Plain Language Part 3

Imagine you’re attending a social event in your community. You start talking to a personable young woman who tells you she’s a pediatrician. Later, at the same party, you talk to a personable young man who tells you he’s a children’s doctor.

Which one is more qualified to treat sick children?

Participants at a recent business-writing workshop had a lively discussion about this question. At first several members of the group thought the pediatrician was more qualified because she would have been through specialized university training for treating children. Soon, though, they realized that any children’s doctor would have gone through that program.

So what’s the difference between a pediatrician and a children’s doctor? The answer is none. They’re two names for the same thing. The only difference is that pediatrician is derived from a Greek word (paid) meaning “child.” Children’s doctor is English.

Ironic, isn’t it? We’re proud that we can speak English, a language that’s used all over the world – but we also harbor an unconscious prejudice against it. The uneasy feeling that a “children’s doctor” is less qualified than a “pediatrician” is a remnant of an old misconception that Latin and Greek are better languages than English. For many years schools did most of their instruction in those two languages. (William Shakespeare attended one of those schools.)

The result is that we often lapse into Latin or Greek words when we want to sound smart and important. In reference to sounds more intellectual than about. Cogitate sounds better than think…and so on.

* * * * *

I’ve always envied couples who have mastered the West Coast swing, a smooth and sexy dance that never looked quite right when I tried it. Some years ago I saw a local dance teacher doing a tantalizing West Coast swing with one of her students. I called her the next day and set up a few lessons to learn the moves she was doing.

About 15 minutes into the first lesson, I started to realize why that particular dance had always eluded me. The teacher showed me a better way to count the beats of music. She corrected my posture and head position. She showed me how to work through the parts of my feet – toe, arch, heel – more precisely.

A few minutes later she walked over to the CD player to choose another song. When she came back to the dance floor, I told her I was going to keep coming back so we could work on all the ballroom dances – foxtrot and waltz, rumba and cha cha, two-step and hustle, and all the rest.

Years have gone by, and I still take one or two lessons with her every week.

 * * * * *

Ballroom dancing has its own vocabulary, and my new teacher could have tried to impress me by talking about contra body movement position, proprioception, hip abductors, guapacha timing, and so on.

But she didn’t. Instead she focused on teaching me what I came for: becoming a better dancer.

When I go to a doctor, a dry cleaner, a service station, a dance studio…I look for signs that the people there know what they’re doing and can provide whatever it was that I came for: a cure, a clean dress, a car repair, a chance to learn.

And there’s something else I look for: someone who can answer my questions without making me feel inferior. Businesses should encourage their employees to think about this question: Do you use words to put yourself on display – or to help your customers?

(How would you answer that question?)

In my next post – the last in this series about Plain Language – I’ll be talking about using words as a bridge, a badge, or a barrier.

                  Ancient Roman Forum


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