She'll settle for nothing short of plain English

Newspeak WARNING - 'The Hale' CPZ  'upgraded'

Image by Alan Stanton via Flickr

Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was 15.  When she finally did,  she realized her problem wasn’t only a  lack of education: Many of the words around her were cast in indecipherable jargon.

So 30 years ago, Maher told WBUR’s Robin Young, “I decided I would do something about it.”

She started the Plain English Campaign in Derbyshire, England, to point out the gobbledygook of reports, memos and instructions that  interfere with clear communication. She also campaigns for clearer writing in the government, banking and legal documents we all must wade through. 

As she told Young, it’s no joke. The Plain English Campaign, for example, estimates that GE saved as much as $500,000 in help desk costs by rewriting a single software manual. And, Maher said she has no doubt some of the housing foreclosure problems in this country could be traced to people who didn’t understand the documents they were signing.

But  Maher, 71, clearly has fun, too.  Here organization’s web site hands out “Golden Bull” awards, allows visitors to play “buzzword bingo,” and provides a “gobbledygook generator” for managers who’ve simply run out of incomprehensible instructions (I’d opt for, “the consultants recommend 21st Century management processing”).

Its last annoying cliche contest was in 2004 (“at the end of the day ”  won). I wish the group would hold another and give the gold to “from Day 1.”

For those looking to write clearly, Maher has some makeover examples as breaktaking as that new interior you saw on “This House.”

One unsuspecting educator, for example, learned  there is another way to say:  “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.” 

 The site’s translation:  “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”

Which leads me to an idea. Maybe all those newly out-of-work  journalists in the ever-shrinking world of news can still make an honest living.  America’s lawyers may not like it, but in this country, Maher surely could use a hand.



About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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4 Responses to She'll settle for nothing short of plain English

  1. Pingback: Never Use A Big Word When A Small One Will Do « Journalista

  2. Nick Obourn says:


    Hemingway would love this. Many writers of fiction would love this. In fact I think any one who really writes, really wants to understand the English language and how to write should understand first how to say the simplest things in the simplest terms. Only then can you extrapolate and begin to play tricks with the language, which is something I have a feeling Ms. Maher would not condone.

  3. Jerry Lanson says:

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for dropping by. I like to tell my students that my struggles as a young reporter began when I fell in love with Faulkner instead of Hemingway at the age of 16. This is not to take anything away from Faulkner. But he’s not the writer for young reporters to emulate. Hemingway on the other hand …. I love “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

  4. Pingback: Can’t understand a word of it? Probably Golden Bull - Jerry Lanson - News Prints - True/Slant

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