Caryn Gootkin cautions against the temptation to overwrite and baffle with jargon, focussing on why plain language is so important in our rainbow nation.
We recently challenged you to write the best limerick encapsulating the concept of a plain language verbal detox™ . While Karen Jeynes penned the winning limerick, Gus Silber’s entry, although not considered because of its departure from the rules, is worth a read for his ironic take on the task.
There once was a writer, a scribe, a person of letters, right
Who suffered from a terrible tendency to overwrite
Such was the inclination and proclivity with which he was smitten
That he wrote everything he wrote to the point where it was horribly overwritten
He couldn’t write a word without grasping for or reaching or seizing his thesaurus
To enable him to find a word of similar meaning and intonation with which to bore us
He would spend many an hour searching and hunting and questing for the word he was seeking
And that’s why I’m afraid to say that this isn’t really a limerick, technically speaking.
(Thanks, Gus, for inadvertently inspiring this column. You may now remove your tongue from your cheek.)
Thou shalt not overwrite
As Gus’s poem cheekily shows, inflated language and overwritten descriptions work well for humour. Especially if the topic you are making fun of is the annoying tendency to use inflated language and overwritten descriptions.
But beyond that, there is no reason for such loquaciousness. (If you disagree, let me know. That’s what the comments section is for.)
Elegance – yes. Stylistic flourishes – of course. Witty wordplay – bring it on.
But verbosity – no, thank you.
There is no escape from the plain language imperative
South African law compels the use of plain language when communicating with consumers. But don’t limit your clarity to these narrow instances.
You should always write in plain language, no matter what the context of your writing is, because you will get your message across more quickly and in a way that more people can understand more easily. This is especially true in our multicultural society in which English is the lingua franca despite only being mother tongue to approximately 8% of the population.
Writing in plain language should be compulsory in every field. This applies to all the usual suspects (academics, lawyers, consultants, legislators, engineers, politicians, doctors, auditors, computer programmers, scientists, to name a few), subject to one tiny loophole.
If you are a technical specialist, and are communicating only with other specialists in your field, knock yourself and your peers out with jargon and grandiloquence, if you must. But not when there is a chance one of us mere mortals will read your writing. Please. Don’t make me beg.
What you can Garner from a master
The aptly named Bryan A Garner (@BryanAGarner) is a font of information and advice on how to write in plain language. A prolific writer, he is considered by some the leading lexicographer and legal writing teacher of our time.
Although his book, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, is aimed at lawyers, much of it has wider application. Take this extract from his entry on ‘ambiguity’, for example.
“The war against ambiguity should not be waged by overwriting and attempts at hyperprecision through exhaustive specificity. Rather, the…writer should work on developing a concise, lean and straightforward writing style, along with a sensitivity to words and their meanings”.
And there, in that last sentence, lies the key to the plain language imperative in South Africa. When writing in English we need to be sensitive to both the words we use and their potential readers. If your writing is not ‘user friendly’ you will alienate the vast majority of your potential readers, either because they can’t understand what you need them to or because they are too annoyed by your arrogance to bother to try.
If you are sensitive, I won’t need to be
I use the word ‘sensitive’ in the plain language context to mean proactive and perceptive. But if you don’t heed my call, I will certainly become the other kind of sensitive – intolerant and temperamental. You have been warned.
Caryn Gootkin is the owner of In Other Words, a copy editing, proofreading and rewriting service.