Ba(nne)d words: the GOV.UK style guide

I love a good style guide. And I applaud anyone encouraging the use of clear English. But the GOV.UK style guide, produced by the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service (GDS) for the GOV.UK website (the new portal bringing together all, or most, of the UK’s government websites), is really bugging me. More specifically, the part on plain English (mandatory for all GOV.UK websites) is bugging me.

The GOV.UK style guide urges people writing for the site to:

Use plain English. Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do. Use ‘buy’ instead of ‘purchase’, ‘help’ instead of ‘assist’, ‘about’ instead of ‘approximately’ and ‘like’ instead of ‘such as’.

We also lose trust from our users if we write government ‘buzzwords’ and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague and can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text.

Fair enough.

Ba(nne)d words

But here’s the list of the “buzzwords and jargon” that the guide says we can do without:

  • agenda (unless it is for a meeting)
  • advancing
  • collaborate (use ‘working with’)
  • combating
  • commit/pledge (we need to be more specific – we’re either doing something or we’re not)
  • countering
  • deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
  • deploy (unless it is military or software)
  • dialogue (we speak to people)
  • disincentivise (and incentivise)
  • empower
  • facilitate (instead, say something specific about how you are helping)
  • focusing
  • foster (unless it is children)
  • impact (as a verb)
  • initiate
  • key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)
  • land (as a verb. Only use if you are talking about aircraft)
  • leverage (unless in the financial sense)
  • liaise
  • overarching
  • progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)
  • promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
  • robust
  • slimming down (processes don’t diet – we are probably removing x amount of paperwork, etc)
  • streamline
  • strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
  • tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport)
  • transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
  • utilise

Some of these choices I have no quarrel with: overarching, empower, progress (as a verb), for example. And I understand that the site and the language it uses need to be accessible to people of all reading levels, and those who aren’t native English-speakers.

But liaise? Commit/pledge? Focusing? Foster? Streamline? Tackling? Transforming? Is the GDS telling us these words are jargon? Buzzwords? They’re kidding, surely. And why, I wonder, is “going forward” not on the list?

They’re not even applying their own rules: the GDS website describes the service as “a new team within Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services”. Their blog tells us that the GDS team has released “a new version of the home page, which is pretty key”, is working on “exemplar delivery”, and will be working “with the departments to deliver [projects]”. Where’s the pizza?

And here’s the head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, in a blog post on staff learning and development:

Whilst a lot of the responsibility for personal development lies with individual civil servants, managers have a key responsibility as well. This is why I am asking managers to put a particular focus on key skills and the Capabilities Plan when they do their Mid Year Reviews. [my emphasis]

It’s not just the random (to my eyes) selection of banned words I find so annoying, or the fact that the folk who produced the list themselves use them so liberally. I use a lot of these words myself in my work:  tackle, focus, key, foster…

What bugs me is the lack of guidance – which is surely what a style guide is supposed to provide. If the GDS  want to ban words like liaise or combating, then they should suggest alternatives. And tell us why the banned words are so wrong. It’s not as if they’re monstrosities newly coined by management gurus intent on murdering the language.

To be continued.

Other posts you might like:

Nouning and verbing: an ask too far?

Making sense of legalese. Not.

Words that set our teeth on edge

By Marian Dougan


Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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    1. Thanks, Kim.
      Yes, principled is the operative word here – a list of “undesirable” words is pretty unhelpful without some explanation of why they’re undesirable, in what context, and what alternatives might be used. Or even of which part of speech the guide refers to: does GOV.UK find “pledge” undesirable as a verb, a noun or both? And why?

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