The Sketch: How to talk like a human being: Lesson one

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The Independent Online

It is with great pleasure that I am able to tell you that my colleagues appeared in front of the Public Administration Committee to give evidence on Official Language, that they appeared with a professor and the lady from the Plain English Campaign, and that they weren't very good. It puts a spring in a fellow's step, that, and gives lunch an added flavour. I hadn't been asked, you see.

Matthew Parris and Simon Hoggart were. One had been the cleverest of the sketch writers and the other the funniest. But the MPs dragged them down to their level, if we want to put it nicely.

Still, they were better than the other two. The plain speaking professor said "It's easy to criticise" (it isn't for him). And that "the amount of material on the internet doubles every 12 hours (he's a professor of linguistics, not maths).

Ms Plain English wondered if instances of good official prose were "too sporadic – if that's not too jargon a word". No, ducks, like "frying pan", "sporadic" will do in general conversation.

Hoggart is a great anecdotalist and gave us some of his sketch hits. Churchill's-great-speech-done-in-officialese sort of thing. But Parris nicked one of his favourite jokes ("speaking as though his words were being chiselled in granite"), and that was funnier.

The committee wanted some hints, or tips about how to talk like human beings, and why they were so bad at it with all that "aggregating the prioritisation of semi-autonomous strategies" thing they do. David Heyes felt it was important "to rebuild trust through increasing our accessibility". He was half way there already!

Matthew would have written – indeed has written – wonderful columns on the misuse of political language. I think it was he who first nailed "investment" as a twisted synonym for "public spending". And he certainly made the point that MPs say dull things when they haven't anything to say.

But had he prepared for his appearance as for a media interview, he would have itemised the uses of English to conceal, deceive and mislead without lying. And how it is used to dramatise the importance of the speaker – he who talks longest wins. And he would have expanded his priestly conspiracy image into a full Marxist explanation of language being used by the political class to exclude non-members.

But I suppose there's only so much one can do.

What recommendations should the committee make to improve official language? The professor asked for an archive, a resource of good models that could be emulated (or "an anthology" as plain speakers call it).

What else? How to hold a hall? How to move people? There are no rules.

John Prescott is a great political speaker and so is Boris Johnson. You just can't professionalise that range of effects into one theory.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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