Principles of Plain English
Perspicuous written communication is fundamental in every aspect of human interaction — or should I say, “Clear writing is important whenever people interact”? If I support the triumph of plain English over byzantine jargon and sesquipedalianism, I should. But rather than explain what plain English is, I’ll state what it isn’t: It isn’t all about short sentences. It isn’t all about single-syllable words. It isn’t elimination of elaboration at the expense of erudition. (I mean, it isn’t dumbing down.)
Here are five areas in which plain English is, fortunately, making inroads:
Remember when you saw a delivery truck or a repair van and could tell which products or services it carried or facilitated? That’s still often the case, especially with known brands, but how many times have you read text printed on such a vehicle and scratched your head, wondering, “What business is that business in?”
Freight companies used to do “trucking,” then they provided “delivery solutions”; now, they’re all about “logistics.” But they’re still in the business of moving things from point A to point B. Many vehicles, however, especially those in the fleets of high-tech companies, either don’t offer any information other than the company name and a phone number (and perhaps a URL), or the van is labeled with meaningless phrases about “solutions” and “logistics.” Don’t these companies want potential customers and clients to know what they offer?
Stationary corporate communications, including Web site copy, press releases, and mission statements, frequently fail to enlighten the target audience as well. Some companies, though, make an effort to deliver their messages with simple, straightforward language.
Federal, state, and local government agencies have long been notorious for obfuscating official documents: In their efforts to project an air of authority (in more than one sense of the word), many government employees have produced reams of often impenetrable prose. Fortunately, the federal Plain Writing Act and two subsequent executive orders require government-issued publications to be written in simple, easy-to-understand English.
It’s a cynical sentiment that the notorious density of legal documents is calculated to perpetuate the need for lawyers, but it’s hard to avoid feeling that way when confronted with an oxymoronically named brief or a contract that’s anything but contracted. Some attorneys will argue that legal writing requires precision and specificity of language, but that is a poor defense of gratuitously complex language employed when the supposed intent is to make the subject matter as transparent as possible. Many lawyers, however, now opt to write in simple sentences and avoid legal jargon.
You’ve seen it time and time again: The chief of police, or a spokesperson, drones on about how an investigation was carried out or how a crisis is being handled. Attempting to appear official and in control of the situation, the speaker overwhelms listeners with jarring jargon and multisyllabic meanderings. Police reports, similarly, often stiffly, obscurely relate simple sequences of events in a style that complicates rather than communicates. Now, fortunately, law enforcement agencies are turning to resources like the handbook Plain English for Cops to help personnel write simple, clear accounts.
Academia and Scholarship
Many academics, including those who write for popular audiences, write clearly and well, but just as many more seem to try to outdo their colleagues in trying to write journal articles and other scholarly documents in a style as bafflingly complicated and convoluted as possible — and in doing so, are poor role models for younger professors, graduate assistants, and other students who read their research. As with other authority figures, researchers in the natural sciences and the social sciences alike often seem to below that dense prose enhances their expertise.
Rationales for Rational Writing
Bryan Garner, the dean of clear writing (and author of the authoritative yet coherent guidebook Garner’s Modern American Usage), offers these four motivations for writers to favor simple writing:
1. Writers of complex prose risk confusing themselves as well as others.
2. Reading complex prose is more time-consuming than reading plain English.
3. Writing plain English is hard work, and thus, if writers feel that they must labor to succeed in their efforts, clear writing is a well-earned achievement.
4. Clarity is the primary goal of writing.
Again, these arguments should not discourage eloquence, and I admit that I sometimes indulge in overwrought writing (usually, for I hope is humorous effect). But join me in trying these tips:
1. Ask yourself whether curt, clear Anglo-Saxon vocabulary might be more suitable than Latinate language in any given passage.
4. Consider your audience when determining the degree of formality you will adopt in a given piece of writing.
5. Be cautious about incorporating jargon.
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