Plain language: a verbal detox

It’s been a while since I used this column to beat the plain language drum. In October last year we published a special International Plain Language Day edition of The Media Online. I put together a two-part unofficial plain language guide which you can access here and here.

I had so much ground to cover in the guide that I had to deal with each aspect as briefly as possible. Which I guess is a wholly appropriate way to approach a guide to plain language. But now, with a whole column to fill, I can indulge myself by delving a bit deeper into one of the golden rules from my guide:

Golden Rule #1

Always use the simplest, shortest word possible. Use the minimum number of words necessary to convey meaning.  

Even Golden Rule #1 must know its place

Before I dive into the meat of this column, a disclaimer is needed. (They say being a lawyer is a long-term addiction; you are never cured of the mindset. I am, however, still trying.)

Even while flying the plain language flag, I acknowledge that there are instances when the tone or style of the writing demands something else. Columns (mine included) which convey opinion often require emotive or descriptive language. The allure of fiction often lies in its poetic language.

But, while grammar and spelling are never optional extras in any form of writing or speaking (other than to convey the very point their absence demonstrates), plain language is essential in business and formal communications and preferable in other mediums. To quote @NickVDL in a comment on my guide, “… plain beats pretentious every time.”

“Well, less is more, Lucrezia.”

These words, or the middle three of them, taken from an 1855 Robert Browning poem, Andrea del Sarto, have come to encapsulate the theory of minimalism. And although Mr Browning did not heed his own advice –the poem, a dramatic monologue to an unfaithful wife, runs to 2 228 words – his maxim is the perfect springboard to my verbal detox™ concept.

A verbal detox™

I have always wanted to coin a neologism, a new word or concept or its use in a new sense. I think I may just have realised that dream. You’ve all heard of detox diets. Some of us you may even have resorted to them in an attempt to rid your body of the effects of over-indulgence. But how many of you have tried a verbal detox™?

Googling this term will lead you to some esoteric blogs about the difficulties of the writing process or removing swearwords or buzzwords from your vocabulary. But that’s not what I mean.

Those who know me know how much I loved studying Latin at varsity. Latin is an intriguing language, not least for its ability to convey profound thoughts in few words. (I feel a Latin column coming on.) The great Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman philosopher, statesman and lawyer wrote:

“When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men’s [children’s] minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” 

Cicero was talking about education, but his words apply equally to other forms of communication. And they too form a good basis for understanding and implementing my verbal detox™.

The verbal detox™ in practice

My verbal detox™ involves strict adherence to Golden Rule #1 by

  • using plain synonyms for grand, complex or little-known words
  • making each word count
  • omitting any words that are not strictly necessary to convey your meaning.

In other words (I couldn’t resist that), it means distilling your writing to its very essence.  And, as with any detox, it requires a lot of discipline.

In my next column I’ll give practical advice to illustrate the effect of the verbal detox™. If you have any examples of writing in need of this treatment, please post them in the comments section below.

And, I’ll introduce you to my candidate for the title of greatest distiller of the essence of words of the 21stcentury.