Plain Language Part 4

Language is not just the simple communication tool we learned about in school. In this post I’m going to discuss three language categories that can help writers make decisions about vocabulary, sentence structure, and other issues: badge, barrier, and bridge.

Let me tell you about a memorable language badge. Back in the early 1950s, the Honeymooners was a popular TV comedy show. Although only 39 episodes were filmed, The Honeymooners still has legions of fans (including me) who still loyally watch the reruns.

Years ago I read a TV Guide article that nostalgically looked back at the fun the two central characters in the show – Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton – had as members of an all-male lodge called the Racoons.

Did you notice that misspelling? On the show Racoon was always (whether deliberately or not) misspelled with one “c.” It’s something any true Honeymooners fan would know.

That TV Guide writer (I wish I knew his name) was using Racoon as a badge. (I’ve always wondered how he convinced his editor to allow that misspelling. Maybe the editor was a fan too!)

Badges can be fun and useful – a way for professionals in a particular field to identify and talk to one another, for example. But badges can also create barriers in situations where bridges are needed.

Consider this scenario: A patient is suffering from a worrisome medical condition. She needs a bridge to the doctor who’s managing her treatment.

What he does instead is to show off the terminology he learned in medical school. He’s using language as a badge to impress her…a totally unnecessary effort because she already trusts his professional knowledge. (Why else would she have made the appointment?)

Instead of strengthening the patient-doctor relationship, his medical jargon is putting a barrier between them. What’s heartbreaking is that this scenario is probably repeated thousands of times every day by professionals in various fields.

(What about you? Are you impressed when someone substitutes a fancy word for a simpler one – or are you annoyed?)

* * * * *

The next time you tackle a writing task, take a moment to look for hidden intentions. Are you reaching out to your readers (building a bridge), erecting obstacles (creating a barrier), or putting yourself on display (wearing a badge)?

Sometimes badges are useful to build bonds between writers and their readers. Barriers make sense when you’re narrowing the pool of applicants for a job or performing a similar sorting task.

But most of the time a writer’s job is to build bridges.

              Two Famous Racoons

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