Some thoughts on the new UK government style guide

The UK government has recently published a style guide for the new GOV.UK website (a sort of gateway mega-site which directs users to the sites which best suit their needs), and there are a few interesting points about it I’d like to briefly discuss here.

1. The overall tone of the document, starting from the large bold Point Number One (in red), which I quote:

GOV.UK is for everyone in the UK and those outside the UK who have an interest in how UK government policies affect them.

The overt attempt at inclusiveness seems to be an attempt to amend prior government style guidelines which perhaps have worked to distance non-experts (e.g., those who did not write the style guide; those who are not in government; those who do not work as civil servants) who wanted to access information. Unfortunately, the ALLCAPS of the GOV.UK URL works against this inclusiveness by shouting the UK government’s institutional authority at the reader.

2. The overt acceptance and use of contractions throughout the new GOV.UK site. Contractions signify informality, arguably the antithesis of much government writing. This new GOV.UK website, however, aims to have ‘a welcoming and reassuring tone’ and asserts that text on it should ‘use contractions’ and ‘use the language people are using’. To accomplish this unexpected guideline, authors are advised to ‘use Google Insights to check for terms people search for’.

This attempt at populist appeal and reframing the UK government’s main web portal into an approachable, friendly website seems a U-turn from existing government discourse, and an about-face from the authoritative stance previous government discourse has created. However, what underpin and motivate these new style guidelines are the institutional authority and power which the UK government possess. This document and myriad contained guidelines would have a different effect coming from, for example, the Local Shop in Royston Vasey, England, which is not a large institution and which does not have the institutional authority to influence millions of pages of text.

But the UK government does have the institutional authority to implement such discursive change, and the power to compel authors to comply with the new guidelines. This power and institutional authority implicitly contradicts the friendly, informal tone that the new guidelines work to convey. This contradiction could therefore be problematic for users of GOV.UK who mistake the informality of the website’s discourse for lack of institutional authority.

The new UK government style guidelines could, however, be a welcome change to many institutional websites and documents which can be difficult for non-experts to read and understand.

3. Under Heading 2. Points of Style, the style guide asserts that acronyms should be spelled out ‘unless they’re well known, eg UK, DVLA, US, EU, VAT, MP etc’. Spelling out acronyms is useful, and certainly appreciated by users not familiar with the acronyms. However, assuming all users will understand the acronyms which are not spelled out can be interpreted as constructing a sort of ‘discursive boundary’, whereby those who do not understand what the non-spelled out acronyms mean are excluded from the knowledge that GOV.UK provides.

This assumption that all users will possess the knowledge of what certain non-spelled out acronyms mean appears to contradict the goal of GOV.UK to be ‘for everyone in the UK and those outside o the UK who have an interest in how UK government policies affect them’. Because someone takes an interest in UK government policies does not necessarily mean that such a person will know what certain acronyms stand for, or mean.

Moreover, Section 1.5 stipulates that authors are to ‘Avoid… unexplained abbreviations or acronyms’. Users who do not know what, for example, DVLA or VAT stand for may regard these common and apparently obvious acronyms as ‘unexplained’. Thus confusion can occur, despite the efforts of the new GOV.UK style guidelines.

4. The use of ‘unnecessary jargon’, ‘plain English’, and ‘legal language’ (Sections 2.13, 1.5, 1.6)

Like Point 3, while this convention is suitable for readers and users who possess the knowledge required to interpret these phrases in a situationally appropriate manner, those who do not have this knowledge may misinterpret the ‘simple’ language. It is appreciated that the style guide advises the occasional use of ‘legal requirement/legally entitled’ instead of ‘must’ or ‘need to’, but this use depends on the author’s interpretation of ‘how important it is for us to talk about the legal aspect’.

Interpreting the phrase ‘you will need to’ in the manner in which the author wishes (i.e., it is a legal requirement) requires the reader to possess the knowledge that ‘you will need to’ is, in the context of GOV.UK, a legal requirement and simplified ‘legal language’. This knowledge is not possessed by every user or reader of the site.

Indeed, I would argue that interpreting ‘you must’ as a legal requirement instead of non-legally obligatory advice draws heavily on communicative knowledge of and fluency in British English. Unlike other varieties of English (for example, American English), British English does not use such imperatives as ‘you must’ to indicate anything other than a strong admonition similar to a legal requirement. Native speakers of American English, however, will be familiar with the syntax of ‘I need to’ or ‘I need you to’ to mean not a legal requirement, but instead a request.

Therefore, what is meant to be a legal requirement phrased in ‘ordinary’, easy-to-understand style can be interpreted incorrectly as advice, instead of the legal requirement that it actually is. Repeated misinterpretations could lead to confusion, and ultimately more frustration than had GOV.UK used expected ‘legal’-type language style.