The trouble with jargon… and with plain language

This is a fuller version of an article that appears on RSA Comment

Next month, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 comes into force in the USA.  Its purpose is “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”

It sounds a bit like the Plain English Campaign with teeth.  Not a bad idea – not least if it forces Government officials to think, really think, about how ordinary people react to information.

A nice straightforward non-contentious case in point:

I was driving past a major road junction a few years ago and saw a sign saying “Roadworks start here 4th February for 17 weeks”. Great.  Useful information for anyone who regularly goes that way.  Except that you glimpse the sign for a few seconds, and spend the next mile and a half trying to count 17 weeks forward from 4th February.  (3rd June, to save you the trouble.)  So I called a colleague in the Highways Department and suggested they change it to “Roadworks here from 4th February to early June” – information a driver can take in with a single glance, without taking his eyes or his concentration off the motorbike in his rear view mirror.

The highways people couldn’t see the problem.  It was a 17-week contract and the notice said 17 weeks.  I said that to them it was a 17-week contract, but to the average motorist it was disruption from 4th February to early June.  They still didn’t see the problem.  Ah well.

It’s not usually quite that simple, though.  Here’s one article – from the website dictionary.com – about the Plain Writing Act, which gives some examples of the new law in operation.  For example:  “Deemed as too stuffy and somewhat ancient, ‘shall’ will be replaced with the more affable ‘should.’”  A healthy proportion of the 166 comments point out the obvious fact that ‘shall’ and ‘should’ have different meanings.  Several also point out that the article’s ‘before-and-after’ comparison of a Department of Justice regulation actually changes the meaning of the original.

Part of the problem is that language has many different functions, and it is neither possible nor appropriate to come up with a universal vernacular that fulfils all those functions. Jargon may be inaccessible to the lay reader, but it is vastly more precise to the specialist. Hence it is perfectly legitimate to have, say, complex and jargon-riddled technical instructions for those who administer benefits or planning law, but plain English guides for the citizen telling them what to expect when they apply for benefits or submit a planning application.

Some concepts just can’t be simplified beyond a certain point. The real danger comes when we try to over-simplify language and end up changing its meaning.

Language has evolved over thousands of years to become capable of conveying complex and exacting ideas.  That fact alone is one of the wonders of human achievement.  There is, to be sure, a skill in being able to convey complex ideas simply – but for any idea or concept or message, there is a point beyond which it cannot be simplified without distorting or destroying its meaning.  The greater skill, surely, is in knowing where to stop.

Then there’s the obvious question of audience. If the audience has been trained to understand a certain technical vocabulary, it makes sense to use that vocabulary when addressing them. Take the example of the DOJ regulations cited in the dictionary.com article: I doubt that the clerks who administer those claims are legally qualified, but I bet they’re trained to understand the legalese of the regulations they administer.

Or take my own example. In my day job (q.v.) I have become rather pleased with my rudimentary ability to speak Architect.  I’m not fluent, and I occasionally need a phrase book, but I can get by.  I no longer see it as jargon; it is a specialist language which allows us all to do a precise and exacting job.  No doubt the architects simplify things for my benefit, and no doubt they speak a rarefied dialect when they’re alone in the studio.  That’s fine.

The problem arises in three cases –

…inept translation from jargon to plain English, as in the dictionary.com before-and-after scenario;

…cases where the audience expands beyond that for which the language was originally intended, for example, when lay people get hold of technical material online;

…cases where the authors simply don’t understand or acknowledge the linguistic capabilities and limitations of their audience.

This last is perhaps the most problematic of all. It’s often unintentional and seldom malicious, but it happens all the time. I was recently reading an RSA pamphlet on Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society. Now, I work in the public sector (albeit not in the arts directly); I consider myself reasonably intelligent and well-informed; I read music at Oxford, for crying out loud; I would like to think that I could make sense of this subject and engage with it. But from the first page I encountered the words ‘instrumental’ and ‘instrumentalism’. I had to read the first ten pages before I could glean from the context what the authors meant by the term.  ‘Instrumental’ meant something different when I was a student–on an undergraduate course which should surely have equippend me to understand a pamphlet about public funding for the arts!

Is the word ‘instrumentalism’ in widespread use in arts management? Quite probably. Is this pamphlet intended solely or even primarily for arts managers, though? I hope not. The last thing we need, in a time of austerity, is for the debate about the public value of the arts to be confined to politicians and arts administrators.

Sadly the RSA’s blogs, and the blogs of some of its Fellows, can sometimes suffer from the same phenomenon.  Blog posts themselves may be clear and engaging – here is a case in point – but the comments that follow them, particularly on posts about public policy and the Big Society, can often become dominated by people with particular expertise in social issues (let’s call them social entrepreneurs, for want of a better term – and I’m sure there is a better term), who have a shared but exclusive vocabulary.  In this example, ‘advocacy organising’, ‘community organising’ and ‘neighbourhood organising’ clearly mean three specific but distinct things, but I’m blowed if I can work out what.

Like management-speak, the words comprising the vocabulary of ‘social-entrepreneur-speak’ are often borrowed from the wider vernacular, but seem to have become re-defined.  As an informed lay reader, I therefore recognise the words but cannot understand their meaning, so I am prevented from engaging in the conversation.

I should probably seek enlightenment about what some of these terms mean – I’ve not met the social entrepreneur who didn’t want to expand on their ideas – but of course I never do. Why not? Because we confuse fluency in jargon with general intelligence. Because I don’t want to appear stupid by exposing my ignorance of jargon in the presence of all these erudite people.

The result, intentional or not, is that this language doesn’t convey ideas.  It creates barriers.

It happens all the time in all sorts of contexts. We’ve all experienced (haven’t we?) the builder or the plumber or the garage mechanic who drowns us with technical information as he explains why the job is going to be four times more expensive than we bargained for.  Do they do it deliberately? Some may. Others may just want to prove how conscientious they are, that they have considered all the options, and that this really is the only viable solution.  And to do them justice, there may not be a plain-English translation for the problems afflicting your boiler.

Whether or not they’re trying to drown us with jargon, though, the effect is the same: we have to choose between taking the technical language on trust, or walking away.  (Which, when it’s your boiler in pieces all over the kitchen, isn’t really much of a choice.)

Here’s another example, one with far less of an excuse. It’s from a book called ‘Techniques of the Selling Writer’ by Dwight V. Swain, published in 1981. “You need to know only four things in order to write a solid story,” he tells us at the beginning of Chapter 1, of which the first is “how to group words into motivation-reaction units”.

What, please, is a motivation-reaction unit?  Is it that strange little component in the boiler that the plumber had to replace at vast expense? I don’t see how it can be anything to do with writing–because I’ve been reading books for the last four decades, and I’ve never seen a motivation-reaction unit in one. From the first sentence of Chapter 1, Swain comes across as a writer who is determined to browbeat his audience, to cow them into submission to his point of view. I know what I’m talking about, he says, because I know what a motivation-reaction unit is; you don’t, so you are ignorant and you must learn from me.  And this from a man who is trying to teach people to write, for pity’s sake.

Contrast this with the introduction to Niall Ferguson’s latest tome, Civilisation: The West and the Rest. We all know what ‘civilisation’ means, right? But he spends the first three pages of the book carefully defining it for the purpose of his discussion. The result: whatever one may think of Professor Ferguson’s thesis, it is abundantly clear what he means.

I have a challenge to put to my fellow Fellows of the RSA, all you social entrepreneurs and arts administrators out there, and all your counterparts in other disciplines too. I’m sure you have something important to say, and I’m sure you want to engage with as wide a spectrum of people as possible when you say it. You have developed a vocabulary to help you in your work–fine. That’s what vocabulary is for. So share your vocabulary with us. Help us to understand what you have to say, in all its complexity and specificity. Help us to join the conversation.

Because I’m pretty sure that social enterprise needs more than social entrepreneurs to get involved if it is really going to work.

Ben’s personal blog, Things Unrespected, has more comment on the RSA and its activities.

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3 Responses to The trouble with jargon… and with plain language

  1. Guest says:

    Interesting you should mention Dwight Swain. I came across some of his disciples on the writers’ website Authonomy. In their treatment of other writers they exhibited all the bullying traits you ascribe to Swain himself.

  2. Pingback: The trouble with jargon… and with plain language (via The Power of Language) « Things Unrespected

  3. Ben Bennetts says:

    I wish I’d discovered this excellent post by Yvonne Frindle in time to include it in the above. I had the Shaw quotation on my wall throughout my student years, as a daily warning against disappearing up some academic fundament.

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