Plain English

I recently listened to a lighthearted yet profound interview with Neil James of plainenglishfoundation.com. The interviewer opened with a salvo of corp-speak:

ListenGoing forward at this point in time it may or may not become necessary to introduce the next key stakeholder in the forthcoming conversation. Dr. Neil James . . . is here . . . I intend to drill down into core relevant personal observations, occasionally thinking outside the box in relation to key matters for consideration, and are you ready to kill me now?

Neil James
Neil James (photo Australian Broadcasting Corp)
Dr. James thinks that over-stuffed English conveys a message that “I don’t care if you don’t understand me. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s your fault. I’m more intent on sounding impressive than communicating with you.”

He explained, “It comes down to status. It makes me feel more important.” He concludes that “It’s inefficient. It’s contemptible. It’s about power. It impedes a proper conversation. It reinforces inequality.”

Genesis of Newspeak

Dr. James explains that this use of Italianate language began in the ’60s . . . the ten-sixties. In 1066 William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon-speaking King Harold at the battle of Hastings. William spoke French only, and for the next three centuries all official business in England was conducted in French. Throughout England, French became the language of power.

Since then, the rigid structure of French phrases has been used in English to convey status and obscure meaning. Politicians know that sound bites are limited to a few seconds, so they fill them with meaningless phrases, thus avoiding loss of votes.

In the tech world, windbags use similar meaningless phrases sprinkled with jargon to hide the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about. In my experience, the best scientists and engineers explain complex concepts by using simple words in simple sentences. Dolts, on the other hand, make everything sound complicated.

Dr. James shares my admiration for Winston Churchill’s command of plain English. His “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech is a set of simple declarations. Instead of “We shall not surrender” (4 words), Dr. James thinks that a wlndbag might use 19 words:

It is incumbent upon us not to enter into a binding bilateral agreement to subsume our jurisdiction going forward.

I prefer Mr. Churchill’s simple phrase.


16 amusing podcasts by Neil James about over-stuffed English.

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