back to article MPs slap ICO for bad language

A select committee report on poor official language has picked on a letter from the Information Commissioner's Office. The Public Administration Select Committee provided the ICO letter as an example of an official letter which "illustrates how formulaic letter construction can alienate and confuse the reader". The letter, …


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  1. sandman

    First stone?

    The acronym addicted, jargon spewing IT world hasn't much of a leg to stand on either.

    1. CD001

      Ah but

      The world of IT doesn't need to communicate to userland beyond a simple, "You want it to do what? On THAT timescale - you're having a laugh!" ... and to make it better, userland doesn't want explanations - you can try and explain it, using simple terms and watch their eyes glaze over; after about 30-45 seconds or so you can add in things like "Ahhh, but the machine will then require a flux capacitor and a speed limiter to ensure it doesn't exceed 88mph or we may encounter a time displacement event! And you REALLY don't want that in the server room"

      ... and they'll nod sagely.

  2. seanj

    Management Consultants...

    'The report said that management consultants were partly to blame for introducing "sterile jargon" into government, which it said was often used to dress up a simple idea, or "to hide the fact that the speaker or writer doesn't really understand what they are writing or talking about".'

    If management consultants stopped doing either of those things, they'd be out of work.

  3. Jason D

    Pot calling...

    "The perpetrators of this variety of official language often fail to consider adequately who they are writing for,"

    I agree, but the you follow with:

    "can often come across as unsympathetic or overly officious".

    Officious? Yes, the unwashed masses will understand that word, won't they? Even I'm vaguely guessing this is means something that sounds official and impersonal, without bothering to check the definition.

    "We conclude that bad official language which results in tangible harm – such as preventing someone from receiving the benefits or services to which they are entitled – should be regarded as 'maladministration'," says the report.

    Tangible, maladministration... does this person know who his audience is? Perhaps he does if he's talking to businesses, but for someone who states that he wants things to be clearer should practise what he preaches.

    On topic, I think it's fair for a case to be closed until further information is received, or if the customer requests the same information again. No point in keeping it open forever.

    Email/letter templates are there for the legal reasons (don't distribute, full and final settlement) and to prevent personal sounding pronouns, and generally you need to appear professional.

    How would it be for a government of bank to write to you and say, "Sorry mate, but we closed ur accnt becuase you took to much moeny out and over your overdft limit. Signed, John.", would you trust an email like this, or one with a long signature with small print, and professional wording?

    Jargon is something we live with and accept, even these legalese letters. It only matters when it is entirely related to your issue (i.e. relentless techie jargon on how to install windows, configure graphics) and you don't understand what is being said. That is when you need to tone it down.

    1. Citizen Kaned

      whilst i agree to some extent

      they arent hard words are they? you dont understand the word tangible? heaven help us. and im sure many people can understand administration with 'mal' infront of it. maybe people just dont think any more? im still surprised how many people in large companies (i.e. directors, owners etc) that dont even know their, they're and there. this includes people on 7 figure salaries ive had contact with!

      now, enough of this beuro speak. anyone with a decent grasp of english can read that ok. has anyone ever tried reading legal documents? that is a whole other world! im sure they do make things up. it sounds like someone shoved a thesaurus up yodas arse!

      1. Ihre Papiere Bitte!!


        "it sounds like someone shoved a thesaurus up yodas arse!"

        Whilst I had a mouthful of ham & cheese sandwich! You bastard!!

      2. Anonymous Coward

        People seem to have problems with...

        I´m or to start a sentence with capital letters. Some even have trouble understanding that words after ! and ? needs to be capitalized as well. Who was it that was talking about pots and kettles?

    2. Gordon is not a Moron

      @Jason D

      '... does this person know who his audience is?'

      people with a reading age over 7, perhaps?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Would these be the same MPs...

    ...That control government departments that so often drag their feet when it comes to Freedom of Information requests? Departments that are so willing and eager to give out 'comforting' information to American corporations whilst completely failing to protect the rights of the public that elected them in regards to RIPA, PECR and other bits of legislation?

    When are we going to get a report criticising the MPs, their departments and all their time-wasting and road blocks that they put in place between us and the information that we're requesting? This does far more damage to use than some unclear English in my opinion.

  5. Secretgeek

    God forbid....

    ...we expect anyone to understand words of four syllables or more.

    I agree that sometimes language can be used to obfuscate the facts, hell I've even done it myself on occasion and management speak can often be a case of using 200 ridiculous words where 2 perfectly sensible ones would do, but seriously? Attacking the use of long words?

    Isn't that what dictionaries were invented for?


  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    These people are amateurs. They could take lessons from my local council, who recently sent me a 32-page (that's thirty-two - not a typo) closely-typed letter to explain my current status in housing benefit. After spending hours and hours re-reading it, with no clue as what the hell they were trying to say, I called in on them for an explanation. No problem - their letter meant "No!".

  7. Tim99 Silver badge


    About 30 years ago, I worked as a scientist in the civil service. Part of my job was to explain science to 'real' people. My boss told me that if you could not explain something simply to "the man on the Clapton Omnibus"; you probably didn't really understand it yourself and, by implication, you were probably an arrogant prat.

    Good advice that I try to follow.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Clapton Omnibus?

      Did your boss have a speach impediment or did you just not listen properly?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  8. frank ly
    Thumb Up

    Mind Your Language

    "Bad official language deserves to be mocked, but it also needs to be taken seriously...."

    I love that statement :)

  9. Andy Livingstone

    Not bad English - simply trying to look busy.

    Has anyone had a letter from ICO which is NOT simply jargon strings stuck together? Usually 3 pages to say what anyone worthy of a Crystal Mark could achieve in only half a page.

  10. Tim99 Silver badge

    @AC Clapton Omnibus

    If you are going to be an arrogant prat, learn how to spell "speech"...

  11. Gordon is not a Moron

    Dear Moderatrix

    Re: Tim99 & his Anonymous friend.

    Any chance of 'Handbags at Dawn' icon?

  12. Joe Harrison


    That's the number of the omnibus service on the Victoria-Clapton route. Never been on it but almost certain there must be at least one male passenger who would like something complex to be explained to him in simple language.

  13. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    That ICO letter

    They ask for a copy of the original request. They can't verify that it *is* the original request without digging out the original request. So it is a pointless thing to ask for. In their defence, they note that sometimes it is necessary to ask for extra information to progress a case. Well, this isn't exactly extra information is it? And closing a case isn't just failing to make progress.

    Wouldn't it be more truthful for them to have said "You have to keep prodding us or else we start going backwards."? The real problem here is not that they've expressed themselves badly, it is that they had something bad to express.

  14. Richard Porter

    Re. Pot calling....

    "The perpetrators of this variety of official language often fail to consider adequately who they are writing for,"

    So proud of having avoided splitting an infinitive, the writer uses the wrong case of 'who' and a preposition to end a sentence with. There are several examples of PCBG (politically correct bad grammar) in subsequent quotes.

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    "handbags at dawn" icon request.


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