The Plain English Campaign's fight “for crystal-clear language and against jargon, gobbledygook and other confusing language” may be a thankless one, but the way the Derbyshire, England-based organization sees it, someone has to do it. In early December, the Plain English Campaign (PEC), for the first time in its 31-year history, recognized the contributions of American politicians to baffling the public through extreme language misuse.
The annual Foot in Mouth Award, an extension of PEC's Golden Bulls, is presented to a public figure whose syntax successfully obscures all interpretation. PEC spokesman John Lister noted the difficulties in choosing a 2003 winner in light of the formidable aptitude for incomprehensibility demonstrated by both finalists, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We thought it could be diplomatically sensitive to give the award to Rumsfeld,” Lister said. But in the end, Rumsfeld's nominated entry proved too convoluted to resist. Addressing the issue of alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld was quoted: “Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns-the ones we don't know we don't know.”
“What he actually said came out a little bit differently because he tripped on his words on the way through. But that was sort of the intended point, murky as it was,” Lister said.
Runner-up Schwarzenegger was cited for his observation, “I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman,” made earlier this year.
Lister said a few people, trying to make heads or tails of that statement, had sent PEC “quite sweet” but improbable suggestions that Schwarzenegger was perhaps “using the word ‘gay' in its original sense-a gay and happy marriage between a man and woman.” Recalling actor Richard Gere's 2002 win for a blithering lapse during which he compared his sense of self-identity to that of a giraffe, Lister did give Schwarzenegger credit for bridging the linguistic gap between celebrities and politicians. But it is on the latter that PEC keeps special watch.
“Their words affect our lives, [so] people look to them to communicate clearly,” Lister said. “If an entertainer says something stupid, we can laugh at it, but it's not necessarily a problem.”
Public figures are only half the battle. PEC defines plain English “as something that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it.” Enter the Golden Bulls for written English.
PEC receives most Golden Bull nominations from the roughly 4,000 worldwide supporters who have registered with the campaign through its website. PEC weighs the confusion level of each nomination in relation to the document's intended purpose. Lister said financial, legal, medical and food-related writings come up repeatedly.
This year, a major retailer won for offering a prepackaged meal, the label of which clearly identified the contents as roast chicken salad-but which also featured a special flash announcing, “Now with roast chicken.” This, PEC concluded, begged the question, “What was in it before?”
In another winning pick, PEC deemed it a “disgrace” that SMEG UK, “a top-of-the-range manufacturer of dishwashers,” had produced an impossible-to-follow users' manual-probably as the result of a bad translation. Sample instruction: “By pressing one after the oter [sic] button DELAY PROGRAM (5), it will be seen on the display the vizualisation of delay hours numbers in which you want to make start the machine from 12 hours onward.”
A SMEG UK representative wrote to assure PEC that the company was “not just aware of the importance of plain English” but “taking steps to improve the instruction books supplied with our products.”
In “begrudgingly” accepting his award for penning an airline magazine article in which PEC counted “at least 15 clichés and strained metaphors,” Yousef El-Deiry was less repentant. “What's a little cliché amongst colleagues?” El-Deiry wrote PEC. “There is truth in every cliché: worse things happen at sea, when it rains it pours and even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.”
In a rare turn, a recipient from the financial services sector bravely sent a representative to collect its Golden Bull statuette, presented by PEC in recognition of the company's “inexcusable” use of “legal jargon that belongs to a bygone age.” The offending clause: a single, 108-word sentence.
PEC, which lobbies for language clarity from government entities, uses the awards as a light-hearted method of drawing attention to the substantial losses of time and money caused by unclear language in documents-especially those involving legislation or official regulations.
But, according to Lister, the greatest impact the campaign makes is probably through reassuring those confused by linguistic ambiguity “that they're not the only people to experience the problem.”