Making things simple but not too simple


Morten Just has created a text editor called Cleartext (for Macs only) that autocorrects your writing so that your text contains only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. Just says that the goal is to make writing easier to be understood.

As someone who writes a lot and tries to write as clearly as possible so as to make myself understood by the reader, I was interested in this software but the question is when one should use it. It clearly has benefits for things like instruction manuals, safety rules, and the like, where it is really important that there be little or no ambiguity and where one may be dealing with people who are not native English speakers.

But I was more interested in the idea of how far one should go in using the most common words. Just quotes Orwell’s influential and well-known essay Politics and the English Language where he recommends “Never use a long word when a short one will do” and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” But Orwell’s main targets are those who use language to either deliberately obfuscate their meaning or use it lazily and thoughtlessly, stringing together prefabricated phrases and clichés and stale metaphors, rather than deliberately picking out words in order to make one’s meaning clear.

As a teacher, I sometimes encountered students who, when called upon to write papers, resort to a convoluted style with long sentences and big words under the impression that those will impress the reader by conveying profundity. I try to persuade them to not do that and that ideas benefit from being expressed with clarity and precision. But that is different from asking them to always use short and simple words. In attempting to achieve a high level of clarity, one may have to use words that are less common, and to avoid staleness and repetition one may need to use synonyms for common words.

For example, in a post earlier today I wrote ‘ganged agley’. It comes from the Scottish dialect and means ‘went awry’. It is an allusion to the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns where the full phrase is “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. I admit that it is a bit out there but to me it sounded just right and so I put it in, hoping that readers will either know it already or figure out the meaning from the context or look up the allusion, as reader raym did.

I learned to appreciate English largely by reading good writers and they often used words that I had not encountered before. It is due to such exposure that my own vocabulary increased. raym seems to feel that his knowledge was enriched, just like I do when I encounter a new word or phrase. When I write, I do not deliberately use long and esoteric words thinking that they will impress readers. But at the same time I will not reject a word or phrase if I feel it is the right one and that it captures my meaning precisely, conveys a certain image, or otherwise serves some purpose. To water things down seems to me to be to insult the reader.

Comments

  1. moarscienceplz says

    Randall Munroe, who authors XKCD.com, wrote Thing Explainer, which uses the same “ten hundred” words to describe things such as the Saturn V rocket.

  2. Dan Gerhards says

    As an English teacher, I know that short, common words are the WORST choice for non-native speakers. Lots of common words in English have more than one meaning. (Including every word in the previous sentence!) On the other hand, a more precise word might have to be looked up, but is likely to have an unambiguous definition. Also, Latin and Germanic languages often have a cognate of the more formal English word. (My students in Mexico automatically understand “intelligent” and “exam”, but I have to explain “smart” and “test”.)

  3. doublereed says

    In lyrics and songs, there’s a similar issue. There are articles talking about how Pop songs all use lyrics of a third-grade reading level. Personally, I don’t think this is a problem. Song lyrics imo should be simple in order to be understood with any clarity whatsoever (especially in a rhyme scheme). Lyrics require very little complexity before they become pretty opaque to most listeners.

  4. Holms says

    I can only shake my head at the supposed goal of this program, and hope that it is tongue in cheek. So long as the writer keeps the intended audience in mind, a wide vocabulary can only aid in conveying meaning. And if the reader finds that they are encountering new and hence unfamiliar words, do as I did when growing up as an avid reader: keep a dictionary nearby.

  5. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    ClearText is a variant of “Caterpillar English” or “Controlled Technical English”. Works great for technical manuals and teaching. When I was technical wrioting, we issued project and corporate vocabulary lists to make sure that everyone was using the same words to describe things, as precise as possible.

    But remember, “Green Eggs and Ham” came from a 400-word list of approved words.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms:

    So long as the writer keeps the intended audience in mind, a wide vocabulary can only aid in conveying meaning

    There’s a somewhat revolutionary idea going round just now that you can use a computer to help you do things that would otherwise require more effort. For example: so long as the writer keeps a dictionary to hand, they don’t need a spell checker… but hey, since the computer CAN do that job for you, why not let it? It is obvious to me merely from inspecting the texts I’m surrounded by at work (I’m an engineer) that, no matter how trivial you try to make it sound, keeping the intended audience in mind while writing is hard to do. Even if the program isn’t used routinely, the experience of using it a few times would be in itself very instructive to anyone trying to write.

    Also – the 50 were 50 picked from a list of 400.

  7. jrkrideau says

    Shorter words make sense in many cases but this depends on the context. The written language is a skill set and words are a bit like individual tools; one uses the appropriate one for the task. I am not sure that “ lots and lots of noise” conveys the same meaning as “cacophony”.

    Word use also depends on the audience. If I am writing for a university educated group of colleagues, some monosyllabic words may be most appropriate. I can convey my meaning with one word rather than employing a circumlocution (oops, a careful work-around, sorry) with five words of one syllable.

    As a teacher, I sometimes encountered students who, when called upon to write papers, resort to a convoluted style with long sentences and big words under the impression that those will impress the reader by conveying profundity.

    A friend of mine who teaches history is continually complaining of these long sentences. He tries to explain to students that long convoluted sentences just don’t help but they keep doing it

    The problem is not so much the length of the sentence but that the student does not have the skill to construct it. Writing a long, coherent sentence is a learned skill and few students have learned it today.

    Just for the heck of it, whenever I find a really well-written long sentence I forward it to history prof friend. My best, so far, is a lovely 124 word sentence taken from a short essay where there mean sentence length was in the 80 word range.
    And it was a very well-written and lucid essay.

    @2 Dan Gerhards

    Quick rule of thumb for English-speaker looking for a French verb; “ Pick simple English verb, use fanciest equivalent you can think of, stick an “er” on the end. Done”

    Example “going over” >> traverse >> Tranverser

    Are you going over the bridge?

    Traversez – you le pont??

  8. sonofrojblake says

    He tries to explain to students that long convoluted sentences just don’t help but they keep doing it

    In my first year of university, one of our required courses was English, and specifically clear English for technical writing. It introduced me to the concept of “Fog index”. I’m guessing that, decades later, it must be possible that there’s an app that reads your report and calculates the fog index (when I stopped typing this, I spent ten seconds on google… https://readability-score.com/) . How about simply penalising students for fog indexes above an abitrary level of, say, 12?

  9. sonofrojblake says

    (Just for fun, I put Mano’s post above into the readability score thing: 14.7. College junior level.)

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