Can I speak plainly?


We can speak plainly but, according to recent reports, those of us in central and local government rarely do. We communicate complex ideas to other people every day (the plot of Homeland for instance) so why do we struggle to tell the public what our services are and how to access them?

In the course of my work I’ve come across three main reasons.


1.    The Rules
The grammar you learn in your formative years often becomes the basis of your writing for the rest of your life. In many cases the rules you are taught become so much part of your writing style that you don’t even realise you’re following them; which makes them very tricky to unlearn. So if you insist that an infinitive must never be split, or refuse to countenance the idea that a list can survive without an Oxford comma, it may be because Mrs Hannigan in year 6 believed it was so and you can’t break her rules.


2.    Business speak
Another issue which can often be traced back to school or college is the notion of business speak; a special language which must be used when writing on behalf of one’s employer. So a simple; ‘we would like to hear your feedback’ becomes; ‘the organisation is currently seeking to make changes to this service and would be grateful if you could take the time to share your thoughts and opinions with us. We would like to thank you for your participation’.

This style is characterised by its passive verbs and its verbiage and is used because we’ve been told that it’s the correct way to communicate in business. It’s sometimes used when the writer lacks confidence in their subject knowledge or their writing ability. Occasionally it is used to avoid taking responsibility – as any misbehaving celebrity knows, ‘I would like to apologise if anyone was offended’ is not the same as ‘I am sorry’.


3.    Too much information
We’ve all done it, and I’m trying hard not to do it here. When you know a subject well the temptation is strong to share the entire breadth of your knowledge. And where previously writers were constrained by word counts in hard copy publications, the internet now gives the impression of a limitless space waiting to be filled up with more and more words. Of course this means that, for visitors to government websites, a search for bin collection days can result in four thrilling pages on how the council complies with EU regulations for waste separation.


There are other smaller issues, such as people’s own writing idiosyncrasies. I knew an officer who loved m dashes and used them instead of commas, colons, semi-colons and sometimes even full stops. Another person adored Latin phrases and used them with reckless abandon in documents for service users. Personally I’m very fond of an ellipsis. When used properly they can add a real sense of…


So what are we doing about it?
The national Government Digital Service Team has been working on modernising central government’s online information by focusing on the user journey; or how a user actually searches for information, the words they use and the way they read a web page. As part of the open information agenda the team is sharing everything they do.

Many of their suggestions can be applied to our communications, and over the next few months I’ll be posting updates on how we are developing these standards to work for our services and our user’s needs.


Haven’t we done this before?
Yes, and we’ll do it again. Language use is always changing and so are the methods we use to communicate. This must be a fluid process to keep us relevant and make sure we are always meeting our user’s needs.

This process isn’t about picking on people who don’t know how to use an apostrophe or whether they should use fewer or less; it’s about having an agreed set of standards to ensure that we are always talking to our service users in a clear and consistent way.

4 thoughts on “Can I speak plainly?

  1. Pingback: Can I speak plainly? – Re:work Digital | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Carl Haggerty

    Excellent post Kelly,

    I love the last sentence the best – “it’s about having an agreed set of standards to ensure that we are always talking to our service users in a clear and consistent way.” Too often people focus on the small details and and miss the obvious stuff like engaging and involving users.

    I am looking forward to all the changes we are going to make to our website and public information and we should ensure that we encourage more of the team to blog and share their own personal learning as we progress.

  3. Charles Lee

    Good post. I agree… mostly. (An ellipsis there just for you). 😉

    “The rules” do matter and I think we do citizens and ourselves a disservice when we ignore them in the name of clarity. Good grammar and punctuation should add to the clarity of something. If they are getting in the way of clarity then they’re not good grammar or punctuation.

    Mmmm. I’m not sure my own paragraph passes as plain English!

    1. Kelly Doonan Post author

      Completely agree with you Charles.

      Rules give us consistency which aids clarity. What I have found is that some people slavishly follow the rules even when they make information harder to read, just because they are the rules and therefore cannot be broken. My point here is that some ‘rules’ are merely the deeply-held beliefs of an individual and not a rule at all. You may split infinitives with gay abandon and your writing will still be clear and correct!

      My approach is that clarity is king and grammar should serve it, not control it.


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