Why say 'the insured' when 'you' will do?

Why say 'the insured' when 'you' will do?
Lawyer and author Adrian Tan.

More organisations are moving towards using plain English in documents meant for the public.

They include OCBC Bank, DBS Bank, NTUC Income and government agencies such as the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board and the Ministry of Law.

They send their documents to a British agency recognised as the international standard of plain English, to have it certify that these documents are as easily understood as possible.

Language experts say this is a good idea, as it is important to ensure that people can easily understand what they are being told.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that the Government should be "simple and direct when we communicate with the public".

No matter what the occasion is, use simple language instead of "management speak or big words which will not impress anyone", he said.

British agency Plain English Campaign awards a Crystal Mark to a clearly written document.

Its general manager, Mr Tony Maher, said the number of documents from Singaporean organisations that has received such certification has jumped from just two in 2011 to 76 last year.

The number of Singaporean organisations approaching the agency has "increased tenfold in the last decade", he said.

Since receiving its first Crystal Mark in May 2011 for its HDB home loan documents, OCBC Bank has some 50 certified documents for customers, including its financial needs analysis form and mortgage insurance brochures.

Its head of experience design, Mr Bojan Blecic, said it made this move because there had been "an increasing strong call by bank customers for greater clarity and simplicity in explaining bank terms and conditions and product descriptions", since the financial crisis between 2007 and 2009.

In the wake of that crisis in which investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, many bank customers had complained that they were unsure what they were investing in.

The CPF Board received its first Crystal Mark for its 36-page CPF Life booklet, updated in February this year. The booklet explains the national annuity scheme, which started last year.

The scheme is still new, and people might find it difficult to understand, its spokesman said. "We want to provide information as clearly and simply as possible," she said.

A spokesman for DBS Bank - which received its first Crystal Mark in March last year - said it did away with banking and legal jargon in its documents "to demystify them by making them more concise and easier to understand".

Terms such as "conflict of inconsistency" and "without prejudice" are replaced with "difference" and "without affecting" respectively. This has halved the number of pages of its documents, she said.

Insurance company NTUC Income, which received its first Crystal Mark in 2012, has so far collected 140 Crystal Marks, which account for more than 95 per cent of its policy contracts.

The Plain English Campaign said it looks for active verbs, everyday English, and an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words when awarding a Crystal Mark. Terms such as "the insured" and "the applicant" should be replaced with "you".

Researcher Audrey Tsen, 24, said insurance documents should all be written in plain English so that customers can understand the technical details.

"My insurance agent goes through the policy details with me, essentially translating the important parts. But I feel I still need to read it myself," she said.

Lawyer and author Adrian Tan said lawyers are sometimes guilty of using "complicated English".

"What the judges want in court is clear and simple English," said Mr Tan, a member of the Speak Good English Movement.

Using long words and complicated sentences shows, on the speaker's part, "insecurity and a lack of confidence in your idea, and that you haven't been able to boil it down to its basic concept", he said. "It is quite obvious to people who are listening or reading when they encounter rubbish."

Academics sometimes write complicated prose to sound profound, said Professor Tan Tai Yong, vice-provost of student life at National University of Singapore, who oversees its Centre for English Language and Communication.

He said: "I've seen academics who begin their paper with 'What is a discourse of a discourse?' They write in such a convoluted way that people don't understand what they are talking about."

Writing English plainly should not be mistaken for writing it poorly, he said. "We use language to communicate. If we use big words just for the sake of using them or simply to impress, they cloud our meaning and hinder our communication."


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