Communicating in style
A pet hate of many people is bad use of the English language. Even more so among those working in communications, where typos, mixing up of “their” “there” and “they’re” or just needless waffling, are guaranteed to generate a heated and colourful debate.
That’s why I smiled when I found out that the people who manage the UK Government’s online information service have issued new style guidelines to help those preparing content for the site. The big idea is to make the information on the website more readable and understandable to the public – the very people it was designed to be used by.
The move certainly provided great material for the UK’s newspapers, including the reminder from ‘The Independent’ that “only pizzas are delivered”, i.e. not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities
However, joking aside, the guidelines do provide some thought provoking and useful pointers:
- use plain English – don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’ and ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’;
- avoid jargon – so there’s a ban on tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport), fostering (unless it’s children) and dialogue (speaking to people is preferred);
- use the language people are using – use Google Insights to check for terms people search for;
- don’t use long sentences with complicated sub-clauses;
- use the active rather than the passive voice.
As the site rightly says, writing text that all audiences can understand isn’t ‘dumbing down’ the content of their site; it’s opening it up and making it accessible to the wide public market that it’s aimed at.
Some of the rules are relevant only to the writing on the gov.uk website. Others, like the punctuation rules, are more a matter of taste and personal style. However, most of the pointers are well worth taking on board when writing for business.
Why? Simply put, it’s a pleasure to read good English. Put another way, it’s a complete waste of time to write a piece that is badly put together and hard to understand.
For all its faults though, verbose and turgid language, particularly as used by politicians and civil servants, has been the provider of some classic comedy moments, as has the terse communication of some of their aides, such as the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby.