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Plain English activists combat 'gobbledygook'

books Updated: May 30, 2012 10:05 IST
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Why not say "change" rather than "effect modifications", or "publish" rather than "promulgate", or "pay" instead of   "remunerate"? So say plain speaking advocates fighting to end "gobbledygook".

Winning such a battle "would benefit everyone," said those gathered in Washington last week for a three-day conference aimed at banishing jargon from laws, application forms, public notices, and even user manuals for television sets.

The event was organized in the US capital by "Clarity", a worldwide group of lawyers, top managers and heads of government services who argue for the use of plain language in place of legalese.

And it drew people from 20 countries, including Australia, France, Qatar, Estonia, and the Scandinavian nations."How can you have a democracy when the citizen does not understand what the government is saying," said Annetta Cheek, board chair of the Center for Plain Language, at the event.

"It's becoming a more and more common perception in all sectors, that they have to be more inclusive in their communication."

The United States in 2010 adopted a law encouraging the simplification of administrative language.

The Swedish government, meanwhile, employs five lawyers to write its laws in simple language, and Portugal has introduced similar measures.

In France for example, legal guidance on victims' rights is difficult to collate because there are so many documents and so many references that they are "obscure", said Olivia Zarcate, a young legal specialist at the conference.

The aim of plain English campaigners is to heighten awareness in government and business circles about the damaging effect that obscure, badly-worded language has on the population.

"In the last five years there's been a big change," said Cheek, a former "plain language coordinator," at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates and oversees civil aviation.

But one cited example of government jargon showed that 36 words -- including "calisthenics" (a form of gymnastics) -- were used in a public health brochure to outline what people should do to lose weight.

The rather wordy sentence was cut down to a recommendation of, "do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week."

In a more sweeping suggestion, Cheek said the damaging effects of jargon had been seen in the global financial crisis in 2008, as waves of mortgage owners failed to understand what they were signing up to.

"The world financial crisis would have been less damaging if people had understood what those long documents said," Cheek said, referring to mortgage and credit applications, noting that finance is an area that affects everyone.

"If they had understood that in five years their interest payments would go through the roof, that if they didn't pay their credit card on time, their interest would go through the roof," less harm would have been done.

Joseph Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, said the stripping out of jargon, would benefit both the writers of documents as well as the people who read them.

"It pays off for everybody," said Kimble. "Plain language can restore faith in public institutions. Poor communication is the great hidden cost of doing business."

PHOTO: AFP/Getty Images/Illustration, William Thomas Cain)