Staying out of Hog Water: Tips for Writers

By Scott, Sandra Davidson | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Staying out of Hog Water: Tips for Writers


Scott, Sandra Davidson, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


UNLESS MUDDIED UP, English can be a lovely and complex language, capable of expressing almost any nuance of thought or emotion. Perhaps becauseh it allows such precision of expression, it has overtaken French as the language of international discourse. Esperanto offers little competition.(1) Of course, one can make the cynical argument that English has surpassed all other languages in international commerce because of economic forces. In other words, English wins not because it is a rich language, but because it is the language of the rich. And detractors of English point to the lack of logic in its spelling,(2) pronunciation, and grammar(3).

Granted, English is a difficult language to master, but mercifully it does not assign a sex to every noun the way some languages do.(4) It also avoids the complexity of kanji, the Chinese and Japanese characters which are lovely to look at but devilishly hard to write or decipher.(5)

English has almost twice as many words as any other language, according to William Berlitz. This interesting fact is cited in a foremost literary magazine, Reader's Digest.(6) Now some way scoff at the idea of Reader's Digest as literary, but for sheer good editing, Reader's Digest is invariably a masterpiece. Stripped of excess verbiage, every word tells. No sentence is so complex that it must be reread, and thus the reader is impelled from the first word in an article t its last with no backtracking. Yet the stories impart drama and humor and interesting facts.

Perhaps students of composition -- and almost certainly students of law, medicine, and philosophy -- should be forced to read Reader's Digest on a daily basis.

Law has long been noted for its unnecessary complexity and wordiness. In fact, in 1596 an English chancellor became so exasperated with a wordy lawyer's 120-page document that he ordered that a hole be cut in the document, the lawyer's head be shoved through the hole, and the lawyer then be paraded around the court.(7)

A persistent rumor is that lawyers charge not by the hour, but by the number of times they use befuddling terms such as "whereof," "to wit," "party of the first part," and "hereinafter." But law is benefiting from a "plain English" movement that encourages -- or in some cases even demands -- that legal documents such as contracts be written in plain English instead of "legalese."(8) Only two weeks after becoming president, Jimmy Carter in his first "fireside chat" promised to "cut down on government regulations and make sure that those that are written are in plain English."(9) And the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure exhort attorneys to write appellate briefs using parties' names instead of the confusing nomenclature of "appellant" and "appellee."(10) The states are doing their part. The California Bar adopted a resolution in 1989 to "promote and foster" plain English; the Bar governors' first move was dropping "hereby" from the resolution.(11) In Maryland, a commission of lawyers has been working since 1970 to edit the Maryland statutes. It has proved a multi-million dollar project as commissioners chop through legal thickets such as one-sentence laws that run on for page after page.(12)

Arguably the legal minds most in need of Reader's Digest guidance are the writers of the United States income tax code. One government study showed that more than one-third of the callers who dialed the Internal Revenue Service's help line received wrong answer!(13) But that shouldn't be surprising, considering the text poor IRS employees were trying to interpret.(14) Even the IRS is starting to use "plain English" in some of its regulations.(15)

While erroneous tax returns can cost either the taxpayers or the government money, mistakes concerning medical matters can cost lives. People attending the first International Plain English Conference, held in July 1990 at Cambridge, England, heard about money lost because of complex tax forms.

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