Although we all begin life using small words and understanding each other perfectly, somewhere between childhood and middle management our ability to communicate goes mad. We turn healthy little nouns like “product” into overgrown verbs like “productize,” which then become bloated nouns like “productization.” Forms are impossible to complete, instructions are impossible to follow, and presentations are totally incomprehensible. How did this happen, and what can we do about it?
Where does it begin?
It starts small. A group of smart, capable people are discussing a new idea or a new product and they come to a stumble in the conversation. They need to describe this new thing (for the first time in human history!) and they realize that none of them can really think of the right word for it. For example, they want to talk about “the process of turning an idea into a product for sale.”
So there’s some muttering and stammering until someone manages to fumble out the completely made-up term “productize.” Everyone blinks, frowns, and then slowly nods. Sure. Productize. The English language is flexible enough that anyone who hears the word “productize” will basically understand the idea, so the group heaves a sigh of relief that their word problem is solved and they move on with their conversation, using the word “productize.”
But they’re going to have more meetings so they need their teams to do research, write reports, and present their findings about “productizing” so the teams are all forced to use the new word. The team members mention the word to friends and peers, and by the end of the week everyone in the business world is “executing an actionable productization process to maximize concept potential as a market deliverable to realize significant profits within the minimum allowable ROI period persuant to line item fifteen of the Statement of Work.”
Strunk and White are sobbing in their graves.
The English language is a brilliant thing. Much like the US Constitution or a willow tree, the English language’s greatest strength is its flexibility, its adaptability, its potential for endless growth. However, our lovely language has been seriously abused in recent decades by some very smart and successful people who were just too darn lazy to bother thinking of the right word or using a perfectly clear phrase instead of a bizarre new term.
This laziness resulted in countless new words and phrases that are completely unnecessary, and this new business dialect grew out of control throughout industry and government around the English-speaking world. Fortunately, human beings are smart and eventually some of them realized that this horrible corporate language was, in fact, horrible.
To combat business language, these smart people coined the term “Plain English,” which became “Plain Language.” The idea was simple: Write things so that they are easy to understand and easy to use. To that end, various plain language associations and societies formed to establish standards for business and government communciations, and eventually these efforts resulted in a series of US executive orders mandating that government documents be written in plain language.
How much better is plain language? Let’s look at a few examples (source).
Example 1, before:
[Name] informed you of the procedures for calculating interest for insufficient estimates. If the enclosed invoice(s) include charges for insufficient estimates, a detailed insufficient estimated [sic] used to calculate these charges is also enclosed.
Example 1, after:
How to pay your bill: To avoid penalties as well as further interest, you must pay this bill by its due date.
Example 2, before:
Make sure that the account holder’s name on the account is the same as the name of the customer to whose account the transaction should be attributed.
Example 2, after:
Make sure that this account is for the right customer.
Hooray! This means that when the government wants us to fill out a census or pay taxes or fight in a war, we will have no trouble understanding the paperwork.
(Note that the Braley Plain Language Act has been approved by the House of Representatives twice, but not yet approved by the Senate, so it’s not a law. Yet.)
But what does this mean for you? For your job? For your company?
If you’re lucky, your company has already discovered and embraced plain language. Good for you. But it’s more likely that your company hasn’t bothered to fix their language, and they continue to make up words and write documents that are more and more confusing.
Plain language will make your life easier. It will make it easier for you to read materials you are given, and it will make it easier for you to write company-approved materials. What can you do to make this happen?
- Google “plain language.”
- Gather some feedback from your clients, your software users, your website visitors, and find out if they think your written materials are confusing.
- Rewrite some of your company materials in plain language to use as an example.
- Demonstrate that plain language is usually briefer than business language.
- Demonstrate that plain language improves user satisfaction.
- Show it all to your boss, and cross your fingers.
So if you’re tired of actionablizing the deliveration of systematicified contenticity, then I strongly encourage you to support plain language.
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