Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Flesch on vocabulary and plain language

Rudolf Flesch (my hero) quoted a popular magazine on the topic of vocabulary building and then added his comments:
    '[E]ach new word you learn will increase your mental power. There may be other ways to success, but vocabulary building is the easiest and the quickest one.' Unfortunately, this just isn't so, and the cash value of words like minions and panegyric is practically zero.
Flesch continued:
    Language is not as simple as all that and we understand words not by way of 'vocabulary building' but by way of their contexts. If this were not so, simple writing--or any writing, for that matter--would be very easy: you cut out the big words, and there you are.
Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk 205 (Collier 1951).

But writing, and writing in plain language, is not that easy. Plain language is about a lot more than words--even if we don't all know it yet:
    [One] thing to say about plain language is that it has a problem. It has a bad name among some lawyers. This is usually because they don't understand enough about it to judge it properly.
    . . .
    Plain language drafting is more than just a matter of using simple words. Less than half this book is devoted to words. The rest looks at writing for your audience, choosing the appropriate tone, planning, structure, design and layout, readability, devices to help your reader find things, testing, and some "philosophical" matters.
Michèle M. Asprey, Plain Language for Lawyers 11, 197 (2d ed., Federation Press 1996).

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