Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language - Public Administration Committee Contents

1 Introduction

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

— George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"[1]

1.  The language used in public life is a frequent target for ridicule, whether by parliamentary sketchwriters making fun of ministers' speeches, or in fictional works such as the television series Yes Minister. Yet the language used by government and public bodies is important because it directly affects people's lives. It needs to enable those in government (and those who want to be in government) to explain clearly what the basis for a policy is, or to provide guidance on getting access to the range of public services. Language therefore determines how politicians and public servants relate to the people they are there to serve.

2.   We launched our short inquiry into official language to highlight the importance of clear and understandable language in government. In order to evaluate how effectively government uses language, we invited the public and Members of Parliament to submit examples of bad and good official language. Many of these are included in this report to illustrate how government uses (and misuses) language. We also held a public hearing to ask questions of the Plain English Campaign, the academic expert Professor David Crystal, and the political sketchwriters and columnists Matthew Parris and Simon Hoggart.

3.  The aim of our inquiry was not merely to highlight the worst examples of official language (although such examples have been by turns amusing and exasperating), but to explore why the language used by government matters. We examine the damaging effects that bad official language can have, before concluding on a more hopeful note with some suggestions for making official language clearer and more comprehensible, including a proposed remedy for citizens.

1   George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946 Back

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