Talk Grammar to Me Tuesday: The Power of Simple Language

Many teachers are familiar with the expression “Write to express, not to impress.”  Many of them wish it was something more of their students were familiar with as well.

Remember, the central goal of any writing you do, other than purely personal writing such as journaling, is to express something–to take an idea you have and put it in writing in a way that someone else will understand it, and possibly act on it.  Do that well and it will be enough to impress your instructors.

 teacher GIF

Fail to do that, though, and it won’t matter what rhetorical tricks you’ve tried to use. You’re likely to see this face instead:

And who needs more of that in their lives?

While there are many places on the Internet that will give you tips for “simple” writing, many of them are tricks which constitute shortcuts and lazy writing.  It’s important that you don’t confuse the two.  As Maya Angelou reminds us, “I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page…. It must look easy, but it takes me forever.”  That’s the type of simple writing we’re talking about–the one that takes effort on your part, but looks simple to your readers.  This week’s post, therefore, is all about the words, specifically word choice. We’ve referenced word choice before in the context of errors, using incorrect words, and why that tends to happen.  This week, though, we are talking about using words that will help you accomplish specific tasks and keep your writing appearing simple while giving it that sharpness it needs to jump off the page.

Here are eight things you can do:

  1. Limit jargon, slang, and acronyms.  While these may be helpful to people who already understand these terms, they will be a barrier to communication between you and your readers if they don’t understand them.  Use only those that they need to know to understand your topic.  Have you ever tried to read a passage of Shakespeare when you have to keep looking in the margins to see what every third word means? Or how about a scientific journal article when you have no background in that area, but it was obviously written for people who do?  Pretty frustrating, right? That’s what you’re trying to avoid doing to your readers here. Remember, though, when deciding what to include or not when it comes to community-specific language, having a good idea of your readers and what they know or will understand is key.  Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed for the common man (Sorry women, the public theatre wasn’t a place a lady frequented–although upper class women viewed plays that were performed privately.)…while the common man was often drinking, eating, and perhaps playing a hand of cards.  And, this audience understood him quite well.  The same is true about those research journal articles. They are written for an audience with a background in that field, and that audience understands what’s being said even though it’s often confusing to someone with little or no experience.
  2. Use adjectives and adverbs selectively.  When we read literature, we are used to reading strings of descriptive, adjective- or adverb-laden phrases. However, academic writing uses them sparingly.  This is something to strive for as a novice writer since using them indiscriminately often leads to more bland and confusing prose.  They should not be used at all if your intent is for them to help you reach a particular word count.
  3. Use familiar words and combinations of words. Keep in mind that “familiar” is a relative term depending upon your audience.  You don’t want to talk down to your readers or underestimate their intelligence, but you don’t want to sound as though you’ve been studying for the ACT or GRE and need something to do with all of those words now that the test is over.  As Stephen King says, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up your household pet in evening clothes.”
  4. Remove unnecessary words. Some of the tips here are geared toward helping you do that. More help is here, here, and here.
  5. Unless you are writing in a style/discipline that prefers passive voice, use active voice.  We’ve discussed the differences between these voices before, but the “active voice” link will help you review.  The “prefers…” link will help you determine if the assignment you are writing calls for active or passive voice depending on the discipline the class is a part of and the style you are using.
  6. Avoid weak, bland verbs (forms of the verb “to be”). Use action verbs instead. Click the link for a pretty thorough list if you find yourself stuck when trying to come up with an appropriate one for your assignment.
  7. Use parallel construction. We’ve discussed what this is in a previous post. If you need to review, click the “parallel” link.
  8. Accentuate the positive. Phrase things as how they are or should be rather than how they are not. This leaves less room for misinterpretation and confusion on the part of your reader. If an idea is stated as a negative, it the sentence will contain one or more of the following: no, not, never, neither, nobody, none, nor, nothing, nowhere, or a contraction of a word with “n’t” at the end.  Use words and phrases that state your ideas in an affirmative manner instead.

Still not convinced adapting these practices are worth the time? Check out this TEDEd video which gives you some real world examples.  It just might do the trick.

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