Beat Bureaucracy

Bull, Bumph and Bafflegab: Deciphering Bureaucratic Language

Gross governmental gobbledygook  The obfuscation of official publications and pronouncements never ceases to amaze.

Why do organizations fuzzify their language?  There are lots of reasons to write poorly. None is legitimate.

Solving the problem  The Plain Language Movement has succeeded in embarrassing organizations that won’t or can’t communicate. Includes user-friendly on-line and downloadable testing tools that identify overblown writing and help you fix it.


Gross governmental gobbledygook

How bad is it in the UK?  

As a public service the Guardian newspaper’s website includes a glossary of hundreds of government terms. Don’t know your Almo from your Asbo? The Guardian has the answers. All countries need a glossary like this.,11637,646397,00.html

Has it been that bad in the UK for a long time? 

Since at least 1837 according to Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (Chapter 10, “The Circumlocution Department”)

How bad is it in the USA? 

A Washington Post columnist calls for “a plain language revolution” and says that Obama’s call for transparent government should provide momentum. He criticizes the Education department for a 220-word sentence in a regulation and praises the website of the Citizenship and Immigration Service.

How bad is it in Italy?

This is a cultural revolution in our relationship with citizens,” vowed the Civil Service Minister as he encouraged bureaucrats to compete for a "Chiaro!" (“Clear!”)  stamp that would be awarded only to departments and ministries that wrote simply.

There’s nothing funny about bureaucratese 

Oh sure there is. An escapee from the US State Department, writer James Boren is a funny guy. Check out Have Your Way With Bureaucrats, Fuzzify and When In Doubt, Mumble: A Bureaucrat’s Handbook, satirical romps through the “dynamic inaction” of government departments.

Sometimes bureaucratic language demonstrates arrogance and abuse of power  

Stephen Wilburs identifies a number of typical ploys used by bureaucrats who are not service-oriented. While this article elicited support from some quarters, it struck a nerve with some bureaucrats. 

It isn’t just government 

In his book Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business, Roger Shuy provides nine case studies focusing on the language used in US Medicare, Social Security, disability reports, product warning labels; and in the real estate, insurance and used car industries.

“When you write, start with your buyers, not with your product,” advises David Meerman Scott who is tired of seeing “cutting edge” and “industry standard” attached to every product promotion on the web.


Why do bureaucracies fuzzify their language?

How to fix it

The writers don’t have time to edit their material into plain language or aren’t capable of writing in plain language.

Hire technical writers.

The writers think that complex writing makes them sound smart or that readers will feel talked down to if they use simple language.

Disabuse them of these hallucinations.

Hiring technical writers costs money.

Find the money or find internal staffers who can do the work.

Researching to determine whether written material is clear to its intended audience takes time and/or money.

Find the money or find internal staffers who can do the research.

Checking the work of technical writers takes time.

Find the time.

The people who wrote the material don’t want it to be understood.

Find out why and effect an attitude adjustment.

“Plain language” involves not just sentences, but also the sequencing of content by separating what is relevant to the majority of readers from what is relevant only to a few. The people who wrote the material can’t or won’t prioritize its contents because they don’t know how or because of legal or bureaucratic concerns.

Identify individuals who have the authority to address legal concerns.

Determine which material is most relevant to the audience and structure the publication accordingly. If the manufacturers of DVD players and cell phones can write Quickstart Guides, so can government departments that put out information to the public. 


Solving the problem: the Plain Language Movement

Free computerized tools for identifying gobbledygook

"Drivel Defence" by the Plain Language Campaign

These tools check sentence and word length. They also use jargon lists to identify trite expressions. Also see the Flesch Reading Ease test.

International conferences of plain-language experts

In 2005 speakers described the importance of plain language in writing for the public about health, law, food labeling, financial disclosure, taxes and for multilingual audiences. But why did they hold the conference in Washington, DC?

Plain language organizations

International association: 
US health:
Canada health: 

Awards for successful use of plain language

Clearmark Awards  U.S.

No Gobbledygook Awards   U.S.

WriteMark Plain English Awards   New Zealand

Plain English Awards     U.K.

Awards for legal writing   U.S.

National Institute of Health Plain Language Awards   U.S.

Booby prizes for bafflegab in official communications

Golden Bull Awards    U.K.

Foot-in-mouth Awards   U.K.