Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Plain English

Muddled, unintelligible writing abounds in academia, business, and government. Champions of plain English say clear, well-crafted language can change the world. Here's how.

"The fight against bad English is not frivolous," George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. "...If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

The framers of our Constitution created a government with 4,500 well-chosen words; so why does the Senate health care bill require 200,000 words and more than 2,000 pages of inscrutable babble? This torrent of words not only reflects muddled thought; it produces muddled thinking and muddled debate. 

For a succinct explanation of why this matters, watch Alan Siegel's four-minute TED talk on how simplifying legalese would make the world a better place. How many hours have you squandered trying to puzzle out incomprehensibly long tax forms, credit agreements, and legal contracts? And if governments and corporations made paperwork brief, simple, and easy-to-understand, how much harder would it be for them to impose "stealth provisions" (like adjustable interest rates, hidden fees, or confusing tax codes) on citizens and customers?

“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong,” economist Alfred Kahn wrote in a famous memo that urged fellow civil servants to compose their letters and reports clearly and succinctly. The passive grammatical construct particularly irked him:

"The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically its purpose is to conceal information — one is less likely to be jailed if one says, ‘He was hit by a stone,’ than if he says, ‘I hit him with a stone...The active voice is far more forthright, direct, humane."

Think “Mistakes were made.“ William Schneider coined the term “past exonerative tense” to describe this linguistic construct, and William Safire called it a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

It's not only the passive voice that makes officialspeak feel so dehumanizing. It's the unnecessarily complex language and overuse of incomprehensible jargon, which conceals ideas instead of clarifying them. Echoing Kahn, Siegel says that simplifying legal writing reconnects institutions with the people they serve. 

"I define simplicity as a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy, building humanity into communications."

As private investigators, we deal in information. That's why we should be practicing the lost art of clarity in our own work, by writing reports in the kind of simple prose advocated by Siegel, Kahn, and Orwell. Instead of using the absurd officialese so often seen in police reports (and described to comic effect in this newspaper article), why not write our reports the way we tell stories, using simple subject-action verb constructs and ordinary, familiar vocabulary? Precise language doesn't leave much room for misinterpretation, it ensures that clients understand exactly who did what, and when, and it makes you look like a smart, savvy character fully responsible for his actions (i.e. "I did this" instead of "This was done...").

We here at [FIND] Investigations believe that the private investigator should wield his pen with the precision of a scalpel, in the service of reason, intellect, and humanity. 
In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell offers a few remedies for the kind of bad writing that infects government, business, and academia. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

For more examples of pompous and execrable writing, see this WSJ article and the Bad Writing Contest website.  -KDG

"When the subject is strong, simplicity is the only way to treat it."  -Thomas Jefferson