Yesterday Home Secretary Theresa May delivered a lashing from the lectern to the Police Federation and urged the police “union” to reform or face being forced to change.
One obvious area where many ofﬁcers could change for the better is in their communications. (And let me state for the record m’lud that there are many others in the legal sector who are similarly guilty of mangling the English language.)
I’m not referring to poor news releases from a police press ofﬁce here; I’m talking about the many reports that bear no resemblance to the language used by the people officers serve.
So we have to endure “The suspect was proceeding in his vehicle in a northerly direction…” instead of “The suspect was driving north”; that suspect was probably an “adult male” (man), who later “exited the vehicle” (got out of the car), which was probably “blue in colour” (blue) after he had been “completely surrounded” (just surround please, you can’t half surround, in the same way you can’t be half pregnant). Perhaps “cuts were observed on his right cheek” (no, you “saw cuts on his right cheek”); maybe the Police “wanted to interview him with regard to a break-in occurring the previous night in the vicinity,” (but I prefer to think they wanted to question him about a local break-in the night before.)
Often it’s not just the language, but the very liberal sprinkling of the passive voice that puts distance between them and the audience. Journalists are taught to use the active voice whenever possible – and especially in headlines – and it’s a valuable tip for all communicators.
So “the door was opened by Freddie Villain” should become “Freddie Villain opened the door”; “and the victim was approached by the 14-year-old youth” becomes, “and the 14-year-old approached the victim”.
My guess is someone will lambast me for the above and say reports are written like this for a good reason, just as terms and conditions have to run to 20 pages and licensing agreements must stretch to the moon and back, to which I say, yes, but only to justify hefty legal fees.
I’ve yet to see a contract or other so-called legal document that couldn’t be improved by some judicious journalistic editing. I’d also argue none of my translations above creates imprecision or inaccuracy.
Smart Forces will surely act – if they’re not already – to train their officers to ditch the wading-through-treacle language and embrace everyday-speak.
A great irony of those still suffering from legal linguistic constipation is that the Police are proliﬁc users of slang when they’re not communicating formally – so you might catch them referring to dippers, fences, black rats, blues ’n’ twos, drums and woodentops.
Perhaps we can excuse these colourful terms in the line of duty or amongst themselves, but using “vicinity” “proximity” and “proceeding” in external communications etc, well, such verbosity is criminal, isn’t it?