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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In Congress, talking like a 12th-grade student makes you a brainiac | Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times

Congratulations to all members of Congress who speak and write at a 10th grade level or lower! At least in that way, they are trying to meet the needs of their constituents.

Westneat's column reports:
A study of political speeches shows the average member of Congress now speaks at about a 10th-grade level — a full grade lower than a few years back.
These politicians are not "dumbing down" their language, as some silly critics contend. And they definitely should not try to increase the grade level of their language, as those same silly critics probably contend.

Instead, they are likely using words and sentence structures that most of their constituents can understand quickly without confusion. After all, most of us have more important things to read, listen to and actually do than trying to comprehend the language of our politicians.

And one of those things, of course, is trying to figure out if our politicians are telling the truth or giving us all the information we need to know. A well-known trick of dishonest people (in politics, business and other professions) is to hide their lies, half-truths and mistakes in long, convoluted sentences filled with jargon and unfamiliar, multi-syllable words.

Having worked many years in government communications, I know it can be difficult to simplify language. The terms used to name and describe various government programs and services can be long and confusing -- not necessarily to mislead people but to be as comprehensive as possible. And, ironically, that valid goal can lead to vague, general terms that have little clear meaning.

So more power to politicians (and government communicators) who can write and talk about those programs and services at a 10th grade level or lower. If they're not substituting familiar words for the vague terminology, they're likely writing and speaking in mosty simple sentences. They're likely avoiding an excessive use of dependent clauses, parenthetical phrases, and all the commas that should be used to separate them correctly. And, I would hope, if they must use jargon or unfamiliar terms, they're defining them in some way.

The focus of the linked article and my comments so far is on the language of politicians. But people in business, law, health, education and other professions also get carried away with using language that is not easily and quickly understood by readers. 

Often, it's not because they're trying to mislead people. Instead, it's because they've been misled into thinking that they can enhance their message by using words that require use of a handy dictionary or thesaurus to comprehend. They may think that writing and speaking in many complex and compound sentences enhances their authority.

But they're wrong. Unless they're writing and speaking to a specific audience that already understands the jargon and terminology used, they're likely weakening their message and authority.

In other words, if people can't understand you, they won't respect you or what you're saying. In fact, they'll likely stop reading what you write or listening to what you say.

And speaking of time, why would you choose to waste your time writing or speaking something that people won't or can't understand?

(Of course, if you don't really want them to understand it ... but that would be dishonest.)

For help writing in clear, concise language, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. There you can learn more about these topics:

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