The simple authority of Plain English

I recently received some information from an organisation that, I understand, considers it warrants the epithet august.

The information was in a document that ran to just over 1500 words. Eighty-two of these words were in the first sentence.

The second paragraph also kicked off with a monster. This time the count was 77 words.

Long sentences are not necessarily bad. E L Doctorow begins his novel Billy Bathgate with a sentence that runs to more than 130 words. But E L Doctorow is a skilful writer. Whoever cobbled together the 77-word ‘august’ sentence was anything but.

I needed to read the sentence three or four times before I had even the vaguest idea of what the cobbler was trying to say.

To make matters worse, the cobbler appeared to be hopelessly addicted to nominalisations, those flabby abstract nouns formed from verbs.

Where ‘should provide’ would have been perfect, the cobbler chose ‘provision should be made for’. Where ‘should arrange’ would have told me what I needed to do, the cobbler stretched it out to ‘should make suitable arrangements for’.

And, evidently, he (or she) felt that ‘should consider’ would carry more weight if it was rendered as ‘consideration should be given to.’ In my opinion, he (or she) was wrong.

A few days later, I was talking with one of the august organisation’s senior managers on another matter and I mentioned the document that his colleague had sent me.

‘Helpful, was it?’ he asked.

‘No, not particularly,’ I told him. ‘I had to read it several times. And I’m still not sure that it told me what I needed to know.’

And then I asked if his organisation had ever considered adopting Plain English. ‘You know: simple, straightforward, to the point.’

From the expression on the chap’s face, a passer-by might have thought that I had just told the chap that his wife was unbelievably ugly and his children were the dumbest kids in the county.

‘We are aware of Plain English,’ he said. ‘But it’s too simple. It’s, well … chatty almost. We need to project a more considered tone. We need to convey a certain sense of gravitas. We need to project a certain sense of authority.’

Pompous twit, I thought. Authoritatively. – Jack Scrivano

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