plain english: will cops follow courts?


At Language Log, yesterday, Robert Shuy reported “plain english creeps into police radio transmission”  (Nov. 13, 2006)  Prof. Shuy’s piece gives a summary and adds historical and linguistic background to a Washington Post article, “Va. State Police Swap ’10-4′ for ‘Message Understood’,” Nov. 13, 2006. 

The Post explains that police departments evolved different sets of “10 codes” over the past decades, making interdepartmental communication — more important than ever in a post 9/11 world — difficult.  For example, “10-13” stands for “officer down” in Arlington, Virginia, but means “request wrecker” in nearby Montgomergy County, Maryland.  Eager to avoid such mix-ups, “Virginia’s government has become one of the first in the nation to try to eliminate traditional cop talk. For months, officials in Richmond have worked with police and firefighters to come up with a substitute for 10 codes, finally deciding on a statewide “common language protocol”  — which we might translate as “plain English.”

It’s no secret that shlep advocates the spread of Plain English into the nooks and crannies of our society where jargon and in-group, specialized speech hamper communication with other groups (or even intra-group). (see, e.g., Mary on Plain Language forms, and myself on pro se nomenclature).   Pro se practitioners and advocates who agree may find the LL posting and WP article helpful in demonstrating the need for plain, standardized language and understanding the resistance among jargonistas when asked to change in response to linguistic “corpus planning“.   

In addition to basic human inertia, it is interesting to see that many police officers very much enjoy the mystique that comes with a their specialized jargon.  Of course, demystifying the law has always been a prime purpose in the Plain-English/Plain-Language movement.  Prof. Shuy notes that resisters also “reason that if doctors and lawyers can have their language codes, why can’t police?”  Of course, “But he’s doing it, too, officer” never seems to work for me.  More important, we need to remind those who resist Plain English that some of the worst language offenders on the planet — yes, lawyers and judges and courts — have been doing a pretty good job of cleaning up their act.

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