The Art of Plain Talk

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 10, 2011 in How-To

When I launched the new lukeprog.com I decided not to keep all my old, obsolete writings. One essay in particular that people miss was called ‘The Art of Plain Talk’. So, I’ve reposted it below.

This page tells you how to write so that people understand you. It quotes from The Art of Plain Talk (1946) by Rudolf Flesch.

Grammar is what makes sentences difficult. Conjugations, declensions, irregular verbs, ablatives, subjunctives, and aorists, oh my!

 

Let’s write Chinese

It might help if we wrote in Chinese, the “grammarless” tongue. Chinese has no inflections. No cases. No persons. No genders. No degrees. No tenses. No voices. No moods. No infinitives. No participles. No gerunds. No irregular verbs. No articles. No prefixes or suffixes.

This is not because Chinese is primitive. Chinese was once an irregular, complicated mess like English. But the Chinese people, generation after generation, changed it into a streamlined machine for expressing ideas.

We say “A man bites a dog.” They say “Man bite dog.” We say “A dog is an animal.” They say “Dog: animal.” We say “The sun is bright and shiny.” They say “Sun shine.”

This may sound like baby talk. But look closely and you will see that Chinese offers the same meaning without the baggage.

Now look at English. We have the word sign, meaning “a mark.” Add a suffix and you get signify, “to make a mark.” Add another suffix and you have significant, “making a mark.” Add a prefix and you have insignificant, “making no mark.” Add another suffix for insignificance, “the making of no mark.” We took a simple noun and made it into a verb, an adjective, another adjective, and again a noun.

After all those complications, we can be philosophical and talk about the insignificance of man. The Chinese would just talk about man no mark.

We are tempted to write with masses of empty syllables and words. The Chinese say everything with concrete, specific words. They have to. There are no other words in Chinese.

Good writers work hard to make the abstract concrete. The Chinese have no abstract words to begin with. English philosophers may write that “The health of societies is not benefited by a mass of individuals desiring radical differentiation from each other, nor by a mass of individuals lacking independent thought and action.” Chinese philosophers say “Do not be rare like jade or common like stone.”

Try this. Pretend to translate your sentences into Chinese and then back again into English. Remove as many abstractions, prefixes, suffixes, conjugations, irregular verbs, and gerunds as you can without losing your meaning.

But we write English, and we are stuck with English grammar to some degree. How, then, can we write more plainly?

 

Repeat yourself

Once, I was reading a philosophy essay of mine to my girlfriend. She could barely understand it. “Why don’t you just say it like you said it to me yesterday?” she asked.

As hard as it is to write in plain talk, we speak in plain talk all the time. What is it about our talking that is clearer than our writing?

When speaking, we may use big words and a fast pace and complex grammar, but we give the other person time to understand us. We repeat ourselves. We use filler words. We pause.

But when writing, we eliminate all repeated and irrelevant words. If every word is important, the reader may not have time to digest what is being said because your ideas are coming at him too quickly.

We write like this: “Perhaps the toughest intellectual work we must do regarding European reconstruction is to realize that it can be achieved through nonpolitical instrumentalities. Reconstruction will not be politics, but engineering.”

We talk like this: “We have a tough job ahead of us, I think. Reconstructing Europe is a tough job, and it’s a job of thinking; of figuring out how to do it. We can’t do it with politics, I don’t think. No, it won’t be done with politics. It’ll be more like building a bridge; more like engineering. That’s the way I see it, anyway.”

The first version is concise. It moves rapidly and requires strict concentration. But readers are surrounded by distractions. They need the repetition, pauses, and filler of the second version to keep up with your thought, or else they may have to read your sentences twice. Put space between your ideas.

We might combine the clarity of the first version with the readability of the second version like this: “We have a tough job ahead of us. We need to figure out how to reconstruct Europe. It won’t happen with political forces. The European reconstruction will be a matter of engineering, not politics.”

Dale Carnegie was not afraid of even more blatant repetition in his How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936 and still popular today:

The Chinese have a proverb pregnant with the age-old wisdom of the changeless East: “He who treads softly goes far.”

They have spent five thousand years studying human nature, those cultured Chinese, and they have garnered a lot of [shrewdness]: “He who treads softly goes far.”

 

Don’t be too brief

Simplicity and brevity are not the same thing. Plain talk can be slow. Condensed sentences are often tough to read.

Brevity-worship can lead you to use confusing abbreviations, such as the famous Variety headline: STIX NIX HIX PIX. To loyal Variety readers, this meant that small-town moviegoers disliked rural pictures. To the rest of us, it meant nothing.

Condensed writing is for experts. Plain talk is for everyone else. Consider this sentence: “We need long-range planning for industrialization with long-term credit financing, decent wage guarantees, protection of national interests and equal participation of domestic and foreign capital.”

We need lots of simple words to translate all those big words into plain English. Here, simplifying means lengthening, not shortening. Brevity is great, but simplicity is greater.

 

Engage human interest

We know nothing better than ourselves. We speak and think best about us. That’s why it is a bit easier to read and understand “Stalin drinks vodka” than “Vodka contains alcohol.” Give your writing human interest.

Newspapers add human interest to a scene by giving an eyewitness report. Scientific findings are reported as an unraveling mystery; the scientists as detectives. Public policy reporting is given from the biographical view of the persons pushing for policy change.

How might we engage human interest in this bland paragraph? “Du Pont this week announced a new product as potentially profitable as its nylon. It is wood impregnated with chemicals that transform it into a hard, polished material. Wood so treated does not warp, split, or shrink.”

It is easy to give your writing human interest. Look at each sentence and find the logical—not the grammatical—subject. The logical subject of almost everything that humans care about is human.

Who announced a new product? A corporation? No, people announced a new product: “The Du Pont people this week announced…”

Next: Who impregnated the wood? The Du Pont people! So: “They have impregnated wood…”

But isn’t the subject of the next sentence wood? To find the logical subject in this sentence, ask: How do you know? Well, how does anyone know a scientific fact? By testing. So: “Their tests show that wood so treated does not warp…”

Our revised paragraph is less concise. But that gives our readers time to keep up with our thought. And now, the paragraph is about our readers’ favorite subject, people: “The Du Pont people this week announced a new product as potentially profitable as its nylon. They have impregnated wood with chemicals that transform it into a hard, polished material. Their tests show that wood so treated does not warp, split, or shrink.”

 

Imitate ads

The best plain-talk writers in the world are advertisers. To them, plain-talk is a science. Readability can mean millions of dollars. Every word costs and makes money. After decades of testing every style and technique of English writing, they have found that the best advertisement in the world is this: “Drink Coca-Cola.”

 

Summary

Use root words, without prefixes or suffixes. Change abstract words to concrete words. Remove irregular verbs and gerunds. Use periods instead of conjuctions.

Give your readers space and time to follow your thoughts. Don’t condense too much.

Don’t write about ideas and things. Write about people who think ideas and work with things.

That is the art of plain talk.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

rs September 10, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Hi,
Thanks for another article.

I tend to agree. With all of English’s necessarily complicated grammars, it is still unable to express certain words found in other languages/cultures.

“No genders. No degrees.”
Not exactly. Chinese does differentiate for choosy types. Eg: ‘Ni ‘(You), ‘Ning’ (You + show of respect for elder – same character with a ‘heart’ at the bottom). ‘Ta’ (He or She depending on prefix of character).

The Hollywood Guide to Speaking Chinese
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3j3CVCOmekY

rs

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joseph September 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

唔知中文…
That might be right…I love how questions in cantonese at least, are usually “is is not X?”

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MarkD September 12, 2011 at 12:21 am

Research and claims about the relations between language and thought is usually skewed by the presuppositions of the researchers involved. I personally worked on large-corpus comparisons of translated documents and generated some numbers concerning the relative perplexity and compactness of different languages, for instance, but when I bring them up most people either want to find some comforting confirmation of the efficiency and sophistication of their culture or want to denigrate others.

There are rafts of these kinds of touchstone issues including free word order in Finnish and Russian, and in topics like (and relevant to this post) counterfactuals can be expressed in Chinese.

Beware of bias and, much more importantly, note that such claims and counterclaims appear to have little or no impact on cultural success.

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Zeb September 12, 2011 at 7:43 am

The first part of this essay sounds like and advocation of Newspeak, and the second just goes against everything I thought I believed about economy and precision in writing. And yet I really enjoyed Luke’s blog writing, so maybe what I think I want and what I actually like do not match up. But seriously, the Newspeak correlation adds even more weight to my totally non-rational intuitive creeped out feeling about the clique Luke is in now.

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mojo.rhythm September 16, 2011 at 11:50 pm

I’ve notice that Richard Carrier, like you Luke, really knows how to communicate complex ideas in commonsense language. The same goes for Fyfe as well. And Bart Ehrman, who incidentally has a degree in Literature.

At the same time, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being a little flowery with your verbiage and syntax. Insofar as it is appropriately used and not done merely for its own sake.

As long as the ideas are not too complicated, I think that it is worthwhile to set some time aside to structure sentences and fine-tune language. Case in point is Dawkins–his material has the mark of a good writer, as well as treasure troves of fascinating content. And he does not go out of his way to be as monosyllabic and colloquial as possible by any means.

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Thom Blake October 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I’m not sure you’re right about the history of (written) Chinese. If you look at some of the oldest Chinese writing, it was extremely simple; the spoken language was very different from the written language, and those who read texts aloud often would elaborate on what was written in whatever style they preferred.

Compare
English:
The way that can be spoken is not the true way.
Chinese(simplified):
一章 道可道也,非恒道也。
Chinese(traditional) – effectively the original text:
道可道,非常道。

The original written version was basically “Way speak way, not constant way.”

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Stephen R. Diamond November 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm

The first part of this essay sounds like and advocation of Newspeak, and the second just goes against everything I thought I believed about economy and precision in writing. And yet I really enjoyed Luke’s blog writing, so maybe what I think I want and what I actually like do not match up.

An excess of pragmatism necessarily leads to Newspeak. (See http://tinyurl.com/3glcy28—perhaps overstated) Luke, it seems to me, avoids considering his purpose. If you want to be a successful blogger—as Google might define one—you should indeed write conversationally. People mostly read blogs for diversion, so they don’t want high cognitive load. And you will maximize the number of people _capable_ of liking your piece, if you make sure all come away _believing_ they understand. Does that mean that your ideas will have effect, or even that many readers will genuinely understand them? For writing for _effect_ about important matters, I think we should look to the styles of writers who’ve _had_ effect. Darwin, Newton, Leibnitz, and Wallace didn’t write in plain talk. (See http://tinyurl.com/48dxal4)

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