Towards clearer sign language

A Talk by Martin Cutts, Research Director of Plain Language Commission

towards-clearer-sign-languageAfter getting a £100 ticket from a private parking company, Martin Cutts won a court case in 2011 because the judge found the car-park’s signs unclear. He appeared in a BBC1 Watchdog programme (click here for youtube link), which focused on the case, and he has recently addressed a conference attended by leading British Parking Association officials.

Martin notes that this year the private-parking industry will charge two million motorists up to £150 a time for supposed contraventions of car-park rules, eventually pursuing them for around £160 million in total. About 65% of ticketed motorists pay these non-statutory ‘fines’ without question, persuaded, he will argue, by a combination of unclear and misleading signs, complicity by government agencies, and bombastic legal letters. The other 35% resist, but only a handful of cases go to court.

Using examples of signs and documents, he will argue that landowners and car-park operators should do much more  to minimize contraventions by ‘designing in’ compliance. He’s also urging the Government to require operators to give motorists accurate written advice so that they realize they can challenge the ‘fines’.

Martin will also aim to show that plain language and good typography on private parking  signs are not enough. What really matters is the ethical and commercial purpose behind the signs - are they designed to create lucrative contraventions or to help motorists to comply? A new law coming in to force on 1 October will mean that most private parking signs will have to be rewritten and redesigned, so this talk is very timely.

Following from this, he will also provide guidelines that can be applied to the text of all sorts of signs and other material.

As the author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English and many other guidance documents, Martin has a particular interest in the clarity of public information. A veteran of plain-language campaigns since the late 1970s - he conceived and co-founded the Plain English Campaign in 1979 - he has led more than 2,000 writing-skills courses for government departments, companies, local authorities and law firms.

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