In our e-bulletin, we like to take a wild specimen of business-writing bull by the horns and tame it, so that it can be understood by all.
The Ban the bull campaign was inspired by our gobbledygook amnesty back in 2009, which brought us the following offending sentence.
And, despite the subject matter, there’s nothing natural about this sentence …
“In respect of a natural habitat, the sum of the influences acting on a natural habitat and its typical species that may affect its long-term natural distribution, structure and functions as well as the long-term survival of its typical species within, as the case may be, the European territory of the Member States to which the Treaty applies or the territory of a Member State or the natural range of that habitat.”
This 72-word monster is more likely to leave you dizzy than well-informed about natural habitats, assuming you even make it to the end. Sentences that have to be re-read numerous times are only going to annoy your reader, and could well make them put your document aside – permanently.
This sentence has actually been doing the rounds – in several slightly modified forms – in assorted EC Directives and national regulations for over a decade. (It speaks to the dangers of repeatedly using cut-and-paste, that this example is perhaps the worst.) Where it was previously broken up into numbered points, these have now been crammed together, with additional phrases haphazardly piled onto the end.
So how might we re-build this into something more manageable?
Even bearing in mind that this is taken out of context, the opening is vague and unclear. In what sense is it ‘in respect of’? It would be best to make this obvious at the beginning, so the reader is prepared with a premise to add the rest of the information to as they go on.
After a little research, it seems this is probably defining an official way of deciding the conservation status of any natural habitat. Would the reader have known that?
This would be better: ‘The conservation status of a natural habitat can be measured by looking at …’
Avoid such overly long, opaque constructions, typical of the language of legislation. Even when lacking in individually mystifying jargon words – as this one mostly is – the sheer length of such sentences is a huge obstacle to clarity. Effective use of punctuation is vital for making meaning explicit, so use it wisely: an infinite number of commas won’t clarify a poorly put-together sentence.
Break it up
When you’re dealing with a list in your text – in this case, a list of factors – consider using bullet points. These instantly make the piece more accessible, because the reader is no longer faced with a block of text. They also help to make separate ideas more distinct.
Cut the filler
Phrases like ‘as the case may be’ sound rambling and wishy-washy. Better to actually state your case, and cut these out.
Keep it simple
Unless you’re sure every reader will understand a particular word, pick a more straightforward one.
So that would leave us with:
The conservation status of a natural habitat can be measured by looking at:
• every influence, both environmental and human, that affects that habitat and the species within it
• how these influences will affect that habitat’s long-term distribution, structure and function; and on the future survival of its typical species.
In this context, these definitions apply to the range of natural habitats within Member States of the European territory included in this Treaty.
Now, armed with this knowledge, we can all move forward into a world where business writing is safer for everyone.
If you ever spot any baffling business-speak, be it in a report, letter, email, flyer, website, or proposal, please join our campaign by sending it to us to unravel. Alternatively, just leave a comment here at our business writing blog.