Awards from the Center for Plain Language
We shouldn’t defend bad language and writing, and it isn’t productive to blame or complain. We should do something about it. The Center for Plain Language, a fairly new nonprofit, is looking to improve how people and companies write for audiences through granting awards to the some of the “best and worst” writing; let me emphasized that the key marker here for granting the award is audience. CPL explains that “The definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.” Writing should attend to people’s needs, however. No doubt, this rubs people the right way because citizens are justifiably frustrated with bureaucratic language.
As I said, we shouldn’t defend unclear writing, but we should understand why it happens before taking action. It’s not a lack of will. Often, cloudy writing is an issue of authority. If a writer or speaker is worried how others will respond (get angry, not accept, and/or penalize the statements made), he or she will become veiled or convoluted in his or her language. Syntax and diction becomes obscure. Writing for a boss or teacher who has authority over us then promotes long-noun phrases, nominalization, and/or searching through the thesaurus for a “unique,” if not always “the best,” word. Politicians and legislators may be especially susceptible because they are sensitive to public or party opinion. Lawyers use legalese, in part, to distance themselves from their audiences because the distance distinguishes them (and protect themselves) from others, implying status. Thus, I’d like people to remember the next time they disparage “un”plain language that negotiating authority in writing is at least as important as language control and understanding audience.
As another example, consider academics, who are often accused of producing more jargon than knowledge. Sure, sometimes, people–academic professionals or otherwise–don’t really have much to say and inflate their words to compensate. Yet theoretical language and words do have their place. If the same words and grammar are used, judgments and conclusions tend to promote the same ideas and constrain innovation. Since writing assists how one thinks and understands a subject or advances one’s analysis, theorizing and using new vocabulary is a messy, unclear process in expression. But again, this happens because writing for one’s own purpose(s) can be important. In addition, specialized language promotes bonding within a discipline. If academics can recognize peers researching similar problems, for a time, speaking in specialized “tongues” assists comprehension of the solutions proposed. We accept specialized tools for getting labor done more easily, and since we know language is a tool, why don’t we see jargon as a disciplinary tool? Mostly, we are annoyed by it. And we should be irritated when institutions disable us, not that the language isn’t universally transparent. Language isn’t telepathy but always requires interpretation.
If you are interested in some “clear” examples of institutions faltering in their “official” words, check out the NPR story on CPL’s awards.