When the editor sent Caryn Gootkin a copy of the sports minister’s 25 January statement about Bafana Bafana, a plain language column practically wrote itself.
Regular readers of this column will know that I am a plain language pedant. As such, I often give tips on how to write clearly and point out examples of complex and overwritten texts. I am also always on the lookout for examples of ‘unplain’ language.
Knowing this, Th eMedia Online’s editor, Glenda Nevill, sent me the statement issued by Minister Mbalula when our national team qualified for the quarter-finals of AFCON. I had heard of his tendency to use flowery language, but had never seen any examples. (My husband will tell you I have little interest in sport.)
Faced with this startling piece of prose, I delved a bit deeper into Minister Mbalula’s relationship with words. I discovered he has a reputation for language that is anything but plain. He also has a habit of using some words out of their normal context and inventing others. In 2007, as the chairperson of the ANCYL, he accused journalists in Polokwane of “mockering around a political position”. News24 reported this under the headline, Are you mockering me?
The minister has used the simple fact of Bafana Bafana qualifying for the quarter-finals of AFCON to deliver a speech of breathtaking proportions using vivid imagery and sweeping generalisations. The statement I’m about to dissect is one of the most overwritten, least plain piece of writing I’ve read. If you haven’t already done so, please read it here before continuing.
Politicians, like lawyers and marketing professionals, have reason to use grand words and complex sentences at times for effect. But when they go totally over the top, as Minister Mbalula has, they run the risk of being perceived as insincere and patronising.
Let’s use the statement to remind ourselves of some plain language principles. (Note that I have ignored the spelling, grammar and syntax errors and presented the extracts as they stand in the original.)
1. Keep your sentences to an average of 20 words
“We stand here this morning as a proud and confident nation imbued by the resounding thrashing, walloping and gregarious defeat of the Angolan national football Team in Ethekwini by the our astonishing and call-heading warriors Bafana- Bafana, the crown jewel of the nation of the most popular sport in our country and the world over.” (55 words)
“As millions of our South Africans patriots, African compatriots and curios and friendly spectators are witnessing and bearing testimony to another African extravaganza and spectacle unfolding and beaming in front of their human and mortal eyes, we are re-assured by our own collective realisation and laudable foresight of our fore-bears that the time for the re-awakening of the embedded and God-given talent within the African continent and her people looms largely on our horizon.” (74 words)
2. Always use the simplest, shortest word possible, leaving out unnecessary words
“imbued by” – filled with
“toiling” – working
“for the reason that” – because (Although in this context I am not sure what he means.)
“demonstrated” – shown
“sufficient readiness” – Surely readiness is absolute: you are either ready or you are not.
3. Avoid using doublets and triplets
“resounding thrashing, walloping and gregarious defeat”
“our national fiber, constitution and make up”
“To this day we know that the nation was disappointed and dismayed that Bafana Bafana were not resolute and determined in our quest for excellence and for quality and thus succumbing to foreign tendencies of negative media reporting and being bullied on the social networks.”
“in front of their human and mortal eyes”
“lends to us the possibility and ability “
“the magnificent and majestic Moses Mabhida stadium.”
“An African extravaganza and humdinger”
“witnessing and bearing testimony”
“glow and shine”
Always state your message once; choose the word that best describes what you wish to convey.
4. Avoid meaningless phrases and clichés.
“Our Team has once and for all unequivocally demonstrated that there is neither room nor place for prophets of doom and unpatriotic Johnny-come-lately in our national fiber, constitution and make up.”
“chart a new a path into the future”
“to this day”
“the adverb that – ‘birds of the same feather flock together’” . (I assume the minister meant proverb.)
“the nook and cranny of the African continent” (appears twice)
“From now going forward”
5. Use punctuation to help make your writing clearer
Most of the sentences are too long and need to be broken up using commas, semi-colons and full stops. Several compound adjectives should be hyphenated to make it easier to understand.
6. Use exclamation marks sparingly – let your writing convey the intensity of the emotion
“We are a unique brand! Born in struggle and baptised in revolutionary fires!”
“We ourselves as South Africans have been engrossed in the preparations to ensure sufficient readiness of our national team Bafana Bafana!”
7. Be consistent in spelling and style, particularly with proper nouns
“Bafana-Bafana” vs “Bafana Bafana”
8. Write in the active voice rather than the passive, use strong verbs and don’t convert verbs into nouns
“The defeat of the Angolan team by Bafana-Bafana” – The Angolan team beat…
“our national Team turned the misfortune of being denied goals” – The passive here shifts the blame from our team who failed to score to the other team who denied them the goals.
9. Vary your writing and don’t use the same word (all the time).
“We must all play our part in ensuring that we all feel the stadiums in all the remaining and support all the teams and beat the drums for all the teams, right at the foot of the African Continent.”
10. Avoid overwriting
This one applies to the whole statement, but I love the over-dramatisation in the following sentence.
“We appeal to the host cites and all provinces to devise go to war plans and game plan campaigns that will sustain the current moment and lift us all to highest heights of the prestigious championship.”
The final reckoning
In stark contrast to the Minister’s over-enthusiastic words of support, Talk Radio 702 host, Eusebius McKaiser, tweeted on Saturday morning: “What time are we losing to Mali?” The fact that he was proved right doesn’t excuse the brattish tweet.
Even I watched the game, partly to see whether the Minister’s spirit could indeed carry the “crown jewel(s) of (our) nation” to victory.
Sadly, while Bafana Bafana “stood on the threshold of victory in this robust AFCON Championship” *, we lost to Mali in the quarter finals. I can’t put it any plainer than that.
*Mbalula’s statement to the media on 31/1/2013.
Caryn Gootkin is owner of In Other Words, a writing and proofreading service. Follow her on Twitter @inotherwordscg.