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Scottish policeman calls for plain English

Plodding on with the jargon

Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary have received a pat on the back from Plain English Campaign for pressing the need for plain language. Chrissie Maher, OBE and founder of the campaign is adding her voice to support the proposal made at the 2009 Scottish Police Federation Annual Conference for "a return to plain English".

Chrissie says, “It was a police officer reading me the Riot Act in Parliament Square that launched Plain English Campaign 30 years ago. We were there to confront the MPs with the shredded piles of documents filled with government gobbledygook. And there was this poor man reciting a load of jargon that I could only guess meant that we should clear off!”

But it’s not too late to stop plodding on with ineffective language. 65 years ago ‘Gobbledygook’ was the word used to describe the politicians’ waffle. Today there are currently public inquiries both in the House of Lords and House of Commons looking into how UK Parliament and government offices communicate with the public.

‘Ploddledygook’ is what the campaign now call the mixture of management speak and traditional policespeak that only serves to create a barrier of mystery and confusion. The Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary’s timely proposal in Scotland highlights the fact that it is not just the public that have to suffer this unnecessary jargon. Employees struggle silently in many organisations where language that is used out of context is used just to make old ideas seem new, or introduce thinking which is not easily understood.

Marie Clair, spokesperson for Plain English Campaign says, “ We have seen the direct results of poor communications in our finance industry. Financial experts themselves have admitted to not fully understanding its products and processes. Using plain language, without waffle and gobbledygook, provides clarity and honesty. We regularly hear criticisms of our government services so let’s give our police forces a tool that they want and can readily use, to help them provide the best possible service.”

Scottish police officers have given 100% support to a proposal to use plain English in official publications.

Text of the annual conference motion speech given by Rab Milligan to the Scottish Police Federation 2009

(Rab Milligan is with the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, and has been Vice Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation since 2002.)

Annual conference motion 2009

Why should we campaign for plain English in police publications?

Let me quote three examples and you can judge for yourselves

  • “the strategy may impact on the direction of various planned developments in the short term as there are inconsistencies between these and the long term requirements of the service. It is the intention that the strategy should evolve and be regulary reviewed and updated to reflect emerging issues and changes ultimately becoming a core part of an overarching policing strategy”
  • “command and control management will become increasingly out of tune with the needs of a workforce seeking scope for initiative and involvement in the total leadership of our service”
  • “this document creates a transparent method of discharging our obligations to staff and public alike whilst establishing a framework that allows the safest possible execution of an inherently dangerous duty”

I think that you can see what I’m getting at. These are just some of the examples I could have quoted. We have all heard that very particular brand of the English language being used in certain police circles and it is my view that all it does is confuse and that it adds no substance to the matter being discussed.

We all know the words and phrases:-

  • The golden thread
  • Mind shower
  • Touch base
  • Customer oriented
  • Gap analysis
  • Fault tolerant
  • Citizen focus command

I thought someone would have shouted “house” by now!

And my favourite

“the scoping exercise”. I looked up scope in the dictionary and it is definitely a noun.

The Plain English Campaign reported that it sees, and I quote:

“... many examples of police forces being customer led, having mission statements and pointlessly stating the blindingly obvious. This also extends to job titles where one force has a Director of Knowledge Architecture”

A Plain English Campaign spokeswoman said:

“the police do a great job. But we know what police officers are and what they do. They don’t need to waste time calling us customers or telling us we are their focus or what their mission is”

Well amen to that!

However we need to guard against using English which is so plain that only one sex knows exactly what the words mean. Here are some words that my wife uses whose meaning has not always been clear to me.

Fine –
This is a word she uses to end an argument and I need to shut up.

– This is the calm before the storm. This means something and I should be on my toes. Arguments that begin with nothing usually end in fine.

Go ahead –
This is a dare not an instruction. I learned that the hard way.

Don’t worry about it, I got it –
Another dangerous statement meaning she has told me to do something several times and she is now doing it herself. In this situation do not ask “what's wrong” because the answer will be “nothing” leading on to “fine”.

If I can go back to plain English in police circles, we also need to guard against complacency in our own work. There are certain phrases to avoid because they add little or nothing to the message being delivered. How often have we heard phrases like this in federation circles?

As far as I’m concerned
All things being equal
The fact of the matter is
To all intents and puposes

And there are many more. I’m not looking for ultra simplistic use of language here but I do believe that plainer, clearer language should be used in police publications.

I think we can all cite examples where the use of plain English in police publications would make life so much easier for our members and the public we serve.

It will also help with accuracy as the following true excerpts from my own force's incident management system show:-

“PC Smith reports that he is being sectioned under the mental health act and has intimated he will not go quietly”

“PC Ross has attended at the hospital however was unable to take a statement as he had been given two strong pain killers and was drifting in and out of consciousness”

“Reporting female driver of a yellow mini cooper came out of park farm on the wrong side of the road then sped off. Caller got a fright and had new born twins within the vehicle”

“... reports that her 15 year old daughter has been threatened by a Jane Smith who drives an ice cream”

“Small german shepherd/lurcher cross, 3 legs missing since last night. No trace at Kirkcudbright office”

And finally my favourite

“b24 (call sign for an area car) b24 have been out drinking all day and have came home and had a disagreement. Have now kissed and made up”

As the Plain English Campaign tells us, we must stop using “ploddledygook”

Thank you


The motion was the only one at the conference in the Scottish Borders to receive unanimous support from delegates.

Insp Alistair Tait, of Central Scotland Police, said any move towards clearer communications would be welcome.

"When I first joined the service based in Thurso it was like learning a new language," he said.

"It was easier learning Gaelic."

The SPF represents police officers throughout the country and has about 16,000 members.

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