Why Is It So Hard for People to Write in Plain English?

People are proud of their pomposity.

I’m already proud of that first sentence – even though I know it might put some readers off.

And if I’m being honest, it’s fun to use rare words.

You might think I’m being imperious. Or haughty.

You might think I’m a bombastic braggart whose orotund ostentation belies his naïve and narcissistic nature.

And I wouldn’t blame you. But know this:

People do it all the time. And it doesn’t help anyone – including themselves.

Whatever you’re writing or saying, there’s always a simple way to go about it.

And the first step towards making things simple is understanding why we love to make things hard.

Shaking off the academic rigour

If you’ve ever had to read an academic essay or a thesis, you’ll know just how horrible that experience is.

I wrote a few pompous student essays myself, once upon a time. And when I read them now, I don’t know who I was trying to impress.

Except I do know: I was definitely trying to impress the teachers and professors.

(Or I was trying to trick them into giving me a higher grade.)

Just like with any business jargon you’ll find today, students and teachers use complex words and phrases as a set of shortcuts.

If they tried to break everything down into plain English, it would take them hundreds of words just to get through a few sentences.

But there’s also a definite element of camouflage involved:

Students and pupils who are unsure of what they’re saying can use complex language to try and hide their lack of clarity.

And when those same people start working in businesses, they don’t usually move on from that student mindset. They keep on using the same sort of jargon for the rest of their lives.

They use the kinds of complex language that they hope makes their business look more ‘professional’ – even if it makes their message harder to understand.

Here’s a quick example that I managed to dig up from my first year as a philosophy student (with the pompous phrasing in bold):

It is apparent that every action or effect in nature is preceded by a connected cause. This necessity, and the mind’s natural inclination to infer between cause and effect, suggests a categorical incompatibility with the idea of free will. If our will is free, we make our own choices and lead our own lives. But it is undeniable that there is a uniformity in human actions that makes many events predictable based upon prior circumstances, even when ‘chosen freely’.”

What a load of rubbish.

Here’s how it looks in plain English:

“We all believe that everything that happens has a cause.

But if we can find a cause in the past for everything that happens, it’s hard to explain how we also have free will.

Everyone feels like they have free will. And everyone feels like they make their own choices in life.

But we can often predict what others will do by understanding their personalities and the experiences they’ve had – and these are already set in place by the time we make a choice.

So if our ‘choices’ rely on things that happened in the past, that means we make choices based on things we can’t control.

And that means we’re not really choosing freely.”

It’s a little longer. But it’s a lot more pleasant.

When you saw it in its first form – full of pretentious words and overly complex phrases – you might have assumed that it was saying something profound.

But when you see it laid out in plain English, you realise that it’s not really saying anything revolutionary.

Without changing the meaning of the content, it’s gone from a 50 on the Flesh-Kincaid reading ease score to an 80. That’s like taking a Financial Times article and turning it into a passage from Harry Potter.

Would this sort of language and phrasing go down well if it were submitted as a university paper?

I can’t say for sure.

But I can say with confidence that this kind of jargon-deconstruction can work wonders for a business that wants to get its message out to the general public.

So in which manner ought we to act so as to consequently curtail our dependence on such perplexing communication?

I’d love to say that it’s easy.

But it’s hard to change habits that have been reinforced for years.

Those pompous essays get people good grades.

And those highfalutin cover letters and CVs get people into good jobs.

Your pretentious language has helped you to achieve your earliest goals. And that can make it even harder to learn to let go of it.

So all you can do is remember this:

You’ve already got your qualifications and your job – so you don’t need to keep trying to show people how huge your brain is.

You’re in the real world now. And the things you write only have one goal:

Putting ideas into people’s minds.

In your day-to-day job, you write things so that you can inform, instruct, persuade, or convince the people you work with and the people you work for.

Sometimes (depending on your audience) it might be useful to throw in a few fancy words to impress.

But for the most part, you’re writing for people who just want to understand what you’re saying.

They want your information to help them achieve their own personal goals.

So if you can give it to them in a plain and simple way, they’ll be grateful. And everyone will be able to achieve more.

Learning from your peers

If you’ve spent most of your career as an employee inside a big company, you’re probably overflowing with business jargon.

You’ve read countless reports and emails, sat through countless meetings, and attended countless training sessions and seminars.

When every person above you and around you is using the same sort of language, you start to use it too.

And I don’t blame you.

Everyone adapts to their surroundings: we all naturally try to fit in with the people around us.

But when you spend too much time with one crowd, it’s easy to forget that most people don’t speak and write that way.

“It’s critical that we ensure we’re identifying the stakeholders before undertaking any initiative,” says the office manager. “So for every new project, I want you to draw up a document enumerating those impacted, and distribute it amongst your colleagues.”

“What?” says the new kid, looking up from his notes.

The manager sighs, and tries again.

“Before we start any project, we need to know about the people that project will affect. So for every new project, I want you to write a list of those people, and send it to the team.”

“Oh,” says the new kid. “I can do that.”

You can see why this is a problem.

But the worst part isn’t during the exchange between managers and their teams.

It’s when this convoluted phrasing starts to bleed out beyond the grey walls of the meeting room.

Work buddies who normally chat by the water cooler start to use this dense language in their emails with each other.

They then start to use it when they email their suppliers and their clients.

And worst of all: they start to use it in their company blog posts, on the website’s home page, and in their social media marketing messages.

Their poor customers, who just want to read and understand, now have to sift through a wall of impenetrable industry jargon to get to the basic information they’re looking for.

All because a few people in that company like to use fancy words for no good reason.

So how can you fix it?

You’ll be happy to hear that this one really is easy:

Before you write anything – an email, a blog post, a presentation, or a set of instructions – you need to spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re writing and who it’s for.

Think back to your first week on the job, and all the ridiculous new words that threw you off when you first saw or heard them.

Then strip them from your vocabulary (or save them for the times when no other word can replace them).

Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is start writing as if you’re one human being talking to another human being.

It’s so crazy it just might work.

Leaning on your crutches

There’s a curious dilemma when it comes to choosing between complicated language and plain English:

Complicated language is harder to read, but it’s easier to write (if it’s available to you).

And plain English is easier to read, but harder to write (even though it’s available to everyone).

Why?

Because convoluted phrasing is the default setting for our poor modern brains.

Jargon and buzzwords are shortcuts to ideas that we’re used to seeing in our professional spheres. And longer words usually point to a complicated concept more efficiently than a bunch of short ones.

That means it takes time and effort to reduce a message down to plain and simple language.

And it takes even more time and effort to say the same thing simply without bloating your message with too many extra words.

For anyone who writes often, this isn’t really new information.

You can ask a scientist:

“I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

– Benjamin Franklin, 1750

Or a philosopher:

“I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower compass than it is … But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.”

 – John Locke, 1690

Or even a President of the United States:

“That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

 – Woodrow Wilson, 1918

Since our advanced (lazy) human brains have evolved to complete tasks by taking the most efficient path, we end up relying on long and complicated language – regardless of who our audience is or how it might affect them.

So what’s the fix?

It takes two people for successful communication to happen.

But as the creator of a message, the bulk of the responsibility lies with you.

So don’t be lazy: look beyond the path of least resistance.

Look for the path that has the least resistance for your audience, and find a compromise somewhere between them and you.

(A compromise which hopefully lies in the reader’s favour.)

Are you of the opinion that you’re currently qualified to deliver accessible communication to your most important stakeholders without obscuring your intended meaning?

No?

No problem.

I’m right here.

How to Get Away with Swearing in Advertising

The world is full of bad people.

There’s war and murder happening every day, and it hasn’t been that long since the last genocide.

But despite all of this, some people like to get really miffed about swearing.

They complain about it in films, TV shows, newspapers, and adverts.

They get great works of literature banned from school libraries, and they’d rather abuse their own children with a soap sandwich than let them say a few arbitrary sounds in a certain order.

But as much as people hate it, swearing gets attention.

And advertisers love getting attention.

So what do smart marketers do to avoid the backlash and responsibility of using swearing in their ads?

That’s easy:

They make you say it instead.

Here are three shining examples of how to put filth into your customers’ minds and mouths:

Hidden in plain sight

Be honest: you didn’t expect this from Oxfam.

They’re a wholesome bunch with an admirable cause, doing what they can to fight poverty and injustice all over the world.

They’re usually staffed by kind and gentle folk – and they’re usually visited by families and cheery older people.

So when a brand like Oxfam challenges us to ‘Give a shift’ (Give a shit), it’s a mild but refreshingly rude slap to the senses.

It’s just enough to give a gentle wink to everyone who’s in on the collusion. But importantly, it’s buried deep enough below the surface that it shouldn’t cause anyone any serious offence.

How did they get away with it? Let’s start with the obvious reason:

1.    It works perfectly both ways

Whether you take it literally (by volunteering) or through its ruder alternative (caring about the cause), the ‘Give a shift’ message makes total sense.

Both possible readings work towards the same goal (getting more people involved). And that means that – unlike plenty of other implicitly rude advertising messages – it doesn’t just feel tacked on.

You don’t feel like the person who wrote it was trying to shoehorn in a rude second meaning just for a cheap effect. It feels like they’ve seen a natural similarity between two phrases relevant to their objective, and they’ve capitalised on that similarity.

It just so happens that one of those phrases is a rude one.

2.    It’s not the worst word out there

You wouldn’t say ‘shit’ in a job interview. But I’m more than happy to write it down in a professional blog post about swearing.

You’d probably use it around your parents. And when your kids are approaching adulthood, you’ll probably use it around them, too.

Sixty years ago, Oxfam might have landed themselves in trouble with a campaign like this.

But these days, you can take a 12-year-old along to the cinema for a young-adult adventure that drops a few S-bombs (which the BBFC considers ‘mild’ bad language).

3.    It’s innocent-friendly

I’ll bet their cheeky wordplay has passed over plenty of heads. Young children, pure-minded adults, and conservative literalists.

And that’s a good thing.

If you’ve created a double entendre marketing message that can be repeated by children at volume without consequence – and still get a few giggles out of the parents – you’ve hit the jackpot.

Stealthy on the page, filthy on the tongue

There’s often a disconnect between what’s written down and what we say out loud (or what we ‘say’ inside our heads when we read).

And some brave advertisers are fond of abusing this distinction.

Sometimes, the rude phonetics are subtle – like when Verizon tells us we don’t need to settle for ‘half-fast’ (half-arsed) internet speeds:

And sometimes, they can’t be missed – like when Booking.com describes their ‘booking epic’ holidays:

(‘It doesn’t get any booking better than this. Look at the view – look at the booking view!’)

So what’s the problem?

Taken letter by letter, these adverts shouldn’t offend anyone. The bad language is implicit, just like our other examples.

But in practice, the use and context of these tweaked words is far too close to the foul-mouthed reality of what they’re trying to emulate.

When you take your kids to Sainsbury’s and they start screaming that they ‘don’t want any booking peas’, you’re going to be embarrassed.

And when they tell your mother-in-law that her slow-cooked stew was ‘half-fast’, you’re going to be – well, you might enjoy that one.

The problem with adverts like these (as well as the infamous ‘Sofa King Low’ and ‘Phuket, I’ll go’) is that they’re not really innocent-friendly.

Just like Oxfam’s ‘Give a shift’, the rude joke might pass over a few heads. But unlike the Oxfam example, anyone who doesn’t get the joke will be inadvertently putting filth into the ears of everyone around them.

The people who hear these phrases will think they’re hearing actual dirty words – and that means the end result is exactly the same as genuine, intentional swearing.

If you seek Amy…

We’ve all heard an ‘Oh, shit’ slip out from a teacher, a parent, or a politician.

But for the most part, there are a few words that are still so taboo that you just won’t hear them in polite discourse.

Here’s one of them that didn’t quite make it onto a 48-foot billboard:

What’s that?

No, you filthy animal, that’s just short-hand for ‘See You in the Northern Territory’.

As you’d expect, this advert caused some uproar.

Is it obscene? Sure.

Is it a cheap shock tactic designed to attract more attention than they could normally get? Probably.

Did it work? It certainly seems so.

The difficulty with judging this particular cheeky advert is that – at least in Australia and the UK – the rude word in question lives a double life on the streets.

To some, it’s considered the most offensive word in the language.

To others, it’s a playful term of endearment that’s used every day.

The idea of the word ‘shit’ appearing in a black-and-white TV show used to be unfathomable – but it’s now perfectly fine for 12-year-olds at the cinema.

So why wouldn’t we expect the same effect to trickle down to every word that was once considered too abominable to say out loud in public?

So WTF?

Wrong again – that’s short for ‘What’s the future?’.

As the S-bombs in kids’ films continue to multiply, they slowly chip away at our Victorian sensibilities, paving the way for more S-bombs, more F-bombs, and more MF-snakes on MF-planes.

(And eventually – but probably last of all – more See-You-in-the-NTs.)

At some point, ads like these will stop being seen as cheap shock tactics.

They’ll become just another part of having a ‘cheeky tone of voice’ – like this sublime apology from KFC last year:

One day, we won’t be shocked to see the word ‘shit’ written on a billboard. Without any asterisks, and without any deceptive wordplay.

We won’t be so easily jostled by an arrangement of letters or a particular human sound – and we won’t waste our efforts writing endless letters of complaint to the ASA, the BBFC, or the Queen.

We might all realise that swearing is fun. It’s therapeutic and dramatic, and the only reason it does any alleged harm is because we all give it the power to do so.

In other words, we might all just grow up.

And if you ask me, it’s about phuken time.