Sunday, 29 August 2010

A perambulation in the forest of words

What is wrong with this sign, which I found yesterday in the Hambleden valley, Buckinghamshire? Its message is clear enough: people are chopping down trees in this area and you should be careful in case one of them should fall on your head and injure or even kill you.

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?


  1. You realise you've just played right into the ADHD generation of politicians and other decision-makers who, in the word of a high-ranking Canadian civil servant friend of mine, "need hand puppets" to have policy, briefing notes, etc., articulated to them? I can appreciate, and support, the notion that we should say what we mean, and write pointedly; the way this shakes out, however, tends simply to translate to an inability on the part of any adult in power these days to understand words of more than one syllable, or read an entire paragraph at one sitting. Just my cranky take . . . I do agree with your sentiment here, in the main.

  2. Points noted, Kel, and thank you for them. Damn, are your politicians no better than ours then? What about that Michael Ignatieff then? Is he a Michael Ignatieff or the Michael Ignatieff?

    Anyway, I can't help thinking that much of the complexity we struggle to deal with is created by rather than reflected in the language we use. When we've made all the civil servants redundant and sent half the guilty parties in local government packing as well, politicians will have to write the stuff too, so they'd better get in the habit now. Instead of having simple ideas - which is about all most politicians are interested in and can handle - translated into mind-bending verbal mush, complexity will be rendered (sorry, made) simpler by expressing it in good English so we all know where we stand, more or less. Who can say that Orwell was no good at putting complex ideas across clearly?

    And by the way, newspapers will be allowed to weigh no more than 5 kilos and contain only news, arts, sport and weather, and free DVDs if they're good ones ('The Guardian' had La Dolce Vita a while back). And statues will be erected to Johns Prescott and Carey - with them inside.

    However, an exception will be made for advertising copy, where tactical lack of words is starting to annoy me. Like going into Marks & Sparks and reading: "We've left something out of our ready meals. Hydrogenated fats." That's not good. I may need to say more on this subject.

    But in the end, you understand, I'm just trying to save even more trees from being felled.