Do you walk to work or do you carry your lunch?
In filling out forms, answering surveys or taking tests, we’ve all come across poorly constructed questions like this. They are examples of the most merciless principle in communications: the curse of knowledge.
By a cruel trick of fate, the human brain is far better at making sentences that correspond to an intended meaning than at detecting the presence of unintended meanings. The result is that everybody else sees the other meanings before the writer does. Knowing what you wanted to say keeps you from recognizing what you said.
In tests and surveys, this can be a big problem. A few poorly written questions can undermine the validity of test scores or research results, creating mayhem and wasting money.
This is where Ashra Sugito comes in. Ashra is a language specialist at Teelen Kennismanagement, a training and testing company in Wilp, Netherlands. Finding and fixing muddled questions is her speciality.
Here’s an example she provides from an actual test:
Why does the national meteorological institute record the temperature at a large number of measuring stations every hour?
Clearly the writer had a particular answer in mind, but what? Is the “why” about the recording, the temperature, the large number, or the hourly frequency? We have no way of knowing.
How to fix this? Ashra suggests rewording the question as a statement, then adding a specific follow-on question, such as “Give one reason why they do this every hour”. If the question was meant to get at multiple issues, you would simpl
y add another question for each issue.
As solutions go, this is pretty basic and hum-drum. That’s the point. The work is in finding the problem — meaning, not just finding failures of clarity but figuring out exactly what’s wrong.
The curse of knowledge isn’t irremediable. With practice, it can be overcome quite effectively. But it’s hard. In the meantime, there are people like Ashra to keep you out of trouble.
Click to see this column in the December 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.
Have you ever planified for the actorness of badgers?
Brussels has always had its own waffles and cabbages. These days it also has its own flavor of English.
“EUglish”, as it might be called, is found in EU offices. At first glance it seems merely like a mix of British and American bureaucratese. But beware. Many of those familiar words have unexpected meanings.
The European Court of Auditors has documented about 100 of the most distinctive usages of EUglish, though as the title of their book makes clear, they are not exactly celebrating the local dialect. “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications” is intended as a rogue’s gallery, complete with plans for rehabilitation.
Each one of these words seems to have taken its own route to perdition. Some EUglish words are transparent Gallicisms, like using “elaborated” for “prepared”. Some are unidiomatic but not exactly incorrect, like “an exercise” instead of “a procedure”.
Some are even perfect English – they’re just unusual words. There may be more people in Brussels than in Boston who could tell you that “ovine animals” means “sheep”. Others are downright tricky: “to dispose of” normally means “to get rid of”, but in EUglish, it means “to hold or retain.” Mind the gap!
Most fun are the invented words. “Planification” could pass for the work of hipsters in Los Angeles. And while we non-Bruxellois don’t have the word “actorness”, it’s a nicely expressive way of saying “participation”.
Fun, too, is the use of “incite” (customarily used only with words like “anger” or “rebellion”) for “encourage”. And then there’s “badger”, which traditionally means an overgrown weasel-like animal, but in Brussels means the device that reads your security badge.
Personally, I find the English skills of EU personnel amazing and humbling, and most EUglish words unproblematic. But if you ever have to read an official EU document, I incite you to check out the Court of Auditors’ book so you can precise your understanding!
Click to see this column in the November 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.
The Melon Shuffle (or, why context is everything).
Involuntarily, the boggled Anglophone mind tries to conjure an operatic scene involving a discount at a greengrocers — rather than, for instance, one about three women using cards to divine their fates, which is what the scene is actually about.
The confusion is easily explained: the words are French, not English. A rough translation would be, “Shuffle the cards! Cut the deck!” No melons or coupons involved. (But produce lovers, don’t despair: you’ve got the orange vendors in Act IV).
In this instance, the confusion of most Anglophones would be momentary: since all the other words are in French, these must be French too.
But what if the context were different? For instance, what if the scene were on a concert program where the other titles were in English? It might only be by noticing more subtle cues, like the circumflex in “mêlons” or the “s” in “Georges”, that we would figure things out.
Often, key elements of context are completely absent. It’s assumed we’ll supply them ourselves. Take this listing from the infoplease.com page on Belgium: “Sovereign: King Philippe (2013)”.
What does the “2013” mean? It is only our “mental context” that tells us it’s probably the year he took the throne, and not, say, his year of birth or the last time anyone checked who was king.
But then a few lines later, we see “Antwerp 961,000 (2009)”. The presentation is identical, but the meaning is different. Clearly, this year is an “as at” date for the population figure.
This next one had me scratching my head: “birth rate: 10.03/1000; infant mortality rate: 4.28/1000”. It seemed crazy: more than four in ten Belgian babies did not survive infancy? Of course, it was crazy. The first “/1000” means “out of a thousand members of the population.” The second means “out of a thousand births.” But it took me a moment.
The moral? When you’re sure context is clear, you can leave it unstated. But if it’s not clear, or if you’d like to help readers avoid those “melon shuffle” moments, add a contextual cue or two.
Click to see this column in the October 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.
Interview at FT studios in London: Josiah Fisk on why plain language matters in Key Investor Information document
Part of the popular Ignites Europe video interview series. If you are an Ignites subscriber, please view it on the Ignites site.
Would you pay EUR2,000 a year for a financial product you didn’t really understand?
Before you answer, consider this: if you live in Luxembourg and Belgium, you could already be doing exactly that.
According to Insurance Europe, the association for the EU’s insurance industry, residents of Belgium and Luxembourg spend close to EUR2,000 per capita on life insurance each year. In my book, when you’re spending that kind of money, you want to be clear on what you’re getting.
Yet I’m willing to bet that few life insurance customers have a good working knowledge of their policies. With insurance, even more than other complex products, reading the contract – which is the definitive product description – is unlikely to help.
Even if you understand what it’s saying (which is hard enough), it can be virtually impossible to know what that information amounts to in practice. It’s a little like trying to figure out how to set the time on your Swiss watch by looking at a diagram of all its gears, springs and ratchets.
Even experts find insurance baffling. David Pearlman, the brilliant insurance attorney who invented the US college savings plan, once said to me, “Whole life insurance is the most complicated product I’ve ever seen. I still don’t fully understand how it works.”
If someone as savvy as Pearlman is struggling, is there any hope for the rest of us? I say there is, though it needs to start with better efforts on the part of the insurance companies.
There’s a lot they could do. For instance, simplification should be able to reduce contract length by 60% to 75%, if it’s done properly. Adding a how-to-read section can help. So can reorganizing the document so that it follows the product lifecycle.
Even just changing some of the jargon can help. Many terms are confusing because they describe things from the insurance company viewpoint, not the customer viewpoint. For instance, “surrender” seems like a strange word to use for making a withdrawal from your policy until you realize that from the company’s standpoint, they’re surrendering your money.
In the meantime, though, don’t bother to try reading the contract. Instead, make sure you get a clear explanation from your insurance agent. And if they can’t explain it? My advice: don’t buy!
Click to see this column in the July 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.