James O'Neill's Blog

March 28, 2006

Civilisation will come to an end because no one will understand what anybody else is saying

Filed under: Desktop Productivity,General musings — jamesone111 @ 1:22 pm

In yesterday’s post I said “I’ve got an interest in how we communicate – and how sometimes we say a lot without getting a message across”. Recently I was asked to review someone else’s document: it was full of jargon, which I didn’t think the target audience would understand: but worse than that I couldn’t find the idea the author wanted to convey in among the long stream of buzzwords he wanted to use.

It reminded me of something I had read in Sir Ernest Gowers book “Plain Words” some years ago, and I wrote my own version. Having circulated it to the amusement of others I’ll share it here.

It is alright to use long words where they are needed. But it is inconsiderate to use language which is inappropriate to the reader, and doing so may mean the message isn’t read or is misunderstood.

Or should I say:

There is no imperative to condemn the utilization of polysyllabic constructions where their necessity demands it. However: one should be cognizant of the fact that if, in the course of authorship, language is selected which repeatedly falls outside the experience of the reader – albeit within the context of constructions which in and of themselves constitute a valid syntactic framework – this has the potential to render communications sub optimal in a number of dimensions. The reader may feel that the author lacks empathy with their situation, or that unreasonable demands are being made of their ability to remain in sync with the sequence of ideas being expressed. Either of as a result of the feelings this engenders, or independently, the reader may determine that the investment of time required to discern the author’s true meaning shows sufficiently little return that such time would better deployed in the pursuit of alternative activities. Furthermore, the use of language and grammatical constructions of undue complexity means that, even with due diligence on the part of the reader, the possibility is created that what has been said, despite having a clear meaning in the mind of the author, has the ability to deliver more than a single semantic outcome, and in such a situation many possibilities exist for unforeseen repercussions resulting from the reader’s making an erroneous selection from the divergent interpretations available to them at the point of reading.”

The thing is – how often are we expected to read things like the latter, which say no more than the former ? Too often !

It’s a fair guess that I’ll come back to Gowers again.

This post originally appeared on my technet blog.

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