Name & shame

Here are some examples of reckless writing. Send other examples to info<at>

Reckless insurance policy

A friend read this statement in his Schedule of Insurance:

This Policy also covers your legal liability in respect to loss or damage to third parties’ goods caused by your negligence and whilst such goods are in your physical or legal care, custody or control.

“Sweet”, he thought, “I won’t need that extra insurance on my hire car. My liability policy will cover me if I have an accident.” – a reasonable conclusion, and something a reasonable person would expect to be covered in a business liability policy.

But the insurance company denied the claim after a minor accident in the hire car.

Buried deeply in the policy (page 15 of 22) was an exclusion clause – a ‘gotcha’. The exclusions started on page 10 with

This Policy does not cover any liability;

Five pages later, after wading through a poorly organised and long list of excluded items, processes and events is this:

23. Vehicles
for Personal Injury or Property Damage arising out of the ownership, possession or use by the Insured of any Vehicle:
(i) which is registered or which is required under any legislation to be registered,

There it is in black and white – a registered vehicle, in this case a hire car, is not covered under the policy. The insurance company blamed the policy holder, the reader, for this misunderstanding. The insurance company would likely claim this was a case of reckless reading, but I reckon it’s more likely a case of reckless writing.

A foundational principle of plain language is that the writer, not the reader, takes prime responsibility for effective communication. So, it is never OK to blame the reader.

Why I think this document has been written recklessly:

  • I doubt the document was tested in any way with potential readers. If you don’t test a product (in this case, a document) how can you have any idea how it will perform?
  • It is unlikely the writer applied their mind to how the document would be understood – the writer likely did not consider what the reader expected the policy to cover.
  • There is no evidence the writer has a deliberate and considered concern for the reader – the policy is primarily designed to limit the liability of the insurance company.
  • The clause in the shorter document (the schedule), the document more likely to be read, does not mention any exclusions.
  • The content of the policy, especially the exclusions section, does not seem to have a logical, reader-based structure.
  • Basic Plain English techniques (familiar words, active voice, verbs, short sentences, conversational style) have not been used consistently.
  • Readability statistics on the policy are poor: Flesch reading ease: 23.0, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 17.9, Passive sentences: 41%. (Readability statistics do not give a definitive measure of how well a document serves readers’ needs, but are a helpful indicator)

Product manual that just doesn't make sense

This example submitted by a colleague.

The device may work OK but the User Manual has serious problems. It’s more than the clumsy translation from Chinese to English – there are structural problems also.

My colleague wrote:

I bought a wireless headset (so Brent could listen to stuff I don’t want to listen to!) and we both had HYSTERICS trying to interpret the so-called user manual once we got past the first two or three sentences.

In the end we were just so frustrated that we had to ring the distributors … and get a technician to talk us through how to set the gadget up. He said the problem lay with the translation from Chinese to … er … English. I doubt it. This is … an ALMOST COMPLETELY USELESS document…

See it here, with comments added. digitech user manual