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I was reading through Stan Carey’s recent Macmillan Dictionary post on the 2011 Plain English Campaign awards, and he put together some disparate bits of thoughts that had been floating around my head for years now.

I’ve always felt sort of uncomfortable with the Plain English Campaign and other related groups that push for more straightforward writing. These groups, if you’re not familiar with them, look over various writing and call people out for unclear language, excessive wordiness, muddled explanations, and biased euphemisms. All in all, a good thing for someone to do, right? I’ve always felt like it was, especially on legal forms and important things like that. Yet at the same time, I’ve always felt a twinge of discomfort with it, and I never quite figured out why. I finally decided that it must be because of the latent prescriptivism in it, and the fact that I sometimes disagreed with the changes that the groups wanted to make.

But that’s an irrational stand. Surely, I’m not against prescriptions when they are focused and clearly improve the comprehensibility of writing, right? That would be insane. So, I had to wonder, what’s eating me about it?

Judging from his post, Stan has similar misgivings about Plain English, but he’s figured his out a bit better. Pointing out overnight tonight and temperatures really struggling as two examples the PEC has flagged as “weatherese”, Stan calls them inoffensive. Stan grants that overnight tonight is redundant, but that redundancy is mild and potentially useful.* I agree; mild redundancy is something that I believe is useful rather than harmful, as an error-correcting code in language.

But it’s temperatures really struggling that gets to the heart of my misgivings. Stan allows that this is “a bit vague and anthropomorphic”, and it is. It’s confusing if you have no other context, and you need to know this bit of our collective unconscious in which we think of the weather as trying to get warm rather than trying to get cold. (I imagine this directionality is not universal, but variable from culture to culture.**) As a result, if there is no other context, or you’re talking to someone who doesn’t share the same cultural knowledge, you probably should avoid temperatures really struggling.

But avoiding such usages has its own downsides. Language is interesting because it is both a tool and an art. Yes, we could use always just say things the same way every time we talk, in whatever way is the most straightforward and least ambiguous. Or we could be a little laxer and permit variation, but ban metaphorical language, and it would probably be easier to get what people are saying. We could disavow sarcasm, because that’s hard to catch, particularly around people you don’t already know, or people like me who fail to have sufficient differentiation between their regular and sarcastic voices.

But we don’t want to, and I don’t think we should. Language is a fun thing, a way to make art every day, every minute. We read fiction because it’s not the newspaper. We have such a fetish for artistry in language that we store quotations, making whole books of words that someone else put together in the right way. Sometimes these quotations are stored because they’re so clear, but more often it’s because they’re not so clear. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be: For loan oft loses both itself and friend,” from Hamlet, is a great line, one that has become an idiom as a result. But it could have been said much more clearly as “Do not make a loan or take a loan, because loans ruin friendships.”

A reasonable contrarian may be saying something like, “Well, that’s Shakespeare, not the weather report,” and I don’t disagree. But these aren’t categorical differences; we don’t want to say that artistry is limited to plays and creative writing and whatnot. All writing is creative. The question is the balance between artistry and clarity.

I’m realizing this right now because I am occasionally babysitting my two-year-old nephew (actually first cousin once removed, but never mind). That means that I have to re-phrase things a lot, because I do tend to speak like I write, which to be charitable to myself, I’ll call flowery. When I say something with a lot of rare or long words, he just sort of stares at me, and I have to rephrase them in words that a two-year-old might know. But when I’m back to talking to other adults, that sort of obsessive clarity isn’t necessary, and would make me unpleasant to talk to.

Clarity, contrary to what many writing guides say, is not paramount. One should be as clear as necessary, but not always more. If a bit of anthropomorphism makes the writing more interesting and engaging, it may be worth the potential loss of clarity. The same if a spot of ambiguity enlivens the sentence, or a slight omission makes it flow better. The key is to know how clear your audience needs you to be. If they’re non-native speakers or still in diapers, clarity is king. If they’re academics, heave clarity overboard.***

So in the end, perhaps the source of my discomfort with the Plain English idea is nothing more than being wary of making clarity the major consideration instead of a major consideration. Clarity has its place, but there are other factors, and those may be more important depending on the purpose of your writing.

*: In my idiolect, it’s not redundant at all, because tonight can refer to any block of time between the next sunset and sunrise (most importantly, either to the time before or after I go to bed or both) and overnight could refer to any late night, not necessarily the next one.

**: One example of this sort of expectedly non-universal directionality is time. In most every culture, the past is thought of as being behind you, and the future in front of you. However, for the Aymara, the past is in front of someone and the future behind them.

***: This is not entirely facetious. I once wrote a paper that my co-author worried was too clear; because it was easy to understand the algorithm we were presenting, it didn’t feel like it was a deep insight.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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