Plain English please: Precedents of crusades to streamline jargon enclosed herewith

The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a 1979 speech, the book was given by Dr Goh Keng Swee to "every officer whom he thinks is promising and whose minutes or papers are deficient in clarity". -- PHOTO: HER MA
The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in a 1979 speech, the book was given by Dr Goh Keng Swee to "every officer whom he thinks is promising and whose minutes or papers are deficient in clarity". -- PHOTO: HER MAJESTY'S STATIONERY OFFICE

SINGAPORE - Why write "core competencies" when you can say "skills", "incentivise" rather than "motivate" or "thereafter" when "then" will do?

The allure of pompous jargon is not new, and there have been calls by the Government to use plain English since the 1970s.

In a speech in 1979, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said Dr Goh Keng Swee "gives every officer whom he thinks is promising and whose minutes or papers are deficient in clarity, a paper-back edition of Gower's Complete Plain Words".

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in 2004 passed regulations requiring all life insurance contracts to be issued in plain language.

The latest drive to banish bad writing is also by MAS, which is calling for financial products' prospectuses to be written in plain English.

Here's a look at past attempts to decode opaque language:

Unscrambling legalese

In July 2014, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) called for simplifying the language of Singapore's statutes. Tweaks to existing laws, which include almost 6,000 Acts of Parliament and pieces of subsidiary legislation, were being made.

Here are some changes they called for:

- Instead of "shall", "must" will be used to highlight obligations.

- Each provision will be concisely put in six lines or less if possible.

- To eliminate gender bias in the law, terms such as "the person" will be used in place of "he" or "she" whenever applicable.

Cutting out jargon in insurance policies

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In 2012, NTUC Income rewrote its contracts in plain English to help customers understand their policies better. It was branded the "Orange Speak initiative".

Excerpt from a standard health insurance contract:

8.5 Company may amend clauses and conditions and premium rates

8.5.1 The company may amend the clauses and conditions of the insurance at renewal provided that the amendments apply to all policies of this class of insurance and the Policyholder has been informed of the amendments at least 30 days before the Renewal Date at which time the amendments will apply.

8.5.2 The company shall amend the rates of premium at renewal provided that the amended rates apply to all policies of this class of insurance and the Policyholder has been informed of the amended rates at least 30 days before the Renewal Date at which time the amended rates will apply.

NTUC Income's version in 2012:

4.9 Changing policy terms or conditions

We may change the premiums, benefits or cover these conditions at any time. However, we will write to you at your last-known address at least 30 days before doing so. We will apply the changes only if the changes apply to all policies within the same class.

Banking on clear English

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In 2011, OCBC Bank started stripping its forms and documents of "bank-speak". A year after the push, the bank said it has sold more investment products. DBS Bank has also simplified its documents and terms and conditions. Both banks received Crystal Marks, which are awarded for the use of plain English.

Here's an example of bank-speak:

"In addition but without prejudice to any of the aforesaid terms, we shall be under no obligation whatsoever to advance or continue the Facility or any part thereof unless you have delivered to our satisfaction such documents and/ or information within seven days from the date of notification as we may require from time to time.

The Bridging Loan and/or the Short Term Loan, as the case may be, shall be disbursed together with the Term Loan and any request for disbursement of the Term Loan shall include or be deemed to include such Bridging Loan and/or the Short Term Loan. We also further confirm and consent that any advice from the Bank confirming the disbursement of the Term Loan shall be deemed to include reference to confirmation of disbursement in full of the Bridging Loan and/or the Short Term Loan, as the case may be."

And what it means in plain English:

"Without affecting any of the terms we have already mentioned, we will have no responsibility to continue with the facility or any part of it unless you give us satisfactory documents or information within seven days from the date we tell you.

You may give me the bridging loan or the short-term loan (or both) with the facility. If I ask you to give me the facility, or you tell me that you've lent me the facility, I understand that this will include the bridging loan or the short-term loan (or both)."

Civil servants get help with English

A book published by the Institute of Public Administration and Management in 1999 gave civil servant tips on how to speak and write plain, simple and correct English.

It proposed getting rid of tired phrases like: "enclosed herewith please find" and "owing to unforeseen circumstances".

Commons errors were featured in the book:

- Instead of "in the event that" use "if";

- Phrases like "In view of the fact that" can be replaced with "because", "since" or "as";

- Substitute "acknowledge receipt of" with "have received";

- Instead of saying "opine" use a less pompous word, such as "believe", "think" or "feel";

- The word "chop" is fine if you are thinking of a lamb chop. But, an immigration officer puts a "stamp" in your passport;

- Instead of writing "This is to kindly advise you that Ms Lee is no longer with our department", simply say "Ms Lee is no longer with our department";

- Do not say "the undersigned", but "me".

Plain English Campaign started in Britain

Plain English advocate Chrissie Maher started a war on incomprehensible jargon in 1979. The Plain English Campaign she founded says on its website: "We believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information".

She continues a campaign by Sir Ernest Gowers, a senior British civil servant, who wrote the book Complete Plain Words (1954) - the same book Dr Goh asked all promising Singapore civil servants to read.

Here are some examples of gobbledygook from Ms Maher:

- A visitor-uplift facility, as announced by a government minister discussing tourist plans for a mountain train.

- A position incentivised - being put on the bonus list.

- Ambient non-combatant personnel - war refugees.

- Festive embellishments of an illuminary nature - Christmas lights, as described by the politically-correct Northampton council.

- An unpremised business person - a hawker or street trader.

- Revenue enhancer - a tax collector in the United States.

- Non-discretionary fragrance - Americanism for body odour.

- An ambient replenishment assistant - a shelf stacker.

- Unselected rollback to idle - aircraft engine failure in mid-flight.

chuimin@sph.com.sg