Public Services > Central Government

GDS adopts KISS principle (or is it 'rule'?) for Whitehall English

David Bicknell Published 25 July 2013

Government Digital Service content principles define new 'welcome and reassuring' tone for communications


A wholesale re-wording of the government's communications to its citizens has begun following the publication of the government's 'style guide'.

The style guide is for written content on the GOV.UK website and therefore by implication, government departments' content on it. It says that "GOV.UK is for anyone who has an interest in how UK government policies affect them. Using this style guidance will help us make all GOV.UK information readable and understandable."

The style guidelines reinforce the Government Digital Service's (GDS) increasing remit that now appears to include cross-Whitehall marketing communications and language. The government's style guide might previously have been the responsibility of the Central Office of Information (COI) which was the UK government's marketing and communications agency until it closed in March 2012.

The 'content principles' decree that the tone of voice "has a welcoming and reassuring tone and aims to be a trusted and familiar resource."

Communication must be 'concise', 'informative', 'understandable' and 'relevant', but not 'terse', nor 'pompous'. It must also be 'emotionless - because "adjectives can be subjective and make the text sound more emotive and like spin."

Specifically outlawed are long sentences with complicated sub-clauses and words ending in 'ion' and 'ment' which "tend to make sentences longer and more complicated than they need to be."

The user should always be addressed as "you" where possible, the style guide says, where content on the site often makes a direct appeal to citizens and businesses to get involved or take action, e.g. 'You can contact HMRC by phone and email' or 'Pay your car tax'.

Unsurprisngly perhaps, 'plain English' is 'mandatory' for all of GOV.UK with shorter words instead of longer ones. That means 'buy' instead of 'purchase', 'help' instead of 'assist', 'about' instead of 'approximately' and 'like' instead of 'such as'.

Other prohibited - er, banned - words, include:

- agenda ('unless it is for a meeting')
- collaborate (use 'working with')
- commit/pledge ('we need to be more specific - we're either doing something or we're not')
- 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')
- facilitate '(instead, say something specific about how you are helping')
- foster ('unless it is children')
- impact ('as a verb')
- key ('unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn't 'key' - it's probably 'important'')
- promote ('unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion')
- slimming down ('processes don't diet - we are probably removing x amount of paperwork, etc')
- 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?')

Metaphors, the principles insist, should always be avoided. For example:

- drive ('you can only drive vehicles; not schemes or people')
- drive out ('unless it is cattle')
- going forward ('unlikely we are giving travel directions')
- in order to ('superfluous - don't use it')
- one-stop shop ('we are government, not a retail outlet')




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