Every semester I get a handful of students who have settled on the idea that the more big words they use, the better. Regardless of whether they know what those words mean or not.
So I get papers elucidating the patriarchal configuration of the social arrangement, rather than telling me about male-dominated societies. Or they pontificate on the topic of inadequate provision of pedagogical resources vis-à-vis the particular requirements of participation in the modern form of governance, instead of describing the failure of schools to prepare kids to be good citizens. And so on.
They learn it, of course, from the bad writing that plagues many of the works assigned to them. But it is because we as a society hold such work in high regard that students ape the style of the complicated stuff instead of the more readable work on their reading lists – which is just a s common as the hoity-toity stuff. They think writing smart must mean using big words and tortured grammar, mistaking difficulty of a work for some measure of its quality.
If you have to work at it, the thinking goes, it must be worth working at.
Of course, this is nonsense. Yes, there are works of exceeding difficulty that are worth reading – in spite of the difficulty, not because of it. And these works – even the best of them – would benefit greatly from a good strong dose of plainspoken-ness. In fact, the ideas in many academic works may even be stronger if they were expressed more clearly.
The same holds true for all kinds of writing and speaking – for communication in general. If it’s important at all, it deserves to be expressed clearly and plainly, so that anyone can understand it. The language that academics use and students love to imitate is not meant to communicate ideas, it’s meant to hide them, to act as a test to see who belongs and who doesn’t. The same is true of the gibberish that many business people write and speak, leveraging their synergistic solution platforms in order to maximize the extraction of secondary revenues in the blah blah blah.
The problem is that this kind of language buries ideas and muddies thinking. Which, of course, is the point a lot of the time – the business can’t come right out and say they killed 400 people with faulty products and the student can’t come out an say she has no idea what the readings were about or that he hasn’t been to class for weeks.
But if the ideas are important – and if you live a life where they aren’t, get out and start over – they deserve to be shared in all their glory, not hidden behind a veil of words. It’s not too hard to speak or write plainly if you follow a few simple rules.
1. Honor the idea.
Speaking plainly starts and ends with the idea. This could be how to bring about world peace or what Pantone color to use on your office’s stationery – put the idea front and center and let it shine. Don’t damage it by trying to make it appear fancy – if it’s a good one, it doesn’t need help and if it’s a bad one, it doesn’t need saying.
Along the same lines, avoid qualifying yourself too much. While it’s fine to express uncertainly when you’re really uncertain, too often people “soften” their ideas by phrasing them as things that they “believe” or “think” or “feel”. They present facts as opinions and opinions as feelings, making it almost impossible to deal with the actual substance of the idea being spoken. Don’t do that – stand behind what you say and take the risk of being wrong.
2. Be yourself.
Usually when people speak un-plainly, it’s because they are trying to appear to be something – or someone – that they’re not: smarter, better educated, most business-like, cooler, or whatever. They’re hiding their real self behind a screen of words that they would never use otherwise. It’s a bit odd, really – if the idea you’re trying to express is yours, why pretend someone else had it?
3. When given a choice, choose the shorter word.
English is a funny language; there are almost always two or more words that mean the same thing. Usually, one will tend to be longer and more vague, like “civilized”, and the other will be shorter and more direct, like “polite” or “nice” or just “good”. As a general rule, people trying to dress up their ideas in showy clothes go for the longer, vaguer words – which is why the idea itself can be weakened. Use indirect language to express yourself long enough, soon even you will not be able to say exactly what it is you mean! When you have a choice, go for the shorter word – if it sounds too blunt or even rude, chances are it’s the clearest way to say what you intend.
4. Cut the description.
There is a place for description of course: when you’re describing something. But too often people attempt to give their ideas a little extra “oomph” by adding a whole bunch of adjectives and adverbs around it, burying the idea itself beneath a mass of irrelevant detail. Cut to the chase and leave the descriptive language for when its needed.
5. Communication is job one.
Sometimes when you’re writing something or speaking, you’ll have the urge to “step up” the language because what you’re saying doesn’t sound pretty enough. This means it’s working. Remember that, unless you’re writing a poem or a ballad, your first priority isn’t to impress people with the beauty of your prose but to communicate an idea to them.
6. Don’t be afraid of “you” and “me”.
Another way that people use language to hide their ideas in a vain attempt to sound impressive is to write in a distant, impersonal tone. While there are some forms of writing where this is necessary – journalism, for example, or clinical reports – a lot of writing and speech can be made more approachable by embracing the first person. Using “I” and “me” gives your readers or listeners something – someone –to attach the ideas you’re expressing to a real person, making them more concrete and more human.
Likewise, you can engage your audience more fully by speaking directly to and about them, instead of about “one” or even “we”. Instead of putting your examples in the third person, address them directly to your reader or listener by using “you”.
Remember, no matter how good your ideas, if you can’t communicate them clearly you may as well not have them. Speak plainly and be heard!
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