Monday, March 28, 2005

The Problem with Plain Language

It seems to me that our society has a problem with plain, simple language. Receptionists are now “Directors of First Impressions” in the Scottsdale, AZ schools. Accompanists are now “collaborative pianists.” Janitors have been “custodians” for as long I can remember. When listening to talk radio, I hear that everything and everyone is “disingenuous.” I am told I must be “proactive” in life. I’ve heard about more “new paradigms” than I care to remember. It all makes me wonder, why must people use this kind of language?

My explanation is that most people are scared of plain, simple language. Plain, simple writing provides too clear a window on one’s feelings and ideas. Those feelings and ideas are now out for the world to see. The writer is now accountable for them.

Language like that above acts like a screen for one’s ideas and feelings. In my experience, people who use words like “proactive” and “paradigm” are often ones who, when confronted by disagreement, will say things such as “that’s not really what I meant when I said we needed a new paradigm.”

A large part of the problem is that the value that dominates our intellectual discourse nowadays is consensus. The more clearly an idea is expressed, the easier it is to criticize. In turn, the more nebulously an idea is stated, the more people will agree with it. For example, the idea that a company needs a new paradigm if sales are faltering will garner a great deal of support. Each person sitting in the meeting where the executive has called for a new paradigm will imagine his ideal proposal.

The problem with this kind of language is that it doesn’t need to be backed by much conviction. It gets a lot of people to agree to something with very little effort. Most likely, the new paradigm being thought of by our nameless company is not much different from the old one.

In contrast to this, an idea presented in plain language takes effort to support. People will not be able to see what they want to see in a clearly expressed idea, so they have to be convinced that the idea is good. It takes clear, disciplined thought to do this well. It’s hard work.

Moreover, expressing an idea clearly opens that idea to criticism. One must be secure enough in himself and his idea to both defend it when confronted by bad criticism and refine it when confronted by valid criticism. It takes maturity to know when criticism is valid. It also takes maturity, and honesty, to know when one is wrong (and when one is right). Sadly, the culture of consensus prevents many people from reaching this level.

When it comes to language and writing, my advice to people is simply, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” When it comes to ideas, I say that the best ideas are supported by reason and evidence, not consensus. I also say that those ideas are best described as plainly and simply as possible.

(Of course, the option that’s always in the back of my mind is that maybe people who employ foggy language want to express themselves without having much to say. Perhaps that’s why I don’t notice the same kind of fogginess in the blogosphere that I do with the general public.)

TOPIC: Random