The origins – and cost! – of bureaucratese

As a plain-English editor, I spend a lot of time converting dense ‘bureaucratese’ into language that is clear, accurate and matched to the audience. One of the main tools in this trade is simple language: using short words in place of longer words and phrases.

So I was interested when my son recently came home from school with a list of words and their replacements.

On the left were plain, simple words; on the right were longer words and phrases that had the same meaning. It looked a lot like the cheat sheet on ‘Eliminating wordiness’ we give people who attend our training courses in writing and editing.

beforeprior to
exceptother than
ifin the event that
find outascertain

Imagine my horror when I discovered that it was not a guide to writing clearly; he was supposed to replace the simple words in his reports with the longer words and phrases.

‘Good grief!’ I thought. ‘This is where my clients have learnt bureaucratese.’ I had thought that it was an infectious language in the working world – spread by contact to new staff. But it turns out that it is something that is explicitly taught in our schools.

I guess it would be worth my time to encourage this teaching, with the aim of making sure I am gainfully employed for many years to come.

But it seems ludicrous that I spend my time changing ‘in the event that’ to ‘if’, while across town my son spends his time changing it the other way.

Why is it taught?

The Australian curriculum talks about teaching students an appreciation of different types of text, and the difference between spoken and written language. It seems that a side effect of this appreciation is that students are also taught that ‘formal’ language – the language we use in letters and reports – needs to be wordy and stilted. They are taught that they need to use bureaucratese in all nonfiction writing.

But the idea that ‘formal’ has to mean wordy and stilted is wrong. The very best writing, whether nonfiction or fiction, speaks directly to us – it isn’t hidden in unnecessary syllables and phrases. If you think of the most memorable phrases from history’s greatest speeches, they are plain and simple:

  • ‘We choose to go to the moon,’ not ‘We select the option that involves us transporting a team of individuals to our nearest natural satellite.’
  • ‘We shall fight them on the beaches,’ not ‘We shall engage in combat with our opponents on the border that exists between our land and the sea.’
  • ‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I possess a cherished aspiration.’

Why we must say no

Plain English is important because it improves the ease and impact of communication. Many studies have shown that plain language even affects your bottom line – if your audience can easily understand your message, you can save time, resources and money. Studies have quantified the difference that plain English can make:

  • A study of United States naval officers who read a plain or bureaucratic memo found that officers who read the plain memo had significantly higher comprehension, took 17–23% less time to read it and felt less need to reread it. The study estimated that, if everything the officers had to read in a year was plain, savings in their time would be worth $53–73 million.[1]
  • Federal Express rewrote its ground operations manuals and estimated that the new manuals would save the company $400,000 in the first year, just in the time that employees spend searching for information.[2]
  • The US Department of Veterans Affairs tested a new version of a form letter. Before the new version, they received 1,128 calls from 750 letters sent out. With the new version, they received 192 calls. The project coordinator estimated that the savings on this letter alone, if adopted nationwide, would be more than $40,000 a year.[3]
  • The Allen-Bradley Company rewrote its computer manuals with the help of writing consultants. When the new manual was released, calls to the company’s phone centre fell from more than 50 a day to only 2 a month.[4]
  • In the 1970s, the US Federal Communications Commission employed 5 staff members to answer questions from the public about regulations for CB radios. When they rewrote the regulations, they were able to reassign all 5 staff members.[5]

Stamp out bureaucratese

Australian schools already teach 6 languages: Japanese, Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Mandarin. We really don’t need to add bureaucratese to the curriculum.

Longer words and phrases don’t help communication or make reports sound better. They hamper audience understanding and can cost time and money.

For more information about how to create clear and effective content, see our practical guide: A quick guide to effective content.

[1] J Suchan & R Colucci (1991), The high cost of bureaucratic written communications, Business Horizons 34:68–73.

[2] JT Hackos, JS Winstead, S Gill & M Hartmann (1995), Finding out what users need and giving it to them: a case study at Federal Express, Technical Communication 42:322–327.

[3] R Daniel & W Schuetz (1994), VA’s ‘writing for real people’ pays off, unpublished report; see also R Daniel (1995), Revising letters to veterans, Technical Communication 42:69–75.

[4] B Jereb (1991), Plain English on the plant floor, in ER Steinberg (ed), Plain language: principles and practice, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 207.

[5] JC Redish (1991), How to write regulations and other legal documents in clear English, Document Design Center, American Institutes for Research, Virginia, 42–43; JC Redish, DB Felker & AM Rose (1981), Evaluating the effects of document design principles, Information Design Journal 2:236–243.