Accessibility links

World: Writing Campaigns Encouraging Bureaucrats To Come In From The Fog

  • Don Hill

International organizations such as the European Union, the United Nations, NATO, and the International Monetary Fund have raised bureaucracy to new heights. And regulations, laws, and legal documents have become entangled in ever more incomprehensible wording. RFE/RL reports that bureaucracies and everyday writers around the world are taking steps to clean up their use of language.

Prague, 9 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pity the poor translators of the European Union's executive -- the European Commission.

In 2003, when they had only 11 languages and 1.5 million pages of documents to translate, they were running 60,000 pages behind at year's end. And now, after enlargement, the EU has become the only organization in the world conducting its business in 20 languages.

Because of the rising workload, the writers of the European Commission are under pressure to make their original documents briefer. At the same time, in another program called Fight the Fog, those writing in English are working to simplify their language; to give up the outmoded legalistic expressions so beloved by government writers; to unlearn "bureaucratese" -- that special jargon used by civil servants everywhere.
"We do a lot of work with [governments] to make sure that civil servants write in plain English to each other,” Lister says. “And once they've learned to do that, they are a lot more likely to write in plain English to the public." -- John Lister, a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign


The fact is that people all over the world have grown uncomfortable with regulations that intrude on their lives and that are often written in a language they can't understand, even when it is in their mother tongue.

European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer says the Fight the Fog program applies particularly to documents originating in English, which has overtaken French as the bloc's principal language for that purpose. Many of the documents are technical, Mamer points out, and many of the authors are not native English speakers.

In Britain, people uncomfortable with government writing have created a genuine peoples' movement.

A woman named Chrissie Maher wanted to apply in 1979 for a government heating allowance. She found herself baffled by the application form she was given to fill out. Angry and frustrated, she launched the Plain English Campaign. It has been bedeviling British bureaucrats from town halls to the cabinet ever since.

John Lister, a spokesman for what is now a thriving, 25-year-old British institution, says the methods of the Plain English Campaign vary.

"We campaign through a whole different range of levels. It can be anything from, you know, standing in the street holding banners to taking part in official government committees and improving that way. It's whatever it takes to get the job done," Lister says.

The campaign also issues praise and apportions blame. Last week, it awarded its 10,000th Crystal Mark for clear document writing. It also bestows annual Foot in Mouth and Golden Bull prizes for particularly unclear utterances.

The campaign finances its operations by editing documents and teaching plain writing techniques. And it spends a lot of time in government offices.

"We do a lot of work with [governments] to make sure that civil servants write in plain English to each other,” Lister says. “And once they've learned to do that, they are a lot more likely to write in plain English to the public."

Lister numbers the European Commission among his clients.

"We work a lot with the translation department there. And they, quite understandably, like to see documents written as clearly as possible in the original language, so that they can do a more accurate job of translating them," Lister says.

Like the Plain English Campaign, a movement by German, Austrians, and German-speaking Swiss to reform the German language has been 25 years in the making. In the German way, it is an official movement, and it has resulted in a precise manual of instruction, mostly about spelling. It also has resulted in a rebellion.

Almost six years ago, the German-language nations finally adopted a long-awaited Rechtschreibreform -- or proper writing reform. Die Reform was to be introduced gradually and to take full effect in July 2005.

But now a countermovement has taken shape calling for "die Reform der Reform." One rebel is the leading German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," known as the "FAZ." Along with most other German newspapers, the "FAZ" adopted the new "proper writing." But in August 2000, it returned to the traditional German and has not looked back.

To the east, in Vienna, reform has gone beyond mere Rechtschreiben. Six municipal departments have joined in a program called Vienna Speaks Plainly. They published a manual aimed at getting clerks to write in simple German. They promised to hold each other accountable for dense language.

And they've assigned the effort to rid their writing of fogginess a name. It is Verwaltungsvereinfachungsmassnahmen -- that is, "simplified administrative procedures."
XS
SM
MD
LG