The end of officialese

By Kieran Madden September 29, 2021

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 

There is a certain elegance and effectiveness to plain language, and it should form the foundation of all Government communications. A healthy democracy rests upon clear speaking and writing—ideas that are expressed in a way that can be easily understood. A recently-drawn Member’s bill may help firm this foundation. 

Unfortunately, an indecipherable language has developed in politics that obscures meaning, sometimes called “officialese.” This is language used by officials, for officials, to sound official; a signalling exercise to project authority and high-mindedness. 

Phrases that obscure meaning reduce accountability… Vague statements are harder to pin down… leaving public leaders wriggle-room when challenged.

Instead of using plain language that, as linguist Bryan Garner outlines, “prefers simple words over fancy ones (house, not residence), concrete words over abstract ones (pay, not remuneration), and Anglo-Saxon words over Latin derivatives (end or fire over terminate),” officialese breaks all these rules and can cause real harm. It lowers accountability and excludes people.

Phrases that obscure meaning reduce accountability. For “those engaged in the perilous game of politics,” writes Ernest Gowers, “vagueness is safer than precision.” Vague statements are harder to pin down, making it harder for people to know what policies mean and leaving public leaders wriggle-room when challenged. 

In an episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby offered an example and translation: “Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward. Translation: ‘You are lying’.”

Losing meaning and accountability is one thing, but officialese also leads to unequal outcomes. If people can’t understand what the government is saying, what a long and complicated form is asking of them, or how to access a public service, they are effectively excluded from taking part in society. This is a serious concern, with some equating plain language to a democratic right. 

Clarity and plain-ness need not come at the cost of precision… Some languages need to be saved; officialese, however, needs to be taken away.

This is why it was great to see Nelson MP Rachel Boyack’s Plain Language Bill drawn from the Parliamentary Member’s bill biscuit tin. The Bill seeks to ensure government communications are written in plain language, defined as “clear, concise, and well-organised” so that “the intended reader can easily understand after one reading.”

Boyack has argued that plain language isn’t about “dumbing down,” and I agree. Research suggests that most people, even the professors of the world, prefer plain language. Clarity and plain-ness need not come at the cost of precision. Let’s hope our politicians agree that plain language is better for everyone, and help this bill into legislation. Some languages need to be saved; officialese, however, needs to be taken away. This little bill that will probably be overlooked, but has the potential to make a big difference in how we keep our leaders to account and how people access public services.

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