When our plain English becomes blinded by science
Every few months a science story appears which is so totally misunderstood that mild-mannered scientists take off their lab coats, flex their biceps and gently explain percentages don't actually work that way, so no, everyone isn't about to die of E.coli, not even if they lick a goat and don't wash their hands.
And, reassuringly, there is the occasional reversal of fortune, when a story suggests some scientists have such a poor understanding of words that they shouldn't be allowed to write anything, ever.
An example of this was the announcement this week that medicine labels needed to be made clearer because people have trouble understanding them.
Theo Raynor, professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Leeds, carried out the research which has prompted the suggested changes.
One of the problem phrases was ‘Avoid alcoholic drink’. Apparently, some people think this means they should limit their alcoholic drink, rather than avoid it. It will be changed to read, ‘Do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine’, which is, according to Prof Raynor, “far clearer”.
And I'm sure he's right — it is far clearer, if you are dealing with someone who assumes the phrase ‘avoid like the plague’ means ‘embrace like a long-lost brother’. Or that ‘tax avoidance’ means ‘paying all the tax in the world.
For everyone else, and I think we can assume that means everyone who wasn't in their research group, it is markedly less clear.
‘Do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine’ is a time-limited instruction. One could easily read it to mean that so long as you don't actually swig down the pills with a bottle of brandy, that's fine. Actually, give it five minutes and you can probably crack open the methylated spirits.
There are often, as scientists know, exceptions which test any reasonable theory. But what are the chances that Prof Raynor's team accidentally made up a research group out of all of them?
How did they manage to find a roomful of people who were genuinely baffled by the phrase ‘Do not stop taking this medicine except on your doctor's advice’, but for whom the clouds of mystery parted when it was changed to ‘Warning: Do not stop taking this medicine unless your doctor tells you to stop’?
And, presuming that this wasn't a cruel hoax perpetrated on the scientists by the sniggering practical jokers of Leeds, how do those people make it through the average day? How has any of them survived for long enough to be at risk of injuring themselves by taking medicine in the wrong way?
Didn't they already get run over when they saw a sign which said ‘Give way’ and thought, “That doesn't say, ‘Stop here in case a car hits you. Move only when there are no cars’, so I can just saunter straigh-aargh!”?
Like so much public language in this country, medicine bottles are a testament to our collective brevity and commonsense.
‘Avoid alcoholic drink’ is succinct and accurate. If you choose to read it as ‘Why not have a chaser with that penicillin?’ then the consequences of that are, frankly, the harsh reward for not paying attention at school. Or in the world in general.
It is only when experts decide the ordinary person is baffled by plain language that we end up drowning under management-speak, gibberish and inelegant phrasing.
Can't we rebel against the new labels and keep things that way?