GLOSSARY / In bed with the campaign for complexity

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The Independent Online
I THINK it may be time to start a Complicated English Campaign. One of its first acts will be to issue a special award to the NHS Directorate for its poignantly suggestive definition of a bed. You may have read this the other day because it was awarded a booby1 prize by the Plain English Campaign.

It might look, at first glance, as if we are setting ourselves up in opposition to that fine organisation but that really isn't the case; it has helped to transform standards of public communication since it was set up in 1980 and we wouldn't want to hinder its work in any way. But I wonder whether its pursuit of transparent2 official prose hasn't blinded it to the pleasures of complexity.

The bed definition was a good example - chortled at on radio programmes, sniggered at in print. For those who missed it, it begins 'A device or arrangement that may be used to permit a patient3 to lie down when the need to do so is a consequence of the patient's condition rather than a need for active intervention . . .' and continues for another 21 lines. It is ludicrous, but what no one seemed to concede was that this might be a case where nothing but complication would do, that the folly lay not in the writers but in what they were writing about.

Everybody knows what a bed is, it's true. But the point of the Directorate's convoluted description was that in the heated world of NHS politics not everybody agrees where a chair stops and a bed begins. And if you have to count beds, and the results of that count are read out in an indignant voice at Parliamentary Question Time or proudly displayed in election literature, then you had better know exactly what you mean.

Read in that light, the NHS definition has a certain charm. Its contortions of grammar and thesaurus-like lists represent the wild lunges of a man trying to catch a greased pig, blocking off escape routes as he notices them and trying desperately all the while to get a firm grip.

The sentence collapses in exhaustion at the full stop and then, as in a Hollywood thriller, there's a final flurry: 'NB: a device specifically and solely for the purpose of delivery should not be counted as a bed', which is the official translation of an exasperated bureaucrat shouting 'Oh hell] We'd better make sure some sly bugger doesn't include ambulance stretchers.'

Our campaign would have a larger purpose too, which would be to restore respect for the Latinate, the baroque, the curiously formed. Anthony Burgess, a man for whom polysyllabic words were as fine wines, will be posthumously elected as our Patron and an inverted portrait of George Orwell, who did as much as anyone to advance the puritan cause of plain prose, will hang in disgrace at every meeting - or Convocations, as they'll be known.

Actually George Orwell is a tricky case. 'The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,' he wrote in a passionate and influential essay about the state of British writing just after the war. His points are excellent ones - about stale metaphors, evasive abstractions, pretentious oddity - but he fatally concluded his piece with a set of rules.

These are to English teachers as a lamppost is to a dog and you can see why: they represent damage control for bad writers. 'Never use a long word where a short one will do,' for example, or 'Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.'

Most teachers forget to include Orwell's last rule - 'Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous' - but even with that in place the commandments advance a narrow view of English style, something pinched and mistrustful of the wild redundancy of the language.

The Complicated English Campaign, in contrast, will fight for long words and foreign constructions. We will struggle to enlarge the nation's vocabulary and we will start by urging all writers to include at least one word per piece that makes readers turn to their dictionaries. You can't get plainer than that.

1 From the Spanish bobo, which means both bird and fool. The bird is named for its perceived stupidity in allowing hungry seamen to approach it.

2 From the Latin trans, across and parere, to appear.

3 From the Latin verb pati, to suffer, to undergo.