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5.1 Avoid emotive words, jargon, and policy-speak

See 5.1 of the Checklist »

We aim to write in plain language that conveys a clear and precise meaning with a professional, helpful, and engaging tone (see also 5.2 has a professional, helpful, and engaging tone). Emotive words, jargon, and policy-speak can distort and politicise the meaning of what we write.

The theory is simple: use plain, clear words and satisfy readers. Do the opposite and risk confusing and annoying readers.

This supporting document categorises and analyses a range of reader-unfriendly, ineffective expressions that we use unthinkingly in public documents. It focuses on all types of writing – including legislation.

Emotive words

We use emotive language to cause an emotional reaction in our readers. In legislation and in our professional communication, our language and tone needs to be professional, which means avoiding emotive language.

Words that appeal to the emotions are useful for selling products and services or grabbing instant attention. Advertisers, marketers, tabloid newspapers, and TV reporters love them. However, they rarely belong in public-sector documents.

Here is a selection of emotive words:

Example 1
astronomical (size)
battlefield
champion
crusader
epic
gothic
guru
holocaust
legacy
leader
littered with
megastar
mercurial
mogul
next top …
passionate
prestige
prestigious
smarter
superhero
superstar
to skyrocket
think-tank
tsar
unprecedented
vision
visionary

These examples of emotive words in legislation are taken from UK legislation and speak for themselves:

Example 2
cross.gif … an “extreme image” is an image which … is grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character.
[section 63(6) of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008]
cross.gif The landing may be prohibited of a person who is suffering from a contagious disease that is loathsome or dangerous.
[an old immigration law]
cross.gif ... incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature …
[Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955]

Jargon

Jargon means words and phrases used by particular groups of people that are difficult for other people to understand. It’s common shorthand and, used sensibly, can be a quick and efficient way of communicating.

Most jargon consists of unfamiliar terms, abstract words, made-up words, acronyms, and abbreviations. Every profession, trade, and organisation has its own specialised terms, but jargon can confuse or alienate readers outside that group. The PCO is no exception to this.

Generally, avoid using jargon to allow as many people as possible to understand your message. Replacing jargon with a plain language equivalent contributes to a helpful, engaging tone, and shows that you have thought about the needs of your readers.

Example 3

These are examples of military jargon and the plain language equivalent:

cross.gif arbitrarily deprive of life
render non-viable
terminate with extreme prejudice
tick.gif kill people
cross.gif  Examples of jargontick.gif  Alternatives
giving 110% recast
impact effect, influence
incentivise encourage
leverage (when used as a verb) use, take full advantage of
man up recast
optimise improve
strategic goals and objectives aims, goals, objectives
synergy cooperation, teamwork

Jargon v technical language

Jargon is used for efficiency. For obvious reasons, at the PCO we refer to LENZ not the Legislative Enactments of New Zealand authoring and publishing system, but we only use it in-house.

However, if you do want to use in-house PCO jargon (because it is a quick and efficient way of communicating), you should remember that newer staff, in particular, may need an explanation. Terms like Gazette, Promulgation, instrument, patching, and skeleton can be puzzling for newer staff.

The PCO often uses technical language in legislation and in our professional communications. For example, we use words like SOP, provisions, sections, paragraphs, schedules, counsel, Bills, drafts, and revision. These are words that we use in our communications with parliamentary and departmental colleagues, but that an ordinary reader may not readily understand.

Budget legislation is a good example of legislation that includes technical language. It includes many words that are specific to the financial management of government. Words like appropriation, Estimates, Imprest, RDA (revenue-dependent appropriation), and Vote all seem good candidates for the plain language treatment. But, in the context of budget legislation, they have established meanings and, in many cases, will not be defined because the users of this legislation share a common understanding of that language.

In other technical legislation, like the Gas (Safety and Measurement) Regulations 2010, words common to the gas industry are used in the legislation because they are precise and are part of the accepted, official vocabulary of that industry.

We are often asked to use jargon from a specific industry. But just because the words are in common use in that industry, does not always mean that we should use them in legislation. If the words have a range of meanings, we should use other terminology in the legislation with a clearer and more precise meaning. For example, in the Electricity (Low Fixed Charge Tariff Option for Domestic Consumers) Regulations 2004, the terms “average consumer”, “home”, and “special services” are defined to provide that precision.

Legal jargon/expressions

Legal jargon or legalese includes expressions that only lawyers and judges use frequently. Sometimes a technical term has a common law meaning that is difficult to translate precisely (eg, non est factum). In legislation, you may need to keep the term to reflect the precise legal meaning.

If you do keep the legal term, you could think about providing a translation or an explanation to help the reader. Example 4 is from section 22(3)(a) of the Contract and Commercial Law Act 2017. The drafter has kept the legal term and included a brief translation in brackets:

Example 4
tick.gif (a)   the doctrine of non est factum (it is not my deed):

Some legal expressions, however, have no special legal meaning. They are either terms with a supposed “intellectual” flourish that have a plain language equivalent, or ambiguous expressions that only appear to be precise. Before you use legal jargon, think carefully about whether it falls into either of these categories.

In the following table, suggested alternative words and phrases are in bold text. Use your judgment: there may be other words that work better in the context or you could consider omitting them or recasting your text.

cross.gif Examples of legal jargontick.gif Alternatives
a priori by deduction / deductive
ab initio from the beginning
actus reus recast
criminal act
bequeath give / present / give by will / leave
bona fide in good faith
chose(s) in action recast
replace chose(s) with thing(s)
demise transfer by lease
devise [by will] give / present / give by will / leave
domicile recast (eg, place where the person lives)
[place of] residence
enjoin direct / order / require
entail need / cause / impose / involve / require
escrow recast or omit
estate recast
interest
estop stop / prevent / hinder
ex post facto after the fact / retrospectively
heirs, executors, administrators, successors, and assigns recast or omit
in personam recast
against the person
in rem recast
against the thing
inter alia among other things
inter partes between the parties
mens rea recast
state of mind / mental element
non est factum recast with alternative in brackets, eg: (it is not my deed)
pari passu side by side / on equal footing
per capita for each person / per person / each
prima facie at first sight / treated as (unless the contrary is proved) / it is presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary
profits à prendre right to take something from someone else’s land
recognisance undertaking / agreement / promise / bail undertaking
rescind revoke / repeal / cancel

See also 8.1 Use the simplest words to convey meaning.

Policy-speak

Don’t let policy buzzwords or policy sound-bites creep into your writing. This is important for legislation, particularly in purpose statements and the explanatory material, where you must express information in neutral terms, despite it being the product of a political environment.

Example 5
cross.gif The purpose of this Bill is to provide a framework for [blah], in order to [among a list of things] promote the smarter and more efficient allocation of capital.
tick.gif The purpose of this Bill is to provide a framework for [blah], to [among a list of things] promote efficient allocation of capital.

Policy-speak obscures the message and may reflect a political bias. For example, phrases like “welfare dependency”, “social safety net”, and “social protection” are popular in political communications, but are loaded in ways that evoke specific emotive imagery. When you write, use words that hold precise meanings and contribute to an apolitical, factual, non-emotive tone.

Policy-speak also tends to be exclusive and uses a rapidly evolving vocabulary. The words may appear intellectual and scientific, but are inaccessible to the general public.

Buzzwords sound trendy. Trendy words dip in and out of fashion, some last for several years, others only a short time until they are used years later for something else. Either way, buzzwords tend to have ambiguous meanings and don’t contribute much to a document.

Whenever you write a word or phrase that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, strike it out. Vogue words cheapen prose, partly because their fashionableness wears down their meaning to the blandest generality, and partly because they make you sound like an unthinking writer of ready-made phrases.
—Bryan A Garner, The Elements of Legal Style, p 32

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