The Blog

Fiddling With Our Abbreviations

An unforgiveable impertinence and condescension.

tThe Chilcot report takes nine days to read. That may or may not be a record but there is no doubt that the increasing length of government documents is beginning to pose a problem. It isn't just the waste of time, either. True, nine days are a lot out of anybody's life, but the practical effects are worse than that. Endless pages means endless places to hide things. "Ah yes," a civil servant can say. "It was disclosed on page 1033. You should have read the document more carefully." Sir Humphrey-1: Public Interest-nil.

Now it is about to get worse. The elimination of a number of useful abbreviations by the Government Digital Service will inevitably make documents longer. Changes to the government's style guide will phase out "etc", "i.e." and "e.g.", although the suggestions of "for example" and "including" as possible substitutes for "etc" give little confidence that the result will be increased clarity. Why, in a world where text messaging by the younger generation supplies us daily with a rich diet of new acronyms, the government should decide to go in the opposite direction is something of a mystery. Is it just a love of long unreadable documents? Is it job preservation - the chance to employ gauleiters to enforce a style different from that used by the rest of the nation? Is it the ambition of administrators to make their mark in the field of letters?

According to the Government Digital Service, the problem is Latin. Apparently foreign speakers find Latin abbreviations difficult, and indeed English speakers sometimes do too, their spokeswoman blogging on the government site; "Even those with high literacy levels can be thrown if they are reading under stress or in a hurry - like a lot of people are on the web." Perhaps the clue here is in the use of "like" for "as". Obviously the writer was not speaking about high literacy levels from personal experience.

Of course it is all nonsense. The English language comes from many sources, from Anglo-Saxon, from Latin, from Greek, from Norman French. To attack well-known abbreviations which come from Latin is random in the extreme. What about other abbreviations whose derivation is not widely known? "Spam" for one: "OK" for another. Are we going to get rid of those, too? No, of course not. Caesar didn't say "OK" (an American expression, possibly a joke spelling of All Correct) and he didn't receive spam (the term appears to have been carried across from the 1930s name for spiced ham) so neither will fall under the government's hex.

I would like to say that all this was just folly, that the civil service was having a silly-season moment, a last hurrah from the pro EU lobby as they seek to emulate the Académie Française. Perhaps we will all wake up in September as if it had never happened. Unfortunately, however, there is a darker side to the story and it is one which needs to be addressed.

The assumption that a significant part of the population (foreign or not) cannot handle "etc" or "e.g." is patronising in the extreme. Of course many people do not know the derivations but there is no harm in that. Most of us do not give a thought to the derivation of any of the words we use in daily speech. What is offensive is the idea that there is a sort of subclass, presumably existing somewhere outside the M25 and voting for Brexit, for whom English has to be made easier. Today we remove a few expressions deriving from Latin. Tomorrow we put all government documents into cartoon form. As less demands are made of them, the linguistic skills of the ignorant will slowly decline until they simply communicate in grunts.

Quite apart from their proposals being offensive, I do not believe the GDS's assumptions to be true. Do people really have a problem with these terms? I doubt it very much. Still, to prevent the GDS pointing to endless studies from tertiary government sponsored think tanks as justifying their action let us look at it another way and assume that the bureaucrats are right. If that was the case, what should the state do?

There are two possible approaches. The first is to acknowledge the position, regard it as unfortunate and accept that a number of citizens will always be cut off from much of British culture. "Never mind", you say. "We will make life easy for them by reducing their exposure to that culture. Of course there is a limit to nhow rich their lives will be but they can always achieve satisfaction by watching repeats of TV sitcoms". That is one approach and the attitude of the Government Digital Service sits comfortably alongside it. The other is to regard it as a wholly unacceptable failure of the educational system and something which has to be eliminated. Here the GDS policy is a move in the wrong direction. If you are really committed to raising standards, the last thing you would do is to begin with a series of condescending simplifications.

I am not going to make the choice for you, but ask yourself this. If it was your child we were talking about, which route would you chose for him or her: simplification or endeavour? I hope that the answer is now obvious.

Post the Brexit vote we have a new Prime Minister and she has committed herself to fight to reduce the inequalities in British Society. Many people from all political parties support her in this ambition but what we hope to see is a greater opportunity for all to share in the rich tapestry which comprises British life and culture. Programmes which condescend have no place in such a project.

Republished from the Shaw Sheet