How difficult it is to write well! Even something as simple as a parking notice requires thought and care. As for a letter to the editor of a medical journal, one should make sure one has something worth saying before sending it.
In today’s post I offer examples of the pitfalls in both kinds of communication.
Trespassers will be shot!
You might think that Stanmer Park, near the city of Brighton in southern England, with its beautiful woodland walks and extensive open land, is a lovely place for a day out—but be careful if you go there by car.
The local paper, The Argus, in January 2021 reported that it
…has been contacted by several angry residents who have been hit with £100 fines for parking within the grounds at Stanmer Park during the coronavirus pandemic.
These local residents have every right to be angry, because the car parking sign, shown above, seems to have been written by a poorly-educated person who was unsure about what he or she wanted to say.
The notice is intimidating, condescending, badly written, and unclear. It brings to mind another kind of notice:
These premises are patrolled by
armed guards with attack dogs.
Trespassers will be shot!
Let’s take a closer look. The part with the white background seems to consist of two sentences, although the meaning of the first one is not immediately obvious due to the lack of a colon after the phrase ‘Parking is permitted for’.
However, we can discern two sentences, the first of which is
Parking is permitted for vehicles parked in a considerate manner within a designated car park.
Obviously, inconsiderate parking would not be permitted, so it’s unnecessary to say this, and ‘vehicles’ is understood. Also, the word ‘within’ is pointless because they are not talking about parking outside (outwith if you’re Scottish) the car park. Therefore the notice can be reduced to
Parking is permitted in a designated car park.
But if a car park isn’t designated it wouldn’t be a car park, so we can leave out this word too, and what remains is
Parking is permitted in a car park.
This is stating the obvious and is, therefore, pointless.
The second sentence,
No parking is permitted at any time outside of a designated car park and/or in the access roads, this applies to grass verges and/or pavements
also needs trimming and other improvements. Let’s get rid of ‘of’ and the superfluous words ‘at any time’ and replace the comma with a semi-colon. Thus we get
No parking is permitted outside a car park and/or in the access roads; this applies to grass verges and/or pavements.
Now let’s deal with the ‘and/or’ business. This ugly construction means one or the other or both, but in the above context it makes no sense. What they seem to be trying to say is
No parking is permitted outside a car park or in the access roads.
But since the access roads are by definition outside the car parks, this is self-evident and can also be omitted. The same objection applies to the grass verges and pavements, so we can simply say
No parking is permitted on the grass verges or pavements.
To make it perfectly clear, the notice should say:
Parking is only permitted in the car parks.
Parking is not permitted in the access roads, nor on the grass verges, nor on the pavements.
Now to the last part of the notice. It seems to hang in the air because it’s not clear that it’s a bulleted point related to ‘Parking is permitted for,’ but if you think about it, the sentence is supposed to run:
Parking is permitted for vehicles fully and clearly displaying a disabled badge in the front windscreen and parked in a signposted disabled space.
For a start, the patronising words ‘fully’ and ‘clearly’ can be omitted. In addition, since the windscreen by definition is in the front, this word likewise can be left out and the whole sentence simplified to:
Parking is permitted in a signposted disabled space for vehicles displaying a disabled badge.
Finally, we have the absurd writing at the bottom of the notice:
By parking or remaining on this site other than in accordance with the above you the driver are agreeing to the following contractual terms
You agree to pay a Parking Charge Notice (PCN) in the sum of £100.00 to be paid within 28 days of issue.
There is something else after that but it’s in such small print I can’t read it.
It may sound like nitpicking but this is presented as a legal notice, so they ought to get it right.
They can’t assume that ‘you the driver’ are agreeing to anything. They can only say that you the driver will be deemed to be agreeing, etc.
Further, if you the driver park or remain on the site other than in accordance with the above, then clearly you the driver are not agreeing to what follows, and therefore will be liable to be charged, etc.
Presumably, what they were trying to say is something along these lines:
By parking on this site other than in accordance with the regulations [though the sign is so badly written it’s unclear what the regulations are] you will be liable to be issued with a Parking Charge Notice of £100.00, payable within 28 days.
But all this confusion could have been avoided if the notice had been reduced merely to two words: NO PARKING.
How not to write a letter
Here is a remarkably repetitive letter, written by a doctor, which The British Medical Journal saw fit to publish (5 December 2020). I reproduce it slightly shortened and with emphasis added:
Mass testing programmes—as rolled out in Liverpool—raise complex ethical matters. Establishing a transparent process that debates and manages ethical matters to encourage…stakeholders is important…The concerns people might have about mass testing programmes [and] screening programmes should be…based on an ethical framework. A robust ethical framework to guide mass testing…is needed, building on work that has identified ethical considerations [which] would enable systematic and principled decision making…to assure the ethical standing of mass testing programmes for covid-19. In a pandemic response mired in controversy and challenge, thinking deeply and in an anticipatory way about ethical matters is likely to pay dividends.
Why does she have to say ‘rolled out’ when there are many other serviceable words to chose from? How about launched, introduced, organized, started, begun, embarked on, ushered in, initiated, instigated, instituted, inaugurated, set up, brought out, or opened? She apparently doesn’t realise that clichés should be avoided like the plague.
Apart from stating the obvious in the first sentence, since the writer seems to have no concrete suggestions for dealing with the complex ethical matters to which she alludes, she might well have decided that sending this letter was pointless.
Evidently, even being highly educated is no guarantee of the ability to write well.
Text © Gabriel Symonds