Saturday, February 9, 2013

Don’t be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue

Well, here's another point of view. In this column, Smith questions, strongly, the value and intent these days of using clear, concise language in our writing and speaking. He contends that people, especially politicians and "corporate front men," can lie and mislead as easily using plain language as they can when writing and speaking in convoluted sentences.

He writes: 
The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.
Smith also contends that many writers most likely use clear, plain language as a persuasive device rather than to provide truthful information. He writes:
Whatever the moral merits of your argument, it is always best to present it in the clearest, most memorable style. Disarming linguistic simplicity is a technique that can be learned. But how you deploy that technical mastery – the authenticity of the argument – is quite a different matter.
To be honest, I can't argue, too much, with Smith's objections. As with the effective use of any tool, effective use of plain language can help a writer accomplish his or her purpose in producing a document. If a writer wants to deceive readers and persuade them to do something, not do something, or think in a certain way, choosing familiar words and organizing them simply can certainly help accomplish that.

But I think the huge weakness in Smith's argument is that he doesn't provide much evidence that the alternative to plain language is any more honest and truthful. So I would say, in response, that convoluted language is more likely than plain language to be dishonest and misleading. And perhaps more important: No government regulation, no corporate ethic, no academic standard, no professional obligation, and no plain-language principle can--or should--ever diminish the responsibility of readers and listeners to evaluate the messages they read and hear. 

Here's another response to Smith's article: Yes, plain language is awesome. (Added here Feb. 22.)

I'd also like to stress two principles of plain language that go beyond the simple choice and organization of words in a document. Actually, the principles go before those steps. 

First, a plain-language writer carefully considers his or her readers--from their need(s) for any particular information to their ability to comprehend the information they read. And second, a plain-language writer carefully considers the purpose of a document: What does the writer want to accomplish? How does the writer want readers to respond to the information?

Now, I realize a dishonest, deceitful writer can answer those questions with the intent of being dishonest and deceitful. But I also must say this: In many things we write, we do want our readers to respond in some way, be it a smile or a frown, or be it taking action to do something or not taking a certain action. 

Even if our intent is simply to provide information for its own sake, we writers are likely to choose and organize information in a way that we think will be most useful or interesting to our readers. At least we should  try to choose words and organize sentences to do that.

For more information on plain language, visit my website, Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It describes these seven steps:
  • Focusing on your reader and purpose
  • Organizing your ideas
  • Writing clear, effective paragraphs
  • Writing clear, simple sentences
  • Using suitable words
  • Creating an enticing design
  • Testing for clarity.
A Resources section at my site also lists other websites and organizations that provide useful information about plain language.

Speaking of resources, here's Orwell's essay: "Politics and and the Englilsh Language." 

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Smith's article is featured today, Feb. 9, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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