‘With all due respect’ and other unplain language

In Caryn Gootkin’s humble opinion, we should write in plain language and talk in plain speech.

Much of the discussion around plain language focuses on the written word and ways to edit your writing to ensure your message is conveyed clearly. But it is just as important to speak plainly if you want your audience to understand what you say. This requires a concerted effort by the speaker who must get it right first time without being able to undo or delete.

I dislike listening to someone who peppers their speech with words I need a dictionary to understand. At the other end of the spectrum, people who talk in clichés and tired jargon bore me to tears. Plain speech demands from the speaker honesty and respect for their audience. Many avoid this straightforward accessibility by hiding behind overstated and flowery language.

Literary wisdom

We can learn much of what we really need to know about life from children’s literature.

On the subject of communicating plainly, Dr Seuss understands the value of straight talk: I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” (Horton Hatches the Egg)

Lewis Carroll takes this a step further in Alice’s conversation with the March Hare:

“‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

“’Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

The Mad Hatter and March Hare get the subtle difference between the two. Saying what you mean requires you to communicate what is on your mind. Meaning what you say involves not saying things you don’t mean, which brings me to my least favourite phrases.

In my humble opinion (IMHO)

Nothing gets my back up like false modesty or having someone’s opinions foisted on me. ‘If you want my opinion’ grates me almost as much as ‘in my humble opinion’. If you express an opinion, I am entitled to assume it is yours. If it isn’t, then credit the source of the opinion. And if your opinion is indeed humble, then keep it to yourself.

In a clever twist on this servile phrase, in the TV series, Elementary, Sherlock sends Watson an sms that says “IMLTHO”, which he explains to mean “In my less than humble opinion.”

I like that. It’s what Khaya Dlanga did when he named his book and column, In my arrogant opinion. These are both men whose opinion I value as much as their honesty.

With all due respect and other fawning phrases

Alice learned that meaning what you say is not the same as saying what you mean. One way to spot insincere speech is to look for the following introductions.

‘With all due respect’ almost always introduces a disrespectful comment that may have gone unnoticed were it not for the red light provided by these insidious words. If the speaker really respected the person being addressed, his words and tone would convey this.

When court proceedings heat up, an advocate will signify his disapproval of his opponent’s argument by referring to what his ‘learned colleague’ said. Every time I hear counsel addressing each other in this way, and despite the fact that it is accepted court practice, I cringe at the implication.

If someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m no lawyer/accountant/doctor but’, run before you are treated to their unqualified and unsolicited legal/financial/medical opinion.   What they really mean is that although they do not have the requisite qualification, they think they know as much as someone who does and therefore their opinion deserves to be aired.

Just say it

Some time ago I wrote a column on plain language titled Just Do It, encouraging the use of active verbs to make writing more accessible. Today, I urge you to Just Say It. If you choose your words well, they will deliver your message in the most appropriate tone. Own your words, don’t distance yourself and hide behind meaningless cover phrases.

To illustrate the absurdity of these phrases, and how they often mean exactly the opposite, enjoy this Dilbert cartoon.