The Health Service Executive (HSE) is Ireland’s largest employer, and a few months ago it published Plain language style guide for documents, an illustrated style guide stressing the importance of plain English. What follows are some general comments and specific criticisms.
The style guide is a moderately attractive booklet, with moments of mild fun amidst the painstaking political correctness. At 34 pages with a lot of blank space, it’s a quick read, but it could have been reduced to half or two-thirds the size without cluttering its appearance. Some of its advice is arbitrary or oversimplified, but I wouldn’t expect nuanced commentary in so brief a guide. Much more unfortunate are the poor levels of grammar, punctuation, formatting, and spelling.
On page 8, “[If] you plan to use particular term” is missing the indefinite article a. So is this line on p. 21: “If you do not have copy of the first information pack”. The advice on passive vs. active voice (p. 9) is passable, if predictably crude and simplistic. The guidance on concision (p. 10) makes no allowance for context — sometimes longer phrases are better than loosely synonymous single words. Abdomen wall (p. 12) seems an unusual way to say abdominal wall, though I’ve not investigated their relative popularity in any depth.
Now, what do you think of this passage?
I’m cheered by the HSE’s sensible approval of them and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns, but imagine how much clearer the text would be if it used italics or inverted commas to refer to certain words as words. This failing occurs throughout the document and makes it much more troublesome and irritating to read than it ought to be.
Here’s a line in dire need of a comma: “end the introduction to the list with a full stop if it is also a full sentence or with no punctuation if it is a heading” (p. 16). Further down the same page there’s a typo no spell checker would catch, but which would not be missed by a competent proofreader:
We’re advised to “treat named organisations or groups as singular” (p. 19), and we’re given this example: “The HSE is divided into four areas.” Ten pages later we read: “The Health Service Executive under the National Intercultural Healthcare Strategy are developing a set of national guidelines…” This is not a significant sticking point, but if an organisation is proclaiming on style, it ought to at least be consistent in its style guide.
In the “Designers and printers” section, this phrase stood out: “make sure your final product is an easy-to-read document…” (p. 24). Maybe I’m allergic to the word product used as a catch-all term for just about anything (including people), but what’s wrong with: “make sure your final document is easy to read…”? Or change document to text if you want to allow for more possibilities.
We’re cautioned not to “underline words, write them in all capital letters or italicise them” (p. 26). I see the argument against underlining or using all capitals, but why shouldn’t we use italics? I’ve already shown where they would have been handy, and here’s another example: “The Citizens Information Board document Access to Information for All gives guidance…” (p. 29). This would read far more smoothly with appropriate italics (or inverted commas).
An aeroplane is flown in* to emphasise this strange prohibition:
I like the playful presentation, but I don’t think italicising aeroplane distorts the word’s resemblance to its referent.
Worse, the document contains elementary spelling errors — and I don’t just mean typos like the for they. Page 29 offers us compliment instead of complement:
On the next page, English is spelled with a small e. Perhaps worst of all, grammar is spelled grammer and unnecessary is spelled unnecesary:
These are shocking errors to find in a style guide. Just below them there’s a conspicuously absent apostrophe in “according to the readers needs”. Soon after that, the heading “Non Government Organisations” should be hyphenated. Non is a prefix, sometimes forming a solid compound but usually a hyphenated one. It doesn’t stand alone, like this:
I could go on, but that should suffice. In spite of these criticisms, the HSE’s Plain language style guide for documents is not all bad. It contains some sound and useful advice which, if heeded, should foster clearer communication and greater understanding of what can often be challenging material.
Sadly, the HSE style guide is also riddled with errors. I’ve been picky, but a style guide demands and deserves to be picked at. What a pity it wasn’t proofread better, not least because it urges writers to “Seek quotes for translation and two proof reads” (p. 30). Was this style guide proofread twice? More, even? Maybe I should offer them my proofreading services.
*Note non-horrific use of the passive voice.
Good grief, how depressing. The HSE style guide is a microcosm of what happens when people don’t know or care about the difference between good writing and bad.
Oh Stan. That’s horrendous.
I was following along fine until the “aeroplane”-looks-like-an-aeroplane part. Yep, that’s how the lexicographers decided on that word. Never mind the fact that “haeroplane” looks even more like an aeroplane. Also please ignore that almost every single other noun looks nothing like its spelling. How incredibly strange.
Good grief! Someone at the HSE should be put on trial for crimes against grammar!
Michele: Much of the advice in the style guide feels cobbled together from here and there, with little appreciation for the subtleties and complexities of good prose. Not that a guide ought to cover all the angles, but I expected better than this.
Deirdre: It’s a poor effort, all right. I can’t help but wonder whether it was professionally proofread — and if so, by whom.
Gabe: Yes, that took me aback. If I had the time, I’d try to find out where they might have come up with this idea. There are straightforward reasons not to use underlines or all capitals — why go down this strange route?
Jams: Maybe enough people were involved that none of them needs to feel personally responsible. Or is that too cynical?
I am shocked! I think you should definitely offer your services. Next, they’ll be publishing it as the ‘Plane English Guide’ if someone doesn’t take them in hand.
Maybe what they were trying to get at is that people typically read by recognizing the shapes of words, not by going over them letter by letter. When you distort the shape of a word too much, it can slow down the reader (which is why all caps and overly ornate fonts should generally be avoided).
But even granting all that, I still think it’s rather silly to ban italics. They don’t change the shape of the word that much, and they’re common enough that I can’t imagine that they cause problems for most readers.
I feel your pain, Stan. I also note the use of ‘minority ethnic’ instead of ‘ethnic minority’. That alone is enough to drive me to drink. The aeroplane thing is bonkers.(Technical linguistic term.)
Three weaks a go I did not hkno how to shpell proofreeder, and now I’m won.
“As much as possible, write directly to the reader using you … refer to a child as your child…”
That’s hilarious! And shocking. If you’re in the HSE, you can only write to a person who is ‘using’ you! Using you how, precisely? But if the HSE writes to a person about their child, it also assumes possession of said child! What kind of a state do we live in at all?
Have the HSE instituted a ban on inverted commas, to prevent computer keys from wearing out, perhaps?
That is shocking. I would be surprised if that was actually proof-read, some people are quite arrogant about their writing skills and don’t accept that they could have made make mistake.
I was really surprised at the spelling of aeroplane. I know that is the British for but I grew up in a version of Ireland where we always spelled it as airplane.
or even “could have made mistakes” ;-)
Fran: Although I didn’t offer the HSE my services, I did contact them about the document. Several weeks ago, after reading it first, I sent them a short note to acknowledge their efforts and to point out a couple of the most damning errors. They didn’t reply — maybe they’re inundated with correspondence about more pressing matters.
Jonathon: That seems likely, or at least plausible, but it doesn’t explain their aversion to italics — which, as you point out, distort standard fonts only slightly.
Deborah: I didn’t know what to make of “minority ethnic”. It seems to be a pointless inversion, but it could be a vogue usage in health services jargon for all I know. Until I hear a reasonable justification for it, I’m inclined to agree with you that it’s just bonkers.
Sean: That’s pretty good typing, assuming you did it with your eyes closed. For the rest of the day, I will call you ‘Sane’.
Doubtful: Thank you for reading it as they wrote it and finding it as absurd as I did. What’s odd is that inverted commas are used correctly in other parts of the text. There’s no consistency. Maybe different people wrote different sections. Or maybe, as you propose, the HSE banned inverted commas, but the ban lasted only a few hours.
Aidan: It may have been proofread by the same person (or people) who wrote it. That’s a common enough shortcut, even though it’s virtually guaranteed to result in poor copy with errors aplenty.
I grew up with the spelling aeroplane, whereas airplane seems American to me.
You wrote your note to the HSE all in italics, didn’t you? Just to confuse them ;)
I’ll second the comment on the shapes of the letters being used to help recognize words by their gestalt, so to speak. Analogous to the claims that as long as the first and last letters of a word are correct, the middle letters can be somewhat jumbled and still be understandable.
Having worked with a different national government, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first draft, before rewriting for consistency and proofreading were performed got accidentally released.
Aidan: I actually think that section makes sense. They want you to write to the person using your work, and to say things like “You should make sure your child eats a good breakfast” instead of “Parents should make sure their children eat good breakfasts”.
Meant to add, this is another place where some italics would have been helpful!
My experience has been that those underlings totally destroy aeroplanes.
Jo: How did you guess? In fact, my note was in bold underlined italics. And all capitals.
Liam: Words’ shapes help us recognise them, but isn’t it a stretch to say they give clues to their meaning? Maybe in rare cases and when the word has already been encountered — but it’s hard to imagine someone seeing the word aeroplane for the first time and deducing its meaning from its shape. As for the style guide being released accidentally: nothing would surprise me, but I think it’s more likely the document was just incompetently proofread.
The Ridger: Did you mean to address A Doubtful Egg instead of Aidan? At the risk of putting words in Doubtful’s mouth — and maybe the wrong ones — I think he made essentially the same point you made in your second comment. He was having fun by taking the text at face value, i.e., as though the necessary italics (or inverted commas) were deliberately omitted; the text then invites absurd interpretations.
Claudia: Comme c’est vrai!
WWW: I believe that’s especially the case with Alitalics. It must be stress-related.
Perhaps my favorite here (after the mysterious “aeroplane”) is “Using … underling” instead of “underlining.”
We’re in the process of revamping our own house style guide and have been nervous about pushing “print” for fear of overlooked errors. Now your post makes me think I should give it another read thru …
Gad, yes I did. I was probably too tired to catch the humor, since it does seem funny today!
MRP: That typo struck me too, as it did Wisewebwoman, though I neglected to comment on it. As yet another mistake in a style guide, it reinforces the impression of careless, amateurish work.
When it comes to proofreading and editing, an extra pair of eyes — preferably trained — is invaluable. Joseph Williams put it succinctly: we’re our own worst editors.
I think it’s far more than a stretch to claim word shapes in any way provide a clue to their meaning. Recognition for words already encountered, as you put it, are about all I can see in these shapes. Otherwise, the ‘plane’ we discussed in geometry class should have a perpendicular line through it. And the ‘plain’ we discussed in geography should have trees with roots. We could easily distinguish the meaning of ‘forest’ and ‘plain’ since there are twice as many trees. The ‘submarine’ obviously has a periscope, but ‘periscope’ only looks down, not up.
I expect the confusion between understanding the meaning of the word and recognizing the word were overlooked during the proofreading, such as it was.
That is rather depressing. But I did get a kick out of: “These will compliment the information provided in this document.” If that was deliberate, I understand the humour. ;)
I wish I had found someone to proofread, or at least edit the short story I recently submitted for a writing contest. I don’t mean to be pedantic, and I catch others’ mistakes very easily, but there were two minor errors in what I’d written (and read over and altered a million times); one of which was a spelling error (“envelopes” instead of “envelops”, which of course can’t be picked up by a spellcheck).
It’s unbelievable that a finished work would have so many errors, especially when its genre is about writing succinctly, correctly and appropriately – though when it comes to appropriateness, there is a fair amount of option in our language.
Is this a case of editors needing other editors to check their writing, or of bureaucrats being unable to write in plain English, even when they try? Perhaps a little of both. Since this is for the health service, I’d hate to think it is a sign of the level of the care they provide.
[…] blog Sentence first reports on the publication of a style guide where the authors obviously didn’t get the above […]
Liam: Yes, it doesn’t seem to have been thought through beyond the cute example of an aeroplane. Since several people presumably approved the document, I wonder whether any of them noticed how strange the idea was.
Tim: I wish I could believe that any of the spelling errors were deliberate, but in the context of so many other flaws, I can’t. It sends out the wrong messages to many people — that a low standard is acceptable, attention to detail is optional, and so on.
Patrick: Yes, I think it’s a little of both. Even if the style guide wasn’t proofread at all, or proofread by the writer(s), it’s surprising and revealing that whoever was responsible for writing it was unable to spell grammar. Thanks for the trackback, by the way.
I think you should write on it in bold red ink and return it with notes in the margin and a percentage out of ten. Zero would be good!
As I read through this I thought, “I wonder if it has compliment instead of complement?” And sure enough, it did! When we were about to put our house on the market, some years back, and were looking for an estate agent, that’s the thing that irked me most – the incorrect use of ‘compliment’. (It’s also usually on menus. A nice chicken tandoori with a complimentary onion bhajee. So… “you’re such a fabulous Chicken,” said the Onion.
(If there are any typos or grammatical errors in my comment, blame it on my having posted it well past my bedtime.)
Val: I would do a good job on it if I was paid to! With no red pens or marks out of ten. The compliment–complement confusion that you anticipated is very common. It has the benefit of often being funny, but it’s the kind of unintentional humour I could do without seeing in a style guide.
(If there are any mistakes in your comment, I’ll ignore them. I always do, unless commenters ask me to correct them.)
I once asked a chum who worked for an NHS department why they had so many designers but no one proofing their copy. They said they did have someone checking their work – the receptionist proofread stuff on the bus home from work.
[…] can see the pretty long list of the errors on the document in Stan Carey’s post: HSE – Who proofreads the proofreaders? There’s also a good discussion going on in the […]
Fiona: Eek! is right. It’s easy to imagine how work like this could, as you put it in your post, fall between the cracks in a big organisation. And I admire your efforts to rebalance the universe with a LOLcat. For a plain language style guide, though, you’d think they’d have made a point of hiring someone who knows what they’re doing.
I mean no disrespect to whoever did the proofreading — presumably someone untrained was asked to do the job — but the production of a style guide so error-ridden smacks of lip service, not good service, to the importance of clear communication.
This is ridiculous. Should’ve checked by another proofreader.
Kathere: Yes, they should. Maybe one day they’ll publish a second edition, which will give them a chance to put things right — or repeat their mistakes.
[…] wish this were an isolated instance, but it’s not. Check out this post for another example (also from the public sector). Even thought leaders aren’t immune – […]
[…] to be working for those brands?I wish this were an isolated instance, but it’s not. Check out this post for another example (also from the publicsector). Even thought leaders aren’t immune – […]
Did anybody else notice the bullet point describing acceptable use of bullet points that read the following?
“Keep lists to a maximum of six to eight points”
Presumably this simply means:
“Do not use more than eight bullets in a list”
The message is confusing firstly because the number 6 has no relevance and secondly because “keep list to maximum” is an awkward way to express the concept that forces the reader to read a fair way before they can understand what’s going on retrospectively… that is to say: it requires the reader to remember early words that only make full sense from the context of later words; in this simple instance this is an almost irrelevant observation but the cleaner mode of expressing ideas is a good habit to get into that becomes essential in complex sentences.
Andy: I find the line “Keep lists to a maximum of six to eight points” clear enough. It’s not a complex sentence, and it’s quite short and direct, so readers aren’t left waiting very long for important information.
I agree that in this case the choice of a less common word formation is not a big issue; indeed, I said so already… but since it is a style guide that we are talking about, I would be particularly careful about writing in the simplest possible style at all times. This is called the “Plain language style guide for documents” after all. I do not consider the number six there to be plain at all. What does it add or take away? It’s not clear: have I broken the rule with seven points? Why not just say the following?
“Keep lists to a maximum of eight points”
I am going to re-iterate that it’s not a major issue like this but I *much* prefer a direct form of communication such as:
“Do not use more than eight bullet points in a list”.
This is now expressed in such a simple way that children, people for whom English is a second language and people who are tired can read clearly, quickly and with no ambiguity.
I realise that “keep… to…” is a relatively common construction (not ubiquitous like “do not use”) but “Keep” is potentially ambiguous until you get the context:
Keep the rules to stay in favour.
Keep the rules to hand.
Keep the rules to less than a page of A4.
Here you see the word being used as a proxy for other concepts, as you can see by re-writing the list as:
Obey the rules in order to remain my friend.
Have the rules to hand.
Constrain the rules to a page of A4.
My point is that choosing words or constructions that require context is a bad habit if you desire to communicate clearly to all people.
When you do not give enough information to resolve the ambiguity until late on in a sentence, often after a subordinate clause, your style is not a clear one. In this case, of course, it’s a trifling thing (for native speakers) as the sentence is tiny… however, if I was writing a document extolling the virtues of plain language, I would consider this to be a mistake. It’s good to get into the habit of finding the simplest possible way to express your point!
A fair point well made, Andy.
[…] its authority becomes questionable. Blogger Stan Carey provided a great real-life example in a recent post where he took Ireland’s second largest employer (Health Service Executive) to task for its style […]
Incidentally, the aeroplane’s wings are at an angle, hence italics would fit even better!