So why, on a long walk through the Chiltern Hills, did I trek back half a mile through the woods to take this photograph? What worm burrowed into the frontal lobe of my cerebral cortex in those ten minutes and, although I was wet and tired and still many miles from my evening's lodgings, made me retrace my steps?
It was, I discovered, the words "in progress". For they are not needed. The words "Danger, tree felling" tell us all we need to know. The words "in progress" are superfluous: they add nothing. Why put up a sign warning of tree felling if it were not in progress? You might just as well put up road signs saying that you don't have to drive at 23 miles per hour.
Why - and I thank you for reading on - is this important? Well, as it is written, with its unnecessary appendage, the sign implies the need for another sign. This would state that tree felling is not in progress. This sign would be erected not only in unexploited forests but also, for the sake of thoroughness and probably Health and Safety legislation, wherever trees are not being felled, so that the people of that area could go about their lives without the fear of gravitationally exacerbated arboreal menace eating away at them.
Picture it. The noble Bedouin would emerge from his tent to find his way to the nearest oasis blocked by such signs. Likewise, the Inuit of northern Canada would do battle not only with the elements and marauding polar bears, but with hordes of signs (let us call them 'hordings') that kept him from his fishing holes and thus threatened not only his health and happiness but those of his loved ones too. Faeroe Island puffin hunters, adrift upon the wild North Atlantic, would look up from their ...
... anyway, it doesn't bear thinking about.
What, you may already have asked - and thank you again for reading on - is my point? Well, as you may already have concluded from my own indulgences, it is that we use far too many words when we don't need to. At a time when everything is being rationalised, stripped down, made redundant, subjected to 'efficiency savings' and the like, we just keep on spewing out words as if they were bankers' bonuses. I know I do.
I propose that the Government step in. God might reasonably have allotted us a given number of words before He called time on us (and how different human history would have been: Hitler would have perished in prison after the Beer Hall Putsch and Stalin would have been just another poet who died young). But He didn't, so it falls upon the state to regulate our output.
It can start by putting its own house in order. May I draw to your attention that my proposed alteration to the sign pictured above amounts to a massive 40% reduction in the number of words used. This should become the minimum. Strategies, policies and the like must be discarded unless they can be fitted onto two sides of A4 paper at most, and with a maximium font size of 11pt. Progress reports get up to a page. Corporate mission statements must be no longer than 10 words for national, 7 for local government. Election manifestos and 5-year plans must be written on the backs of envelopes, if they aren't already.
More widely, and just for starters, Sunday newspapers will not be allowed to weigh more than 5 kilos and Dylan Thomas's poetry will be burned, even the good stuff. It can be done.
As for the rest of us, with a sadly necessary disregard for the great man's other sensitivities, Government should enforce George Orwell's demands for the use of Plain English on pain of a cage full of rats being strapped to offenders' faces:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
My, I have gone on, haven't I?