Language for non-native speakers

When we need formal announcements, particularly in the US, we seem to feel compelled to use idiotic, artificial speech. Nobody would ever say, one person to another, the kinds of things that you hear announced in airports, train stations, etc.

Consider “Washington Dulles International Airport is a non-smoking airport. Smoking is prohibited in all terminals.” What if we changed that to say “Do not smoke in the airport."? Consider abstract references like “tobacco,” too. When you see “tobacco-free zone” or some similar rubbish, it makes someone do a double-think: what is tobacco? Oh, yeah, that’s cigarettes and stuff.

My thinking is this:

  • People who don’t speak English well (non-native speakers, for example) probably cannot parse some of the long words. I mean really, do we have to use the formal name of the airport when you’re standing inside it?
  • It takes too long to get to the point. People are walking from point a to b. You only get a snippet of time with them. We spend a long time listening to a bunch of useless syllables. “Washington Dulles International Airport” is twelve syllables, and at the end of it, all I’ve said is the name of the giant building I’m standing in. In seven syllables, I can say “Do not smoke in the airport.”
  • Say things like a person would hear them in conversation. Rather than say “smoking is prohibited,” or “this is a non-smoking restaurant,” just say “do not smoke,” or “you may not smoke.” To be helpful, you could say “you may not smoke here, but a smoking area is outside.” How quick, simple, and clear can we be?

Here in England, there is a Plain English Campaign that works really hard to make things understandable. They’re actually a resource that government bodies, public facilities, or companies can reach out to and have their language simplified without losing its vital meaning. Having read up on them a bit, I see they operate in other countries as well, but you don’t see their influence in the US. We really need more of this there.

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