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I note that the quotation of remarks ascribed to the spokeswoman is prefaced by the clarifying phrase "Marie Clair, spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign, said". This word "said" implies that the quoted remarks were expressed verbally and were subsequently rendered into written form by a reporter or editor. That being so, Marie Clair (lovely name, by the way) cannot be held responsible for errors of spelling or punctuation.

With regard to the phrase "it is appalling" that you consider so infelicitous, I beg to differ. I might agree with you if the phrase - complete with dashes - had appeared in a formal piece of written prose, but it didn't. It is part of an ad lib verbal response, probably to some question such as "What do you think of this, then?" As such, I would say it is a quite natural and acceptable aside. We do understand perfectly what Marie Clair is getting at, after all.

I personally deprecate the modern use of third person plural pronouns to refer to singular third persons. I would much prefer to use the singular (and to my mind, correct) pronouns him(self), her(self) and their corresponding possessives or to rephrase and avoid them. But I am not the world and for better or for worse, this usage is here to stay and we have to put up with it. In that sense, though "themselves" would be unsuitable in a formal written context, it strikes me as natural and acceptable here in a verbal off-the-cuff remark. Perhaps we need to invent a new form such as *themself for such occasions. (Much as I shudder at the thought.)

I do sometimes feel quite irritated by organizations that seek to legislate on the form of language they think the rest of us should use and it therefore heartens me to know that a representative of this particular organization, when talking to reporters, speaks like a normal human being and not like a grammar book.


Perhaps, Peter, we should think of the "plain" in "Plain English" as being like the same word in, for example, "She's rather a plain girl". I do feel a bit sorry for Marie Clair and the lady from Spalding, who must now be feeling like diplomats exposed by Wikileaks.

Peter Harvey

The problem with the Plain English Campaign is that it sometimes indulges in silly dumbing down, here for example: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7705922.stm (Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like "vice versa", "pro rata", and even "via" should not be used, in speech or in writing. ), confusing plain language with simplistic thought.

Donald Rumsfeld's comments on known unknowns, for example, was correct and perfectly clearly expressed for anyone who took the trouble to understand what he was saying, but he was ridiculed for saying it. Legal language, as you will be aware, must often use terms and forms of language that are not accessible to the layman (it is sometimes overdone deliberately but that is a different matter). The famous passage beow is often quoted but I believe that it is quite clear to those who need to understand it, and those who don't should find more exciting things to do with their lives than trying to work it out from first principles:

"In the nuts (unground) (other than ground-nuts) order, the expression 'nuts' shall have reference to such nuts, other than ground-nuts, as would, but for this amending order, not qualify as nuts (unground) (other than ground-nuts) by reason of their being nuts (unground)."

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