Articles on language-related topics, written by members of our team and others

Campaigns for plain language: articles on various topics

A cyber crime against clarity: why the NCSC should revise its confusing guidance  (2022)

Summary: The Cyber Essentials ‘requirements’ booklet is so unclear that it should be rewritten and redesigned using the principles of plain language and good typography. The booklet is a masterpiece of jargon-strewn incoherence that becomes more complex the more effort readers make to grasp what it means. Confusion caused by the booklet is likely to have cost small firms £40million in wasted time trying to gain Cyber Essentials certification this year. After rewriting the booklet, the NCSC should conduct a genuine consumer-testing exercise and learn from the results to improve it further.
Update (2023): The NCSC welcomed our feedback and revised the booklet. It is much clearer, though one of the worst sentences in the 2022 question set has survived untouched. In all its deranged and ungrammatical horror, it says:
‘The use of a PIN with a length of at least six characters can only be used where the credentials are just to unlock a device and does not provide access to organisational data and services without further authentication.’

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Escaping the Fog People: how we can write more clearly about complicated things (2020)

A ‘citizens’ language project’ has begun in the European Parliament, aiming to use text, audio and video to communicate better with people in each of the 24 official EU languages. ‘The future of reading is listening,’ said Cathy Waibel, chef d’unité, Directorate-General for Translation, at a seminar where she described efforts to make the parliament’s activities more ‘interesting and accessible’ through the use of plain language in a radio stream and podcasts. Martin Cutts of Plain Language Commission gave the keynote speech to an audience of about 200 translators in Luxembourg and Brussels.

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Gorenje website: really ‘Life Simplified’? (2015)

Websites should be easy to read AND easy to use. They waste time and infuriate people when they aren’t.

When our informant ‘Deep Freeze’ decided to register the five-year guarantee on her new fridge, she didn’t expect to spend an hour and a half on such a supposedly simple task and still not succeed.

But a poorly explained task on a poorly designed website meant exactly that. Martin Cutts reports on Deep Freeze’s usability headache.

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Care-home-fees cap pledge betrayed (2015)

The UK’s then prime minister, David Cameron, emphasised the importance of using plain language in government. But after making a clear manifesto pledge to support self-funders in care homes, he broke it weeks after winning the election.

The manifesto promise was to apply a £72,000 lifetime cap to the fees that self-funding residents of care homes have to pay. In this tough but non-party-political article, Martin Cutts examines how and why the pledge was broken.

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Complaining about bad writing: does it achieve anything except make me feel better? (2011)

Signs so unclear they rip off thousands of drivers every year… Official letters that are anything but plain English… Misleading leaflets from the local council… TV licence forms that make no sense… Gobbledygook in product instructions…

All these things cause friction and frustration and can be costly. But what happens when you complain to the people responsible for bad official writing?

Martin Cutts decided to find out, and his entertaining article shows that sometimes they ignore you, sometimes they send you an illiterate reply, and sometimes they become a good business customer. The article also explains how one complaint about unclear road signs led to motorists saving £19,000 a year in parking penalties.

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Technical jargon: an approach, an idea and an offering (2006)

In this article for the international journal Clarity, Sarah Carr looks at:

  • different types of jargon, their value and dangers
  • how to deal with technical jargon
  • grammatical terms for verb forms in English, as an exercise in explaining some linguistic technical jargon.

First published in issue 55 of Clarity (May 2006).

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Getting to grips with grammar

Linguistic lingo for lawyers – ‘person’ and other grammatical terms for personal pronoun forms in English (2006)

Sarah Carr looks at the term ‘person’ in English grammar; other grammatical terms for personal pronoun forms, including ‘gender’, ‘number’ and ‘case’; and the relevance of these terms to plain English…

First published in issue 56 of Clarity (November 2006).

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Linguistic lingo for lawyers – possessive puzzles (2011)

Sarah Carr explains how to resolve some complicated dilemmas over the apostrophe…
First published in issue 66 of Clarity (November 2011).

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Linguistic lingo for lawyers – word classes (2008)

Sarah Carr explains various linguistic terms in English grammar. She looks at open and closed word classes, and the relevance of these and related terms to plain language. First published in issue 59 of Clarity (May 2008).

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Standards of English

Time to let teachers teach and pupils learn (2011)

Rhea Williams, a former teacher who has chaired the Queen’s English Society, wrote a thought-provoking letter to the review of the National Curriculum in England (Jan 2011), in which she blamed low standards of literacy in schools on parents, teachers and the inspectorate.

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Cows inseminated by seamen: errors in the English of highly selected undergraduates (2007)

Dr Bernard Lamb, who teaches genetics at Imperial College, has noticed a downward drift in writing standards among his students.

Dr Lamb says of his latest survey: ‘The students best at English were the Singapore Chinese and a Bruneian; some UK students were good, making only a few errors. The worst were UK-raised and usually of British ancestry. It is not a matter of intelligence, as the three final-year students who made the most errors obtained two firsts and an upper second class honours degree this summer; all three are UK-raised women of British ancestry.’

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Talking turkey al Tesco: chewing the fat about a retail notice (2008)

Sarah Carr uses the Process Method to examine the language of a notice spotted at Christmas in Tesco, along with a rewrite produced by the lawyer Clive Wilson, of Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Melbourne, Australia.

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Parking: unclear and misleading signs and documents

ParkingEye’s unclear signs plague hospital patients and visitors (2014)

A complex system of parking signs and rules has led to an avalanche of £70 penalties at a hospital car park in Burton, Staffordshire and bitter complaints from hospital patients and visitors. So we visited, took some photos, and found that many of the signs were ambiguous. This article shows what happens when the designers of a parking system ignore key principles of clarity and good legibility. But was it accidental or a deliberate way of making money out of hospital patients? You can decide for yourself after going through the parking quiz included in the article.

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Phoney fines and dodgy signs take drivers for a ride (2012)

Partly because of unclear signs and payment demands, millions of drivers are being hit by £100 charges many of them think are genuine official fines. Greedy private parking firms are cashing in, with the full support of their trade body and the Government’s own DVLA.

The firms are chasing drivers for around £160million a year. Their actions are based on a little-known agreement between the British Parking Association and the DVLA. The DVLA sells these firms registered-keeper data at £2.50 a time.

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Language and ethics in the private parking industry (2012)

This conference speech looks at badly worded parking signs and payment demands. It accuses the trade body that oversees the unregulated private parking sector of a ‘lack of integrity’ in giving misleading figures to the Government as it agitated for a change in the law on registered keeper liability. The British Parking Association (BPA) had implied that up to 90,000 private parking cases were chugging through the courts in 2010, whereas the real figure turned out to be a mere 49.

The speech argues that the private parking industry needs to find some moral and ethical values:

‘Your industry needs to go straight. It needs to have the ethical purpose of reducing the vast number of contraventions that it’s been promoting by creating a system not of car parks but of money traps. Hanging around car parks finding ever more ingenious ways of punishing motorists is really not a decent way to make a living. You need to design compliance into all your car parks by, for example, using entry and exit barriers and signs on the tarmac at entrances. You need to outlaw all deals between operators and landowners that give the operators the lion’s share of the penalty income, because all that does is incentivise operators to ‘rape and pillage’ (as one BPA member called it).’

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Legal English

Capitalizing Defined Terms (2024)

Should consumer contracts use initial capitals for definitions?

It’s common for drafters to give initial capitals to defined terms in consumer and business-to-business contracts, but this adds strangeness by offending the norms of grammar and punctuation. 

There’s no rule of contract law requiring defined terms to be capped up, and various alternatives have been tried. Bold type has sometimes been used but when there are numerous defined terms and if ‘we’ and ‘you’ are also defined and capped up, the frequent use of bold tends to dazzle the reader. Another approach is simply to leave defined terms in lower case and unhighlighted.

In this article, Martin Cutts gives examples of contracts, one dating from 1975, where defined terms have been left unhighlighted without any apparent ill-effects. He suggests that for consumer contracts, in particular, this is the most user-friendly and least outlandish approach.

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Some ways of making rules easier to read and understand (2023)

Have you ever read the rules of the clubs, societies, trade unions and professional groups to which you belong? Often, they are tough going. This may enable those who do understand them to rule the roost. In this short article, Martin Cutts describes some simple ways of clarifying complicated rules.

The article was first published in The Clarity Journal (no. 86, 2023), Clarity is the international association promoting plain legal language.

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How to make laws easier to read and understand (2008)

Laws are often too complicated. In this article, Martin Cutts shows some ways of making them clearer. It says laws should be written at a level that ordinary citizens, not just lawyers, can read and understand. It also points out that there has been a glut of new law in the UK –­ some 172,000 pages from 1992­–2005 – and that everybody finds this overwhelming.

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ASBO English: clear or baffling? (2009)

Antisocial behaviour orders in England and Wales are increasingly being breached. Might one factor be that. ASBOs are written unclearly, using archaic language, so that recipients don’t understand fully what they must or mustn’t do, or feel alienated from the producing body? In this article, Sarah Carr and Martin Cutts investigate by analysing six ASBOs, seeking lawyers’ views on the clarity of ASBO English, and rewriting two ASBOs in plain language.

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Clear as mud (2010)

With small print in insurance policies hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Martin Cutts shares his 10 top tips on how to write insurance policies that don’t require a translator or insurance expert to understand them. First published in the International Travel Insurance Journal.

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Readability testing

Towards a better readability measure: the Bog index (2009)

StyleWriter, the plain-English editing software, has a new readability measure – the Bog index. Its main feature is a graded 200,000-word dictionary. In this article, Nick Wright, co-designer of StyleWriter, describes the index and puts it through its paces.

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How clear are the style and language of Facebook’s Principles and Terms of Use? (2008)

BBC3 commissioned us to report on the readability of Facebook’s Principles and Terms of Use. We used our specialist software and editing skills to assess the clarity of this text. Our report was used in a documentary (Mischief — Your Identity for Sale), shown in September 2008.

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Writing by numbers: are readability tests to clarity what karaoke is to song? (2008)

The simplicity and scientific veneer of readability tests make them an attractive way of assessing document difficulty. But currently available tests are crude, says Martin Cutts in this article.

Discussion groups and one-to-one interviews are better for assessing clarity, though these methods are usually feasible only where cost and speed are unimportant. So, when deciding whether a document is at the right level for its readers, editorial judgement based on experience will usually be the best aid. Readability testing should be only a minor factor in making that judgement.

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Correction: In this article, we quote (with some incredulity) the UK Basic Skills Agency’s interpretation of the SMOG readability index. N Watson Solomon (aka Nirmaldasan) has pointed out that a SMOG score of 9 in fact ‘permits as many as 12 polysyllabic words in 10 sentences. In 30 sentences, there may be 36 polysyllabic words’. (Email to the author, 14 March 2016)

Spoken English

Speaking to be understood (2009)

Sarah Carr looks at the art of plain speaking. The article draws on examples from the Romans to modern politicians – including Barack Obama – not to mention Jack Sparrow, star of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Article first published on the website of the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA).

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