Recently I spoke to a group of professional communicators about the hazards of pretentious mumbo jumbo in media writing. We discussed what happens when we use fuzzy jargon or write to impress rather than to communicate. An example:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
We discussed that passage’s reading level – 12th grade – and its readability index, a stunning 0.0. (The Flesch readability index works on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier the passage is to understand. An appropriate Flesch index for most writing is 60 to 70.)
Afterward, a troubled professional who writes corporate publications 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 face and function 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 he so seldom said anything she understood. And an engineer once complained that he was having a hard time getting his writing level above the 11th grade; he thought he would sound smarter if he “got a higher grade.”
But it was already too high. Studies show that even the most educated Americans prefer to read at or below the 10th-grade reading level. That’s no hardship; any decent writer or speaker can handle the most complex material at that level without “dumbing it down.” The right kind of simplicity is not over-simple; rather, it is immediately accessible to people of average intelligence and education. And, yes, it takes effort, but as Samuel Johnson reminded: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Let’s put aside the notion that ma and pa won’t understand anything very “intelligent” – the fact is that there isn’t anything very intelligent about pretentious gobbledygook. To the contrary, one hallmark of intellect 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 told his audience: “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”? Would his more intelligent listeners have preferred to “engage in hostilities with incursive combatants in multiple locations”?
Chief Joseph’s speech to the Nez PercÈ tribe after his surrender in the 1877 battle of Bear Paw Mountains was almost entirely of one-syllable words. Did his listeners complain: “Geesh, that sure was dumbed down”? Or were they cut to the heart by the dignity and simplicity of those words, as we still are 126 years later?
My people, some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I can find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
The level of Chief Joseph’s speech is between the first and second grades. It has a readability score of 100. That passage in the second paragraph above with zero percent readability? It’s George Orwell’s deliberately turgid rewrite – which Orwell calls a parody, but not a very gross one – of a famous verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
That passage is beloved for its simplicity and deep meaning. Most of its words have one syllable; all are plain everyday words. It’s written at the eighth-grade level and has a readability index of 78.3. Does Orwell’s parody seem “smarter”? Would the more intelligent reader prefer it?
Or does it turn out that what pleases ma and pa pleases all?
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.