Plain English Patrol 1

by Tom Albrighton 31 August 2011 Plain English Patrol, Tone of voice

Life is tough for the delicate copywriter. Bad English is everywhere, just waiting to leap out and chafe your sensibilities. And the heartbreaking thing is that just a little thought and effort would have made the difference between total calamity and total clarity.

In posts under the banner of ‘Plain English Patrol’, a name I’m quietly pleased with, I’ll be looking at everyday examples of obscure, wordy and unclear writing and seeing if I can improve them. (Well, obviously I’ll improve them – I’d hardly include them if I couldn’t.) Let the games begin…

Verbal diarrhoea

First up is Costa Coffee. I’ve had a pop at Starbucks before, so it’s only fair their rival should take one in the shorts. I was last there trying my very first Flat White, which I was quite excited about until I discovered it was exactly the same as a Latté. So now I will have my revenge – through a smartass blog post about their signage that no-one from the company will ever read.

The notice below appears in the loo of the London Street branch in Norwich.

We would kindly request that customers refrain from disposing of nappies and sanitary towels down the toilet and ask that you make use of the disposal bins provided
Thank you

That’s you told! The curiously branded ‘Costa notice’ certainly strikes the right snappy, vinegary tone. The total lack of punctuation gives an icily brittle, peremptory feel, while ‘we would kindly request’ and ‘bins provided’ add a bitter twist of passive aggression and pursed-lips butter-wouldn’t-melt etiquettery.

The problem is that the spindly, overlong sentence and wilfully obscure language (‘refrain’, ‘disposal’) are highly unlikely to reach the target audience. I think it’s a safe assumption that people who stuff nappies down public loos (would they do that at home?) probably don’t read notices – not even red ones. We’re on a hiding to nothing here, but we can at least give ourselves the best possible chance of getting through:

Please don’t put rubbish down the toilet. Use the bin instead.
Thank you.

That’s more direct, more conversational and I think more likely to work. And at 20 words to the original’s 32, the audience might even reach the end of it.

What’s more, Costa could use a smaller notice, saving themselves untold thousands on ink, paper and glue across their gazillion branches. What a wonderful example of the good that copywriting can do in the world.

That one’s on the house, Costa – just be sure to inbox me next time you’re revising your tone of voice guidelines.

Foot shoot

Flushed with success, let’s move on to Fruit Shoot, the insanely chemical drink that’s like catnip to kids. (My estimation of a leisure venue always rises if they’ve opted to stock the smaller bottles.)

Unfortunately my camera phone wasn’t up to capturing this one, so you’ll have to trust my transcription. It’s the small print about a competition that’s promoted on the bottle.

Open to those aged 12 and under. Parent/Guardian consent is required for participation…

So let me get this straight. By definition, we’re talking to kids – if the parent or guardian is already reading, there isn’t a problem. And we’re talking to kids as young as five or six. So why, in the name of all that’s holy, are we using words like ‘consent’, ‘required’ and ‘participation’?

The Flesch-Kincaid reading level of this text is 9.0, or US ninth grade – in other words, only likely to be comprehensible to children of at least 14. Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t spend too long thinking about the nature and concerns of their audience.

It’s puzzling because the understandable version is so obvious:

You must be 12 or younger to enter. Ask your Mum or Dad first.

OK, I’ve lost the ‘guardian’, but I’m sure kids with guardians will get the message. And with a grade level of 1.4 (clear to a six-year-old) I feel the trade-off is totally worth it.

Deep water

Finally, here’s a notice from the pool where my daughter has her regular swimming class.

Dear Parent/Carer,
Please note that in line with the ASA and Child Protection Guidelines only parents/carers of the gender specified for the changing room may enter the changing rooms with their child/children.
Thank you for your co-operation.

Now, we’re talking about protecting children here, not just toilets, so it’s important that the language is precise and authoritative. But at the same time, it needs to be understood by people from every educational background. And with a reading age of 15+ for this text, that’s by no means guaranteed. (It’s not uncommon for organisations seeking universal readability to aim for an age of 12 or so – but the lower the better, obviously.)

It actually took me a while to tease out the underlying meaning. As far as I can tell, it can be boiled down to:

Women only in the girls’ changing room.
Men only in the boys’ changing room.

Yes, that’s right – if I’m taking her, my poor daughter has to get changed with the boys, with their incessant shouting and infuriating unwillingness to lift up the loo seat. (Again, would they do that at home?)

I can see my version might have been rejected – it feels clumsy and duplicative having to write two parallel sentences when you can convey the same meaning in one. But when such economy means you have to resort to phrases like ‘gender specified’, I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Better to be clunky and clear than elegant and elusive – and I’ve got the reading age down to eight, so I think that’s mission accomplished. All in a day’s work for the Plain English Patrol!

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