The Rise and Rise of Gobbledygook

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Peter Butt’s Talk for The Hub 1 August, 2017
The Rise and Rise of Gobbledygook
Once again Hub members were treated to a very interesting and informative talk on the
development of Plain English. This was developed by Emeritus Professor of Law, Peter Butt
from Wollstonecraft and Emeritus Professor of English, Robert Eagleson from Greenwich,
during their careers at University of Sydney in the mid-seventies. Plain English was designed
to simplify the over wordy and complicated language used in legal and other documents and
was quickly adopted by many countries in the western world.
We were shown amusing examples of sentences in leases, wills and other documents. The
length of one sentence alone was 763 words. Peter Butt asked why it is necessary to use ten
lines in a lease with regard to a tenant’s responsibility when a single sentence such as ‘the
tenant must keep the premises in good repair’ suffices.
Gobbledygook language contains stylistic phrases such as ‘notwithstanding the fact that’
instead of ‘even if’; ‘as a consequence of’ for ‘because’; and ‘in connection with’ for ‘about’.
Latin and Greek phrases may still be favoured by some lawyers and judges but there is good
research evidence to support simple plain English.
The NRMA which was one of the first to adopt this mode of writing, found that there was less
litigation, a reduction of staff and the saving of time and money. More over readers think more
highly of this mode of writing.
Here are some techniques to improve our writing styles.
• Write with the reader in mind and organise your material from the reader’s perspective
• Main points first (unlike legal judgments)
• State conclusions early
• Be conscious of the layout and design.
• Use short sentences of about one and a half lines (20 – 25 words). For interest, vary
sentence lengths. If you want to drive home a point use very short sentences.
• Use active rather than the passive voice which distances the actor.
• Use verbs, not noun phrases e.g. ‘she decided’ instead of ‘the decision was made’.
• Use normal punctuation which is crucial for meaning. The disappearing hyphen is a
problem because it shows a connection
• Link sentences with old information first, new information later.
Put the important word of the sentence at the end.
Reviewed by Joan Smiley

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