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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

What is Plain English Gobbledygook?

By tradition, Government writing is so loaded with status-seeking or "way-out" technical jargon (what is better known as "gobbledygook") that people outside our special word-worlds seldom see much in it except the author's self-fascination. Take this bit of shop talk, for example:

Temperature is a most important factor in determining the ecological optimum and limits of crop growth, and therefore the agricultural exploitation of our water and soil resources.

Like precipitation measurements, temperature is probably measured within the present accuracy of our knowledge of temperature effects on resource utilization, and provides us with a standard measurement which can be linked empirically or theoretically to specific environmental applications.

We didn't find one person that fully understood what the weather-expert-author was talking about. The writer wasted all those big words. Technical jargons are common to almost every trade and profession. At times it seems that each vie with the others to attain a superior height of complexity. So intense has this struggle for special identity become that even specialists within a single field are often baffled by the jargon of their cohorts. The outsider is completely lost. The following sample is proof enough; see if it doesn't lose you:

The appropriate concepts of cost and gain depend upon the level of optimization, and the alternative policies that are admissible. This appropriate level of optimization and the alternatives that should be compared depend in part on the search for a suitable criterion.

This excerpt is typical of the jargon throughout a report brought to us for recommendations. When we advised the author to rewrite it in simple language that all of us could understand, he complained that it couldn't be done. But he did it, finishing it only after much agony and many rewrites. And it was simple language when he got through.

Now we shouldn't get the idea that technical jargon is always bad, never to be used. Carefully written technical language can be accurate and economical when used between technicians working closely together in a narrow field, between experts in identical technical areas. But it is dangerous when used to communicate with technicians in other fields or with the general public.

The problem of technical language...
The problem of technical language is especially thorny in government, because there are so many of us under one roof; there are literally hundreds of different occupations and professions, each with its own shop talk; there are so many offices, bureaus, and departments to spawn esoteric and prideful language of an exclusive, pseudo-aristocratic nature. (Like the last part of that sentence you just read.) So it's little wonder we have such a hard time communicating and why we so often fail to communicate with people on the outside.

Most of us in government are not aware of how deeply our writing is affected and infected by technical jargon. Most of us refuse to recognize that fact that all of us don't speak the same language. We don't accept the fact that most of the words we use in our on-the-job writing belong almost exclusively to our own occupations and professions and that only a few belong to the common language of us all. Somehow, writers think and write as though all the words they know and use are words known and used by everyone, even those in other divisions and outside of government. This isn't true, and the abstruseness of our writing shows it.

Perhaps as many as 1 word in 10 of those listed in a good desk dictionary are common to the average adult American. One authority estimates that even language experts know no more than 10 percent of the entries in an unabridged dictionary. The problem, then, is not so much to learn or teach more of the seldom-used words, but to value the more common ones, to concentrate on words most adults understand.

To make the point that a technical language is understood only by those within the profession, let's look at samples from other technicians. For example, a printer might say:

I can't put her to bed; she peed when I picked her up.

Nothing shady here; all the printer is saying is that he couldn't put a job on the press, because when he picked up the form the type fell out.

A railroad switch crew would understand this next item, but there's no reason why you or I should:

Run that hog into four and tie on to that cut and snake it out of there. Then shake it out. After you finish that pick up those two reefers on eight and cut them in behind the gondolas on ten. That'll wrap up the hot shot. Then tie her together and blue flag her.

You and I talk a jargon just as complicated, just as far out. Should we expect printers and yardmasters, surveyors or lawyers, journalists or doctors to understand it? No, our common base for communication with them is plain and simple English.

If we know that technical jargon clogs clear meaning and that it will be read and understood by only a few, why is it nearly everything "official" we write in government is measled with it?

And scientific prattle is as bad as technical jargon. If you'll examine government writing closely, you'll see that it is often loaded with pseudo-scientific writing, a frequent partner of technical jargon.

The following is a good example of faked-up scientific language, covering a simple subject:

A basic, although often ignored conservation principle in land treatment practices is the alignment of these practices to contour operations. Contour alignment, manifested in the direction of implement travel, pro vides an effective and complementary attack on the forces of erosion. When soil surface disturbances run up and down hill, it is easily understood that artificial channels are formed in which run-off accumulates. As the slope of these channels increases, the velocity of the water movement accelerates, with resulting destructive energies.

Perhaps when we attempt to simulate the language of science we somehow feel we're as irrefutable, as popular, as science appears to be in the public mind. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course, but perhaps some of us government writers are living vicariously with science and, by using her language, are made to feel that we writers, too, are on the move toward the moon. At least we are out of this world part of the time.

Perhaps many of us write technical jargon because of a feeling of inferiority. We know we can't write simple, straight-forward English without a lot of effort, so we automatically fall back on our technical jargon where we feel safest; this kind of writing is easiest for us to do.

It's no secret that when we leave college, unless we're one of those rare exceptions, most of us don't know how to write simple, clear English. We were never taught it; we were never even exposed to it. That's why the dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Law School could claim that the graduates of our colleges, including the best ones, cannot write the English language; why Professor Wendell Johnson of Iowa University says he has to first teach his graduate students how to write basic English before he can get on with their education. The same is true of most college students who go into government service.

Students who go into government service can't write...
They can't write simple English, simply because they were never taught. The student is often required to take courses in classic literature. He's expected to see some great inner meanings, to appreciate the poetic, the philosophical nuances in a piece of writing that is as likely to nauseate as it is to inspire. And he is confused by the conflicting dogma so common in poorly taught grammar classes.

Is it any wonder, then, that most of us come away convinced we have no knack for writing or that we fall back on our technical language, where we feel more adequate?

Whether a jargon writer is motivated by fear of common English, by a passion for snobbery, or by a desire to hide his lack of preparation, or by fuzzy thinking, he's a menace to clear communications.

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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