concerning the plain style and its advantages in formal writing. ‘Notes on the plain style’ was in fact my second ever post on this blog, following a brief introduction, and it received its first comment quite recently. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a comment from a new reader is infinitely better than a Golden Bull Award.

[For more like this, click on gobbledegook or plain English in the tag cloud on the right-hand side of this page.]

14 Responses to Plain English and Golden Bulls

  1. There have been a number of times at work that I have simply refused to read stuff that would win the jackpot in Bullshit bingo.

    I like to use three simple words in such cases: In English please

  2. Stan says:

    Jams: Sometimes refusal (or amusement) is the only way to preserve one’s sanity. Your last phrase reminds me of something Gowers wrote elsewhere in the book:

    ‘Nobody could say what meaning this was intended to convey unless he held the key. It is not English, except in the sense that the words are English words.’

    He took no prisoners!

  3. goofy says:

    I just don’t find these entries to be gobbledegook. Yes some of them sound silly, but they’re not nonsensical.

  4. Stan says:

    Goofy: Although gobbledegook can be unintelligible, I don’t think it has to be. To me it means unclear and wordy English, often laced with jargon or nonsense, but not necessarily incomprehensible.

  5. Anne Hodgson says:

    Dear Stan,
    Legalese is a crime.
    Plain style requires clear thinking, reflection and the will to agree on meaning. That’s actually what I expect our lawyers to be doing in the first place!

  6. Stan says:

    I don’t think it’s that straightforward, Anne. Even where there exists the will to agree on meaning, consensus can be attained only up to a point, after which there are innumerable ambiguities and semantic differences. In a legal context, these require ever more intricate clarifications.

    Much legal language is therefore unavoidably complex and inelegant. When it’s needlessly difficult, on the other hand, it repels readers not just through impenetrability but through inefficiency. That goes for any kind of jargon.

  7. goofy says:

    Jargon is useful. It lets you talk about specialized topics clearly. For instance, “the phoneme /t/ has an aspirated allophone word-initially, and an unaspirated allophone after voiceless sibilants” conveys a specific meaning that would take more time to convey without jargon. It’s not inelegant, needlessly difficult or impenetrable – as long as the read understands the jargon.

  8. Claudia says:

    Thank you for another fun post. When I buy new things (recently cordless phones) I always have a bit of a problem to understand the User’s Manual. In my country, it’s always bilingual. Yet, it’s still difficult. I must admit I get impatient if I have to read 40 pages before I can use a phone with efficiency. I find the language very obscure. I usually wait for my son who resumes in a few words all I need to know to make or answer a call, or to push the right buttons to get a decent toast. Of course, I shouldn’t complain about verbose manuals, when I’m also a sinner in that area. But I often wonder if the technological writers are paid by the words.

    I’m very grateful to your link to an earlier post where (in the comment section) you talk about ellipsis. I didn’t even know the name of those little ….. .Just knew you put 3 in the middle of a sentence, and 5 at the end. It seems that it’s not that necessary. I really can’t explain why I use it so often in English. In French (except in poetry) I put “etc.” to mean there could be more than what I just mentioned.

    I had a laugh about the legal language. When the lawyer finally gave me the divorce bill, I looked at the 20 pages, and asked him, “Does it mean that I’m divorced?” He said, “Yes.” I told him, “All you needed to write was: Alleluia, Claude. You got what you wanted!” Of course, lawyers are also probably paid by the words!

    All the best!

  9. Stan says:

    Goofy: I agree that jargon has its uses, and indeed is indispensable in certain contexts. As you point out, more succinctly than I am about to, the trouble arises when it is used to communicate something to general readers when plain language would suffice, i.e. without losing important details or nuances.

    Claudia: You’re welcome, and thank you for a funny and thoughtful comment. I especially enjoyed your lawyer anecdote! Instruction manuals are notoriously difficult to understand. Those that rely on images are less prone to poor translation, but these can be baffling too, and the essential information often demands substantial chunks of text. (The writers of such text, by the way, are usually referred to as technical writers, not technological writers.)

    Ellipses have three dots, but sometimes appear to have four when they are placed after a full stop. After re-reading my older comment, I decided I should write a blog post about ellipses, when time allows. There is more to their how and why than meets the eye. “Ellipsis” can also refer to the omission of a word or words that are clearly implied by the context, e.g. “Sounds good”, meaning “It/That sounds good”.

  10. Anne Hodgson says:

    Re intricate clarifications in legalese:

    I wonder whether there are three distinct levels of language: 1. the one where meanings are negotiated in all their complex glory, 2. the one where the meanings are codified as negotiated and 3. the one we need for day-to-day operations. Of course, there may be many more.

    Perhaps such distinctions can be made throughout the ESP world. In law the problem seems much greater than in, say, in medicine. But of course that may just be my perception “on the ground”.

  11. Stan says:

    Anne: I would probably need to hear more about this idea before I could comment sensibly on it, but it seems to me that there are no distinct levels of language, or else there is an uncertain number of levels that can be described only loosely and that merge into one another. In other words I am wary of such stratification, since it doesn’t seem to map onto the infinite variety and mutability of people’s idiolects. The meaning(s) of even apparently simple concepts is likely to be negotiated endlessly without definitive resolution.

  12. If you analyse the “neither the execution” quote, I think you’ll find that it contains at least one error of punctuation: the comma between “registration” and “with” should instead be placed between “with” and “the”. I also suspect that a comma is intended after “the consent or approval of” as well.

    Fix such errors, and it becomes merely a stupefyingly convoluted clause. Don’t fix them, and it not only has the appearance of nonsense but is, in fact, nonsense. The combination of extreme legalese _and_ bad grammar is worse than either alone, because then neither the words nor the structure can be relied upon for guidance. Also because it implies that the sentence was too complicated for even its composer to read.

    Here is, I think, the intended structure of the clause.

    Neither
    ___the execution and delivery
    ______by the Consultant of this Agreement
    ___nor the consummation by it
    ______of any of the transactions contemplated hereby,
    requires, with respect to it,
    ___the consent or approval of,
    ______the giving of notice to,
    ______the registration with,
    ______the record or filing of any document with,
    ______or the taking of any other action in respect of
    ___any government authority,
    except such as
    ___are not yet required
    ______(as to which it has no reason to believe
    ______that the same will not be readily obtainable
    ______in the ordinary course of business upon due application therefore)
    ___or which have been duly obtained and are in full force and effect.

    I also share many of your observations about quotation marks in WordPress. In my opinion, you should be able to turn off automatic curling in the same way that you can turn off graphic representation of smileys. (This is far from being my biggest WordPress gripe, though.)

  13. Stan says:

    Dragon: Thank you for taking the trouble to boldly parse what few have parsed before. I agree that the comma after “registration” is misplaced, that there should be a comma after “approval of”, and that these grammatical lapses make outright nonsense of what is already a laborious construction.

    Microsoft Word also automatically curls apostrophes and inverted commas. Maybe this is where WordPress got the idea. Wherever it arose, it’s an irritating and unnecessary function.

  14. Difference is, in Microsoft Word you can switch it off. :-)

    For what it’s worth, I think my biggest WordPress gripe is that if you insert an image as a thumbnail, say, and then decide that in retrospect you’d like it displayed full size, there’s no easy way to edit the display settings. You have to go back to the main image library and insert it afresh, which involves a LOT of mouse clicks.

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