Keeping it simple
By Samantha Loong
Keep it simple （簡潔に書け）というのは、文章作法の基本中の基本である。
Bad design happens. You see it in buildings with bad accessibility, in overcrowding, and in bureaucratic administration. What people tend to forget is that bad design can also happen in language.
Language has bad design when information in sentences, signs and other forms of communication is difficult to understand. A sentence might be too long, the words used might be too officious, or there might be too much jargon. Frustratingly, the places where language needs to be simple to reach a wide audience — like hospitals, banks and public transport — are often the worst offenders.
I found an example of this on my bus in London. Whenever it reaches the last stop, the pre-programmed voice will say: "This bus terminates here." I'm always puzzled by why it doesn't simply say, "This is the last stop," which is much more straightforward. And when you're at a train station, if something goes wrong at the ticket gates the screen shows "Seek assistance." Why not "Ask staff for help"?
One train company has decided to turn the boring and terribly serious announcement "CCTV in operation" into something much more engaging and fun. Its take on it? The much friendlier "Smile, you're on CCTV." Good language design, like good visual design, gets attention.
Language in the workplace is also rife with bad design. The higher up the organization you go, the more likely you are to encounter people saying things like "Let's use the learnings from that," instead of "Let's use what we learned." Or using "communicate" instead of "contact." My current pet hate is "deep dive" — as in, "We'll have a deep dive on this" instead of "We'll go into more detail about this."
All these are examples of corporate-speak — a form of business language so derided by those who champion plain English, that there are entire websites dedicated to deciphering and making fun of it.
Early last year, I attended a plain English course. We learned that apart from avoiding jargon and corporate speak, another easy way to write more simply is to use the active voice, not the passive. Instead of "Obstructing the doors can be dangerous," it's much more straightforward to use "Don't block the doors," or "Keep the doors clear." The Simple Wikipedia website (simple.wikipedia.org.) is another great example of people looking to encourage more use of plain English.
It was at school and university that I learned how to complicate my use of English. I discovered that I could easily churn out essays that met the word count by using impossibly long sentences, big words and plenty of jargon. At work, I've noticed that using corporate speak is a form of power — the less the audience understands the true meaning of a word, the more powerful the speaker appears to be.
But perhaps in our quest to sound intelligent and powerful, we're all ignoring the fact that using simple, clear language is actually the smartest thing to do.
Shukan ST: May 20, 2011
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