Public sector dehumanising language

In a newspaper article about council refuse collection the other day, the featured council’s representative referred to employees as ‘operatives’. For me, this word represents all that is wrong with literary cleansing for political purposes.

I see the people who collect our refuse as ‘people’; operatives makes them sound like machines and dehumanises them. We used to call them dustmen or bin men, because they were predominantly men, but I see nothing wrong with using dustwoman.

Our dustmen are very helpful and cheery, as are our posties, both men and women, and I think of them as individuals: real people. ‘Operatives’ suggests they are cold, unthinking, mechanical, inhuman and unable to take pride in helping the community.

No doubt, many councils and public sector organisations trot out the old cliché that ‘our people are our most valuable asset’. Well, if that’s true, treat them like people and show them some respect when talking about them.

The dustmen and women and all the people who actually provide services are the public face of councils and public sector organisations and often create much better PR for them than any good-news glossy magazine, press release or damaging comment by a representative in a newspaper.

After our last blog, are you cutting out unnecessary words?


The value of accuracy

We all do it: jot things down, bang out an email or a blog. Does it matter if we get a number or something else wrong? Apart from being sloppy, usually not. So is that all right? 

I don’t think it’s an excuse. What’s the point of a number if it’s wrong? How many feet have I got? Two or three? The whole point of numbers is that they are precise to a .000000000001 (or however many more zeros you care to insert).

I’m writing this after proofreading large documents for several large companies and identifying lots of typos and inconsistencies. Is that bad? No, that’s the whole point of proofreading. Often, the people producing a document will be too close to the words and will have edited them too many times to be able to spot mistakes. Designers are also under pressure to lay out documents without time to check them. By building proofreading into the production process, any errors or omissions can be spotted and corrected before publication.

So does it matter? Yes, if the price is shown as £50 instead of £500 or readers – your customers – can’t understand what you’re trying to say in your document.

Finally, it helps ensure some elegance in the writing. Awkward, artificially abrupt language can work well when used for effect, but if you want someone to understand something quickly and easily, simple and elegant language is recommended.

So the value of proofreading is in ensuring that your readers get accurate information and can understand what you’re trying to say.

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