The Plain English Campaign, a British group that promotes clarity in writing, grants awards internationally for the best and worst communications of the year. It attends especially to “public information” and in addition to its overall Plain English category, it focuses on government, media and Web writing.
The group’s “booby” prizes are in two categories: The Golden Bull Awards and the Foot in Mouth Award — that last for speech rather than writing.
Media writers can learn a lot from the Plain English Campaign, which has more than 8,000 members in 80 countries. The group defines public information as “anything people have to read to get by in their daily lives,” and plain English as “language that the intended audience can understand and act upon from a single reading.”
Among the eight recipients of Golden Bulls last year was the Bank of Scotland, for this opening on a letter to consumers: “We hereby give you notice that Bank of Scotland have retrocessed, reponed and restored Executors and Assignees, in and to their own right and place in the undernoted policy of Assurance by our Office, Videlicet . . . .”
British Airways also received a Golden Bull Award, for the following paragraph, unreadable not only for its content but also for its all-cap form:
“NOTE — CANCELLATIONS — BEFORE DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE ONLY THE Y/C/J-CLASS HALF RETURN AMOUNT CAN BE REFUNDED. AFTER DEPARTURE FARE IS REFUNDABLE. IF COMBINING A NON-REFUNDABLE FARE WITH A REFUNDABLE FARE REFUND THE DIFFERENCE /IF ANY/BETWEEN THE FARE PAID AND THE APPLICABLE NORMAL BA ONEWAY FARE.”
Among 2003’s Golden Bull “winners” was jungle.com, for its response to a simple e-mailed query: “Do you still sell blank CDs?” The company replied:
“We are currently in the process of consolidating our product range to ensure that the products that we stock are indicative of our brand aspirations. As part of our range consolidation we have also decided to revisit our supplier list and employ a more intelligent system for stock acquisition. As a result of the above certain product lines are now unavailable through jungle.com, whilst potentially remaining available from more mainstream suppliers.”
The plain English answer to the question? No.
A 2003 Golden Bull also went to Marks and Spencer for a label on its chicken salad. The label, which said “Roast Chicken Salad,” also wore a bright tag saying “Now With Roast Chicken!” The Plain English folks wondered nervously: “So what was in it before?”
Last year’s Foot in Mouth Award went to British politician Boris Johnson for his statement: “I could not fail to disagree with you less.”
Plain English awards often go to British concerns and personalities, but Brits don’t have a monopoly on baffling commentary. Americans won the Foot in Mouth Award three of the four times it was granted from 2000 to 2003.
2003: U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for comments in a press briefing:
“Reports that say that 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.”
2002: Actor Richard Gere: “I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I’d think ‘No, actually I am a giraffe.’ ”
2000: Hollywood star Alicia Silverstone: “I think that ‘Clueless’ was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”
I think that we could all agree that those Golden Bull and Foot in Mouth winners deserve their distinction. But if pretensions and gobbledygook earn a booby prize, what do the Plain English folk consider truly winning writing?
They like short sentences, simple vocabulary, active verbs, personal pronouns such as “you” and “we,” and a clear, natural, human, conversational, meaningful style.
Sounds good to me.
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.