Last week the Tietokirja.fi (“Nonfiction.finland”) event filled the House of Science. This literary happening began in 2007, and from the start the most popular topic has been The Non-fiction Books of My Life, on which well-known writers from Erkki Tuomioja to Madventures twosome Riku Rantala and Tuomas Milonoff have shared their personal choices. After numerous speeches I started to think about the books of my own life, and I ended up with the following list: 1) The New Dictionary of Modern Finnish (along with its predecessors) I chose simply because I use it several times every day. No other book comes even close to that kind of use. 2) Second, I picked Wikipedia, as its way of production is revolutionary. Wikipedia’s critics need wiki-literacy. 3) My third choice is Alertbox, Jakob Nielsen’s collection of columns, which has had a decisive influence on how I see online communication. I deliberately selected the online columns and not one of Nielsen’s numerous books. Nielsen effectively refutes the popular belief that books are always better than online materials. High-quality books can exist both online and on paper.
How should we express figures so that readers can easily understand them? On signs, readers are often expected to know all the specialized codes, with no effort to make those codes clear to the average person. In financial decisions, enormous figures sometimes receive scarcely any notice while minor expenses provoke furious debate. Large numbers need comparisons, or else conversion to a more understandable form: The average taxpayer pays 100 euros annually for police services. According to Auli Kulkki-Nieminen, in plain language, only the most important figures are exact; other information is rounded off or otherwise summarized: 26 130 square kilometers becomes 25 000 square kilometres; 54 per cent of women becomes more than half of women. While precise figures imply reliability, the essential thing is that the reader can grasp what the figures mean.
Language is a usability issue. In today’s society, every activity involves words. Work means writing, exploring means reading, decisions mean documents. We deal with customers via e-mail, and with online colleagues through writing. Everyone writes and everyone reads, but relatively few people are trained to write readable documents. Often people who edit the work of others lack the authority to change practices, or the expertise to rewrite content. In the workplace, plain language is everyone’s responsibility, and we need a language revival to understand it. How we use language matters; in the public sphere, good usage saves time (which means money) and improves client satisfaction. In my role as The Language Police, I’ve produced a Top Ten list to show Finnish municipalities what clear language looks like in action. Those who order this presentation, intended for managers, technical professionals, planners, and anyone who needs to write effectively, will also receive a free book (both are in Finnish).
One of the most interesting books that I read this summer was Virkapukuinen kieli (“Language in a Uniform”). This book is over ten years old, which once again confirms that novelty does not rule the book market. I was fascinated by the book’s approach: the articles examine the kinds of assumptions that governmental prose makes about its readers. Editor Vesa Heikkinen describes how citizens are viewed in a municipality’s communication strategy: the municipality is the active player; the citizen is mainly the recipient of actions. Typically, citizens are referred to in the plural, while an individual dealing with the government becomes a customer. In the same vein, residents tend to be seen as the source of opinions and questions, while the municipality itself is the source of knowledge and accuracy. Heikkinen says that it’s not realistic to go on about interaction when the citizens and the municipality are treated by the communication strategy as different kinds of beings. “Municipal government sees itself as a higher entity, a kind of overseer in charge of the important things.”
The readers of the Word of the Week, helping to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Word, have chosen their favorites from the list in the contest announcement. Competition was tight, but the top two words emerged from the pack. The winner for the Finnish version of the column was googling, and for the English version, picturing Angry Birds. Out of nearly 350 votes cast, the names of 11 submitters were chosen at random during a session at the FCG Forum on June 6th. Congratulations to these prize winners—we’ll contact you directly—and thanks to all the participants.
The Word of the week column will be on vacation in July and returns in August. Have a sunny summer.
The annual contest is over, the Language Police have identified the top ten offenders, and 2013’s Jargon of the Year has been chosen. The finalists were the following: a 20-page press release, a departmental reply to a proposed city council measure, and an extract of minutes from a governmental meeting. The merits of the governmental press release, according to Eija Kallioniemi who submitted it, were its length and the “upper-management droning” of its language. The maintenance department’s response to an initiative to allow local groups to use idle city facilities was an outstanding example of official jargon, with rolls of ponderous language shrouding the basic idea: “No, let’s not; it’ll be expensive.” And here’s an snippet from those meeting minutes: “The Museum and Science Center perceives its function firmly within the overall framework called for as part of collaboration with producers of art throughout the preliminary stages of building design as part of each project undertaken in collaboration with the Real Estate Department so as to determine the role played by art in the aforementioned projects.” This year, the jargon forum participants chose finalist number two. One factor in the choice was the use of classic jargon: instead of talking about “suitable premises,” it describes “the features and locations relative to the suitability to purpose of the premises in question.” Similarly, “low budget” is transmogrified to “the city’s meager appropriations pertaining to building repairs compared to the existing requirements for of the renovation.” Thanks to the voters, as well as to everyone who submitted candidates. As always, we hope for better (and clearer) official writing.
It’s the first week of June and once again the time to choose the year’s worst jargon. But─why select the jargon of the year? Isn’t it just unpleasant to highlight a random bad document? The purpose of the contest is to focus on how we use language in the public sector; we use a particular example to draw attention to the genre. As Lari Kotilainen, “the protector of the Finnish language,” has recommended, we want to raise a ruckus about hard-to-read text─but with a twinkle in our eye. Public sector documents cannot be seen as a product of a single writer. They are almost always written collaboratively, subject to official guidelines set by higher-ups. Ulla Tiililähas insightfully commented about the bureaucrat’s dilemma: on the one hand they are trained to write clear documents to comply with the Administrative Law, and on the other hand they often must use a poor document template they’re not allowed to alter. The individual who produces the final version within an organization typically lacks authority to make substantial changes, which means officials on every level need to apply principles of understandable communication. If you have a good example of jargon run amuck, please send it by June 3 to email@example.com.
The Association of Finnish Non-Fiction Writers celebrated its 30th anniversary last Thursday at Finlandia Hall. The best part of the program was a panel discussion about changes in our knowledge environment. The panel was chaired by Arto Nyberg, and the participants were Mikko Lehtonen, Markus Leikola, Kirsti Lonka, Hanna Nikkanen and Fredrick Rahka. The discussion was stimulated by the usual anti-Internet suspects: knowledge is becoming superficial, the number of new books is decreasing, and literacy is going to collapse. Fortunately, these aren’t ideas the debaters cling to. In fact, they support all forms of reading and writing.Kirsti Lonka noted that the author is not the same person after writing a book, because he has reorganized his store of knowledge. This knowledge building is so important in learning that students need to actively create content and not simply take in what’s presented. It’s fine with Markus Leikola that people seek information from the Internet, as long as they assess the quality and are willing to go to the sixteenth Google result page and even further. According to Mikko Lehtonen people imagine that in the past there was a golden age of reading, compared to which things have declined greatly. If ever there were such a golden age of literacy, he says, it’s our own.
The Finnish version of Word of the Week celebrates its tenth anniversary this spring, and the English version is joining in. To mark the occasion, we’re choosing ten words and asking readers to vote for their favorite. Voting, in either language, makes you eligible to win one of ten free-book prizes. One person will win a gift card good at the Särkänniemi amusement park here in Tampere. Probably that’s a Finnish-speaking reader, but someone who reads the English version each week may have long wanted to dine at the Näsinneula restaurant at Särkänniemi. So choose your favorite from the following options: build-a-book, FAQ, Gutenberg galaxy, in-depth discussion, online text, picturing Angry Birds, textbook case,textrovert, tone control, and Twitter message. You can vote via the online form below, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re in one of our training sessions, you can be retro and fill out a paper form. We’ll announce the winning word in June, draw for the prizes, and notify the winners via email. Good luck – or, if you read the Finnish version, onnea!
My work has always involved popularization; I often interpret research when writing for or speaking to a broader audience. Academic circles have often looked askance at such popularization, but now the attitudes are changing. One example of this new appreciation is a recent book, The Popularization of Science, which says that the objective of popularization is “successful interaction with people who are not working in the same field of science.” The book’s 14 articles deal with topics like media relations, tensions between scientific and popular writing, and techniques of clear writing and speaking. Johanna Vaattovaara encourages scientists to derive from their research new ways of understanding current problems. According to A.-P. Pietilä a popularizer balances serious issues and light presentation to hold his reader’s interest; he must simplify, sharpen, personalize and dramatize.Krista Varantola brings up the ethics of popularization − you must give credit to whoever originated the idea even when you write a textbook or a magazine article. Markku Löytönen wishes that non-fiction would include many “reading planes”: the opportunity to browse, view images, search and read closely. Although you may have read many of these ideas in previous books, The Popularization of Science is worth reading.