Simple language, please.

by David Dennis


It seems to me like all too often simple language is actively avoided, and instead phrases are chosen that are intentionally or unintentionally obscure. Also, different situations seem to come with their own lingo. From the boardroom to a police press statement the oddities of language used can be quite unique yet equally vague. In some cases the deviations in proper use lead to blatant misunderstanding or indeed lack of any real, discernible meaning or so little meaning as to be platitudes. Often I am left with the feeling that the individuals involved are using language that they either think they should use or have been coached to use. The result is an uncomfortable and unconvincing address that feels forced and often leaves the listener (or reader) feeling as though there are omissions or misdirection in the given information. This is never a desirable outcome (even if you are omitting details or misdirecting – which may be an entirely legitimate endeavour).

Don’t missunderestimate the problem and try to think outside your silo; your investigations must be on-going continually if you are to achieve clear waters.

There are a number of common issues in public speech that I notice:

  • Don’t use many words when you can use few. “Our investigations are on-going continually” really ought to be “We are investigating.”
  • Don’t make words up, avoid unnecessary ‘hyphenation’ and avoid portmanteaus. “Misunderestimate”, one of my favourite Bushisms, really should have been “underestimated”. “Miss-speaking” really is just making an error. To err is human.
  • Avoid metaphor. Sometimes they are useful, but in most ‘conversational’ speech they simply are not. Your “silos” are ambiguous at best. Are we speaking of storage or of isolation?
  • Bigger is not better. The simplest word that accurately and immediately conveys your meaning is the correct one.

I honestly believe that if you are using language that you wouldn’t use at home with your children (hypothetically) then you’re using the wrong language, or you’re using trendy language that has insufficient value for you to use outside of its clique. While I believe that we should be concise in our speech, and that a broad vocabulary is a virtue we should all aspire to, concise and simple should also be central tenets of our communication skills.