Why Plain Language Matters In A Post-Truth World


After a world-tilting start to 2017, where a spokesperson for Donald Trump coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’ as if it actually meant something, it has become clear that communicating clearly and truthfully is going to become an uphill battle. (Read points 7 and 8 in our post 13 Social Media Trends To Watch In 2017)

We thought it was time to remind everybody that plain language matters in this ‘post-truth‘ world. This post from Christopher Dean clearly says it all.

How To Communicate Clearly In Your Business, Academic, And Personal Life

There is no point in having a perfect understanding of English, or any other language, unless you are able to make yourself understood.

When I lived in Tokyo, I could not do the simplest things like posting a letter or buying a cell phone without playing charades with Japanese speaking people.

I understand the frustration this creates. I also understand that many things can be easily misunderstood even between two people who both speak English as their first language.

This confusion can be because of bad grammar and poorly written or badly expressed language, but more often it is simply because the other person does not understand us.

If we were to communicate simply and clearly in business, academia, and our everyday lives, I believe there would be less chance of being misled by politicians and businessmen who thrive in the swamp of alternative facts.

In Business

‘When you wish to instruct, be brief. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.’ ~Cicero

If more of us understood business practices, there would be less chance of us being misled. Businesses should communicate in plain language to make this clear.

In business, the most common problem area is emails. When you write an email, you always need to remember two things:

Firstly, never confuse people.

  1. Never use words that are more complicated than they need to be.
  2. Don’t ever write “convoluted” when “complicated” would be easier for them to understand.
  3. Use short and to the point sentences.
  4. Be accurate. Be concise. Be understood.

Secondly, emails can be used as evidence in legal matters.

They are formal documents that can be the basis of a contract. So take them seriously. The Consumer Protection Act makes this law, but more importantly it also just makes sense. A business that communicates well will run well. So keep your words simple and there will be less confusion.

In Academia

‘The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.’ ~George Eliot

We all know that academic writing is seen as complicated and inaccessible. Often only people with years of training can understand what is being said. But that is changing and we all should help that change along.

We need to think of what we are trying to do. And in this case we are trying to explain our knowledge to others.

And so,  we should not use words like “thusly”, “albeit” or Latin or Greek phrases if we don’t need to. And if we have to use them, we should explain them clearly and simply to our readers.

In Academia we should not hide our findings behind a barrier of words. We should rather write as if our ideas need to reach the largest possible audience and not just our academic friends.

How much knowledge is lost to us behind a mountain of exhausting, badly written words? Imagine if the theories of Derieda or Mills were written to be as easy-to-read as the latest James Patterson book. I imagine some people would have even heard of them – especially those who are being swayed by the post-truth brigade.

And remember it is in our own best interests to be read and understood. Surely that will be good for us and for our careers in academia.

In Our Personal Lives

‘One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.’ ~Quintilian

We live in a world where our friends, colleagues, and bosses almost certainly speak differently to how we do. That is why it is important that we make sure that our words are simple. Our meanings direct. Our own understanding complete.

Think of it this way, if you had to run from one point to the next you would choose the fastest, straightest way. Why then, do some of us use the most complex, confusing words in our daily conversations?

It is important to resist using complicated language. Remember, just because we can use these words doesn’t make them better than simple language.

And more importantly we should use only words we really understand. After all, how can people know what we mean if we don’t know what we mean?

In conclusion

Confusing your friends, a shop assistant, or even your boss doesn’t make you look smart. It just makes them angry, and more likely to listen to somebody like Donald Trump.

So let us think before we speak or write, so that we can avoid delays and troubles caused by failing to communicate.

Before you worry about sounding smart, before you worry if your language is completely grammatically correct and before you send that email, take the time to make sure that you would understand yourself, as if you were receiving your own words and not giving them to someone else.

Quotations taken from 30 Famous Authors On Writing In Plain Language

If you want to improve your business writing, join us for The Plain Language Programme.

 by Christopher Dean. Christopher is busy with his Masters in Media Studies at Wits. He tutors critical thinking skills and literacy to undergraduate students.

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