On Writing Well

Pierre Poilievre released a video this week on how he would table a Plain Language Bill to force the civil service to write better and make what it publishes easier to understand.

This will no doubt invite a lot of derision and criticism. For my part, I don’t like how Poilievre avoided the Oxford Comma. And if this odious Bureaucratese is an official language, then it has at least achieved the rank of proper noun and deserves a capital letter, for all its other faults. But Poilievre has a point, and his policy would mimic what the Cameron-Clegg ministry did in the United Kingdom in 2011-2012. The Government of British Columbia has also promised to write in English instead of Bureaucratese. The plague of Bureaucratese has, however, long since escaped the confines of the civil service and has infected all the knowledgeindustries.

The problem is that we no longer know plain language when we see it. We’ve become so used to weird, convoluted phrasings and long trains of nouns mashed together in an incomprehensible clutter of gibberish that the most plain English words and phrasings now seem archaic and quaint — almost too poetic and thus no longer “professional.” Only Soviet-style Bureaucratese seems “professional” in some quarters. For instance, the British Civil Service described its own commitment to plain language in a way that most Canadians and Americans would see as quaint:

“When GOV.UK launched in 2012, replacing the confusing previous website, one of the aims was to simplify the language of government. This helps everyone complete tasks (like registering to vote) quickly and with minimum fuss.”

“Fuss” is a very British word. So is “mirth.” But others like “feckless” are very American. None is Canadian. Even the idea of “plain language” or “plain writing” seems burdened with branding baggage and sounds too obviously like a reaction against Bureaucratese. “Plain language” is what we used to call and understand as simply good writing.

I’ve cited this example a lot, but it bears repeating. A lot of professional types on LinkedIn who work in offices would probably consider The Weather Network’s annoying habit of warning us about a “significant rainfall event” as plain language. But it’s not. The normal warning in plain English is “heavy rain.” It conveys the same message in fewer words in one go. Weather is not an “event.” The weather doesn’t send us handwritten invitations or ask our permission; it just happens.

The main feature of Bureaucratese is not long Latinate words, but instead needlessly complex and weirdly convoluted phrasings that turn concrete things into abstract ideas. Bureaucratese uses many words where English uses few. For instance, speakers of Bureaucratese would write “on a regular basis” instead of “regularly” because they have conditioned themselves to think that the first looks more “professional” than the second. Why write one word when you can write four instead? Civil servants in Ottawa speak to each in their own lingo, too. They use strange words like “granularity” instead of “going into details,” and they often mispronounce “to flesh out” (i.e., putting meat on the bones, providing details) and say it as “to flush out” (i.e., to ferret out, to reveal something).

Bureaucratese also mixes up parts of speech, stringing together nouns instead of using adjectives. But brevity does not necessarily equal plain language. Something can be both long yet well-written and easy to understand, while a short tweet can confuse us with a barrage of nounclusters strung together incoherently. If you feel confused by what you just read, whether it be long or short, then the writer has failed.

A Plain Language Act could start by fixing the names of some departments and agencies of the civil service that make no sense. For example, the civil service offers courses through the “Canada School of Public Service.” That does not sound like anything that a native English-speaker would ever utter on his own accord. It should be called either “The School of the Canadian Public Service” or the “The School of the Public Service of Canada.” The same goes for the “Canada Science and Technology Museum,” which should be called either the Canadian Science and Technology Museum or the Science and Technology Museum of Canada. Yet some departments and agencies have logical official English names like “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency.” But it gets stranger still. Others tack on “Canada” at the end of their name, like “Defence Construction Canada.” This is what happens when branding comes before good grammar and making names easy to say and understand. The Treasury Board Secretariat issued a Directive on the Management of Communications, a title which ironically contradicts the Treasury Board Secretariat’s guidelines on plain language; it should say the “Directive on Managing Communications”, with the gerund. Perhaps a Plain Language Act could give the Content Style Guide (now a mere internal guideline) the force of statute law.

The Government British Columbia also gives some examples of plain writing yet ironically contradicts itself in places. We should use the active voice instead of cowering behind the shield of the passive voice, that refuge for scoundrels who shirk their duty. (I’ve used the passive voice a few times in this post, but not, you understand, to conceal my responsibility, but more to express a general idea). But why does the second heading say “activate gerunds” in the imperative? Activate? We’re not pushing a button on a machine or clicking “OK” on a command prompt here. It should say “Use gerunds.” I truly don’t know what “Activate gerunds” means. Yet the sentences with gerunds in fact sound worse than those with infinitives. In all these examples, I’d advice against the gerund and for the infinitive! British Columbia’s civil service should have encouraged using gerunds instead of nounphrases, so like “developing” instead of “the development of.” That’s what I was expecting with respect to gerunds. The fourth heading does indeed caution us to “avoid noun clusters.” But then the example of the “plain” writing here contains the passive voice – which contradicts the first piece of advice, “Replace passive voice with active.” I appreciate the effort, but these examples don’t make much sense. Sam Gregory’s “A simple guide on words to avoid in government” (i.e., in the British Civil Service) flows much more smoothly and contains better advice.

Ultimately, we write what we read. We can only write well by first reading a lot of good writing.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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2 Responses to On Writing Well

  1. Atul Kapur says:

    Honest and non-snarky question: should that be ‘advise’ inatead of ‘advice’?
    “I’d advice against the gerund and for the infinitive!”


  2. Roger says:

    Well done but too impactful to impact politically correct writing…what happened to ‘affect’?


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