Friday, February 27, 2009

Keep it clear, keep it simple

Feb 27, 2009

Thirty years ago today, on Feb 27, 1979, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called a meeting of ministers, ministers of state and senior civil servants to discuss how government papers and minutes can be written in clear, clean prose. Singapore's GDP has grown almost sevenfold since 1979. Marina Bay didn't exist then. Changi Airport was still two years away from completion. Singapore has been transformed beyond recognition in the last 30 years. But the same, alas, cannot be said of the quality of written English, which remains recognisably the same now as it did in 1979. We reprint excerpts of Mr Lee's address to mark a melancholy anniversary.

I WANT to discuss the importance of simple, clear, written English. This is not simple. Dr Goh Keng Swee gives every officer whom he thinks is promising and whose minutes or papers are deficient in clarity, a paperback edition of Sir Ernest Gowers' The Complete Plain Words.

It presupposes that the man who attempts to read the book has reached a certain level of literary competence. The book, written words, cannot convey to you the emphasis, the importance, the urgency of things, unless the receiver is a trained reader. And in any case, human beings are never moved by written words. It is the spoken word that arouses them to action. Arthur Koestler rightly pointed out that if Adolf Hitler's speeches had been written, not spoken, the Germans would never have gone to war. Similarly, Sukarno in print did not make great sense.

The spoken language is better learnt early; then you will have fluency. However, my thesis is that the written language can be mastered at any age without much disadvantage. It is learnt fastest when your written mistakes are pointed out to you by a teacher, friend, or senior officer. That was the way I learnt.

When I was in school my compositions were marked. When my children were in school they simply got grades for their written work. Their teachers had so many essays that they never attempted to correct the compositions. This has contributed to our present deplorable situation.

I want to convince you, first, of the importance of clear, written communication; second, that you can master it, if you apply yourself.

The use of words, the choice and arrangement of words in accordance with generally accepted rules of grammar, syntax and usage, can accurately convey ideas from one mind to another. It can be mastered.

When I was a law student I learnt that every word, every sentence has three possible meanings: what the speaker intends it to mean, what the hearer understands it to mean, and what it is commonly understood to mean. So when a coded message is sent in a telegram, the sender knows what he means, the receiver knows exactly what is meant, the ordinary person reading it can make no sense of it at all.

When you write minutes or memoranda, do not write in code, so that only those privy to your thoughts can understand. Write simply so that any other officer who knows nothing of the subject can understand you. To do this, avoid confusion and give words their ordinary meanings.

Our biggest obstacle to better English is shyness. It is a psychological barrier. Nobody likes to stop and ask, 'Please, what does that mean?' or 'Please tell me, where have I gone wrong?' To pretend you know when you don't know is abysmal folly. Then we begin to take in each other's mistakes and repeat them, compounding our problems.

The facility to express yourself in a written language is yet another facet or manifestation of your ability, plus application and discipline. It is a fallacy to believe that because it is the English language, the Englishman has a natural advantage in writing it. That is not so. He has a natural advantage in speaking the language because he spoke it as a child, but not in writing it. It has nothing to do with race. You are not born with a language. You learn it.

Without effective written communication within the government, there will be misunderstanding and confusion. Let me give a few recent illustrations of writing so sloppy that I had to seek clarification of their meanings:

'With increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, we will require continued assistance particularly in the technological and managerial fields.'

I asked myself: What have I missed in this? What has the first part about urbanisation and industrialisation to do with the second part about continued assistance? Why do we need more assistance, particularly in technological and managerial skills, because of increasing urbanisation and industrialisation?

It is non sequitur. We need technological and managerial assistance anyway. The first part does not lead to the second part.

'It is necessary to study the correlation between language aptitude, intelligence and values and attitudes to ensure that the various echelons of leaders are not only effectively bilingual but also of the desirable calibre.'

I read it over and over again. It made no sense. This is gibberish! I enquired and I was told, well, they were trying to find out how language ability and intelligence should influence the methods for instilling good social values and attitudes.

Well, then say so. But somebody wanted to impress me by dressing up his ideas in big words. Next time impress me with the simple way you get your ideas across.

'France is the fourth major industrial country in Europe after West Germany, Britain and Italy.'

Calculating backwards and forwards, I decided France cannot be the fourth. I queried. The reply was that France was fourth in terms of number of industrial workers. Now, China probably has the largest number of industrial workers in the world. In some factories they may have 14,000 workers when a similar factory in America would have 4,000. Does that make China the first industrial country in the world?

'The Third World has the stamina to sustain pressure for the Common fund. Progress will probably be incremental with acceleration possible if moderation prevails.'

Now what does this mean? By 'incremental' the officer meant 'slow'. 'Slow', I understand; but 'acceleration possible', I do not.

If we do not make a determined effort to change, the process of government will slow down. It will snarl up. I have noted this steady deterioration over the last 20 years. I want to reverse it. If we start with those at the top, we can achieve a dramatic improvement in two years, provided the effort is made.

Now I want to discuss how we can do this:

To begin with, before you can put ideas into words, you must have ideas. Otherwise, you are attempting the impossible.

The written English we want is clean, clear prose - not elegant, not stylish, just clean, clear prose. It means simplifying, polishing and tightening.

Remember: That which is written without much effort is seldom read with much pleasure. The more the pleasure, you can assume, as a rule of thumb, the greater the effort.

When you send me or your minister a minute or a memo - or a draft that has to be published like the President's Address - do not try to impress by using big words; impress by the clarity of your ideas.

I speak as a practitioner. If I had not been able to reduce complex ideas into simple words and project them vividly for mass understanding, I would not be here.

The communists simplified ideas into slogans to sway the people's feelings - to get them to move in directions which would have done us harm. I had to counter them. I learnt fast. The first thing I had to do was to express ideas in simple words.

My experience is that attending courses helps but not as much as lessons tailored for you. You have written a memo. Somebody runs through it and points out your errors: 'You could have said it this way'; 'this is an error'; 'this can be broken into two sentences' and so on.

In other words, superiors and peers and even subordinates who spot errors should be encouraged to point them out. My personal assistants point out my mistakes; I tell them to.

Some final examples on how urgent the problem is, from two papers coming before Cabinet: The first, a very well-written paper; the other badly written. But even the well-written paper contained a repetitious phrase which confused me. Because it was well-written, I thought the repeated words must be there to convey a special meaning:

'If the basis for valuation is to be on a basis other than open market value as evidenced by sales, arbitrariness and protracted litigation would occur, thus tarnishing the credibility of government machinery.'

I ran my eye back to the opening words. I queried: 'Do we lose anything if we dropped the words 'to be on a basis' before 'other'.' Answer came back: 'No meaning is lost.' And this was in a well-written paper.

Let me read from the second paper, which tried to explain why we must set up an institute:

'The need for such services is made more acute as at present, there is no technical agency offering consultancy services in occupational safety and health.'

I asked: 'What's happening 'as at present'? Why 'as at present'?'

What the officer meant was: 'There is acute need because there is no department which offers advice on occupational safety and health.'

We have taken each other's mistakes. He had constantly read 'as at present', 'as of yesterday', 'as of tomorrow', so he just stuffed in three unnecessary words - 'as at present' - into his paper.

There is such a thing as a language environment. Ours is a bad one. Those of you who have come back from a long stay in a good English-speaking environment would have felt the shock when reading The Straits Times on returning.

I spent a month in Vancouver in October 1968. Then I went on to Harvard University in Boston. For one month, I read the papers in Vancouver. They were not much better than The Straits Times. They had one million people, English-speaking. But there was no sparkle in their pages.

The contrast in Harvard was dazzling. From the undergraduate paper, The Harvard Crimson, to the Boston Globe, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, every page crackled with novel ideas, smartly presented. Powerful minds had ordered those words. Ideas had been thought out and dressed in clean, clear prose. They were from the best trained minds of an English-speaking population.

Let us try to do better. We are not doing justice to ourselves. I know the ability is there; it has just not been trained to use the written word correctly and concisely. And it is not too late to start.

It is not possible to conduct the business of government by talking to each other with the help of gesticulation. You have to write it down. And it must be complete, clear and unambiguous.

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