How Singapore murders language

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The Complete Plain Words

By Abhijit Nag

The Complete Plain WordsConnectivity took its toll yesterday when a fire at a SingTel building disrupted television, internet and banking services — and threw language out of gear.

“SingTel estimated full restoration of all services to be completed by 8 am tomorrow,” The Straits Times reported today. It was quoting SingTel, which “estimated” — not “expected — full restoration of all services by then. A multibillion-dollar telco like SingTel apparently does not do anything so vague as “expect”; it calculates the possibilities and puts a number on them: it “estimates”. The only problem is, if you go by the book, it’s a foul on the English language. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “estimate” means to “roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, extent” of something. So one may “estimate” the damage done by the SingTel fire but can only “expect” all services to be restored by a certain time.

Sorry for sounding schoolmarmish, but it was a chore having to look up the word in the dictionary.

SingTel was not the only offender. DBS tweeted: “DBS is taking proactive measures to minimise service disruptions will extend operating hours of all DBS & POSB branches today by an hour.” It was not just “taking measures” but “taking proactive measures”. To go back to the dictionary, “proactive” means “creating or controlling a situation rather than just responding to it”. What was the “proactive” measure it took — that it extended operating hours by an hour?

The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore also had to throw in an extra word about what it was doing. “IDA is currently investigating the issue,” its spokesman said. No need to say “currently”. If the IDA “is investigating”, it can’t do that at any other time but “currently”. Fire the redundant adverb!

I agree we can live with redundancies like “currently investigating” and a bit of hype like “proactive measures”. The Grammar Nazi may come after me for writing “like” instead of “such as”. But “estimate” instead of “expect”? That’s a bit rich. One has to draw the line somewhere. It’s all the more egregious when a slip-up like that is by a company like SingTel. With all the resources at its disposal, surely it should be able to do better than that. Unless, of course, it is reinventing language.

Granted, language changes all the time. It has to with the rest of society, to keep pace with the changes all around. New words come into use, old words acquire new meanings.

But have we become cavalier about language? It’s natural there’s more concern about climate change, growing economic disparity, the impact of new technology on society, but how do you think and express your feelings? Words deserve a little more care, I think, because they are all we have to share our thoughts.

So it’s good that the government agencies are planning writing workshops to help officials write “simply and with sincerity and empathy”, as The Straits Times reported. Who doesn’t like a friendly word? Officials writing straight from the heart seem inconceivable. But so was the internet once. We will wait to see what comes out of these workshops.

It’s certainly more ambitious than what the late Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee did back in the Seventies, when he gave officials copies of The Complete Plain Words which Sir Ernest Gowers wrote for the British civil service. I love that book, which can be a primer for anybody on how to write simply and clearly. Now, if The Straits Times is correct, the government wants to go one step further and inject empathy in official letters.

It must be part of the grand strategy to win hearts and minds, which the Prime Minister outlined at a seminar where he spoke about how the public service could help increase trust in the government and encourage people to cooperate with it. That could be a plus — in the vote for the PAP in the next election, an upswing in its electoral fortunes after the plunge in 2011. But whatever may be the underlying considerations, if the strategy succeeds, it will be a win-win for the government and the people alike.

As of now, the government has its work cut out, replacing officialese with empathy. An official reverted to type when he told The Straits Times about the writing workshops: “These efforts reflect our ongoing commitment to be people-centric and service-orientated in a manner that citizens and our customers can understand and relate to.” He needs a copy of The Complete Plain Words.