To Facilitate Comprehension, Employ the Vernacular

When I’m not hunched over my novel or sneaking you these blog posts from the depths of the Writer-Cave, I do in fact have a day job: Software Developer, Business Analyst, Computer Dude. In the course of said job, I read a lot of business writing: e-mails, product documentation, sales pitches, and so on. While much of it is fairly clear and understandable, there’s a good chunk that sounds like this (made-up) example:

This application provides visibility into the activities of the workforce. Going forward in the near term, an enhancement will be developed that grants the ability to access the application via the Internet.

When what they mean is this:

This software shows what your employees are doing. Soon we’re going to put it online.

Why do people write that way?

There are a couple of reasons, I think. First, some people believe that utilizing sesquipedalian verbiage results in a perception of intelligence – whoops, I mean, that using big words makes you look smart. They may not believe this explicitly, but there’s a sort of instict that says anything official should use official-sounding, multi-syllable Latin words. Surely, words like “show” and “help” and “fix” are just too simple for business writing, aren’t they?

But the deeper reason, I think, is simpler. People do it because other people do it. It’s what they’re used to. When writing is not your main focus, you are (understandably) less inclined to spend a lot of time thinking about it, so you just use the first words that come to mind. And if half the stuff you read sounds like that sample above, then the first words that come to mind may not be the best.

Of course, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for writing a little fluff. Let’s say you’re drafting an e-mail where your real message is “You’re lazy, and you haven’t done a damn thing for three months, so let’s get moving, huh?” Perhaps you want to soften that a bit; perfect clarity is not always best. Yet even in situations like that, there’s no need to put your sentences through the kind of verbal gymnastics we saw earlier. You can obscure your true meaning skillfully without sounding like the Architect.

I’m not the first person to rant about this. George Orwell framed the whole issue beautifully in his essay Politics and the English Language, which I highly recommend (though I quibble with a few of his minor points). My favorite part of the essay is when he takes this passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

…and renders it in official-speak:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Sad, huh? But people actually write that way. I’ll slip into it myself when I’m not careful.

Do the world a favor. To facilitate comprehension, employ the vernacular.

Be clear.

18 responses to “To Facilitate Comprehension, Employ the Vernacular

  1. On a similar note, my grandparents had a bumper sticker, “Eschew obfuscation”, which is apparently part of a common phrase: “eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation”.

    Still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

  2. Call me obtuse, but I find Orwell’s sarcastic rephrasing of the biblical passage more comprehensive than the original text. I also prefer the cadence.

    Further, I am wary of stream-lining language where exactness is compromised for the benefit of the willfully ignorant. This poem says it best:

    “Laments for a Dying Language”

    Coin brassy words at will, debase the coinage;
    We are in an if-you-cannot-lick-them-join age,
    A slovenliness provides its own excuse age,
    Where usage overnight condones misusage.
    Farewell, farewell to my beloved language,
    Once English, now a vile orangutanguage.

    -Ogden Nash, 1962

    • Thanks for the comment, Dennis!

      I have to disagree with you, though. The biblical passage gives specific examples, leading to a definite conclusion. Orwell’s rewrite supplies the same conclusion, but without the benefit of examples. The biblical passage is clear and vibrant, while Orwell’s rewrite is opaque and dull. The rewrite may be more comprehensive and precise, but there is always a balance between precision and clarity. You could turn the passage into a thousand-page study and make it far more precise, but I wouldn’t call that better, unless you had some reason to need that information.

      As for the cadence, that’s mere subjective opinion, but I vastly prefer the sound of the original.

      Still, I appreciate you taking the time to comment, even if we disagree. I so rarely get the chance to debate the merits of literary styles!

  3. Hi Brian,

    I also appreciate the opportunity to dialog. I want to address your response point for point. Before I do, let me preface by saying that I’m not being arbitrarily contrary, entering a debate merely for debate’s sake, nor attempting to score points with a fantasized audience of forum-lurkers. I’m really and actually interested in clarity, and in fact came upon your article after a Facebook friend posted guidelines for better grammar which also suggested employing the vernacular.

    I said: “I find Orwell’s sarcastic rephrasing of the biblical passage more comprehensive than the original text.”

    You said: “I have to disagree with you, though. The biblical passage gives specific examples, leading to [more] a definite conclusion.”

    Response: I meant that I *personally* find it more comprehensive. The reason is because, like Shakespeare, the biblical verse uses the vernacular of an antiquated culture, and so I am forced to mentally translate it into contemporary vernacular. The irony becomes obvious, even while it is arguable that there are many more efficient ways to achieve this modern rephrasing than Orwell’s model.

    ——————————————————————————————

    You said: “The biblical passage is clear and vibrant, while Orwell’s rewrite is opaque and dull.”

    Response: In computer terms, this to me is like comparing spiffy GUI eye-candy with straight-forward CLI output. Both are clear and vibrant in different ways, and the deciding factor is the end-user. In your case (and perhaps you speak for the majority) the biblical passage rings clear and bright. My experience is that I find myself squinting and mentally struggling to discover the point the imagery is attempting to illustrate, whereas the latter example is direct and informative.

    ——————————————————————————————

    You said: “The rewrite may be more comprehensive and precise, but there is always a balance between precision and clarity.”

    Response: The implication is that you have changed position, and are now suggesting that perhaps the rewrite IS more comprehensive. On the subject of being precise, versus being clear, they are synonymous: http://thesaurus.com/browse/precise

    ——————————————————————————————

    I agree that cadence is a matter of preference. Unfortunately for me, when I read the biblical passage I hear it read in the voice of Garrison Keillor. I must therefore default to the rewrite as my favorite where cadence is concerned, as in my mind it is read by the late George Plimpton, which is — I think — unarguably the lesser of two evils.

    Thanks for the chat. 🙂

    Dennis

    -Dennis

    • Hi Dennis,

      I won’t respond to everything you’ve said (dueling point-by-point rebuttals lead to madness), but I have to at least mention that “precise” and “clear” do not mean the same thing, regardless of what the thesaurus says. Convoluted technical writing may be extremely precise, but not at all clear. It’s often necessary to sacrifice precision for clarity, and vice versa, depending on the audience and the goal of the writing.

      Brian

  4. Actually, Dennis is a person who learns about language through dialogues with other thinkers. I for instance, learned quite a lot from this one. It’s really unfortunate that of all of the ways you could have addressed this thread, you resorted to name calling. Or perhaps you are just trolling. Either way, please remember that these aren’t just comments, they are people’s comments, and people really don’t like being called offensive names by complete strangers.

  5. Does Dennis always begin his monologue in third person and continue in first person?

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