Plain English in civil service communications: brevity combined with clarity #20yearrule

Lauded in his day as one of finest minute writers in the civil service, Ken Bloomfield – the then head of the NI Civil Service – wrote to his Permanent Secretaries in May 1988 with a plea for plain English communications.

Brevity should be combined with clarity.

It is an important skill to be able to present complex issues in clear and simple ways.

Winston Churchill’s personal minutes from WWII were commended as a good example of wording that was “always simple and their intentions transparently clear”.

Even in simple letters, a good short word is generally to be preferred to a mediocre longer one. I am always irritated by draft replies thanking the writer for his letter “concerning” this, that or the other. There is nothing wrong with the simple word “about”.

If we avoid like the plague “the language of the bureaucracy” we will more readily develop a turn of phrase and a tone of voice allowing us to communicate effectively with people at large.

The large number of scribbles over the copy of the letter that was released in an Industrial Development Board file – DED/21/8/60 – yesterday under the 20 Year Rule at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland suggests that the IDB took the message to heart!

Clearly it’s a memo that should be circulated annually.

, , ,

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Unfortunately, the final sentence of Sir Ken’s memo is a classic example of ‘the language of the bureaucracy’.

    It means: ‘If we use simple English, people will understand us’.

  • Zorin001

    If he thought it was bad 30 years ago what would he make of it now??

    Working in the Public Sector everyone hates jargon, but yet everyone uses it as thats the standard; plus no-one wants to put their head on the block by giving a straight answer.

  • Korhomme

    Sir Ernest Gowers got there rather earlier. His revised edition of Fowler’s ‘Modern English Usage’ came put in 1965.

    Gowers’s ‘Plain Words’ was published in 1948, followed by ‘The Compete Plain Words’ in 1954.

  • When I joined BT there was a “Right for Your Reader” (or was it “Write for Your Reader”) booklet to encourage a plain writing style for internal documents.

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Or was he, perhaps, employing irony?

  • Korhomme

    Long ago, the psychiatrist Richard Assher—Jane’s father—wrote a series of articles which were published as ‘Richard Assher talking sense’. There, and elsewhere, he described just how difficult he found it writing an article; it might go through 10 or twelve revisions before he was satisfied with it; and this long before word processors and copy/paste.

    Writing clear, succinct English is really very hard work. You only have to look at the ‘churnalism’ in today’s press to see how few writers come up to his standards.

  • Korhomme

    Jargon is useful as a shorthand for those in the know. But, as you say, otherwise it is a wonderful obfuscation. (A clever way of hiding what you mean behind long, fancy words.)