Champion of plain English rewarded with degree

May 26, 1995

(Photograph) - Manchester University's decision to award Chrissie Maher, the veteran campaigner for plain English, an honorary master of arts degree, will not abate Mrs Maher's enthusiasm for plain English, particularly in educational materials.

Mrs Maher formed the Plain English Campaign in 1979 after a particularly painful example of how badly written forms can actually kill. "I spent the evening with two elderly sisters, helping them fill in a form from the local council for an extra heating allowance," she recalls. When she went to see them the next day they were both in hospital with hypothermia - and died soon after.

"What that episode made me realise was that words can kill. If those sisters had been able to fill in the form sooner on their own, they would have been all right. No one should have to die because of jargon," she says.

Since 1979 her campaign has flourished. The organisation now employs 25 people and will set up a branch in Miami in August. Mrs Maher has just returned from South Africa where the campaign is working with Nelson Mandela's government to implement plain English initiatives in the new constitution and all public information. The campaign reckons that its work with the UK Government on clearer forms and information has saved the taxpayer Pounds 350 million.

Over the past 26 years the campaign has found schools and colleges to be as jargon-ridden as any other. Mrs Maher says: "We get a lot of complaints from parents and pupils that they simply cannot understand their textbooks." Some of the worst offenders are science writers. "We have come across examples in science textbooks where children are instructed to do experiments that will not work."

Even lecturers are guilty. This sample from a lecturer in criminology had the campaign particularly perplexed: "The Children and Young Persons Act needs to be cited as part of the history of criminological discourses that desire to discover both crime and punishment in reason (classical) and yet express embarrassment at the law breaking of the young, old, mad. Yet given the dualism in discursive representations of subjectivity and the dualism in strategies of disposal (penal-welfare, custodial-assistantial), the partial abandonment of due process (i.e. the attempted transformation of function of the court) also abandons some of the safeguards in the adversorial determination of guilt."

When Mrs Maher got the letter from Manchester University notifying her of her honorary degree she was delighted to see that it was written in plain English. "This degree is the first academic feather I have - there are no A or O levels," she says. "It was like winning the pools."

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