Thursday, 7 January 2010


I recently read the training 'manual' for diversity education (masters level) to see if it might enhance the existing training I have developed. The over-worded, poor point/page ratio-ed, piece of writing was satire fodder. This 'handbook' had huge paragraphs full of unnecessary (and in places inaccessible) terminology that if treated with the make simple sense magical (probably a pixie's) wand could usually be reduced to one or two phrases at most. And so this is how I found myself reading it:
1) Read six pages.
2) Stop
3) Think a bit
4) Translate - ah so that says,
it's hard for you to understand what makes people in a minority feel like they don't belong if you are embedded in the institution's 'majority' culture.
5) Say aloud with furrowed brow, 'well why didn't they just say that?'
(In fact - that was the only part in all 300 pages that made me think of a slightly new way of helping people to consider diversity and inclusion.)

I have friends that work in academia. Verbally they are usually easy to understand and mostly say what they mean with clarity (although some struggle to open cartons of milk - none of us can be good at everything) so what's all this over-complication about? Is it elitism? I do hope not.


Several years ago I was teaching in a school in the classroom next to the library. The headteacher had bought in 'library services' to come and have a sort out. This was undoubtedly overdue. The library was a shabby state of affairs. However, this 'sorting' arrived in the form of two huge metal bins on wheels and a chap throwing seven out of every ten books into them. I was horrified!!!

At break time I asked him 'why?' (I am sure you can imagine the facial expression). He explained that a lot of these books are completely inaccessible to children. I asked him to elaborate. He did.
(Book in the bin poem....)
*If it had no contents page or index, it went into the bin.
*If it was non-fiction and had very few pictures, it went into the bin.
*If it used too 'sophisticated' or dated language, it went into the bin.
*If it was old and tatty, it went into the bin.
*If it was written pre-1980, it went into the bin.
*If the book was on a topic that meant it dated quickly and it was more than five years old, it went in the bin.
*If the book had inappropriate dated messages (e.g. mono-ethnic pictures), it went in the bin.
and by now I was mesmerised by the speed with which he searched, assessed, and kept or rejected the books!

O.K. I did grow to understand. If a library is full of books children won't even look at, of course they have absolutely, really absolutely no point and, gladly many of these books were replaced with updated, 'accessible' versions and the children's learning could continue with books they could and would read.

An aside Sshhhhh! I'll also add when the man wasn't looking (because he said the books HAD to be thrown out or people find them and return them to the school with genuine concern...clearly experience had taught him) I fished a few out to keep and still enjoy reading old school books about China or Norway or something. Their dated-ness is extemely enjoyable!

When I was a dyslexic undergrad student attempting to write essays, I would start by getting a selecton of academic books out of the library that I perceived might be related to the topic I needed to tackle (who could tell!) and then attempt to emulate the over-complicated language to not make many points - if indeed I had even registered that I was meant to communicate 'points'. I think my essays got reasonable scores because the tutors themselves probably thought, nice over-complicated language, she must have some ideas! I don't remember any ideas - I just remember being confused by big words and panicked by deadlines. You have to understand, having struggled with the written word from the outset, (being crap at something everyone else appears to find easy knocks you a bit) I was a bit scared of language at this stage in my life.

Then two years after graduating I did a PGCE (teacher training) and my sister (Claire) taught me how to write essays (no one had before). She helped me trust that I might have some intelligent ideas of my own (no really!) that I could communicate in simple, direct language and get a really good mark. She was visiting me in my Easter holidays. She found me attempting to write an essay at a table loaded with heavy academic hardback books (not a single picture in any of them). She was bored. She asked me what I was trying to do. I described the research I had done with some pupils on investigative science and she wrote my essay. I read it. It just simply described what I had told her (in a very logical way). The research I had done was good stuff but I was going to write it up by copying chunks of academic nonsense from books and I suspect my good work would not have shone through at all! Claire's essay didn't mention anything from the stuffy book mountain. What a lesson. Thank you Claire. P.S. Please don't take my PGCE away.

I completely appreciate that the English Language is extremely word-rich...(what with all those chatty invaders stuffing their new words into the pot) and I do admire a person that has reached excellence in any field - so those with fantastically huge vocabularies can valued for their art, but I still believe language is first and foremost about ......communication.......and if the ideas are not received, then the communication has not happened. Clear, straightforward communication that does not leave room for different interpretations is clever and skilled stuff and I really respect a good communicator.


  1. Plain English Campaign. I'm a big fan.

    I once wrote a simple, direct, clear letter of complaint. I got a reply that was so unbelievably complex, gobbledygooky, stuffy and big wordy in its language that it literally made no sense at all. The person was trying to assert their authority over my letter with their "cleverness", but actually made themselves look ridiculous and have no voice at all.

  2. Huge thanks for your comments on my blog... if he were a different child he would SO be in the state school (good enough for me, blah-di-blah)....
    Mind you, the rate work is going this year he may well yet end up there!
    Your blog is fascinating and I'll return and peruse properly when I have more time.

  3. Hey yes! Let's hear it for clear, plain English! If you've got an idea to communicate, then do it!

    And be prepared to defend it for what it is, don't defend it by hiding it behind reams of gobbledygook to make it sound important.

    I'm not happy about the binning of books that have difficult or sophisticated language, or no pictures. How are children supposed to get stretched, if not at school? Sure, don't restrict the availability of easy-to-read stuff, but also give them somewhere away from their comfort zone so they can explore the big bad world.

    I loved reading victorian popular fiction. (J.M Ballantyne?) Big hardback books I picked up at jumble sales for sixpence each. Not many pîctures, either, but usually one line drawing at the start of each chapter to give me an image to hold. Great stuff!

    And Robinson Crusoe, with how he regards Man Friday is still a relevant lesson in racial arrogance. Even though it's non-PC.

  4. Hi Claire, I once complained about the flavour of a new tinned product from, I think, Heinz, called Spicy Bean Soup. It was awful and I took the unusual step (for me) of asking for my money back, as guaranteed by the manufacturer, in case any product fails to please.

    I has also recently purchased, quite at random, and for no other reason than that I liked it, some grey-tinted, hand-painted writing paper, that had a lovely picture of a witch stirring a cauldron, at the bottom left-hand side.

    Having labeled the cauldron "Spicy Bean Soup" for a bit of fun, it made the perfect paper for my complaint.

    The response was patronising and pompus, explaining in long and flowery words that my failure to enjoy the product was down to my uneducated palate, and that plenty of control groups had found it to be delicious.

    I got my money back, of course, but I also never saw the product in a supermarket again.

  5. Academic Arrogance or A-A for short. I was once at a Development Education meeting and on the last day the the morning talk fell short by 12 minutes. The organisers asked if anyone could fill the time. The scheduled 'after lunch' speaker said he wanted to talk about what he was going to talk about after lunch. He did and we were 15 minutes late going in to lunch.
    Guess where I went immediately after lunch ?
    A slow drive home via a pub !

  6. Cogitator, I love that you wrote it on the witch paper!

    My theory is that the people with the big words are actually scared of the people with the little words! They try to hide behind their walls of gobbledygook but our simple, streamlined, powerful arrows get them every time.

    And our lovely writing paper!

    I really want to try Heinz spicy bean soup now.

  7. Hi Molly

    Claire hit the nail EXACTLY on the head: gobblydygookyness ... organisations trying to assert their authority.

    Personally, I can't stand bening around (or working in) institutions that have this business ethic ...

    Bye the way, I thought I was the only one who couldn't open milk cartons. Ha ha.

    I have a passion for communication also ... clear communication ... not just in writing but art too.

    You have a great blog ... :)x

  8. I'm astonished you could manage six pages of this tome before you needed to stop. I'd have been day-dreaming after six paragraphs. No concentration, that's my trouble.

    You have a very nice space in the ether here and your profile description is one of the best I have read.

    I shall return

  9. To write in plain English is a difficult skill - I groan all the time at the jargon we use at work. Often it is because the writer knows in their own head what they mean but doesn't stop to think whether the reader will get it.

    But it is wrong to be enamoured of fancy words - and too wide a vocabulary can be a hinderance. Why say putative when you mean supposed; why say visceral when you can say gut feeling. There can be good reasons to use the former, more specific terms, but they have to be important ones - otherwise you lose the reader and your beautiful efforts are in vain,

    My favourite authors use very plain english - look at Jean Rhys, George Orwell, Raymond Carver - they are wonderful writers but they seldom obfuscate (that last bit is my idea of a joke!).

    Must crack on.

  10. I hate it when folk use two or more words when one will do - it's not necessary. :(

  11. are the founding member obviously.

    Exmoor Jane....would be nice to meet you again and thank you for the compliment...I am glowing.

    Cogitator...I know what you mean about the did rattle me but in libraries kids 'choose' their own books as opposed to teacher lead learning from examples...and those books he ditched...they never would have chosen. The cold, stark reality can grate!

    Cogitator and Claire...get a blogchat room back atcha

    Heron....that's an example of absolute
    unawareness of what everyone in that room really wanted!!! Did you listen to him? Spect not!

    Sharon...I LOVE the clear and funny communication on your blog

    Frenchster...more glowing..charming to meet you..thanking you kindly ..single-track concentration is not my forte either

    Mark I was gonna come back atcha but I simply just don't have the vocab!!! I could have copied a bit from the manual and seen if anyone could interpret it!!

    Akelamalu -Those of the motto 'why say one word when you can say 15 lose me every time!!! I can only receive a little before I am in cloud cuckoo best get it in the first two what I say to them!!

    And then look what I found in my work in-box!!!

    L C, our Director of Children’s Services, did our Wordwatchers plain English course over Christmas and found it a really useful reminder about how important it is to write clearly and simply, whoever you are communicating with.

    Lisa wants to stress again to everyone working in Children’s Services that plain English is what we should be using in all our communications and to remind you to do the course. If you’re a manager, please remind your teams that it is available – and, importantly, do it too. We can never communicate too clearly!

    You can find Wordwatchers on our Learning Hub at

    I suspect that was too simple for some to receive!!!


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