Keep it simple, sir! One month ago I wrote in praise of brevity. Today I write in praise of her sister—simplicity.
In short, when you intend for all who read your writing to understand it, then keep it simple, sir. My first encounter with this principle was the 1978 monograph by Richard Wydick “Plain English for Lawyers.” Now available as a book (and in its 5th edition), it urged lawyers, among other things, to end the use of legal redundancies. These hair-pullers, such as “mete and proper” and “will and testament,” are vestiges of legal writing from the middle ages in England. Prior to the Norman Invasion of 1066, England was dominated by two rival languages—Latin and Old English—spoken by the Romans and the native Anglo-Saxons. To insure clear communication, key terms in contracts, wills, and so forth appeared twice—once in the language of the natives and again in the tongue of the invaders. Accordingly, “mete” is an Anglo-Saxon word, “proper,” Latin. Similarly, “will” is Anglo-Saxon, “testament,” Latin. This tradition continued when the French invaded in 1066, and they replaced Latin with French (which is not much of a switch, as French mostly derives from Latin). The use of these translation pairs was necessary so long as England housed two rival language groups. By the 16th century, neither Latin nor French were common, and Modern English ruled. No longer was there a need for these redundancies in legal documents.
But persist they did, so much so that many lawyers and judges today, ignorant of this linguistic detour, insist that subtle differences in meaning attach to each member of such pairs, and that to omit either member of a redundant pair would put the author at risk. Nonsense! Ignorance! One doesn’t need a Last Will and Testament–only a Will.
Obfuscatory (from the Latin for “to make dark”) language in all its forms tends to put a cloud between reader and writer. In addition to legal redundancies, other difficult words abound:
- Foreign terms
- Showy technical terms
- Polysyllabic words (with Latin or Greek origins, such as “utilize,” when a simpler Anglo-Saxon version would do the job—“use”)
- Wordiness (I could have said verbosity, but…)
And then there are unnecessarily long sentences, as when the writer uses a comma instead of a period, and the sentence continues to chug along, while the reader struggles to recall how the sentence began, and then has to reread the entire sentence, and maybe even the preceding sentence (or two), before understanding is possible, and they begin to build up resentment towards the writer, and the writer is in clear danger of losing their reader, all because of the failure to use periods, which could be blamed on undemanding teachers from the writer’s past, but could just as easily be blamed on thoughtlessness and failure to edit or poofread, but then who…. J
To be readable is to use short sentences and short words Readability formulas, such as the Gunning Fog Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (which Microsoft Word offers), calculate the number of years of education required to read a passage. The formulas determine the average sentence length and the average word length for a document. Hence, “Jesus wept” is more readable than “the Saviour lamented.” I calculated the grade level required to read my previous silly paragraph. The result: 46.4. Only 50-year-olds and above need try to read me!
The temptation to dazzle the reader with polysyllabic and seldom used words must be managed. When I am reading for pleasure (e.g., novels) or for instruction (e.g., textbooks), I do not mind being sent to a dictionary. I enjoy learning new words and relish well-chosen ones. I remember reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain with dictionary in hand—the novel is photographic in its precision of verbal detail. Many words I could define from context, but others were like new fruits that needed definitions in order to taste.
But for instructions, manuals, memoranda, contracts, wills, letters of agreement, and other documents whose value rests on their clarity and ease of understanding, give me brevity and simplicity. Some states have passed Plain English laws—New York was the first, in 1978. These laws protect consumers against obfuscatory language in contracts. If you are sued for breach and can prove the contractor’s language to be obfuscatory, you can successfully blame your noncompliance on obfuscatory language. (Sorry, I DO like that word!) “I would have done what you required if you had communicated clearly with me.”
Not all states have a Plain English law. Does yours? President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010. It requires all government agencies to use clear language that citizens can understand. The government provides a sample web page to announce an agency’s pledge for plain writing and to ask their customers for help in identifying instances where they’ve failed to do so.
Preachers are notorious for obfuscatory sermons. One gets the notion that many sermons are not intended to communicate, but only to soothe or disturb. I have created my own Listenability Index for Preachers (LIP): I count the number of jargon/buzzwords per sentence, sampling ten or so sentences from the sermon, and then find the average number of obfuscatory words per sentence. The less listenable sermons tend to average around 50% jargon. Example: “The grace and glory of the Lord be with you forever and forever, Amen.” That’s six jargon and eight plain, for an index of about 43%. The more listenable preachers come in under 5%. Example: “Go from this place and be helpful and friendly to those you meet.” Free and clear of jargon. I once complimented a pastor from Princeton on his fresh, direct language. He thanked me and confided that he consciously avoided religious language in preference for the everyday.
Another way to gauge simplicity of text is to apply Seymour Epstein’s two modes of information processing—Expository and Narrative. Expository mode is more abstract, much like a dictionary definition. Narrative mode is more concrete, like a story. The best writers and speakers mix it up—they make a point by using expository mode and illustrate the point by using narrative mode, or vice-versa. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is a master of this technique—he will take one or two paragraphs to make a point, then illustrate with several concrete examples. I have found that speakers who lean more heavily on one than the other are not listenable—all expository is boring and hard to understand, and all narrative is shallow and irrelevant. Expository: Distraction lessens pain. Narrative: Apply an ice pack to your aching back so that you will feel the cold rather than the pain.
When you want others to understand, keep it short and simple. Otherwise, dazzle them with jewels from your word chest.