Why language skills? Because, so much of what we read is badly written
Language Skills - using Plain Language
By Shirley Robbins
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This ebook is a working course with exercises to reinforce the information presented, and there are answers at the back of the book!
Information isn’t the same as understanding. Many courses are designed to just share information. In some cases, that’s fine. But, there are many courses that are performance-based and in those cases we need to change how the reader thinks and acts, rather than just regurgitate facts.
When we teach others we’re not looking for them to just know information. Instead, we want them to use information in context to make good decisions.
Use this book together with ‘Business Communication’ and ‘Letter and Report Writing’ – both in the ‘Using Plain Language’ series by Shirley Robbins
Why language skills? Because we spend far more time reading and writing than we do watching television, but so much of what we read is badly written, particularly business communication! Much of it is still written in Victorian language – ‘Herewith enclosed please find a cheque to the value of …..’. Simply write: ‘I(or we) enclose a cheque for ….. . It is short and to the point.
If you spend a great deal of your day writing letters and other documents, do you worry about expressing yourself clearly and effectively? Do you have a problem with punctuation; spelling; whether to use “alternately or alternate”; how to pronounce “agreement”, and not to say “Come with”, and when to use “its’ and ‘it’s”?
Language skills will help you to write successfully and with ease – producing documents in plain, clear language that will ensure that your document is read and understood. And, most importantly, that it achieves its objective.
The basic need of every human being, from very early times, has been to communicate.
‘Seen in its proper light, Plain English (clear language) is not a different or novel or reduced form of the language. It does not require us to abandon any of the riches of our language. Instead, it calls on us to select wisely from those riches the words, patterns and arrangements that will convey the message most effectively and efficiently to our audience.’
Dr Robert Eagleson
Pg 4 Introduction: This book is meant for everyone who uses English as a medium of communication. Whether English is your, first, second or a foreign language, it will be a handy companion to the word processor, as well as providing additional information to ‘Business Communication – using Plain Language’. It is particularly important to be able to speak and write well in English since it has become the global language of communication - not just business communication.
As the global village shrinks, the use of English in your daily life is no longer an option but is rapidly making the transition from useful to essential. Therefore it is important to learn to use the language with confidence and to pronounce words correctly. This is not about accents, but about pronouncing words correctly – putting the emphasis on the correct syllable.
People who do not have English as their home language often find difficulty with pronunciation, and we have quoted light-hearted examples of the pitfalls in English pronunciation in the section ‘English is tough stuff!’ on page 5.
As the emphasis is on using plain, clear language this book
will prove invaluable in improving your language skills.
Pg 6: It’s what and how they say it …..
In South Africa the phrase, ‘Just now’ could mean in ten minutes or ten hours – African time. This creates problems for English speakers from other countries as they interpret it to mean ‘now!’
We may have problems with the American term, ‘’We sure don’t’, when asked if the store carried a certain item. To a South African, the term ‘sure’ would surely mean ‘yes’.
Many other problems surface, not least is the use of long words and long involved sentences - what we refer to as “gobbledygook.
Pg 8: We give a short history of the origins, the development and spread of English. The growth in the number of foreign language speakers has put pressure on the language to simplify and become accessible to everyone – particularly when it relates to public documents such as contracts, public notices, labels on medicines, dangerous household products, instructions, reports, insurance documents or terms of legislation. To ensure this, it is important to use Plain English to produce documents in plain, clear language.
Unfortunately many businesses still use outdated Victorian language in their business communication – dressing up the simplest ideas in pompous and complicated language.
One of the earliest proponents of plain language was Sir Winston Churchill, and there are numerous examples of his insistence on plain clear text. We also give a short account of the Plain English Campaign in their efforts to introduce the concept into all forms of governments and civil institutions.
The ability to communicate clearly in writing is one of the most important skills you will ever master. It will help you to put your ideas across effectively and get the results you want in both your professional and personal life.
Pg 21: Communication – language register and styles of writing.
Pg 26: The choice of words – short, familiar, Anglo-Saxon words, figurative language.
Pg 39: Differences in meaning – words that present problems – such pairs as access/excess, adapt and adopt, advice and advise etc.
Pg 45: Be master of these common errors – articles; abbreviations; the use of each, everyone etc; concordance; collective nouns; ‘They sent Ralf and I’ is incorrect – we explain why; pronouns; shall and will and how to get around the problem!
Pg 53: Finding better words – use plain Anglo-Saxon words rather than those of French or Latin origin eg: adequate – enough; approximately – about.
Pg 60: Sentence structure – remember that English takes its meaning from the order of the words in the sentence. Keep it short and simple – KISS!
Pg 64: Paragraphs and topic sentences – structure of paragraphs; transitional words and phrases. Active and passive verbal structures; direct and reported speech.
Pg 72: The bogeyman of English – spelling! - A few basic rules.
Pg 79: Pronunciation – first point – note the spelling! This is a detailed section on how to pronounce the main categories of English words. Just look at these examples – ‘The dump was so full it had to refuse any more refuse’ and ‘The present is a good time to present the present!’
Pg 93: Rules of the Grammar Road – Grammar is often likened to a road map to guide you along the language road. The nine parts of speech – nouns and adjectives; adverbs; verbs, including tenses and forms; conjunctions for joining sentences, and prepositions – which have no rules, you just have to learn them!
Pg 146: Punctuation. Punctuation is used to make text easier to read and understand, and to make it sound more like the spoken word with its pauses and emphasis.
It is important to remember that the position of a comma can alter the meaning of a sentence. Look at this example:
A woman! Without her, man is useless.
A woman without her man is useless!
See the difference?
Then we have the problematic apostrophe – when to use it and when not!
All other forms of punctuation are dealt with as well.
Pg 153: Agreement of a pronoun and its antecedent eg:
The batsman is playing his last match.
The students were absent for their last test.
Subject – verb agreement eg:
Each of the tourists is to receive a refund.
Adjective – noun agreement; gender agreement, and subject – verb agreement.
Pg 160: Using numbers – Arabic and Roman.
Pg 161: Common errors in business English – no main verb; parallelism; dangling modifiers; the Rule of proximity – eg: ‘The engine may crack when water is poured in unless it is running.’ The engine should be running, not the water!
Pg 165: Gobbledygook – includes pomposity, legalese, acadamese and officialese. We call all these Gobbledygook, and it is one of the major problems found in official documents, legal writing, and sad to say, still found in many business letters and documents. It is the exact opposite of the principles of Plain Language writing.
Just consider this gem from an IB/IT form issued by the SA revenue Service – ‘Receipt is hereby acknowledged of your income tax return in respect of the year of assessment as indicated above.’ What could be simpler than saying – ‘We have received your income tax return for 1998’?
Pg 172: We end with – Personalise your communication. The emphasis in communication is to get your message across clearly and concisely, with the correct level of language and tone. Use terms such as ‘we, you, us, they’ etc. That is the way you would express yourself if you were sitting opposite the person at your desk. The object today is to bring the written word closer to the spoken.
Presentation of your written communication is all-important. We give you a checklist to ensure that your document is as near perfect as possible!
This book has been compiled to help you to:
§ Write with ease and confidence using the principles of plain, clear language
§ Read documents, letters, newspapers and so on, with a new awareness
§ Collect examples of gobbledygook and refuse to use them in your writing
§ Read to increase your vocabulary
§ Use this book as a constant reference
§ Promote the use of Plain English writing in all situations.
Good luck and good writing!
About the author:
Shirley Robbins has 35 year's teaching experience and 14 years of consulting and training all aspects of Communication in Plain Language to government, municipalities, corporate business, as well as facilitating Public Seminars. She has trained German students in Cape Town and also in Berlin (Germany); trained throughout South Africa as well as in Swaziland.