Living and working in Brussels I see many examples of the use of written English - both good and bad - and not just from non native speakers. I have also heard that we have to live with what is known as Brussels English and that it doesn’t matter about the standard I see.
There is no doubt that English is the working language of the European Commission and we should clearly communicate our messages so that they can be understood. We are in the business of government and people should know what we want to achieve. Especially when we are asking for taxpayers to fund Horizon 2020 projects.
Using plain English
In the English speaking world, there has been a move towards the use of plain English in government and marketing communications. Plain English means using language and structure so that a reader understands what is needed and takes action. That’s effective communication.
A definition of plain English
'A communication is in plain English if it meets the needs of its audience — by using language, structure, and design so clearly and effectively that the audience has the best possible chance of readily finding what they need, understanding it, and using it.'
This definition was accepted by the International Plain Language Working Group and was found in Cheek, A. ‘Defining plain language.’ Clarity 64 (2010): 5 – 25.
Using plain English in proposals for Horizon 2020
Proposals are generally written by several people - normally by people who are highly involved in the subject area and they are technical documents that communicate innovative ideas. Too often people’s enthusiasm for their ideas overtakes the need to clearly communicate the benefits of their project.
Evaluators say the main reason why they give a low score for a proposal is due to ideas and work which is not clearly explained. Then why do consortiums make it difficult for the evaluator to read the text? At a basic level, sentences are too long, paragraphs are large and text is squeezed into limited space.
Say what you are going to do
We see too many examples of fluff with vague and undefined language. Here is an example from a real proposal; this was an objective of the project.
"A significant and material change in travel patterns and behaviours across a large number of citizens, utilising existing technologies and applying established methodologies across Europe to achieve sustainable and energy-efficient mobility patterns.”
What does this objective actually say? Does it communicate a specific and measurable outcome? Maybe a better way to say this would be;
"We will reduce car use in 1000 commuters by increasing the use of bicycles. We will use personal travel plans delivered through modern communication channels. Reducing CO2 usage amongst our target groups by 10%."
The latter is more convincing - what is a significant change and how large is a large number?
Make your words count toward your word count
When people are faced with page and word limits the tendency is to fill the page with as much information as possible in the belief that more information is better. But is this the right information? The challenge with grant writing is not to fill up fields with enough words - it is to make sure that every one of those words is adding value.
Finding out more about using plain English
There is much more to say about plain English than space in this post. You can find out more by reading these books.
Cutts, M. Oxford Guide to Plain English. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Blamires, H. The Penguin Guide to Plain English. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 2000.
You can also take one of our workshops on writing winning proposals.