Official gobbledygook

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Reading the Wall Street Journal the other day, this item caught my eye on the front page, bottom. It’s the most wonderfully sensible story I’ve heard lately.

“A few months ago, 71-year-old Chrissie Maher got a mailing from her bank titled “Personal and Private Banking — Keeping You Informed.” Baffled by its blizzard of terms such as “account facility limit,” Ms. Maher replied in simpler language.

“The leaflet needs much more thought if it is to be understood by your customers,” she said in a letter to Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC. “As it stands, it should be renamed ‘Keeping You Confused.’ “

At this point, I’m hooked. This lady’s speaking my language.

“After critiquing the pamphlet’s “tortuous and ambiguous sentences,” she redrafted it, changing terms like “maximum debit balance” to “the most that can be owed.”

“RBS may have picked the wrong woman to target with financial mumbo jumbo. Ms. Maher is the founder of the Plain English Campaign, a 30-year-old group whose stated goal is to stem “the ever-growing tide of confusing and pompous language” that “takes away our democratic rights.”

Over the years, Ms. Maher and her group have battled police agencies, expansion planners at Heathrow Airport, and the “frequently bizarre language” of the European Union. (At issue: phrases such as “unlock clusters,” “subsidiarity” and “sector-specific benchmarking.”) She has blasted local government on the use of “worklessness” to refer to unemployment and once attacked the president of the U.K. Spelling Society over his claim that the apostrophe is “a waste of time.”

This is a delightful modern morality tale, a contemporary ‘Emperor’s Clothes’ and Ms. Maher & co. are the commoners calling out the ruling class on the fakery and verbal sleight of hand they use to manipulate people’s thoughts.

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher… “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster. An RBS spokesman acknowledged that the wording in the mailing sent to Ms. Maher “was not as clear as it might have been,” and that as a result of her letter, the bank is taking steps to improve the clarity of such pamphlets.”

Clarity is such a simple expectation.

We need Ms. Maher on this side of the Atlantic, especially in Washington.

“The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission codified good writing in 1998 with its Securities Act Rule 421(d) — or in plain English, the “Plain English Rule” — which applies to the cover page for a prospectus. The rule outlines six principles for good writing, including using the “active voice” and not using “multiple negatives.”

But oh, how things have slipped since then.

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