Tag Archives: business writing

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


Plain Language Part 1

Last week I conducted a workshop about Plain Language, a federal initiative that directs government employees to write simply and clearly. Although local agencies aren’t covered by the Plain Writing Act of 2010, it makes sense for government documents to be written in everyday English. (You can find resources for better business writing here.)

Or so you would think. The fact is that in many businesses, archaic jargon and tangled syntax are the order of the day. It’s a strange phenomenon. I’ve never met anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to use pompous, stuffy language: “The fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted” rather than “My pen is out of ink.” When I chat with the participants at a writing workshop, they’re charming and natural. But sit them down to write, and…

Today’s post is the first of four that will dig into our beliefs about language. Where do our ideas about word choice, style, and other writing issues come from – and do we need to re-evaluate them? If you’re unfamiliar with the history of the English language, you may be surprised. Stay tuned!



Donald Trump’s Grammar

You’ve probably seen the news stories about Donald Trump’s grammar and poor language skills. In a Carnegie Mellon study of speeches given by presidential candidates, Donald Trump came in at the fourth or fifth grade level.

I’m no fan of Donald Trump – but if you’re expecting me to criticize his poor language skills, you’re wrong. I think the study was based on some fuzzy thinking.

On the surface, it sounds impressive enough. Carnegie Mellon used a database of school essays to compare the grammar and readability of the candidates’ speeches: “The grammar reading difficulty measure is based on the one-to-three-level depth parse trees of the sentences. This means that the measure is based on typical grammatical constructions in sentences of each grade level.”

A report about the study in the Washington Post explained that “most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.” It all sounds very scientific.

So what’s the problem? Actually there are two problems. No – make that three.

First, speaking is different from writing. Comparing an impromptu campaign speech to the Gettysburg Address, which Abraham Lincoln labored over before he delivered it, is…nonsense.

Second, the study’s use of “grammar” is misleading. To the average reader, “grammar” refers to fragments, run-on sentences, fragments, and dangling modifiers, as well as mistakes in subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, and parallel construction.

But the Carnegie Mellon report uses “grammar” to refer to the level of sophistication in candidates’ sentences – the use of dependent clauses, for example. So readers are likely to come away with the impression that Trump makes numerous usage mistakes, when the truth is that he tends to speak in simple, straightforward sentences when he’s talking before a live audience.

I’ve read the speech that gave Trump his lowest score – his victory speech in Nevada on February 24. There are some fragments and clumsy constructions, but those sentences are typical of how people speak when they don’t have a prepared script: “All of these people – volunteers and they travel and they – and I say, “what are you doing?” “And representing some very, very wonderful children, Ivanka” [his wife].

The glaring grammar mistake I noticed was the use of an adjective (“terrific”) that should have been an adverb (“terrifically”) – but that’s a verbal habit typical of New Yorkers (as I know very well because I do it myself): “I think we’re going to do terrific.” There’s not a lot of sophistication – but victory speeches don’t require it.

Back to the study. What really bothers me is the implication that plain words and straightforward sentences represent a low level of discourse. I do workshops about business writing, and I spend much of the time pleading with people to use normal English to communicate with one another. Often the resistance is fierce. Why? Because they worry about being thought stupid if they say “now” instead of “at the present time” or “because” instead of “for the reason that.”

Here’s the truth: If you want to impress people, focus on your ideas, knowledge, and experience. You don’t need complicated syntax and fancy words.

And I can prove it!

“The Killers”  by Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite short stories. I’ve taught it many times – it’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship and insight into human nature.

I just ran the first 400 words through some readability software. “The Killers” came in at…first grade level.

Doubt me? Here’s a sample:

The door of Henry’s lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

“What’s yours?” George asked them.

“I don’t know,” one of the men said. “What do you want to eat, Al?”

“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”

Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in….

Hemingway was able to write a brilliant short story without resorting to verbal fireworks – and you can learn from his example. When you have a writing or speaking task in front of you, make sure you have something worth saying. Trust me: The words and sentence structure will take care of themselves.

Donald J. Trump

               Donald J. Trump