Simple English

From Robert Krulwich:

There are people (and I hear from them constantly) who think if a subject is sophisticated, like science, the language that describes it should be sophisticated, too.

If smart people say torque, ribosome, limbic, stochastic and kinase, then the rest of us should knuckle down, concentrate and figure out what those words mean. That’s how we’ll know when we’ve learned something: when we’ve mastered the technical words.

I beg to differ. Fancy words are nice if you’re feeling fancy. But suppose all you want to do is understand how something works. The technical vocabulary would let you talk to other technicians, but if you’re just exploring for yourself, if all you want to do is get comfortable with the complexity, you don’t need expert words; you need words that translate easily, words that make personal sense to you….

Here he gives an illustration of simple English … read it!

“Up Goer” — as in “rocket.” Nouns that we now think of as ordinary — cargo bay, capsule, lunar module — are Sesame-Streeted into aggressively lowbrow forms, and you know what? The innards of the rocket are suddenly clear, transparent. This works!

(Well, I think it does.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is technical writing at its best. No fancy words. Nothing very “meta.” But accurate. Clear as a bell. Friendly. And effective. Journalism schools should make students go Deep Simple at least once a semester.

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  • phil_style

    For an article arguing for not using “fancy words”, why does the author then do this: are “Sesame-Streeted into aggressively lowbrow forms”.

    Simplifying the terms is usually referred to as “dumbing down”, not “sesame steering into lowbrow forms”….

    Article credibility = low.

  • Phil Miller

    I like Robert Krulwich, and in one sense I understand what he’s getting at, but on the other hand the illustration in the article seems needlessly complicated to me. I think we use specialized language in technical fields because it provides a shorthand for describing things that would be tedious otherwise. If someone doesn’t know that shorthand, yes, it may be confusing at first, but after someone learns it, it becomes second nature.

    It’s sort of like reading music. Certainly someone could describe how a pianist should play a Beethoven sonata by physically describing which key they should hit on the piano at a given time, but that would become so convoluted in a short time that any sane person would give up.

  • Matt Miles

    I’d say it’s still valid, since there’s a difference between technical jargon and slang. You don’t have to work to figure out what sesame streeting… means. His argument had the opposite effect on me, though. I realized how much jargon most of us already know and how clunky our language would be if we all lacked at least a basic overview of it.

  • Phil Miller

    You don’t have to work to figure out what sesame streeting… means.

    Assuming you’re a native speaker and know the cultural context of Sesame Street… Spend some time around some international students, and you quickly learn that many of the idioms we take for granted don’t make much sense when you have to explain them.

  • Adam

    “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
    – Albert Einstein

  • Matt Edwards

    This is absolutely true. The best writing makes technical concepts easily accessible. In seminary we called this “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.”

  • Matt Miles

    I thought someone might call me out on that. The context was technical vs non technical. I have taught in an international setting, and idioms can turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth. That didn’t seem to be the context of this article, though, which addressed or seemed to address technical jargon. Idioms can be a challenge as well, but that’s a different subject.

  • His example highlights xkcd, one of the best webcomics that currently exists anywhere on the internet. Everybody should read it.

  • Matt Edwards

    Gk Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

    “If you say ‘The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,’ you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin, ‘I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,’ you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word ‘damn’ than in the word ‘degeneration.'”

  • MatthewS

    It is amazing how explaining something simply forces you to think about it.

    There was a techie guy who was very smart and was getting a lot of requests for help from coworkers. He put a purple teddy bear in a chair and told people to ask the purple teddy bear first, before coming to him. Sometimes simply framing the problem as a question to the purple teddy bear helped the solution appear. (this could sound like he was being rude and arrogant but as I heard the story it was all done in good clean fun and in a competitive-cooperative environment where it would not be offensive.)

  • Krulwich expresses the simple truth. Robert Wuthnow (Princeton, sociology) wrote on our tendency to use language as “boundary posturing”. By our language, we include and exclude people. It’s as if our words become gate keepers to who we want to allow close to us. In academic settings, using very technical and arcane words may be necessary, at times, but so much of our language describes who we are and how we relate. I try – imperfectly! – to express myself clearly w/out the big words which bumble around in my head all the time. (family, community & education influenced from an early age!) Some of us have to unplug the big words because we want to partake with others. Others, who look at people as competing and opposing them, seem to want to set themselves apart w/ their language.

    I was noticing the difference in the responses from the gardener of the fig tree and the leader of the synagogue, this morning. Does this “simple” view express a serious difference in the lenses through which we view ourselves and others?

  • BradK

    So we should actually say something like “our view of end fate of humanity regarding the second coming of Christ, resurrection, and judgment” every time we refer to our eschatology rather than using the shorthand “technical” term? It seems that we should be able to explain everything in the simplest terms if necessary, but that we should not always do so as this would make communication needlessly verbose.

  • I’m still trying to figure out “perichoretic dance of interpenetration”….

  • scotmcknight

    Bob, it doesn’t exist between us.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Well, yes and no. There is a need for technical jargon in a field like mine (Resource Geology, geostatistics), but one should keep it to a minimum. The best people use the terms when they need to, whereas those that want to impress overuse them. And, of course, there are lots of grey space in between….

    But, I second Rory: XKCD is the best. As one friend put it, it is the distilled wisdom of the ages…

  • Amanda B.

    One of the most helpful books I ever read about writing was called “Write Tight”. The idea is to use only the words you need. For most of us, most of the time, that means cutting down on long sentences and replacing complicated words with simpler ones.

    Yet “tight” doesn’t always mean “shorter”. If you need a specialized word, then you simply need it. For instance, I could say, “That little rectangular slot on the side of my laptop where I plug in most computer accessories”, or I could say “USB port” (which most people understand). However, if I were helping my grandmother set up a computer, I might go with the first description. And re: Brad K (#12), I use the word “eschatology” all the time when speaking to our Bible school students, who know what that is. But I would say something closer to, “what the Bible says about Jesus’ Second Coming” if I were talking to a random youth group.

    It doesn’t seem to me that the point of this article is “Technical jargon is always bad”. But it can very often be a crutch. It can shift the burden onto our readers to figure out what we mean, rather than on us to make ourselves clear. And if we absolutely can’t describe something without resorting to jargon, it may mean that we need to understand it better ourselves.

  • Ian Thomason

    I’d hate to think that we would advocate approaching language as some do Scripture: one dimensionally. English is, in some respects, analagous to flowers. It can be at once a simple daisy and a sophisticated hyacinth. Words, when used well, when used appropriately, are evocative. Consequently, it might be that doggerel is suitable on the one hand, whilst on another occasion poetry is what’s called for.
    So, let’s not rush to warmly embrace Robert Anthony Thiel at the expense of Alfred, Lord Tennyson 😉

  • Mike M

    Ian: you wax poetically.
    The same thing happens in theology. I had to look up “soteriology” the first time I read it here. Did anyone make me? No. Did anyone explain it in “simple English?” No.
    Medicine had it’s own jargon which makes communications between practioners more efficient. I do consider it my responsibilty to explain medical terms to my patients so perhaps that’s a useful metaphor.

  • Ian Thomason

    Hi, Mike M.
    I would agree with you. In my case I consider it my responsibility to explain theological terms to my students, just as I do to members of my church should they express anything approaching an interest!
    When I’m called upon to preach, however, I strive to use language that’s appropriate to the task. So too when I teach … when I witness … when I pray. Whilst each of these activities is different, each also shares a degree of overlap. My experience has been the same rings true vis the language that I use 🙂