HSE — Who proofreads the proofreaders?

August 24, 2010

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.

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*Note non-horrific use of the passive voice.