The Cheat Sheet

The babu-babble needs a ‘Plain English’ vaccine

Venky Vembu | Updated on May 06, 2020 Published on May 07, 2020

What are you talking about?

The meaningless mumbo-jumbo and circumlocution that our bureaucrats invoke in their routine communication, which requires clarification after clarification. In normal times, it would be easy to laugh it off as a quaint peculiarity of an elite administrative service, epitomised by Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Whitehall mandarin in the Yes, Minister series. But at a time when a pandemic is claiming lives and wrecking the economy, it is criminal to put out notifications that are so riddled with linguistic convolutions that they leave people (who have to comply with the law) confused about what is allowed and what is not.

What triggered this rant?

If I could point to the most recent egregious instances of bureaucratic gobbledygook…

Wait, what’s that?

‘Gobbledygook’ refers to complicated language that is difficult to understand, especially when used in official documents. Readability expert Rudolf Flesch noted that that “all official communications develop a curiously legalistic ring, which becomes difficult to understand.”

You were about to cite some instances...

Yes, in particular two notifications from the Union Home Secretary — on April 29 (bit.ly/3fihnrE) and one on May 3 (bit.ly/2zVM8lZ). Both represent a Masterclass in tortuousness: the second attempts to define who a “migrant worker” (who qualifies to travel back to their home town) is. But it’s not just these instances. Lucidity in official announcements has been in short supply since the coronavirus crisis began.

But it’s not a peculiarly Indian trait.

Not at all. Writing in 1980, Ernest L Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, noted that “the abuse of English by bureaucrats has more to do with the nature of government than the mentality of bureaucrats.” He cites many reasons for “clouded communication”, and concludes that “if the quality of bureaucratic language is to be improved… laws must be less ambiguous.”

Is it only bureaucrats who write this way?

Lawyers and businesses, too, are just as guilty. William D Lutz, a former chair of the Department of English at Rutgers University, cited an instance when, after a 727 crashed in 1978, killing three passengers and destroying the aircraft, a commercial airliner passed off the $1.7-million insurance profit on its books as proceeds from “the involuntary conversion of a 727”.

And you say there’s a ‘vaccine’ for this?

Sort of. Around the world, campaigners for ‘Plain English’ have been pushing governments and legal establishments to make laws and legal documents simpler to understand, without ‘legalese’ expressions.

That is helpful.

Yes, and in the US and in the UK, these ‘Plain English’ campaigns have met with a measure of success. Readability tests have become standardised, after Flesch and educator Joseph Kincaid framed the Flesh-Kincaid grade-level tests to measure the ease of comprehending any passage. But perhaps the best advice comes from Warren Buffett…

The legendary investor?

The same. Writing a preface to a Plain English Handbook for those who have to submit disclosure documents to the US stock market regulator, Buffett wrote: “Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them…”

Bottomline?

It might help if our babus draft their notifications with their siblings in mind. And in case they don’t have siblings to write to, Buffett offers his. “Just begin with ‘Dear Doris and Bertie’.”

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Published on May 07, 2020

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