If you’ve ever seen the British sitcom Yes Minister or its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, then you know that poking fun at the government can serve as the source for a lot of laughs. One area where the show’s writers found humor was in the long-winded, effusive dialogues they created. The excerpt below from a speech by Sir Humphrey Appleby, one of the show’s main characters, is a classic example:
“It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection. Consequently, we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials. From which it emerges with an elegant inevitability that any decision which has been officially reached will have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials…”
Appleby’s rant goes on at length, but you get the idea. While lines like these are carefully crafted to be painfully convoluted for the sake of a laugh, they’re only funny because on some level they mirror the verbose, jargon-filled language for which the British government has long been notorious. Until recently that is.
Plain Language is Music to Everyone’s Ears
British government officials are nothing if not pragmatic. Recognizing that their reams of official documentation can often be difficult to understand — no doubt years of being the butt of jokes on TV helped open their eyes — they decided to do something about it.
And so The Government Digital Service Content Style Guide was born, an online reference tool designed to help government officials make their content more “readable and understandable.” Among the guidelines it recommends, the document encourages writers to:
- Personalize their content by addressing their audience as “you”
- Avoid creating duplicate content, which confuses users
- Be concise, specific, clear, and informative
- Avoid long or formal words when shorter, informal ones will do
- Avoid buzzwords and jargon
According to one description, “more than 30 terms of jargon that have crept into Government announcements and policy documents over the years have been placed off-limits.” For example the guide dictates that wildly overused verbs like “foster” should only be used in the context of children, while “tackling” must be reserved exclusively for sports references.
These kinds of guidelines are being introduced elsewhere too.
In the US, for example, the plain language movement began in the mid-1990s when a group of federal employees formed the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) because they believed that citizens deserve clear communications from government. As in the UK, a style guide soon ensued. It was followed by an executive memo in 1998 requiring government agencies to write in plain language and the signing of the Plain Writing Act in 2010.
One of our favorite bits of advice that the style guide offers is to “place the main idea before exceptions and conditions.” It points out that if you place the exception first, the reader will almost certainly have to re-read your sentence. Here’s their example:
“Except as described in paragraph (b), the Division Manager will not begin the statutory 180-day review period for the program until after the preliminary review determines that your submission is administratively complete.”
Note: The negative expression “not begin… until after” further reduces readability.
Similar efforts to simplify government communications are underway in Sweden, Germany and other countries around the world as well. That’s good news because we all need to do a better job of creating simpler content that’s easier to read, friendlier, and not full of jargon.
Of course it’s not just governments that fall into this trap. Plenty of businesses and individuals do too. What examples come to mind for you? Do they still do this or have they taken steps to improve? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!