Monday, 14 March 2016

Bad English at Question Time

I’ve been reading reading Steven Pinker's "The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing", which is very interesting as it treats grammar from a linguistic point of view

Pinker has a concept called “The Curse of Knowledge” by which he explains why people can speak in almost incomprehensible jargon:

He says:

“In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it's often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.”

His argument is that the opaque prose that the outsider has trouble comprehending comes about as a result of a lack of effort on the part of the writer to try to explain what they have to say properly. Instead, they reach for the specialist language of their own group, whether that is science or management.

“The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”

“Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it”

There are a lot of examples of this in answers to questions in the States fall into this kind of category. The reply comes in an overblown management jargon, which really is not how people speak in real life. It seems to be habitual, and it takes unpicking to turn into what it should be in the first place: plain English.

Here are a few examples, and after each one, I give my attempt, probably quite feeble, to turn it into decent prose which flows and actually tells you something. The information is often there in the original, but it is buried deep within the language, which demonstrates the curse of knowledge.

Now I too am prone to that, so my own “translation” may not perhaps be as good as it could be, but I hope to show how much better and clearer the language could be. 

My pleas is that the States officials who draft these replies on behalf of Ministers phrase them in such a way that ordinary mortals like you and me can understand. It is no good learning how to spell, and fit sentences together, if what comes out the other end requires the deciphering skills that would tax Alan Turing. It may be grammatically correct, but it is semantically opaque.


“During the Design Authority procurement process emphasis, through evaluation methodology, was placed on supplier experience and track record in dealing with complex clients, ideally within the public sector”


As part of our procurement process, we looked to see how well the suppliers we considered had dealt with clients who had complex and varied requirements. In particular, we focused on how much experience they had with those kinds of demands, particularly within the public sector, and how successful they had been.


“Each departments also has a Scheme of Delegation which specifies the limits of an individual’s authority to commit expenditure on all goods and services. This includes expenditure on consultants and advisors. It is a fundamental principle that budget holders may only commit resources within their delegated limits for individual transactions and that they may only commit expenditure to the limit of their delegated budgets. Approval routes are built into authorisation processes within the financial systems”.


Each Department has guidelines which limit how much an individual can spend on goods and services, and that includes consultants and advisors. One of the main principles of those guidelines is that those people authorised to spend must remain within the limits of their budgets, which includes limits on each individual transaction. The necessary steps to get approval for spending are part of the financial controls in place.


“At this stage we cannot provide a detailed breakdown of the short and long term savings that may be
achieved through outsourcing until we have concluded the tendering process for some of these  services. However, estimated savings are at this stage following initial ‘soft market’ testing are £1m for the Department for Infrastructure and further savings for the States of Jersey as a whole are anticipated.”


While we are still tendering for outsourcing some of the services which we provide in-house and waiting for replies, we cannot supply exact figures to show if this will save money. Those replies will enable us to see if we can make savings by outsourcing, either almost at once or over a longer period. 

We have already had some feedback from just asking suppliers about their costs, prior to a formal tendering process, and that gives us an estimate of the possible savings, which are around £1m for the Department. We anticipate more savings for the States as a whole because of the way the outsourcing will operate.


‘Demand profile’ refers to the requirements of known prospective tenants in terms of space needs and timing for new office accommodation. What is not known at this relatively early stage is the level of demand from inward investment business. The demand profile will dictate the timing of delivery for the car park.


The timing for the delivery of the car park is dependent upon funds coming in from the Jersey International Finance centre. At the moment, we don’t know how much demand there is, and because of that, we can’t specify a timetable for the car park.


"It would be useful if you could supply a date of the sitting, but perhaps you could confirm that you are asking about households with claims closed due to a third breach of a warning for failing to be actively seeking work, in plain English, jobseeking sanctions."


It would be useful if I knew the date of the case you are talking about, but perhaps you could confirm in general that you are asking about households where the employable  members of that household have failed to actively seek work, and have been warned about this three times. That is what triggered what the law terms a “jobseeking sanction”, which is when their claim for any further income support has been rejected.

As Steven Pinker says:

"Any competent copy editor can turn a passage that is turgid, opaque, and filled with grammatical errors into a passage that is turgid, opaque, and free of grammatical errors. Rules of usage are well worth mastering, but they pale in importance behind principles of clarity, style, coherence, and consideration for the reader."

Isn't it about time that those drafting replies to questions in the States mastered those principles?

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