Plain English before and after: Making Police signs more arresting

I’m known among friends for drawing attention to the laminated, desktop-printed signs that appear blu-tacked or sticky-taped to the windows, doors and noticeboards of this world.

Here’s one I clocked on my recent honeymoon in New Zealand’s South Island, when my husband and I did the recommended thing and pulled over for a short break from driving.

Police sign about poaching written in stuffy, old-fashioned language

I’m dedicating a post to this sign because it’s a classic example of its kind. Almost every sign someone runs up in Microsoft Word, laminates and rivets to a fence has similar problems.

If you made this sign, I’m not criticising you. You’re normal.

These days it’s easy to make signs, but no one is taught what good writing is like in this context. And that includes the manager’s manager’s manager who signed off this sign.

We’re rewarded at school for doing exactly what you shouldn’t do for writing that’s clear, attention-grabbing and easily read. Your teacher praised you when you wrote endeavour rather than try. You were told, “You must write at least 500 words”, so you learned to stuff in unnecessary extra words. Now, you don’t realise you do it.

I understand why we teach English this way, but few get a chance to learn how to write for real world situations.

What’s wrong with this sign?

To understand what a good sign is like, think about why you’re making a sign and not say, a pamphlet, a radio commercial or a website. Your answer is probably something like, ‘Because people only need this information when they’re in the place where the sign is’ and ‘They’ll have little time to absorb the information.’

These are good insights. What do they mean for how you write it?

We overestimate how much time someone will give to reading our thing, and underestimate how quickly they zone out.

It’s also common, as with this sign, to choose formatting that makes writing less readable, and language that sounds distant and old-fashioned.

What is a good sign like?

Here are a few examples of where the sign goes off-track.

1. Use headings for headings, not slogans

Most signs won’t need a heading, but if you do have a heading, it must add clarity — usually summarising what comes next.

‘Police support safer communities’ is a slogan — it’s advertising. Wrong place, wrong time. All it does here is distract from the message.

Some non-headings I often see on signs:

Polite notice, Important, Attention, Please read, Information

A good rule is, if you can write almost anything underneath the heading, it’s not doing a job and should go.

2. Left-aligned text is easier to read than centred text

One assumption people make about signs is text should always be centred.

That’s fine if your sign is one, or at most two, lines. Once you start getting into three or more lines, centring makes the text harder to follow.

3. Sentence case is easier to read than all caps

Sentence case is how I’m writing now, with mostly lower case letters, but upper case for the first letter and proper nouns.

THIS IS ALL CAPS. Many were taught ALL CAPS makes something seem urgent and important. IT WORKS SOMETIMES, BUT THE MORE OF YOUR MESSAGE YOU PUT IN ALL CAPS THE LESS YOUR ALL CAPS STAND OUT. IN THE CASE OF THIS SIGN, THERE’S NOTHING FOR THE ALL CAPS TO STAND OUT FROM.

All caps also slow down reading. They’re fine for a sign or heading of a few words, like STOP or GIVE WAY or LADIES TOILETS UPSTAIRS. But when you’re writing sentences, the clue’s in the name: Use sentence case.

4. There’s an ideal number of words in a line for readability

It depends on many factors like line spacing and type size, but a good guide is 9 to 12 words.

For this reason, my instinct is to use landscape rather than portrait for this sign. But I won’t be the person riveting it to the fence, so take that for what it is.

5. Write like a person

Let’s have another look at the words:

PERSONS ARE ADVISED THIS PROPERTY IS LISTED AS A MEMBER OF THE SOUTHLAND ANTI-POACHING INITIATIVE.

ALL PERSONS ENTERING THIS PROPERTY MUST OBTAIN PERMISSION FROM THE LANDOWNER/OCCUPIER OR THEY MAY FACE PROSECUTION.

SURVEILLANCE EQUIPMENT MAY BE IN OPERATION ON THIS PROPERTY.

Gosh darn. I’m guessing we’re all picturing the writer as one of these folks:

I think I’ll run away now.

Rather than how I think the Police want to be seen:

They seem nice. Source: Newcops.govt.nz

The police have their own form of spoken English. People sometimes assume there’s a good reason for it, but in many cases there isn’t, such as using ‘individual’ not ‘person’, or ‘remain’ not ‘stay’. It’s likely subconsciously acquired on the job, in the same way people pick up a local accent if they live somewhere long enough.

When your profession has its own way of using language, it makes people feel you’re not a person just like them. And that’s a big problem we know the police face.

I think if police were to talk the same way on the job as they do when they chat to their family and friends, they might get a warmer reception. And many do… but others write signs like this that sing a different song.

Why do people write like this?

When I teach writing to people who’ve become used to, for example, starting sentences with words like Persons are advised, they often say they simply thought that was how organisations are supposed to write. They’re usually surprised and delighted to learn most organisations want their employees to write human-to-human.

Sometimes people believe this kind of writing sounds authoritative and trustworthy. Nothing could be further from the truth — plain language builds trust, and stuffy tones are a barrier.

What does a good one look like?

I’m not going to lie: Writing in plain language is harder than writing in stiff, tortured prose. But anyone can learn.

Here are five plain language principles to get you started.

  1. Aim to sound like a person, not an institution
  2. Use fewer words
  3. Use simpler, shorter words
  4. Use shorter sentences
  5. Use active rather than passive voice (eg, The cow jumped over the moon, not, The moon was jumped over by the cow)

It’s easier said than done, I know.

Try something like this

Plain language isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are many ways to write a sign that works for this purpose.

Without talking with those involved to understand their needs and priorities, here are two options quickly drafted for a sense of what would work better.

This property is part of Southland’s anti-poaching initiative. It may be under surveillance.

Make sure you have the owner or occupier’s permission before entering.

This one brings the key message up front:

Poaching is a crime. We’re not afraid to prosecute.

There may be surveillance on this property. Make sure you have the owner or occupier’s permission before you enter.

Feel free to contribute your own in the comments below.

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