The Plain English Campaign holds its fifth international conference next week. Maureen O'Connor meets Chrissie Maher (above), the woman who started it all and who believes the roots of goobledygook lie in the classroom
When Chrissie Maher went to Parliament Square in 1979 and began shredding thousands of official forms, she was read the Riot Act. After a constable had finished reciting the dire warning, she asked: "Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?'' Her point was made, and the Plain English Campaign was born.
Chrissie thought it would take about three years to get the bureaucrats and business people to listen to her message. Eighteen years later, and now a grandmother eight times over, she is still trying. The campaign's fifth international conference comes to London next week (July 16, 17 and 18), with sessions devoted to the role of plain English in three areas: financial information services; policing and the law; and local authorities, public utilities and trades unions.
The focus is the same as it was in the Seventies, when Chrissie Maher was asked by the then Supplementary Benefits Commission to translate its forms into a style which its clients could actually understand. The task was already close to her heart. She had launched a community newspaper, the Tuebrook Bugle, in Liverpool, and then an equally innovative paper for people with reading difficulties, fired by a belief that people could never take control of their lives unless they could understand what was being done for them and in their name. The new Inland Revenue self-assessment tax forms, which have gone out to millions of people this year, suggest that officialdom has not learned its lesson, Chrissie says. She describes as "tax terrorism" the warning letters that were sent to owners of small businesses who were late returning their forms.
Chrissie Maher is sure that the roots of language being used as obfuscation lie in the education system. Small children don't do it, she says, but by the time students get to the sixth form they have been taught to use complicated language to establish their intellectual prowess. In higher education, academics persistently write to impress rather than inform. "It is not a case of using technical language,'' she says. "It is just jargon which is intended to exclude." The result is the absurdities which make her laugh as well as cry. Favourites include the "green man facility'' at traffic lights, the "localised deficiency capacity'' which holds people up at a bottleneck, and the item she bought which had to dry "on an area of plane''. The latter almost had her setting off for the nearest airport before she realised that she was being advised to dry the garment on a flat surface. She confirms the widespread belief that computer manuals are the worst offenders, and is pleased that Samsung has asked the campaign for help. But the implications for education, she thinks, are beyond a joke.
Chrissie Maher was driven into community work by her own experience of exclusion and an awareness that even when she had broken through the linguistic barriers to literacy there were a lot of people in Liverpool in the Fifties and Sixties who had not. She confesses to a love affair with the English language, but it was a close-run thing. She seldom went to school as a child from a family which could not always afford shoes. Even the local library would not let her in barefoot, so she picked up discarded books from dustbins. She was finding one battered volume particularly difficult until someone pointed out that she was trying to read Latin.
Despite her lack of qualifications, she found an enlightened employer who not only gave her a job but packed her off to night-school, where she flourished. When she had children of her own she put labels on everything around the house and had them reading before they were three.
"The trouble with so many teachers and parents is that they make children feel ashamed when they don't understand things,'' Chrissie says with feeling. She remembers going to see her first Shakespeare play and bursting into tears because the rest of the audience were laughing and she didn't know why. Now, she says, she has learned never to be ashamed of not understanding because she knows that the fault is not hers. She believes passionately that children should be excited and enthused by their education, as she was eventually, but also that they have a right to be taught to speak and write their own language clearly and accurately. She is a supporter of the Better English Campaign, launched by the previous government with Trevor McDonald as its chair. And she is convinced many teachers need help with basic grammar if they are to succeed with their pupils.
Over the years, the Plain English Campaign has changed from the handful of ad hoc adventurers - Chrissie, her daughter and some students - who took a shredder to Parliament Square, into a highly regarded and professional organisation. Their awards - "Crystal Marks" for organisations which have made an effort to communicate clearly, and booby prizes for gobbledygook - have become both respected and feared. No organisation, public or private, wants the stigma of receiving one of Chrissie's presentations of tripe - the real thing, straight from a bucket. But apart from exhibiting a genius for publicity, what does the campaign actually do?
It is run as a business, not as a charity, to preserve its independence, and it earns its income by putting into practice what it advocates. It advises organisations and companies on the "translation'' of their documentation into simple, clear language either by sending people in to train staff or by editing their documents.
The campaign has blossomed from its humble beginnings in Liverpool and now, with headquarters on the edge of the Peak District, has offices in the USA and Africa. The documents it has helped to draft range from the Bill of Rights for post-apartheid South Africa and a new constitution for Ghana to the articles of association of the NatWest Bank. "There is no guarantee that the bank, or any other organisation we help, is a 'good' one,'' says Ann Lewis, the campaign's press officer. "Our concern is simply with the transparency of its communication with those who need to access its information.'' The aim is to persuade everyone, from drafters of parliamentary papers to headteachers, to speak and write in language that everyone can understand. But transparency is not necessarily what everyone wants. The recent mis-selling scandal in the personal pensions industry resulted from a failure, whether by accident or design, to explain the fine print to clients.
The campaign's latest target is misleading contracts, and it is offering an "Honesty Mark'' to firms which provide customers with clear and unambiguous agreements. It was not expecting to be overwhelmed by applicants, and indeed so far has been approached by a single telephone company. But poor communication can have dangerous consequences, says Chrissie Maher. "If I read a safety notice on a plane I don't understand, I complain long and loud. In fact, the Health and Safety Executive must be amongst the worst communicators on the planet. And that can be a matter of life and death."
Plain English Campaign, tel: 01663 747038
* see personal finance, page 15