Simplifying administrative language Convoluted sentences and tapeworm words

In the Bundestag, the German parliament, there is a special editorial team from the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache/GfdS (Association for the German Language) that has the task of making the wording of laws, legal enquiries and motions easier to understand. Sibylle Hallik, the leader of the team, about the challenge of expressing complicated subject matter in a simpler way.

Ms Hallik, I am sure that legal and administrative language is not always easy to understand in countries all over the world. In the case of Germany, however, it is considered to be particularly complicated. Can you confirm that?

You are most certainly right in saying that legal and administrative language is complicated in many countries in the world. I don’t, however, think that the German language is particularly susceptible to being misunderstood. It is, however, famous for its widespread use of long, convoluted sentences and long compound words.

Do you mean, for example, words like “Wrackbeseitigungskostendurchsetzungsgesetz”?

Yes, there are lots of these monstrous compounds to be found among the so-called “shorthand expressions” that are used in the realm of legislation. The full version of the aforementioned name of the law is – the Gesetz über die Durchsetzung von Kostenforderungen aus dem Internationalen Übereinkommen von Nairobi von 2007 über die Beseitigung von Wracks. (In English) – The Law on the Implementation of Cost Claims pertaining to the Removal of Wrecks as per the International Agreement of Nairobi of 2007). A real mouthful, indeed, and not at all easy to refer to or quote. That is why it has become the applicable norm to formulate a “shorthand expression” that consists of just one word and that contains all the main elements of the original name. This, however, can then lead to compounds that sometimes turn out to be anything but short. A further example would be the Elektrizitätswirtschaftsorganisationsgesetz (The Electricity Industry Organisation Act).

Is it then the complexity of the German language that often makes German legalese so difficult at first for everybody to understand?

It is not just that. It also has to be taken into consideration that the language of lawmaking is a specialist language and that it above all has to be legally sound. Nevertheless a law should always be as understandable as possible - depending on the group it is addressing. This is also one of the main tasks of the editorial team in the German Bundestag. We examine the wording of laws in the parliamentary phase of legislation to ensure that they are correct and comprehensible. If necessary, we then point out, for example, any incorrect grammar or any parts of the text that might be misunderstood. We basically adopt the same approach as an editor when he is working on a journalistic text.

In what way?

First of all the text has to be orthographically and grammatically correct - this is the basis for it to be understood. When it comes to the use of vocabulary or choice of expression we make sure that no old-fashioned usages crop up like "vom Hundert" (out of hundred, instead of per cent) and no modern buzzwords like "multifunktional" (multifunctional) or "ganzheitlich" (holistic). Likewise, euphemisms should be avoided, i.e. innocuous terms or phrases that create either a more agreeable or a wrong impression of what the matter is actually about. When it comes to syntax we recommend as simple a structure as possible; long, convoluted sentences are to be avoided. In the end it is all about the structure of the text, its composition, its logical development and any contradictions, omissions and redundancies.

Do you only work on legal texts?

Originally that was the main task of the editorial team, when it was first set up in 1966. For quite some time now, however, we have been providing an additional general linguistic advisory service. Since 2009 our range of activities has broadened considerably: we offer seminars, we focus on the use of Plain Language and Simple Language and, alongside legal texts, we also edit a whole range of other texts.

What are we to understand by “general linguistic advice?

The administration of the Bundestag, the parliamentary groups and parties and even the individual members of parliament can turn to us if they have any questions concerning language. Sometimes it is a question about spelling, punctuation and grammar, other questions are about reformulating complicated sentences, about forms of address and also about gender-balanced formulations.

That means – you also offer help on questions of political correctness?

Yes, we are often faced with the challenge of making a text more gender-balanced and, at the same time, keeping the text readable and understandable. The following German sentence is a good example of this – "Die Behörde muss der Antragstellerin oder dem Antragsteller mitteilen, wann sie oder er ihre beziehungsweise seine Unterlagen einreichen muss" (In German nouns often specify the sex of a person, so the translation would go like this – ‘The authority has to inform the male or female applicant when he or she has to submit his or her documents’.). If we speak of the person applying or the applicant, the sentence becomes much easier to understand. When it comes to non-discriminatory language we should not forget the question of how to properly address all the people present, i.e. not just those people who see themselves as a man or a woman. The best way to do this in German is to use a participle as the form of address, for example, “Studierende” (you who are studying) instead of “liebe Studentinnen und Studenten” (my esteemed female and male students).

Do other countries also have teams like yours, doing the same work?

Yes, at least when it comes to providing linguistic advice on legislative processes. There are linguistic advisory services in many European countries. For example, Switzerland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Portugal and Slovenia, to name but a few. Even if we Germans are maybe stuck with the old cliché of German being so complicated - it is definitely not just Germany that has problems understanding its own language.
 

Dr. Sibylle Hallik studied German and English language and literature in Hamburg, London and Tübingen. Since 2013 she has been Head of the Editorial Team of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache/GfdS (Association for the German Language) in the German Bundestag.