The Independent, 5 March 2011

Every few months, a science story appears in the news which journalists get so crashingly wrong that mild-mannered scientists take off their lab coats, flex their biceps, and gently explain that 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 then don’t wash their hands. And, reassuringly, there is the occasional reversal of fortune, when a story breaks which suggests that some scientists (not the ones I know, obviously, before they throw a Bunsen burner at me) have such a poor understanding of words that they shouldn’t be allowed to write anything, ever.

So yesterday saw the announcement 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. ‘Avoid alcoholic drink’, was one of the problem phrases. Apparently, some people think this means that they should limit their alcoholic drink, rather than avoiding 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, and then some’. For everyone else, and I think that 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 perfectly easily read it to mean that so long as you don’t actually swig down the pills with a bottle of cooking brandy, that’s fine. Actually, give it five minutes and you can probably crack open the meths.

Similarly with his other, clearer instructions. ‘Do not take indigestion remedies at the same time of day as this medicine’ will become ‘Do not take indigestion remedies two hours before or after you take this medicine’. Again, this offers a time-specific warning: presumably you could take indigestion remedies one hour before or after the medicine. Or fifteen minutes before. Or at the same time as.

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 common sense. ‘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 that the ordinary person is baffled by plain language that we end up drowning under management-speak, gibberish, and inelegant phrasing. ‘Take three times a day with meals’ means exactly what it says. Can’t we rebel against the new labels and keep things that way?