Just Plain English, Please

These words are attributed primarily to the playwright, George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

Although some claim that Oscar Wilde spoke them, instead.

For Instance

Let’s consider these substitutions:

 Developers and users—two groups divided by a common language

 Lawyers and the public—divided by a common language

 Politicians and constituents—divided by a common language

Well, you get the idea…

We try our best to use English in the worst possible ways. If we say something simply, then we must be simpletons, no?

Warning: Anecdote!

When I studied philosophy as a sophomore at the University of Georgia far too many years ago, I read an author’s concept of how Immanuel Kant would have defined or described the experience of death.

Thus:

Death is the finite determination of infinity which has further determined itself by its own negation.

The short version could be: “Death is the end of life.” English translations from German often result in stultifying constructs.

Immanuel Kant

The same is often true for writings by programmers, bureaucrats, lawyers, and Chairmen of the Federal Reserve when they speak to lay people (us).

Consider:

 Almost all US universities and colleges subject their Freshmen classes to basic English grammar and English literature (ENG101, ENG102). Fail these, and your college career is (at least) stalled.

 Most US schools of engineering offer, or require, those whose major is some form of engineering additional courses in “English for Engineers.”

Ever wonder why?

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) gives some very good examples of bad vs. good English usage. Consider these:

Bad

 Under 25 CFR §1.4(b), the Secretary of the Interior may in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the State and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.

Good

 Section 1.4(b) of 25 CFR allows us to make State or local laws or regulations apply to your off-reservation lands. We will do this only if we find that it will help you to achieve the highest and best use of your lands.

Bad

 When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.

Good

 If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

We Know Better

We know how to write, especially those baby boomers amongst us who, when we were high school students, were forced to undergo the torture known as “diagramming sentences.”

I reckon many would have gladly exchanged waterboarding for this exercise, inflicted upon us by sadistic teachers of the English language. But, most of us learned how to write so that we could be understood. And, most of us grasped the need for us to make our subjects and verbs agree—because we recognized the difference between a  subject and a verb.

We understand that there is a distinct difference between the spoken and the written word. Why?

For most of us, if our hearing is not impaired, we pick up on a speaker’s inflection and tone as well as the words she or he utters. We tacitly understand the immediacy of conversational language and are more tolerant of grammatical lapses because of the implied nature inherent in conversations. On the other hand, some people just do not speak well, and we often misunderstand their words and intents.

When we write, our communication with others is two-dimensional at best. We pay more attention to the grammar than we do when listening or speaking. We do this because we need to eliminate confusion and misinterpretation as much as possible.

Good technical writing depends upon our use of plain language. We impress no one by adding words and modifiers or by loading our writing with “…ize” words or three- or four-letter abbreviations.

Warning: Another Anecdote

I submitted the final draft of a user’s manual to my boss several years ago. I was happy with it, but I expected some changes. However, my boss liked it, too, and returned it to me with but one change. He wanted me to change all instances of “to use” with the proper forms of “to utilize.”

The use or misuse of “to utilize” is one of my major pet peeves.

Instead of showing my disdain, however, I said “Okay” and started to leave his office. As I opened the door, I turned and asked him, “Say, what does ‘utilize’ mean?”

Without looking up, he answered: “To use.”—pause here…a very pregnant pause—then, he uttered a word or two I do not here quote, and told me to disregard his change.

We don’t have to be the party of the first part to understand that the second party, our audience, only wishes we’d write using understandable English.

Don’t want to go back to school and diagram sentences? Just open and check out Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.