Magazine article Policy & Practice

Speaking in Codes

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Speaking in Codes

Article excerpt

A professor on interstate adoption and orphanages recently wrote, "In the current policy and legal climate which focuses on permanency for children and youth in foster care, there are few facilities that openly state that they do not seek to ensure that in most cases, the children and youth they have serve either return home or have new families through adoption." After fumbling with this passage for a few minutes, I thought the author meant to say "most orphanages operate as de facto permanent homes." I think adoption might work faster if we didn't have to write about it in circles.

In a world of increasing specialization, everyone is becoming a "professional." Professional means expert. To speak a language only members of an expert group understand is a license to join the club. And here lies the challenge to being a public human service professional: How do you talk to nonprofessionals with whom you have to deal every day but who aren't trained in your profession? How do you make your Food Stamp allotment form, child adoption memo, or Medicare policy understood by your clients? How can you communicate better with your own colleagues?

Common folk talk in simple sentences. We understand better when we use simple words. George Orwell notes in his "Politics of the English Language" that simple language gets a job done much faster than complicated jargon. When we talk like the expert above, we lose our audience.

Physicians, social scientists, human service experts, and attorneys are known to be frequent violators of precision on language. A lawyer, in a recent letter to the editor of The New York Times commenting on a Medicaid case, wrote: "In fact, the Court could not have reached the result it did in the manner it did without first determining implicitly, if not explicitly, that there was some doubt." Undoubtedly the lawyer had only members of his profession in mind when he wrote the letter, never mind those poor Medicaid recipients and newspaper readers.

Practice of imprecision and puffiness not only gives false dignity to our prose, but drains our language of blood. We are lazy. We speak in abstractions to avoid dealing with the subject matter. We love to generalize for our defense, and doubletalk gives us a shield. We speak of "in the manner," "it's like," "some time back," "kind of," "sort of," "It can be argued," to avoid dealing with specifics.

Recently, a vice president of a company that deals with employment training of the disabled wrote in a training manual: "Priorities must be given to participants with the most appropriate background in the nearest related field. …

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