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Spot the Difference
If you don’t believe the difference plain language can make, take a look at this example from a Public Health Service brochure. The Department of Health and Human Services revised a six-page article on Losing Weight Safely to create a single brochure with a message that’s much easier to follow.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half-hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.
Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.
By tweaking the statement above, the writer has successfully been able to identify the point he is trying to make by putting the most important point at the beginning, using common easily understood words, and short sentences which will most likely hold the audiences’ attention longer.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to repeat myself after asking a question like “would that be all for you?”, I would have a jar filled with money. I can assure you that while I don’t particularly use any “big” words when having a conversation with someone, there is always a possibility for them to have difficulties understanding me. This is why writing or speaking in plain language has been something I continuously do because it works for me and the other person also, it saves me from having to repeat myself three times or more. Writing in particular makes it easy to get a message across more quickly and increases the chance the information will be understood without using unnecessary words.
Plain writing helps audiences from different scopes of life to be able to grasp the meaning behind the words of a communicator. It would be much harder for someone who has no background knowledge of science or mathematics to understand what Newton’s Law of Gravity states but I bet when you say the words “what goes up must come down” he immediately grasps the concept behind the law as something he has heard before. I believe the plain style of writing does have benefits for technical writing students. Because it can help us to apply the principles of plain language in our work, and helps us to understand better than anyone how plain language can improve communication throughout society.
FDA U.S Food and Drug Administration. 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2014. <http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/PlainLanguage/ucm331958.htm>.
3 thoughts on “Do you understand me?”
I agree with your article the use of some unnecessary words can be confusing when trying to articulate exactly what you are going to say to someone. The context you use when delivering your ideas should be appropriate for the audience you are trying to reach. Contexts should be slightly altered with a fixed set of vocabulary while communicating with different groups. Education is also a distinction that sets a person apart from the group. If you are communicating with a group of largely uneducated people you should adjust your vocabulary to fit in with whatever terms and other forms of communication are being used. An example of this is that I would obviously not explain my entire philosophical agenda and vocabulary to a group of uneducated people because it would cause more problems then it solves. In attempt to get the greatest utility or usefulness out of conversation use a dialect and language that reflects your audience.
I agree that clear and precise writing is a crucial aspect of effective communication. You also picked a very good example of how selective wording can increase the potency of a statement in regards to the audience’s comprehension. I do not think, however, that this form of writing is beneficial across the board for technical communication. You cited an example of Newton’s theory of gravity. You said that the common person, without a background in mathematics and physics, would have trouble understanding what Newton’s Laws of Gravity state, but that they have no problem understanding the phrase “what goes up must come down.” I think this is actually a great example of how “clear and precise” wording can be harmful on some level. Oversimplification of complex ideas often strips those ideas of their very substance. In this example, the concept of gravity has been reduced to “why stuff falls.” The reason this is harmful is because that understanding of gravity completely misunderstands the actual mechanisms and effects of gravity. This misunderstanding then limits the “common” person from ever having a deeper understanding of other concepts that are connected to gravity and its effects. Another example of this type of reduction is with climate change and evolution. The “hard to understand stuff” has been reduced and edited for the “layperson” so much that public discourse is completely flooded with inaccurate or false information. This leads to bad public policy and countless hours wasted on meaningless debate.
It seems to me when a document or speech seems too “wordy” the cause is the authors attempt to cover information while coming across intelligent. For example, I was returned a paper for a literature class a couple of years ago. One comment was written multiple times throughout the paper, “talk in your own voice, stop trying to sound so academic.” I asked the professor what he meant by this because it seem silly to me at the time. I, in an attempt to come across intelligent, shot my self in the foot (so to speak) by over using language. The result was unclear sentences and a confused audience. Now, whether or not the author intentionally composes wordy sentence to sound a certain way, a confused audience is an ultimate fail in communication. When information cannot be understood by the audience because the author, intentionally or otherwise, hid the meaning in excessive words, the duties of a technical communicator has not been met.