Archives For Clarity

Convoluted Language

October 13, 2014 — 8 Comments

govwritingAre you a skilled reader? Do you pride yourself on possessing a knack for making sense of challenging prose?

Even if you consider yourself a proficient interpreter of text, there is one genre of literature that may still cause you to tremble. Government documents.

Even the most experienced lexical navigators find it challenging to traverse governmental communications. This despite the fact that in 2010 the United States actually passed the Plain Writing Act.

And I’m not even referring to legislation—where seeking sanity and clarity is virtually hopeless. And, it doesn’t matter how simple the source message is. Government scribes are capable of making a document about how to obtain a building permit read like a manual for constructing an orbital weapons platform.

I am not sure whether or not the United States is typical of other nations when it comes to this literary tradition. However, I suspect every nation, aside perhaps from those with populations under 10,000, is plagued by convoluted governmental documents. (There are thirteen such, potentially exempt, communities.*)

A prime example of institutional gobbledygook comes from this question, posed to the Chicago Manual of Style:

Q. Can you please help settle a disagreement? In the following sentence, should “instead of” be replaced with “rather than”? Overpayments occurred because facility purchased care staff processed payments using the local VA Fee schedule instead of the technical component of RBRVS.

A. Let me get this straight: in that nearly unreadable sentence (“because facility purchased care staff processed payments”?), the disagreement centers on whether to use “instead of” or “rather than”?  (Oh, wait—I see from your e-mail address that this is a government office.) Replace the phrase if you are certain that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning, and (2) the current wording does not express the meaning intended. If you cannot reach agreement on these points, you might have to fund a study.

C.S. Lewis offered much sage advice about writing. Sadly, nearly every principle he proposed is utterly alien to governmental documents. His 1956 advice (to a child) should be the required background and screen saver for all government computers:

“Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for civil servants who write official documents. After all, I edited Air Force Recurring Periodical 52-1 for three years. But I sometimes wonder whether there might be an eccentric psychological disorder that afflicts many government-funded writers . . .

So, it appears, I have made an unintentional confession. The regular readers of Mere Inkling may now know the source of some of the peculiar aspects of these columns.

I have asked my children to have me institutionalized if I ever use the phrase “care staff processed payments.” Short of that, however, these brief conversations are likely to continue for many years to come.

_____

* The following nations and “dependent territories” boast populations under ten thousand, in ascending order:

Pitcairn Islands

Cocos Islands

Vatican City

Tokelau

Niue

Christmas Island

Norfolk Island

Svalbard and Jan Mayen

Falkland Islands

Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

Montserrat

Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Saint Barthelemy

Nauru barely misses the list due to an excess of eighty-four citizens, according to their 2011 census.

A Literary Phobia

May 2, 2013 — 8 Comments

hipposWhat in the world does this protracted word mean?

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

From the suffix, we can assume that it refers to some sort of “fear.” But fear of what? Hippopotami?

No, this lengthy word doesn’t refer to the African “river horses” from which it derives its beginning. This peculiar construction describes nothing other than a fear of long words!

I know people who find long words daunting . . . but none who have admitted to be in fear of them. I myself am a bit intimidated by unfamiliar words that I have to pronounce in front of others. (I recently visited a writing group that caught me off guard with their practice of reading one another’s work out loud. Not only was I the first person expected to begin reading the first article critiqued that morning—it included a number of words from French cuisine with which I was unfamiliar.)

I don’t mind encountering unfamiliar words in a text (that I’m reading privately), especially when the meaning is evident from the context. In fact, I often enjoy the introduction, since it expands my own vocabulary.

The fact his, however, that many very gifted writers warn their readers to avoid lengthy or complicated words.

Just last week I contrasted George Orwell’s writing advice with that of C.S. Lewis. Orwell said,

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”

C.S. Lewis, included in his short list of advice the encouragement to,

“Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one.”

While these suggestions may “sound” identical, they are not. Orwell is concerned here with simplicity (rather than brevity, per se). Lewis, though, is advocating clarity.

Lewis does not object at all to using a multisyllabic word. He merely argues that the choice needs to be one that helps communicate rather than confuse. Allow me to share a simple example. Following Lewis’ counsel, one of these sentences would be problematic, while the other would be okay.

Life is all about love.

Experiencing contentment and joy relates directly to one’s ability to offer, and receive, affection from other human beings.

Obviously one sentence is far more complex than the other. However, it’s meaning is quite clear. The simpler, five word sentence is so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. For example, in addition to the alternative above, it might mean (to its writer):

Without a foundation of self-love, we cannot experience life to its fullest.

     or . . .

At the Final Judgment, it is only our acts of love that will pass intact through the “purifying fire.”

     or . . .

The more people with whom you can “sow your wild oats,” the happier you will be.

The Government Intervenes

Amazing as it may seem, the United States government actually has a website devoted to promoting simple language: plainlanguage.com. It exists to help implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While the effectiveness of the statute is debatable, it’s intention is praiseworthy.

On one page it directs agencies to avoid complex words. Instead of “endeavoring to assist,” writers are told to use “told to help.” While that is absolutely commendable in governmental documents, I prefer a bit more flavor when I’m reading for pleasure.

I strongly encourage anyone suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to seek professional help. This is especially true for those who desire to express themselves clearly. We need never fear a lengthy word—as long as we are using the right word!