I'll be plain: structurise step-change input priority-wise for cognizable advances

Magnus Linklater

The Plain English Campaign has lost the plot. Year after year it serves up mocking examples of impenetrable jargon, cluttered syntax, nouns posing as verbs, and sentences of lunatic, unnecessary length. Why, oh why, it complains, can we not have plain, simple English that everyone can follow? Yesterday, it presented its annual awards, commending clarity and punishing obfuscation.

Its efforts, however, are in vain. It has failed to grasp an elementary truth that bureaucratic jargon is the language everyone now follows. Translating it back into so-called plain English will do no good, because it will simply baffle officialdom. If we want to get on in life - or at any rate, life in Britain today - we will all have to learn it.

This revelation came to me as I listened to a friend who was attempting to win recognition for a specialist school she had started. She had tried to explain to the local education authority that it was small, friendly and offered new opportunities to pupils who found learning in bigger schools difficult. The reaction, though polite, was unenthusiastic.

It became clear that the barrier between her and the LEA was the language she was using. She summoned the translators and came up with something rather different: "This school offers a pupil-orientated experience for those who have found the larger learning environment educationally challenging. It is one where cognitive skills are prioritised, using delivery mechanisms tailored to individual needs, with outcomes benchmarked according to a properly monitored evaluation framework." The response was immediate and positive. At last, said the authority, we know what you're trying to do.

I exaggerate. But only slightly. Anyone who has applied for a grant, made a lottery application, or sought planning permission will recognise the formula. Armies of consultants have been employed to realise it, a generation of bureaucrats is steeped in it. It is, for better or worse, the only language they understand. The sooner we can grasp it, the better for all of us.

There is, of course, nothing new about this. The ruling classes have always spoken a language of their own. You could not get very far in the Roman Empire unless you spoke passable Latin. A native of the Scottish Highlands who wanted to make progress in the 19th century soon learnt to suppress his Gaelic and learn the King's English. I remember asking Robert Maxwell, who spoke 14 languages, which one had been the most useful. "Czech," he pronounced. Brought up in the down-trodden district of Ruthenia, on the Czech-Hungarian border, he spoke Yiddish at home but learnt the language of the capital to take his first steps on the ladder to fame and misfortune.

So to find that those who govern our lives today have acquired their own dialect is hardly surprising.

There is, however, one feature of modern bureau-speak which does not readily fit with these linguistic precedents. It has usually been the case that the vocabulary of a governing elite was developed in order to convey its meaning as precisely and economically as possible. Today the opposite is true. The new language of our time aims to obscure, not illuminate, to shun clarity and play for time. As such, it is the perfect dialect for the Blair era. You cannot join in the Big Conversation unless you can speak it with absolute fluency. Here then, until I can work up my new thesis into a fully interactive Blurred English Campaign, are a few pointers to help you on your way.

Never use one word where six will do. Thus, "improving" should become "the incremental acquisition of ongoing knowledge". Try to turn nouns into verbs - to "access" information, "benchmark" achievement, and to "catalyse" a new product.

Avoid precision - talk about "issues around" something rather than the point at issue, "developmental priorities" rather than aims, "delivery mechanisms" instead of how you do it. Leave them still trying to work out the meaning of the last phrase you used while you blind them with the next one. "Transformational processes" is a good one, "evaluation framework" another.

Always remember that this is a living language and that yesterday's jargon just will not do. Words such as accountable, inclusive, transparent and meaningful are already beginning to look a little tired. Try to ginger up your vocabulary with some new additions, like mission-shift, process-enhancement, co-terminosity and so on.

In-words are: holistic, facilitate, strategic, structure (occasionally structurise), point of entry and step-change. As soon as I have my first exam paper, I will circulate it to interested parties so that we can measure outcomes and move forward. I will, of course, be looking for quality indicators at every stage. I hope I make my meaning suitably obscure.