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A Linguist’s Guide to Plain Business Writing.

A Linguist’s Guide to Plain Business Writing

During last year’s meeting of the Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) in Kraków, a lecturer and trainer in legal writing Simon Porter presented the results of a case study, which he carried out in a law office in Poland. [1] Porter examined how secretaries working in this Polish legal firm communicated in writing with their clients. Far from being a standard language test, the study explored the efficiency of email communication based on the principles of plain English. The researcher designed two written tasks, which the secretaries had to complete based on the accompanied instructions, and which consisted of drafting standard business emails addressed to the firm’s clients.

The results were astonishing even for this specialist in legal English. Porter found that the secretaries’ writing imitated the style of very formal legalese used in contractual documents by the firm’s partners, even though the subjects of their emails dealt with everyday business matters, such as scheduling a meeting or requesting payments for overdue bills. [2]

The response of the company personnel to the findings of the study, which varied from denial to complete rejection of the purpose of the test, showed that English writing was an end in itself rather than a means to meaningful business interactions. The secretaries expressed pride at their advanced level of legal English and seemed unimpressed by the efficiency arguments. Porter’s tips on clear business writing were met with criticism and treated as an assault on the women’s identity and hard-earned language education. [3]

The concept of plain-language [4], which presents information clearly and concisely and which allows the audience to understand its content the first time they read or hear it, is alien to most law firms in Poland, as Porter observes. [5] Legal and public administration documents that historically had been made complicated are still written in terms that are inaccessible to lay people.

While Poland has never properly joined the plain-language initiative, most countries in the English-speaking world have witnessed developments which transformed communication across industries. In the UK the Plain English Campaign (PEC), founded in 1979 by Chrissie Maher, improved the quality of thousands of global documents released by private firms and government institutions. The company’s ‘crystal mark’ can be seen on over 20,000 documents worldwide, including the British passport application form. [6]

Plain English in the World of  Business

The benefits of linguistic clarity for business growth and customer relations are enormous. In a recent study involving more than 4,500 international investment firms Brochet et al. analysed the style of communication adopted by non-native executives during question and answer session of earnings calls. [7]

To evaluate how clearly the managers discussed financial results, the researchers focused on two aspects of language: ‘linguistic complexity’ caused by violating the principles of plain English and ‘erroneous expressions’ consisting of typical grammatical mistakes attributed to non-native speakers. Both features of discourse were shown to lead to ‘linguistic opacity’, which had a significant impact on business outcomes. As Brochet et al. report, those managers whose communication lacked clarity incurred more financial losses resulting in ‘lower trading volume’, ‘restricted price movement’ and ‘inconsistent analyst forecasts’. They also found that by improving the clarity of language by one deviation the companies were able to achieve better trading volumes than when receiving extensive coaching and management guidance. [8]

In the HBR article ‘The Case for Plain Language Contract’, Shawn Burton mentions numerous examples of organisations for whom simple communication proved a long-term strategy to enhancing business efficiency. [9] One of them is GE Aviation. Dissatisfied with the long time it had spent on negotiating agreements, the company launched a ‘plain-language contracts initiative’ making simple wording in legal documents the new requirement. Since the introduction of the written rules in 2014 its digital-services unit has signed more than 100 new contracts, which took 60% less time to negotiate than their jargon-heavy predecessors. [10]

In the healthcare sector, a medical centre, Cleveland Clinic, improved its financial performance by reducing the complexity of its billing statements. Burton notes that since the clinic simplified its medical bills, it has seen an increase in patient payments, leading to additional $1 million in monthly revenues. [11] Cost and time savings were also the main motivations behind Citibank’s amendment of its promissory note during the heyday of the US consumer revolt. After decreasing the length of the note to 20% of its original size and revising its language, the company has saved time it had previously spent on answering consumer questions and reduced the number of small claims lawsuits. [12]

For the above organisations transparent communication is not a question of language style but tangible business improvements. It leads to better efficiency, saves time, money and personnel resources. As Burton puts it: ’Every business wants agreements that are easy to understand. Every business wants to spend less time negotiating and more time pleasing the customer. Every business wants to spend less time administering its contracts and more time innovating. [13] Because the messages written in clear language are easier to understand, people spend less time processing their content. They will locate the relevant information faster and act upon it to fulfil their needs instead of fixing problems caused by miscommunication.

For the proponents of plain public writing, simple language is fairer language. It grants all people equal access to information. Whether it is a mortgage agreement, a manual or a government website, everyone has the right to understand the information that affects them. [14] Plain communication is also empowering for culturally diverse business communities whose daily work depends on contact with people from different language backgrounds. In such contexts framing concepts in terms which are simple and which don’t require knowledge of local idioms communicates respect for the non-native audience. Using plain language in global settings is a key part of intercultural adaptation.

HBR Rules for Plain Communication

Contrary to what many of us think, simplicity does not compromise the quality of ideas. It takes far more skill to achieve a tone which is direct, accurate and precise than to recycle ready-made phrases. The ‘Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing’ lists many tips for plain communication. [15]

1. Avoid Business-speak, Old-fashioned and Redundant Language

Few non-native speakers of English ever feel at ease in the company of corporate jargon, no matter the level of their language skills. Business-speak is unhelpful to them because it alienates them and gives them a sense of non-belonging. Consider the following metaphors derived from baseball and American football: ‘to touch base’, ‘out in the field’, ‘in the endzone’, ‘batting average’, so conventionalised that few Americans can pinpoint their sports origin. As Hansen explains, ‘you can expect someone to understand your language, you can’t expect them to understand your culture. [16]

The problem with corporate buzzwords is that they hinder communication rather than clarify meanings. Business jargon may seem like an easy to use shorthand but in reality acts as a substitute for real thinking. Effective communicators seek clarity at all times, investing thought in their speech or writing and steering clear from mindless clichés. [17]

The second lexical group to be omitted from our vocabulary comprises dated, hyper-formal phrases, which weigh down business correspondence. Many of those phrases have already lost their meaning from overuse or become obsolete. Here are some examples contrasted with their simple equivalents. [18] Sadly they are just the tip of the iceberg: 

old-fashioned style 

 

plain style

 

We are in receipt of

We received

 

Attached please find

 

Kindly advise

 

We have attached/enclosed

 

Please let me/us know

 

It has come to my attention

I have just learned/someone has just informed me

 

At your rearliest convenience

As soon as you can

 

As per our telephone conversation

As we discussed this morning

 

Permit me to say that

Please be advised that

[just say whatever you need to say]

[just say whatever you need to say]

 

Finally, there are also words which perform no actual function other than costing their readers time and energy. Here are two examples of verbose expressions quoted by Garner followed by their briefer equivalents. [19]

verbose style

The greater number of these problems can readily be dealt with in such a way to bring about satisfactory solutions. [21 words]

I am writing in response to a number of issues that have arisen with regard to the recent announcements that there will be an increase in the charge for the use of our lobby computers. [35 words]

plain style

Most of these problems can be readily solved. [8 words]

You may have heard that we are raising the fees for using our lobby computers. [14 words]

2. Avoid Nominalisations and Passive Voice

The first ones are nouns derived from adjectives or verbs. For example, ‘optimisation’ is a nominalisation of ‘optimise’ and ‘applicability’ is a nominalisation of ‘applicable’. To understand the effects that nominal phrases bring about in communication, consider the following passage from a financial services firm’s business prospectus:

‘Maturity and duration management decisions are made in the context of an intermediate maturity orientation. The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted in the anticipation of cyclical-interest-rate changes. [20]

Here abstract nouns such as ‘maturity and duration management decision’ or ‘anticipation of cyclical-interest-rate changes’ are used in place of simple verbs such as ‘mature’, ‘manage’, ‘decide’ or ‘anticipate. The transformations of clauses into nominalised forms produce sentences which are vague and difficult to understand. The short passage quoted above is packed with complex information, which the reader has to decode.

Nominal phrases typically co-occur with passive voice structures. For instance, we read in the prospectus that the maturity structure portfolio ‘is adjusted’ and decisions ‘are made’ in anticipation of cyclical changes. But who are the agents of those actions? The combined feature of passive voice and nominalisation is that they hide the agency and mask relationships of people involved in interactions. [21] By contrast the same sentence written in an active voice (e.g. ‘The company is adjusting their portfolio while anticipating cyclical interest-rate changes’) makes it clear to the reader who is responsible for all decisions and actions. As a result the writing is more transparent and easier to understand.

The elminination of clichéd, redundant and nominalised phrases from professional language should thus be part of our daily practice. Language that is suitably-designed and accessible for its audience is effective, inclusive and empowering. These are the standards we should all be helping to maintain.

 

[1] Porter, S. (2019) ‘Legal Secretary Case Study: Business Emails’. Presentation delivered at 2nd IATEFL Poland BESIG Event: 11 May 2019

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.plainlanguage.gov/about/definitions/

[5] Porter, S. (2019) ‘Legal Secretary Case Study: Business Emails’. Presentation delivered at 2nd IATEFL Poland BESIG Event: 11 May 2019

[6] http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/about-us.html

[7] Brochet, F., Yu, G. and Naranjo, P. (2019) Research: Executives’ English Skills Affect the Outcomes of Earnings Calls. Harvard Business Review. August 2019 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2019/08//research-executives-english-skills-affect-the-outcomes-of-earnings-calls

[8] Ibid.

[9] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https: //hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

See Kimble, J. (2012) Writing for Dollar, Writing to Please. The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government and Law. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.

[10] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://plainlanguage.gov/resources/articles/revisiting-plain-language/

[13] Burton, S. (2018) The Case for Plain-Language Contracts. Harvard Business Review. January-February 2018 Issue. Available at https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-case-for-plain-language-contracts

[14] https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/aaf9e928/files/uploaded/WhyUsePlainLanguage.pdf

[15] Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[16] Hansen, H. (2018) ‘Two Billion Voices. How to Speak Bad English Perfectly’. Ted Odense. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dum2Z4B3js

See also https://lifehacker.com/10-sports-metaphors-used-in-business-and-where-they-re-1782325688

[17] Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[18] Bovee, C. L. and Thill, J. V. (2018) Business Communication Today, 14th Edition. Harlow, Essex. Pearson Education. p. 182.

[19]  Garner, B. A. (2012) HBR Guide To Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, p. 54.

[20] Ibid: p. 63.  

[21] Freeden, M. (2007) The Meaning of Ideology. Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge, p. 124.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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