Advice on the formal use of ‘advise’

July 3, 2014

I have a new article up at the Visual Thesaurus: Please advise your verb of choice. It was prompted by an instruction in a form my bank sent me: “Please advise your Country of Birth”.

My first reaction: Advise – really?

After suggesting alternatives and tracing the history of advise in its relevant guises (Shakespeare shows up a couple of times), I make some general points about tone in business writing and official language – specifically the tendency to be excessively formal:

It’s a frequent error of judgment to assume that plain language is unfit for business, that these transactions deserve more inflated expression. It may be a habit picked up by imitation — please advise, after all, is common in official and semi-official writing. But whatever the motivation, the results can sound starchy and pompous…

Writers with these habits may be unaware of the tonal problems in their prose, or they may be unsure how to fix them. This is where an editor comes in handy. (I specialise in plain English, making officialese and academese more accessible to general readers.)

Note: The article was published in April but for the first three months was available only to Visual Thesaurus subscribers, so I postponed mentioning it here until it was freely available. You can now read it here, and, if you like, advise your thoughts in a comment below.

No play, no plurals

May 12, 2010

I should know better than to be surprised by the language used on signs, but the phrase “Ball sports is prohibited” struck me as a remarkable singularisation.

Did the parties responsible start with “The playing of ball sports…” before deciding to reduce the word count? Whatever the explanation, at least this time there’s a minimum of gobbledegook.

Plain English and Golden Bulls

December 9, 2009

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.]

Your cooperation in reading this blog post is requested

August 7, 2009

This sign stands in Kennedy Park, Eyre Square, Galway. As I passed, it cried out to be criticised, and who am I to yield right of wail?

Stan Carey - Galway City Council sign on "the playing of football"

First: Why write The playing of football instead of simply Playing football? If it was an attempt to sound more authoritative, it failed: it sounds awkward and turgid, exemplifying what Ernest Gowers called abstractitis. This condition is widespread and habit-forming, and it looks bad on municipal signs, which ought to convey information plainly and unfussily.

Next: Why is there an elaborate request that people obey the order? Was the font too small, and was padding therefore required to fill the blank space? Maybe the second line sprung from gobbledygook’s formidable ability to infiltrate the simplest of messages. Can you imagine if every sign accommodated this kind of prolixity? Instead of No entry we would be blessed with:

Entry into this building is prohibited. In the interest of security your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

Instead of Slow children (already a strange sign, but no matter):

The deceleration of your vehicle is mandatory. In the interest of children’s lives your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

Instead of Keep off the grass:

The taking of walks on this grass is prohibited. In the interest of – oh, we don’t know why. But your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

As an attempt at politeness, it neither works nor helps. What would work is if such verbiage were omitted outright, and what would help is if more green areas were provided for outdoor activities in the city. (But the latter is an argument for elsewhere, and involves many more parties and factors.)

Even if the council had a good reason for their vague justification, they didn’t have to half-fill the sign with gobbledygook. They could have appended “in the interest of the public” to the first line and left it at that. So instead of:

The playing of football on this green area is prohibited. In the interest of the public your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

they could have written, in 14 words instead of 25:

Playing football on this green area is prohibited in the interest of the public.

or plainer still, in five words:

No football in this park.

Whether or not the public agree with the decree, they are likely to appreciate being addressed directly and not having their time wasted by logorrhoeic fudge.