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clear language, linguistics, local government

A cull is coming. Down with jargon!

Phew, what a relief. The Local Government Association (LGA) has called on the public sector to cut out jargon. Any reduction in impenetrable language is music to my ears. What does jargon do? By using officious language only a minority understand, you instantly block out most people – a bit like a private

joke.

And when it’s the government guilty of ‘re-baselining ,’ ‘place shaping’ and – this is the worst – ’employing ‘predictors of beaconicity,’ that is bad news. There is no need for impenetrable, opaque language particularly by the government which provides services to the public who fund it.

The Local Government Association list, which has been sent to councils across the country, set out 200 ‘banned’ words and phrases that all public sector bodies should avoid when describing their services and suggests alternatives. I want to know what they are doing with these lists – will councils bother? The job of lifting jargon from forms, websites, pamphlets and other published materials could be costly.

Having written about the public sector, I can tell you there is WAY too much jargon used on websites, in reports and in most other copy they publish. The private sector is just as bad. How did it come to this? Some blame the direct transfer of techniques and language from the private sector, others blame the US. Some of those working in communications may have had an influence.

The line the LGA takes in its own news story is that slashing jargon is important in a recession, but surely it is crucial (especially for government) to cut out jargon as a rule?

“Council leaders have highlighted that unless everyone who works in public services talks to people in a language that they can understand then the work they do becomes inaccessible. It also reduces the chances of people getting help during the recession,” says the LGA.

How it prevents people from getting help the LGA’s communications people don’t say, but this is an example of what I think will be the economic crisis’ biggest benefit: that it will force people to cut the crap.

On the other hand, suggested alternatives to the blacklisted words sometimes miss the meaning or context, or replace apples with apples, which is a bit dangerous. For example, ‘robust’ is to be replaced with ‘tough‘ and ‘poverty’  with ‘social exclusion.’ What about mentally ill wealthy people?

The news has created an influx of passionate comments on the LGA’s ‘Have your say‘ page with some interesting points to support both sides:

  • Andrew Mackay says: “streamlined again is an adjective that is more succinct than ‘made more efficient'”

  • Adam says: “to not come over as some sort of madcap language police, you should have better understood the words for which you were offering alternatives”
  • David H says: “David Brents impress no-one, just speak English”

And it must be a grand task to use language which caters for all in society (“I totally agree but they should also remove phrases like affordable housing as this means nothing. The difference between what a millionaire would consider afforable and those that have just been booted out of their own terraced house is vastly different” – says one)

Every group (club, profession, sector, gang) in society has its own sociolect or way of speaking with its own vocabulary and grammar. That adds to the richness of any language. It’s just when you’re a civil servant, once your internal meetings and planning sessions are over, it’s important to stop and think carefully about the way you communicate to the public.

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