Make the words plain

Open communication: a trendy phrase coming soon to a press conference near you, if you live in Nunavut, that is.

The Nunavut premier and most other MLAs just signed on to a to-do list that commits them to better communications with the public and among themselves.

I do not doubt their sincerity. Hardly anyone inside the Nunavut government knows how to communicate and their long-suffering clients know this.

But before they get too far into this new-found commitment to communication, I would suggest they also commit to this: plain language.

Here’s a definition:

Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.

Plain English, in other words, means good English. Good English uses concrete words, short sentences and commonly-accepted grammar and punctuation. It’s not about multi-syllabic abstractions and dense periodic sentences.

Well-educated people do not need to use big words and convoluted sentences to communicate. In truth, big words and convoluted sentences signify illiteracy.

Jim’s four-point guide to plain language relies on the following:

1. Reduce your use of the passive voice. (If you can’t recognize the passive voice in a sentence, then get a grammar text and learn how.)

2. Reduce your use of adverbs that end in -ly, especially weak intensifiers like “very.” (Remember how Paul Martin sounded whenever he listed his “very, very important” priorities?)

3. Reduce your use of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” (Yes, this is hard, because in English, forms of these verbs are used as auxiliaries with other verbs. Do it anyway.)

4. Reduce your use of abstractions.

But I’m just an amateur.

If the Nunavut government wanted to, they could learn from the pros. The British plain language campaign has been at it since 1979. And the U.S. government also gives the principle some attention.

In Nunavut, the only government agency to embrace plain language is Elections Nunavut. The materials that Sandy Kusugak, the chief electoral officer, prepared for the 2008 territorial election are models of plain language.

In Canada, the Office of the Auditor General embraces the use of plain language for all of the auditor general’s reports. Download and read any of her recent reports to see plain language in action.

Notwithstanding the Official Languages Act, all Nunavut government documents appear first in English, then get translated into Inuktitut and French. A commitment to plain English would make life much easier for the dozens of translators who toil for the GN.

By the way, how’s your English grammar?  Try this quiz and find out.


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7 Responses to Make the words plain

  1. Megan says:

    Is there a prize?

    • James Bell says:

      Um — there’s no prize. No score either, as far as I can tell. I went through the whole thing and got one wrong, but I’m too embarrassed to say which question it was 🙂

  2. Jae says:

    Consumers of Podcasts might also want to check out the “Grammar Girl” series of podcasts.

    A very cool tool.

  3. Ms. Inuk says:

    I thought I would do well but did not! If there was a score, I think I would have got 75-80%.

  4. Indigo says:

    That was fun. Number ten kicked my butt. The rest were easy.

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