Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A web log entry has been posted for perusal by the intended readers

I wasn't sure what to blog about this morning -- until my beloved Wall St. Journal came to the rescue. There it was, right on the front page: an article about the Plain English Campaign, a 30-year-old group whose goal is to stem "the ever-growing tide of confusing and pompous language" that "takes away our democratic rights."

Sign me up. SIGN ME UP. I still remember the patronizing sting I felt in college while watching an infomercial featuring a "live" audience. Halfway through the product demonstration, a message flashed across the bottom of the screen: "observers have been remunerated."  Now that's just pretentious and uncalled for. Were the producers hoping that anyone watching an infomercial at 2:00 a.m. wouldn't know that they meant "we paid a fake audience to act impressed"? 

And I won't even go into how often I see something like this at work: "this strategic initiative was chartered in order to design, develop and implement key functional processes in a collaborative effort to obtain operational excellence" (I didn't make that up).

According to the WSJ article, the Plain English Campaign's latest foe is the financial industry, where, founder Chrissie Maher argues, there can be real consequences from the use of bloated and ambiguous language -- such as "families losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements."

Learn more at the Campaign's website, and be sure to check out the Golden Bull awards and the hilarious before and after examples, such as:

Your enquiry about the use of the entrance area at the library for the purpose of displaying posters and leaflets about Welfare and Supplementary Benefit rights, gives rise to the question of the provenance and authoritativeness of the material to be displayed. Posters and leaflets issued by the Central Office of Information, the Department of Health and Social Security and other authoritative bodies are usually displayed in libraries, but items of a disputatious or polemic kind, whilst not necessarily excluded, are considered individually.

Thank you for your letter asking for permission to put up posters in the library. Before we can give you an answer we will need to see a copy of the posters to make sure they won't offend anyone.

Speaking of offending people... while some gobbledygook is clearly deliberate and malevolent obfuscation (sorry), more often, people write this way to make sure their message won't offend anyone. One of my favorite examples is posted on every SF Muni bus (the pantheon of non-offensiveness).  A metal sign, tacked behind each driver, reads:

"Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation."  

What? Come on, it's a tough world out there. We can handle "Don't chat with the driver."


  1. Theres gum on my seat. Gum.

  2. Driver carries gun. Conversate at your own risk.