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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

You can help stop the plague of overly complicated writing—and you definitely should

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A girl works on assignments from her cluttered desk. Illustration by Eva Lycette (She/Her) / Mass Media Staff.

Here’s a frustrating situation I’m sure you’ve all experienced at least once. A professor assigns you a reading, which turns out to be an academic article. As you read it, you begin to realize that you maybe understand 50 to 70 percent of what the author is saying, either due to the academic jargon or the long, winding passages of unnecessary wordiness. You finish the reading feeling like you’ve learned very little. 

It certainly happens to me all the time, and it’s probably one of my biggest pet peeves about academia. The number of times I have annotated a reading with the thought “what the heck does this even mean?” is probably in the hundreds. I find a morbid joy in rephrasing entire walls of text in a sentence or two, without losing all the important information. It’s pretty obvious that academics love to stroke their own egos with their writing, and it drives me up the wall. 

This isn’t limited to academics, though. Legal and governmental language is infamously cryptic too—there is an entire industry dedicated to deciphering the ridiculous language for the benefit of us peasants [1]. Even private sector business or industry isn’t safe; have you ever attended a business conference of any kind, or tried to read the more detailed material that businesses publish on their websites? I have, and let me tell you, it’s a sleep-inducing nightmare, especially when it comes to economics. 

You probably all know how bad science communication can be. Multiple journalists can easily come to vastly different conclusions from the same body of research, simply due to confusing and obtuse language…and still, they might both be wrong. Scientists have a difficult time communicating their first-hand knowledge to the public as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously hammered these issues into our collective consciousness. 

The problem is this: Academics and professionals are letting pointless genre conventions, leftover from an elitist past, go unchallenged. They think that academic and professional writing just has to be complex, wordy and obtuse. “If it’s simple,” they believe, “then it’s bad.” 

But they couldn’t be more wrong. 

As I mentioned, we’ve seen what can happen when science and health information become obscured by complicated language. The wording of legal documents makes it difficult for regular people—whether they be defendants, plaintiffs, juries, et cetera—from understanding the crucial legal details of their case. Anti-education sentiment often banks on the frequently ridiculous prose that many academics revel in [2]. 

Another, more nauseating, thing about overly complex language is the way that military and police will speak in riddles when addressing the public. They use language as a shield, preventing us from feeling the true weight of what they are saying with euphemisms and innuendos, and often sounding like cold, methodical robots. 

Let’s be clear. “Eliminate the target” meant they killed the person they were going after. “Strategically apply pressure to the insurgents in the area” means bombing the town they were in. These people are simply trying to minimize their actions with vague and technical language. As I see it, if you cannot face describing what has been done in plain language, then you shouldn’t do it. If you feel like it had to be done, you should stand by what you’ve done with confidence. 

Confusing writing isn’t just annoying—it’s actively harmful to discourse and to the fabric of our society. It can often be a tool to wield power over the less educated, marginalized and vulnerable as well. 

This is a battle that has raged for centuries. People like Martin Luther and William Tyndale first translated the New Testament from its more archaic forms into common language to empower everyday people [3]. In medieval England, the law was written in an entirely different language—so-called “Law French,” a version of French so far removed from its historical origin that even everyday French people could not understand it [4]. 

Given the history of language being used as a barrier of entry, we can see that plain language is actually a tool of empowerment, rather than a tool to “dumb down” complex ideas. The motto “keep it simple, stupid” is designed to remind us that language should empower the everyday person, rather than act as a gate between the general population and the elite. 

There is one argument advocating complex language that gives me some pause. It says that technical language is often necessary due to the purpose of the document. Academics on the cutting edge of their field will use lingo and terminology that refers to highly specific and complex concepts related to that field[2]. Legislators will write laws and legislation that attempt to leave next to no room for interpretation that could come from vague or “lazy” language. 

This is a totally valid point. I’m definitely not saying there isn’t a time and a place for complex language. Sometimes complexity is necessary. And of course, when it comes to creative writing, wordiness can actually be valuable. 

However, we desperately need to assess when the necessity of complexity outweighs the necessity of the simple. If we decide that complexity is desirable, we still have to do our absolute best to keep our writing as simple as possible. 

Now, there are official efforts to recognize and codify the necessity for general readability. The “Plain English Movement” has pushed for concise language legislation [5]. The “Plain Writing Act of 2010” was passed to “enhance citizen access to Government information and services” by making sure the language used is clear and readable [6]. 

Additionally, many major newspapers like The New York Times are famously written at a high school reading level—or sometimes lower—so that most anybody can pick up the news and understand it. Take a look at websites like Buzzfeed—most elementary-schoolers can probably read their articles without a problem. 

It seems to me that not many students are being taught to write this way, especially when it comes to academia. In my time in college as a communication major, english major and even history major, I have only ever come across one professor who instilled a proper respect for simple language in their students. 

I think higher education needs to teach students to write with plain language wherever possible, for the benefit of all. How can we run a functional democracy if important ideas, science, legislation and laws are nearly impossible to understand for most? 

As for us students, we are the vanguard of the movement for plain language. We are the future authors of countless studies, research projects, pieces of legislation, articles and more, and we have the power to make information more accessible. We have to be the change we want to see.

In other words—only you can stop the plague of complicated writing! 

[1]https://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/articles/beyond-a-movement/ 

[2]https://archive.nytimes.com/query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage-950CE5D61531F933A15750C0A96F958260.html 

[3]https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/from-sacred-scriptures-to-the-peoples-bible 

[4]https://www.amazon.com/Manual-Law-French-J-H-Baker/dp/0859677451 (read description) 

[5]chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1475&context=faculty_scholarship 

[6]https://www.plainlanguage.gov/law/ 

 

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor