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Commentary: Plain English Awards

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

A British group called the Plain English Campaign promotes clarity in communication and regularly grants awards for the best and worst communications in the English-speaking world.

The group grants two "booby" prizes in writing and speaking: The Golden Bull Awards and the Foot in Mouth Award.

We can learn a lot from the Plain English Campaign. It's especially interested in improving "public information," which it defines as "anything people have to read to get by in their daily lives." And plain English, it says, is "language that the audience can understand and act upon from a single reading."

Among recent recipients of Golden Bull Awards was the company Jungle-com, for its response to the simple question: "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, whilst potentially remaining available from more mainstream suppliers."

The plain English answer to the question? No.

A Golden Bull also went to Marks and Spencer for a product labeled "Roast Chicken Salad." It also wore a bright tag saying "Now With Roast Chicken!" The Plain English folks wondered nervously: "So what was in it before?"

A Foot in Mouth Award went to British politician Boris Johnson for his statement: "I could not fail to disagree with you less."

But Brits don't have a monopoly on baffling commentary. Americans won the Foot in Mouth Award three years straight.

The 2003 winner was U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the following statement:

"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."

American actor Richard Gere won the 2002 Foot in Mouth for the following: "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.'"

The 2000 Foot in Mouth went to Hollywood starlet Alicia Silverstone for this: "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."

Those winners deserve their so-called 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 natural, human, conversational style.

Sounds good to me.

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

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