Plain speaker flies in to stop Raj's beating round the bush legacy

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The Independent Online
Britain left behind steam railways, architecture and a constitution when its rule in India ended half a century ago. Yesterday an emissary arrived in Madras to help clear up another, unwanted legacy from the Raj - convoluted, colonial language.

Martin Cutts, who runs the Plain Language Commission, a pressure group campaigning for clearer English, was invited by the Federation of Consumer Organisations of Tamil Nadu to clarify the wordy archaisms of English as it is still written in the Subcontinent.

Mr Cutts, 41, went on a preparatory visit last year and collected examples from a Mr B K Anantharaman, general manager of the Madras telephone company. Company documents refer to "telephonic messages" rather than "phone calls". And instead of saying reminders will go out three weeks after phone bills, they state: "Notice regarding the intimation of outstanding bills will be issued by the third week of the issue of bills by registered post."

The company adds that: "Such of those subscribers who do not, however, wish to avail of this `timely registered reminder service' can also give any alternative telephone No. to which reminder could be given."

Mr Cutts, who has been spreading the gospel of plain English for 15 years, will talk to groups of lawyers, scientists, engineers and businessmen. "I will tell them to be careful to avoid guff, to shorten sentences as much as is practical, and to speak inan active voice.

"They all know their grammar, I found." In England, by contrast, he says he always has to spend about an hour explaining that an "active voice" means saying "I tell you" rather than "you are being told by me". But while they may all know what he means byactive voice, it isn't always reflected in what they say - witness the insurance policy sales spiel which reads: "You won't even feel that you are paying the premiums - the pinch is not felt."

That at least is comprehensible. Others are impenetrable. The annual report of a Madras finance company to its shareholders, telling them the business is good at what it does and expects another profitable year, expresses itself thus: "With the specialised business of consumer durable credit, which is the main line of business of the company and the rich experience already gained coupled with an acceptable position in the various segments of the market, your directors are hopeful, barring u nforseen circumstances, to maintaining the trend both in performance and profits."

He expects to spend much time reminding his audiences to be aware that English is a second language for their readers. "There is a tendency, I've noticed, particularly among the lawyers, to use words such as expediting, commencing and furnish, which are

archaic and not easy to understand even in a first language."

Mr Cutts and the British Council, which has sent him, are sensitive to the accusation that they represent a new imperialism imposing standard English on the Indians. Jane Moyo of the British Council in London explained that American English, Australian English or Indian English were all dynamic and acceptable, but the request to help write more explicably had come from the exasperated Indian consumer organisations.

The apostle of plain English makes the same point by quoting another passage from the life insurance policy, which runs: "Your employer deducts from your salary the amount of premiums and remits the same to us every month - no botheration to remember even!"

His view? "If botheration is plain Indian English, so be it."