Jargon is not only inelegant, it comes in the way of understanding.

Some anniversaries have particular significance, and last week such a significant date was December 9. It was the 50th birthday of my elder son.

Like his brother and sister, he has inherited from his mother and me a strong interest in the proper use of words. One of my minor, but real, pleasures is to observe the reaction of all our three children when they hear someone using the word “less” instead of the proper alternative “fewer”.

I was delighted, therefore, to be reminded that December 9 was also the anniversary of the Plain English Campaign, which was established 32 years ago. Since 1979 they have, in their words, “been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. We have helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications. We believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information.”

The Plain English Campaign holds an annual awards ceremony. This year, one of the Golden Bull awards was given to the Meteorological Office for a reference to “probabilities of precipitation”. Although that offers the opportunity for alliteration, it is clearly not a sensible way to indicate that rain is likely. Another award went to Harrow Council “for their mysterious ‘ Personalisation Implementation Team'.”

Can't get more official

On the Plain English Campaign website there are examples of long-winded official writing, with suggested improvements. Here is one example: “Before: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process. After: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”

The Campaign certainly takes seriously its remit to ensure that everyone has access to clear and concise information. It is not always an easy task, because jargon quite often becomes endemic in the approach of organisations to communicating with their clients. I came up against an example of this a few days ago, when I received a badly drafted, and inaccurate, letter from a long established and well respected organisation. I telephoned to suggest, firmly but politely, that a new letter should be sent. The staff member to whom I was speaking told me “there is a platform on which this can be raised”. Rather pompously I said that I did not want a platform. I wanted a different letter. (A few days later, I received one, and in fairness, therefore, I shall not name the organisation, which took my complaint seriously.)

Sometimes, of course, the issue is not lack of clarity so much as lack of service. How many times, for example, when one telephones a large organisation, is one left waiting for a reply, and faced with the repeated recorded request to “stay on the line. Your call is important to us.” It may be — but it is not important enough to be dealt with by a human being rather than a disembodied voice.

This is not helped by the tendency to give people job titles which sound impressive, but have little obvious meaning. Interestingly, a survey conducted a few years ago by the Plain English Campaign found that some people would rather have a grander job title than a pay rise. That may give comfort, in a bizarre way, to employers struggling in the present period of financial crisis.

Linguistic dinosaurs

It is not only job titles which encourage needless verbiage. There are some verbose expressions which have become so common that they are hardly noticed. “At this moment in time” or “in this day and age” are frequently used when “now” would produce the same meaning. I have got used to those two examples, and they no longer irritate me (though I would not use them myself). One even more frequently used piece of unnecessary verbiage, on the other hand, still produces in me a very negative reaction: “in terms of” – which rarely adds anything, except extra words, to a statement.

Another very common tendency, which also reflects the desire to impress rather than inform with clarity, is the use of some key words which sound as if they have a deep meaning even when they do not. “Logistics” is a good example of this. So is “solutions”. We passed a commercial van a few days ago displaying the words “Manual solutions”, and my wife and I wondered what on earth that could mean. We felt that it ought to mean “hands” – but I suspect that this was not the intention.

What is clear is that the Plain English Campaign still has plenty of worthwhile work to do.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com