On the Front Lines of Language

John Humphrys On the Ramparts

John Humphrys: taking a stand for good English usage
John Humphrys: taking a stand for good English usage.

As a radio journalist for BBC for 45 years, John Humphrys developed a keen interest in the tribulations of his mother tongue. In Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language (Hodder & Stoughton 2004), he surveys the damage done to English by Americans, teenagers, corporate managers, journalists, politicans, and other scoundrels.

He has great fun serving up samples such as these:

Cameras have been placed where there was a partnership concern about road safety.

Each specialist library will be the product of a community of practice of all those interested in knowledge mobilisation and localisation of their domain.

After registering their child as needing special need, a protracted process of negotiation ensues before statementing a student as entitled to special support.

This stuff is not just wrong, Humphrys says, "It is impenetrable. It is so dense and clumsy that most of us would prefer to spend an hour reading Proust in Japanese than wade through it."

The case for good usage

Humphrys acknowledges that there is no good reason why youngsters should not have their own language. But it is important not to let it seep into common usage. Unfortunately, many teachers have not been taught the basics and don't know a subject from a verb.

Humphrys believes that good usage is always worth promoting and defending. "Generating meaning is what human beings uniquely do and language is the medium in which we do it." It is not enough to make language intelligible, he says, it must also be "as versatile, nuanced, and adaptable as we can make it -- not rudimentary and limited."

The language of marketing

Humphrys' unleashes his greatest scorn on the language of marketing, which has invaded politics, management, and education. Words are no longer used to create meaning but to leave an impression, to make us feel good about something. Bureaucrats identify current buzz words, paste them together in a kind of collage, and call them a sentence, as in these samples:

We remain focused on leveraging the strong position and relationships we enjoy in key markets... Looking forward we have taken clear steps to remove impediments to future progress.
We must innovate to survive. Failure is not an option

Lilke marketers, politicians know that controlling language means controlling how people think about issues. They no longer regard the public as citizens engaged in public debate but as consumers being sold a particular way of speaking.

There have been volumes written about the language of George Bush in the "post-9/11 era," and Humphrys gets in his licks. But Bush is by no means the first politician to manipulate language for political purposes. For example, a critic of Warren Harding wrote:

His speeches leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a struggling thought and bear it trimphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.

"It is an interesting thought," Humphrys comments, "words in search of a meaning, instead of the other way around. Sometimes we don't notice it is happening; we are too worn down to make the effort."

Politicians, he says, favor incomplete sentences:"Verbs cement sentences to their meaning, so it's not too suprising that politicians mistrust them....You know the thing: 'New challenges, new ideas.' 'The future, not the past.' 'New Labour, new ideas.' 'The age of achievment, at home and abroad. 'Hope.' 'Opportunity.' 'For our young people, a brighter future.'"

This kind of language is never innocent: "Once the manipulative language has caught on and has become the accepted way of talking about complex issues, it becomes difficult to break out of it. Anyone who tries risks a pretty sharp accusatory response that carries with it the implicit charge of treachery."

Damn Yankees?

In coming to American English, Humphrys writes: "Noah Webster...was wrong, when he predicted that our two languages would grow apart and eventually become as different as German and Dutch. Instead there has been a cross-pollination--with most of the pollen drifting from west to east."

It comes as a jolt to the British that it is not English that is becoming the common language of the world but American. "There is resentment that our former colony has stolen the crown.... American English is anything but a poor or (worse still) vulgar man's British English. There are some grounds for saying it is in much better shape than our version."

And there is the "sheer inventiveness" of American English. It is not only inescapable, whether in sitcoms like Friends or mandatory computer language, it is also appealing. From Slayer Slang, the lexicon of the TV program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Humphrys offers this quote:

Don't invade her personal space or she'll go all, like, special forces on you.

"Isn't it magnificent?" Humphrys asks. "You don't have to speak this extraordinary language to know exactly what it means."

While inventive language is to be treasured, careless language robs words of meaning. Humphrys belongs to a long tradition of journalists, editors, and teachers who are on the front lines of language, slogging away to defend its power of expression. We owe them thanks for that.

"No Plain, No Gain"

Bringing Plain Language to Business Educators

A recent issue of Business Education Forum, the Official Publication of the Nationa Business Association, has two cover stories on plain language.

In the introduction, Association President Mary Ann Lammers writes of the need to teach business students to be better communicators. "As business educators," she writes, "we must examine our contribution to the state of language--are we adding to the confusion with unclear written assignments, ambiguous text questions, and mixed messages about the outcomes we are trying to achieve, or are we writing and speaking with a focused, straight-forward message when we communicate with our students?

"As the plain English movment takes hold, are we prepared to help accomplish the mission? ....As we become more focused on the importance of writing, we also realize that checking students' writing abilities on a regular basis will require more time and effort on the part of the teacher." President Lammers urges business educators to take up this issue at their upcoming convention in Anaheim, 23-26 March 2005.

The first article, "No Plain, No Gain: The Importance of Plain
Language in Business," includes charts, a plain-language FAQ, and other resources for business. The article was written by wrtier and educator Joanne Lozar Glenn, with help from Mark Hochhauser and Roy Peter Clark.

"The lack of clear writing is a big issue right now," Glenn writes, "big for government, big for business, and big for the legal and health professions. Poor writing creates unhappy customers and costs organizations time, money, and sometimes lawsuits....Poor writing also costs lives.

"Good clear writing, on the other hand, does none of these things. And businesses are hungry for employees with good writing skills--businesses spend billions annually on correcting writing deficiencies."

Strategies for business teachers

Glenn points to the recent survey by the National Commission on Writing (see below), that shows how writing skills can make or break a career. While most workers are not professionally trained as writers, they are expected to write well in their work. It is up to business teachers to prepare them for that.

She describes several strategies for teaching students about plain language:

Plain-Language as a Business

The second article, "Plain Language Consultants Clarify Information the Public Wants--and Needs-to Know," also by Joanne Glenn, contains interviews with William DuBay of Impact Information and Sally McBeth of Clear Language and Design (CLAD) in Toronto.

DuBay conducts plain-language workshops for writers in business and government. He has been working with the County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs for a year and a half. It is a unique organization, he says, handling about 350,000 requests annually for information and services.

DuBay emphasizes that introducing plain language takes training and method. It also means "building plain language into your working procedures and documenting the results."

Sally McBeth, the plain-language consultant-manager for CLAD, provides editing services, usability assessment, and clear-language training to the community. McBeth works with government, service agencies, and corporations. The goal is to make communications easy to understand and to make forms "so simple they can be filled out correctly the first time.

CLAD has recently started a new service for evaluating the readability of Web sites and documents. They are also taking on a new project of investor education sponsored by the financial-services industry. She says when you talk about principles rather than rules, and when you talk about clarity, purpose, and audience, "even the most resistant will begin to understand why they need to change."

You can obtain copies of this issue Business Education Forum (Vol 59, Number 3, February 2005) by contacting The National Association of Business Education, 1914 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191-1596. You can also visit their Web site at http://www.nbea.org

Sally McBeth is at http://www.eastendliteracy.on.ca/ClearLanguageAndDesign

William DuBay is still at:

A Survey of Business Leaders

A Ticket to Work...Or a Ticket Out

A survey of 120 major American corporations employing nearly 8 million people concludes that in today's workplace writing is a "threshold skill" for hiring and promotion among salaried employees. The results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional advancement, while poorly written job applications are a "kiss of death." Estimates based on the survey returns reveal that employers spend billions annually correcting writing deficiencies.

The survey, mailed to 120 human resource directors in corporations associated with Business Roundtable, produced responses from 64 companies, a 53.3 percent response rate.

Survey Findings

The introduction to the 44-page report summarizes the findings:

Chart: Common forms of writing required in most companies
From Writing: A Ticket to Work...or a Ticket Out by the National Commission on Writing, College Entrance Examination Board, 2004. Retrieved 03/02/05 from http://www.writingcommission.or/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf

Click here to download the full report, or put this in your browser:

For more on how to improve functional reading and writing skills in the workplace, see the next issue of The Plain Language at Work Newsletter.

Plain Language in the News

Readability of Web Content

Plain Language and Home Policies in Florida

Communicating with Juries

Effective Email Communication

Plain English, Please!

Survey of Business Language

Language of Educational Research

World's Longest Job Title

A Rallying Cry against Gibberish