© Ugur Akinci
Usually people don’t write in plain English because they don’t know any better.
Sometimes a banker, an engineer, a doctor will write a business letter or a technical document in a way that he or she best knows how – by using jargon and long-winded sentences; clauses awash in passive voice and unparallel construction, with participles dangling from every nook and cranny.
As technical communicators it’s our duty to improve that kind of writing by doing some “house cleaning.”
But there is another kind of linguistic obfuscation which is there by design. It’s there to hide and defend a group interest while searching for a compromise on a difficult issue. That kind of non-plain writing is much harder to get rid of because it’s a necessary part of the political discourse. Speech writers and politicians know what I’m talking about only too well.
Here is a perfect example.
I’m driving on the highway the other day while listening to the radio. The subject is whether to impose sales tax on the street vendors or not. Why? The state needs more money; so they’re looking for new ways to tax businesses.
The vendors are the Plain English crowd. There is no difficulty in understanding what they want: “No new taxes.” Period. It won’t get any plainer than that. It’s a simple and plain message in full alignment with the group interest of the street vendors.
Then the microphone is offered to a state official who represents a diametrically opposed group interest: the state needs more money and they’ll extract it from the street vendors, if they can.
So how does the state official speak? Like this:
“Our vendors are not averse to paying their taxes,” he starts off and immediately gains my respect since I know from the opening shot that I’m listening to a master communicator.
Several messages are encoded in that one sentence.
(1) OUR vendors instead of THE vendors; which means “we and you guys are in the same team; we’re friends and family; relax…”
(2) The vendors are NOT AVERSE to paying their taxes… That is, they can pay if we make them pay because they are good law-abiding citizens and they have no objection to doing the lawful and moral thing.
(3) By implication, if you object the sales tax it means you are AVERSE to paying your taxes. You have ANTIPATHY, an INTENSE DISLIKE to paying taxes and that’s EMOTIONAL and NOT RATIONAL. We have a duty to be rational here.
That’s another brilliant communication point delivered flawlessly, at such a subliminal level that it is hard to detect or resist.
Then comes the second sentence:
(4) “There has been a change in the regulatory environment.” An excellent us of the passive voice.
SOMEBODY has changed the “regulatory environment”, whatever that means. Although all such decisions are always legislated at the U.S. Congress or State House, this state official is at the RECEIVING END of the state or federal laws just like you and I and the street vendor next door. It’s an OBJECTIVE FACT that has nothing to do with politics or this person who is delivering the message. And since it is on the same level as global warming and other ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES, we’d better focus on HOW to cope with it rather than argue endlessly about the WHY question. We should focus on how to ADAPT to this “environmental change” rather than discuss its fairness or legitimacy.
Another master stroke that OBJECTIFIES an issue with personal ramifications and guards the speaker against any personal accusations.
(5) The final sentence is significant too: “[Within that environment] our vendors can be competitive.”
Who can object to being more COMPETITIVE even if it has little to do with paying higher taxes? That’s another non-plain writing that creates a mid-ground where the opposing parties can take a step back and see if what seems to be against the interest of one group is actually that way or not.
Technical writing is about eliminating all that obfuscation since by definition a user’s best interest is in using a system correctly, flawlessly, just as it’s intended — which also happens to be the writer’s best interest. That’s one environment where the “political” interests of both groups coincide and that’s why plain writing makes perfect sense in technical documentation. So count your blessings if you’re a technical writer and sharpen those metaphors and euphemisms if you’re a speech writer or a political office holder.