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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles

Understanding Words in Plain English Writing

Understanding Words in Plain English WritingWords and their meanings are not mere matters. The nature of both has plagued philosophers for centuries. Writers and philosophers of the past such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas have wrestled with these "mere matters of words."

While philosophers thought about words, poets sang about them. Percy Bysshe Shelley said: "He created words, and words created thoughts; and thoughts are the measure of the universe."

One of Shelley's critics charged the poet with putting the effect before the cause, and he changed him to read: "He created thoughts, and thoughts created words; thoughts are the measure of the universe, and words are the measure of thoughts."

Words have been seen as the measure of God in man . . . the measure of man in God . . . the measure of man's thoughts . . . the measure of man's universe.

But always, somehow, in some way, words are seen as the measure of a writer. No poet or philosopher has ever denied that. Nor have they ever denied that a writer's words are things of dignity and power, richness and beauty, knowledge and learning. Proverbs says it this way: "Words fitly spoken are like apples of gold in bowls of silver."

If a writer's words are so precious and so noble, what, then, are they? Like so many things a writer uses, his words can best be seen, not in what they are, but in what they do. Our definitions of words are neither philosophical nor poetical; they are practical, working definitions; they show us our words at work—at work in writers' minds.

A Word in Itself: A word in itself is nothing; it is a set of spoken or written symbols that STANDS for things that have meaning to us. Charlton Laird said that meaning is not the word; meaning is in a person's mind; and no two minds are alike.

Therefore, no one word ever means exactly the same thing to any two people. If you think a word has meaning in itself, what meaning does the word "BAR" have? Think about it: the three symbols, "A," "B," and "R," assembled to "BAR." You can see the word "BAR" means nothing in your mind until it refers your mind to something it already knows. Depending on how the word symbols for "BAR" go to work in your mind, they could mean any one of a dozen or more things, such as a BAR for boozing, a BAR for prying, to BAR a guest, a BAR for exercising, a BAR for prisoners, a BAR meaning lawyers, a BAR of soap or candy, a snack BAR, a BAR on a door or a gate, a BAR on a shield or a flag, a support BAR, the BAR of a horse's mouth, the BAR of a bridle, a BAR of silver or gold, a sand BAR, a needlework BAR, a BAR to health, etc.

It's a little hard to believe but the Oxford Dictionary carries 15,000 different definitions for the 500-600 most used words in English. This is an average of 30 separate definitions per word.

We lead each other to misunderstanding. We use a word as though it had meaning in itself; and then we mistakenly assume that our reader would use exactly the same word in the same manner to express the true meaning.

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PLAIN ENGLISH WRITING : 9 Tips to Write Better Plain English Material : Complexity and Pomposity in Poor Writing : Drop the Officialese, and Write in Plain English : How to Recognize Passive Voice : How to Replace Jargon and Legalese : How to Start Writing in Plain English : View all articles