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Putting It (Even More) Plainly

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 1, 2006, page 12)

In the last issue of Language Update, we examined what plain language is (and isn’t) and why it’s important in workplace documents. We also covered some pointers for turning the difficult gumbo of gobbledegook into readable English. Now we’ll put each pointer into action by applying it to real-life sentences and passages.

Be concise

Eliminating wordiness is like straining spaghetti: you have to dump the water but keep the pasta. Meaningless words drain away when we use adjectives and adverbs and cut redundancies and empty phrases, as in this example:

BEFORE Without a doubt, the current investment climate is changing with great rapidity and unpredictability, but investors are nonetheless encouraged to remain focused on those strategies that target the long term when making investment decisions.

AFTER The investment climate is changing quickly and unpredictably. Still, we encourage you to focus on long-term strategies when you invest.

Notice also that this "after" version splits the ideas into two sentences and introduces we and you, concrete, personal words the reader can easily relate to.

The next revision uses possessive forms to save words and eliminates the redundancy of aware and alert. (Our love of listing descriptors in threes is responsible for a fair amount of redundancy.)

BEFORE The goal of our branch is, in effect, to communicate on a regular basis with our client sector groups, with the intent of remaining aware, alert and responsive in nature to the needs and concerns identified as being significant for these groups.

AFTER Our branch’s goal is to communicate regularly with our clients so that we stay alert and responsive to their needs and concerns.

Use simple words

Sadly, no matter where we work, we can be ambushed by the volleys of syllables that come from inflated, academic prose. Short, familiar words are the best defence.

BEFORE It is stipulated in the quarterly plan that the company is required to undertake a thorough assessment of the alterations it has initiated to methods employed for the delivery of services.

AFTER The quarterly plan requires the company to assess in detail how it has changed service delivery.

Casting a passage in the first or second person can also pave the way for simpler language:

BEFORE There are certain individuals who assert that insufficient knowledge exists regarding the roles of mediators or what constitutes an effective mediator to enable the establishment of standards.

AFTER Some say that to set standards, we must know more about what mediators do and what makes them effective.

Avoid negatives

The previous revision does more than just simplify the words; it conveys the ideas using positive rather than negative language. In other words, it tells the reader what is rather than what isn’t. Steer clear of negatives whenever you can, especially when they are piled on top of one another.

BEFORE Persons other than the applicant will not be entitled to receive this document package.

AFTER Only the applicant can receive this document package.

Use concrete words

Precise, concrete words that help readers to visualize convey meaning quickly and easily. General, abstract words, on the other hand, are hard to pin down. Consider this passage:

  • Again, we should not be limited to only one scenario or adaptation strategy. We must reflect the diversity of the different sensitivities and the different adaptive capacity that exists within the natural system and also in the interface between the human and natural systems.

What on earth does this mean? Between scenarios and adaptation strategies, natural systems and adaptive capacities, there is no concrete image to fasten on. Airy and ungraspable, the passage slips away from us like an untethered balloon.

Often the only way to improve abstract language is to ask yourself – or the author – what the original wording is really trying to say. Some passages, like the one above, are so vague that we can’t translate them into plain language without more information.

Here’s an example that cries out for more concrete language, not to mention an overall trim:

BEFORE Public affairs officers have, as one of their chief responsibilities, the resolution of any inaccurate factual representations or misconceptions that could have an impact on public misunderstanding of the operations of the Department.

AFTER Public affairs officers must correct any errors or distortions that could cause the public to see the Department’s activities in the wrong light.

Avoid weak verbs

The previous example also illustrates the power of a few good verbs. Weak verbs like be and have, which most writers overuse, tend to travel with wordy cohorts – long, abstract nouns which, interestingly, are themselves often derived from verbs. Slaying the weak-verb/noun combo and installing a more precise verb is a key plain language technique.

BEFORE At this time the firm is engaged in an assessment of its procedures for the development of new products.

AFTER The firm is assessing its procedures for developing new products.

BEFORE There was discussion among the members of senior management with regard to the ongoing persistence of difficulties of communication that managers had with the personnel who reported to them.

AFTER Senior managers discussed the ongoing communication problems between managers and their staff.

Remember the reader

In the last issue, I pointed out that plain language means more than just choosing words carefully; it means generally writing to meet the reader’s needs. Documents that fail to take their audience into account can miss their mark no matter how clear the language.

I was reminded of this inescapable fact last year, when an e-mail from Air Canada turned up in my inbox. "Concerning your upcoming flight" was the subject line. I did have a flight coming up, so this was a good lead-in. It caught my attention and told me why I should read on. But that was where the plain language ended. The body of the e-mail announced that within a few days, Air Canada would introduce Onboard Café, an exciting new service that would offer an array of meals and snacks for sale. If I needed more information, I was told, I could visit Air Canada’s Web site.

Well, I needed more information. The e-mail had overlooked a basic question – to me, the most important question. Was Onboard Café simply expanding the selection of food items (cheerfully hawked as "movie snacks") already for sale on long-haul flights? Or was it replacing the traditional offering of hot – and, more importantly, free – foil-wrapped entrees that I, like most travellers, had come to depend on? I visited Air Canada’s Web site hoping for clarification. Here’s what I got:

  • Our new Onboard Café offers choice, value and greater flexibility. You decide what meal-type to purchase onboard. We are pleased to offer our Hospitality Service customers with [sic] a popular new innovative menu of reasonably priced items.
  • Enjoy a tasty sandwich, hot pizza or simply indulge on [sic] a popular snack, the choice is all yours. This new service is now offered on all Continental North American flight [sic] of 1h30 [sic] or longer (Hawaiian and Mexican destinations excluded).

The words in this passage are easy to understand (though occasionally redundant); the sentences are short (though badly punctuated); the ideas are clear (though somewhat disorganized). Yet as a communication, the document fails. My number-one question as a reader is answered nowhere.

In the end it took an e-mail to Air Canada to extract the news that, as air travellers now know, the new pay-as-you-go service would replace the old free meals. Why didn’t the airline’s documents say as much? I’d wager that someone decided it’s bad PR to tell people they’re losing something free; it’s better to tell them they’re getting something new. Is that sound PR? Who knows? Is it plain language? Nope. Air Canada’s documents were writer-centred, serving the airline’s needs instead of the reader’s, and because of that they communicated badly.

There may be no more free meals, but here’s some free advice: remember your readers and always write for them. That’s the essence of plain language.