Some Plain English and Clotted Cream, Please

There’s a great article in yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal about Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign.

She sees incomprehensible legalese mumbo-jumbo from what we might call a social justice perspective:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

It’s a good point. It reminds me of the time a few months ago when my wife visited a neighbor in the hospital. The neighbor couldn’t read, and while the nurses had read various brochures to her, my wife discovered that she didn’t really understand them at all; it turns out (surprise!) that simply reading a complex collection of sentences at someone’s face doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them that information.

It also makes me think of our experience buying our first house, a bit more than a year ago. I was regularly e-mailing and calling our mortgage and realty people, saying things like, “I know that you’ve explained this before, but I really need to make sure I understand it perfectly. What exactly do you mean by [fill in the blank with any of the 37 terms I could never quite get my head around]?” And let’s remember: my wife and I both have masters degrees from prestigious universities, and I’m working on a PhD in a distinctly language-oriented field. It’s not incorrect to say that my job is deciphering meanings in texts.

Add to that the layers of power that are at work here. A poor, black, uneducated woman is made aware of these identities every time she wades through worlds where rich, white, educated men predominate (like hospitals). That would be enough to keep anyone from wanting to ask for clarification after clarification in the way that I had the societal power to do when I bought my house, as a comparatively rich, white, educated man. This helps me understand, too, the reason why so many of my mostly poor, mostly minority neighbors don’t use banks. The answer I’ve always gotten was, “I just don’t trust them.” Well, why would you trust an organization with such an ability to do incomprehensible things and then “explain” them with incomprehensible language?

Two parting thoughts:

  1. I notice that a lot of the writing genres described in the WSJ article are the kind that don’t have an author’s name tagged on to them–things like policy explanations, bank websites, etc. (Foucault–and I hate to go here–would say that these kinds of text aren’t awarded the “author function” by society.) I half wonder if the collaborative writing process mixed with company power relations lead to unclear language; I can imagine a lower-down, newer employee being told to revise an older draft of a statement in legalese, and him thinking, “Well, I ought to try to imitate this ultra-formal, high-vocab type of language.” And then the next person who gets it thinks the same thing, and so on. But I’m hesitant to say that, because there’s so much I like about collaborative writing.
  2. I think there are some implications here for how we teach professional and technical writing. Like, in the past I would say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style so that your readers can skim your text and understand it easily; this keeps them in your good graces.” But this article reminds me that I can also say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style because this is a way to include the marginalized; this empowers them to enter places they’ve historically been kept away from.” Interesting stuff.
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