The Plain English Campaign — a British pressure group that lobbies for public information to be presented in clear, straightforward language — held its annual awards on 2 December 2003. It gave its Foot In Mouth award for the most baffling statement by a public figure to the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for this: “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. John Lister, the spokesman for the campaign, said: “We think we know what he means. But we don’t know if we really know”.
In the days since, journalists and academics have queued up to assert that Donald Rumsfeld was talking sense, moreover sense expressed in the simplest and plainest words available, ones that the Plain English Campaign should be applauding, not criticising. The trouble is, Mr Rumsfeld’s statement needs work to appreciate, because he’s talking philosophy. (You might argue that he left out one category, that of unknown knowns — things we know, but we don’t know that we know — but that’s perhaps a comment better reserved for a seminar on metacognition.) It would seem that the PEC has put its own foot in its own mouth, again. In the 2002 awards, it criticised the actor Richard Gere for a statement that was cogent, if oddly expressed, so hardly fitting an award given for “the most baffling statement by a public figure”.
Runners-up in this section of the awards included California’s new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for his comment to an interviewer that “I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman”, but that isn’t baffling, just daft; the British politician Chris Patten was singled out for saying about the UK’s main opposition party that “Having committed political suicide, the Conservative Party is now living to regret it”, which is a nice quip, but also hardly baffling.
The best part of the awards are always the Golden Bulls for the year’s worst examples of gobbledegook. These are among the winners:
The online retailer jungle.com was asked: “Do you still sell blank CDs?”. The company replied: “We are currently in the process of consolidating our product range to ensure that the products that we stock are indicative of our brand aspirations. As part of our range consolidation we have also decided to revisit our supplier list and employ a more intelligent system for stock acquisition. As a result of the above certain product lines are now unavailable through jungle.com, whilst potentially remaining available from more mainstream suppliers”. So that would be a “no”?
The British pharmacy chain, Lloyds, wrote a letter of apology that was trying to say that an assistant had dispensed the wrong tablet and that the mistake had not been spotted by the pharmacist. This is part of a 181-word passage in the letter: “The cognitive process that staff will go through when interpreting prescriptions and selecting drugs is almost intuitive in that the prescription will be read, a decision is then made in the mind of the individual concerned, they will then make a selection based on what they have decided. When an error is made either mentally or in the physical selection process it is difficult for the individual concerned to detect their own error because in their own mind they have made the correct selection”.
And Warburtons Bakers wrote this in an advertisement in the trade magazine The Grocer: “With a launch burst of 550 TVRs — and £34m in ‘premiumisation’ opportunities — we’re confident you’ll rise to the challenge”. Don’t worry if you didn’t understand any of that — it’s probably incomprehensible to its intended audience, too. It just means that the firm is taking a great deal of television advertising (TVR stands for “Television Rating” and measures the popularity of a programme by comparing its audience to the whole population.)