2020 Edition Five

Page 78

VERSUS

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Candid Communication Elaborate Eloquence Rebecca Fletcher

You just wrote the word ‘panegyric’ unironically, so you need to stop a moment. It’s a cracking word, but why have you chosen that and not just ‘an obituary with boatloads of praise’? Is there a word count in whatever you’re writing? In fact, what are you writing? Is this an email to your mum, or are you writing a really dense poem? When would it be okay, and when is it too much? Is it ever okay to use, or are you just showing off? If you’re not sure, it’s okay—your resident turnip is here to walk you through it.

Plain language:

Traditionally, academia has been pretty stuffy, so information has been hard to find. However, as we strive to make the internet more accessible, we need to think about the language we use. We need to think about non-native English speakers. Sometimes there is no call for complicated language or strange phrases. We need to keep our communications clear and concise. But is that boring? To say that a simple vocabulary restricts creativity may be partially true, but many books have told their point without complex language. For example, The Cat in the Hat only uses 236 different words to tell the story. Two hundred and thirty-six words that a first grader would know and be able to read by themselves. Another thing to think about is idioms and figures of speech. Up the top there, I wrote ‘boatloads of praise’, but how much is a boatload of anything? It’s a figure of speech that doesn’t translate easily without rephrasing. ‘A lot of praise’ would be more understandable. If you have a message that you want a lot of people to understand easily, you need to write it in simple language. Shorter sentences with fewer clauses might seem restrictive, but they don’t limit you as much as you might think. In fact, they might help you express your ideas more clearly.

Less plain language:

Of course, mankind did not reach its dizzying heights of supremacy over, well mostly other people, through accessible language. Language expounds and excoriates, extolling virtues and exasperating listeners. It can entice and inveigle, mystify and mortify. In fact, the restriction of such floral phrasing is one of the key means of control in George Orwell’s 1984, the reduction of our tremendous English vocabulary reduced to simple phrases and limp, stackable modifiers, a quantification of sentiment, a kind of modular outrage. For example, if you just looked the word ‘panegyric’ up in a dictionary (like I did to make sure that I was using the right word), you might have found that it means to heap praise on something. But the only time it’s ever really used is to describe a particularly ornate and complimentary eulogy. Which obviously isn’t the same thing at all. So how sure are you about the word that you’re using and what it means, and how sure are you that it’s appropriate? Most poetry favours elaborate constructions of language, so clearly there’s still a time and a place for all them fancy words you’ve learned.

The final word:

So, to confound or not to confound? That is the question, or really that’s not the question at all. The real question is how clear do you need to be? How clear do you want to be? What’s the expectation? If you’re being tasked with writing a poster aimed at community health, for example, you might want to think carefully about your audience and how complicated you want to make it. If you’re writing your magnum opus, however, you might want to have the option of a few more complicated words in there, and honestly if they fit, then go for it. But there’s definitely a time and a place for either type of language. So back to the original point: have you just used that big, fancy word for a particular reason? Or did you just want a chance to blow the dust off it and show everyone how clever you are? If it’s the latter, maybe put it back in the drawer and use a word that lets people know what you actually mean without unnecessary distractions. Sometimes there’s an elegance to brevity (I certainly don’t want my shopping list to appear in paragraphs). French mathematician Blaise Pascal is quoted as saying “I would have written you a shorter letter but I ran out of time”. The fact that I took around 800 words to tell you that piece of information is the only real argument I have.

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Illustrated by Arielle Vlahiotis and Nina Hughes


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