Recently, I spoke to a group of professional communicators about the hazards of pretentious mumbo jumbo in workplace writing. We talked about what happens when we use fuzzy but important-sounding language, or seek to impress rather than to communicate clearly and simply.
Afterwards, a troubled professional who writes corporate publications — annual reports and the like — asked what she could do to “keep a foot in both camps.” She meant one foot in clarity and simplicity and the other in bafflegab.
“Why would you want to?” I asked.
“Well, to keep our credibility with our more intelligent readers. We have to write for ma and pa on the farm, and we also have to please a highly educated audience.”
What could I say? She misunderstands the nature of simplicity. But so do a lot of people. When I was teaching university writing, one of my students declared another professor to be “brilliant” because that professor so seldom said anything the student understood.
Let’s put aside the notion that ma and pa won’t understand anything very “intelligent”—the fact is there isn’t anything very intelligent about pretentious writing. To the contrary, one characteristic of intelligence is the ability to simplify, to make the complex easy to understand. Anyone can be unclear.
The way to credibility is to speak and write plainly without language that bewilders or misleads. And the way to lose credibility is to veil the message in showy blather. Did Lincoln’s audience at Gettysburg complain about the simplicity of his two-minute speech — a speech that still stands as a model of clarity and elegance?
Was Winston Churchill too clear when he said: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills”? That’s ma-and-pa writing, to be sure. But would Churchill’s more intelligent listeners have preferred “We shall engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?
Or does it turn out that what pleases ma and pa pleases us all?
Despite the beauty and superiority of simplicity, dense and opaque phrasing flourishes everywhere. It’s a particular problem in specialized fields—business, science, medicine, education, government, and so forth. Paradoxically, the more challenging the subject, the weaker the writing usually is. But that’s the very time we must be at greater pains to simplify and clarify.
Listen to this CEO: “Financial exigencies made it necessary for the company to implement budgetary measures to minimize expenditures.” What would that CEO say if he were trying to communicate instead of impress?
The company had to cut costs.
Pretentious writing causes misunderstanding. When the message is obscured by verbal smog, the readers don’t, in fact, get the message. They misread and they misunderstand. The wasted time and effort as well as the cost of correcting mistakes make fuzzy writing an expensive habit.
Given its liabilities, what explains the appeal of bloated, pretentious language? (Or should I ask: “What elucidates the proliferation of indecipherable terminology and superfluous syllables”?) How does “he left his car and ran” become “the perpetrator exited his vehicle and fled on foot”? How does a banana become an “elongated yellow fruit”?
We could doubtless do a dissertation on the answers. But it’s enough to say that in trying to sound learned, to elevate our diction, we instead merely inflate it. Maybe we confuse simplicity with the over-simple. Maybe we think simplicity means “Run Dick Run.” But simplicity is neither barren nor elementary; it is just immediately, attractively, interestingly clear.
Should we avoid all long words and abstractions? No. It wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. A long word is the right word if it’s the best word. What damages clarity is piling up long and abstract words when short and concrete words are available. It’s writing “utilization” instead of use. Or “pursuant to” instead of concerning or regarding. Or “indicate” instead of say, show, or suggest. It’s “initiate” and “terminate” instead of begin and end, or “contingent upon” instead of depends on, “personal visitation” instead of visit, “telephonic communication” instead of phone call. It’s “financial wherewithal” for money, “funding” instead of funds, “programming” instead of programs.
How can we sidestep the snare of the pretension? As writers, we must stop mimicking meaningless language and buzz phrases. We must stop trying to impress and try instead to communicate—heaven knows that’s hard enough. In part, that means disabusing ourselves of the notion that big words “sound” better—more intelligent, more professional, more serious. In fact, short, familiar words promote communication, whether written or oral. Short words are small, strong, and suited to concrete story telling, while long words are bulky, weak, and suited to abstract report writing.
Would a good storyteller say: “He manifested displeasure as he gained access to his domicile”? No, the storyteller would say: “He scowled as he opened his door.” And, as we’ve seen, small words are not just for storytellers. They also benefit the complex and specialized worlds of informational writing. We should trust them more.