Plain Language

In my previous post, I talked about the Plain Writing Act passed by Congress in 2010. I often conduct writing workshops for government employees who are all for clear, direct, timesaving writing. “Down with gobbledygook and jargon,” they’ll say. “We want clarity and simplicity.”

But when I ask them to do some writing, what I get are sentences like “The fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted.” (Translation: “My pen is out of ink.”) And when I insist on simple sentences, the room resounds with protests, arguments, and yelps of pain.

Why are fancy words and tangled sentences so popular? There’s a reason, and it’s embedded in the history of England.

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The British Isles have been invaded again and again. With each conquest, the victorious army brought its own language, such as Latin (under the Roman invasion), and French (during the Norman Conquest). Workers soon discovered that the best jobs went to the people who were willing to learn the conquerors’ language.

That’s why – more than a thousand years later – words derived from Latin and French sound elegant and sophisticated to us. Attorneys talk about juvenile offenders (derived from French and Latin) rather than young people who break the law (English). A physician will say, “She’s experiencing respiratory distress” (French and Latin) rather than “She’s having a hard time breathing” (English).

The problems are obvious. Picture frantic parents trying to find a doctor for their sick child. They stand in front of a sign that says “Pediatrics Department.” Wouldn’t it be more helpful to have a sign that says “Children’s Health”? (The word pediatrics, incidentally, goes back to a time when most wealthy Britons studied Greek in school.)

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Now I want to return to the topic of resistance – readers and listeners fighting back when we try to win them over to an idea. In my previous post I suggested a way to overcome that resistance: drill down into an idea to uncover its complexity.

It’s a strategy I’ve used in my own Plain Language workshops. Here’s how it works:

If you ask most people the purpose of language, the likely answer is “communication.” Simple enough!

But when you think more deeply about language, you realize that that speech and writing have many other uses. We often – especially in the workplace – use language as a badge, a test, and a gatekeeper.

Think about these four situations. What purposes does language serve in each one? Is it just communication – or something else as well?

  1. A physician is telling a worried mother how to help her son get well.
  2. An engineer is interviewing for a research position.
  3. An exclusive country club is hosting a meet-and-greet event for prospective new members.
  4. Two scholars are exchanging small talk at a wine-and-cheese reception.

Here are my answers. (Let me hasten to assure you that yours may be different!)

  1. A physician is telling a worried mother how to help her son get well. I would call this pure communication. The physician doesn’t need to prove anything; she just wants to help the boy recover from his illness.
  2. An engineer is interviewing for a research position. The interviewers may be using language to test the engineer’s knowledge. Does he understand engineering vocabulary? Is he familiar with new terms that other engineers are talking about?
  3. An exclusive country club is hosting a meet-and-greet event for prospective new members. In this situation, language might serve as a gatekeeper. The screening committee might be watching for language habits that don’t match the ideal candidates they’re looking for. The committee might also use sophisticated terms for jewelry, investments, boats, and automobiles to make unsuitable candidates feel uncomfortable and decide to withdraw their applications.
  4. Two scholars are exchanging small talk at a wine-and-cheese reception. Here language is likely to serve as a badge. The scholars can instantly tell that they have similar backgrounds and interests. All is well! A bond develops between them.

The point here isn’t whether my answers are right or wrong. When I use this activity at a workshop, I’m encouraging participants to think about language in a more complicated way. Words can have hidden agendas.

Let’s go back to that physician in the first example. She doesn’t need to use language as a badge: “Trust me, I’m a doctor!” But many physicians really do display that language badge with every patient. It never occurs to them that ordinary language would serve them better.

I’m going to give one more example that came up at the Shaw conference I attended last week (where I had a marvelous time, incidentally!). We had a lively debate about the word “Shavian” (an adjective describing the works and thinking of Bernard Shaw).

Tim Carroll, director of the Shaw Festival where our group met, has taken the word “Shavian” off the Festival’s website. He feels that it sometimes functions as a gatekeeper or a test. On the other hand, some members of our group felt that “Shavian” is a useful badge. And still others think it’s an effective communications tool and nothing more.

I’m not going to take a stand on this. My big point today is that something that seems quite simple and obvious can have hidden layers of meaning and complexity – solid gold for successful writers!

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