Here we go again, this time with extra amplification. For not only is it time for the Plain English Campaign’s annual ‘Golden Bull’ awards – it’s 30 years since this campaign group that also happens to be a commercial writing firm was founded.
As in years past, hapless organisations are made to stand in the naughty corner for their terrible crimes against language. This year it’s the Foreign & Commonwealth office’s turn to wear the dunce’s cap, with this somewhat verbose job ad copy:
“Maintenance and development of the UK narrative around FCO and its value proposition, using insights from research and evaluation as well as knowledge of the evolving FCO strategy to inform resonant messaging.”
Showing instant remorse in the face of its public beasting, the FCO admitted that what it really meant was:
“Work out better ways of telling people what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does.”
Thing is, do we all really want to live in a world that’s as plain as this? ‘Plain’, to me, means clear to its audience. Sure, there are times when universal clarity of meaning is the primary concern. Public notices or instruction manuals for nuclear warheads, for example.
There’s a risk, though, that by boiling everything down to the plainest common denominator, we make language dull.
This all may sound a bit rich coming from the co-founder of ‘Plain’ Text. But we’ve evolved a bit from our original ‘all jargon is bad’ standpoint. We accept that language is dynamic and some of its rules are there to be broken. Most importantly, in our business of commercial writing, we know that different readers respond to different styles. What’s barely comprehensible to one person may be music to the ears of another, as I’m reminded when reading high-octane erudition in the London Review of Books .
Anyone in the communications business would know exactly what the FCO wanted with its job ad (although personally I’d have added a comma after ‘strategy’). Does it really matter that the Plain English campaign has a problem with it? Would the FCO attract better candidates with its ‘Janet and John’ version?
It’s just boring to reduce language to its simplest possible form. Being interesting is a better way to stand out. And that means tailoring your words to your audience, not to everybody.