Simple English is Complicated Business

April 27, 2017
A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who instead of aiming a single stone at an object takes up a handful and throws at it in hopes he may hit.”
– Samuel Johnson
A few days back, I came across a short article shared on the Facebook.  It dealt with the issue of incomprehensible language used by the Indian Judiciary.  In one such instance, the Hon Supreme Court of India had to return the judgment to the court that produced it. It confessed, “one cannot understand this”. The judgment was written by the Himachal Pradesh High Court in a case centered on a property dispute. Part of the judgment read, “However, the learned counsel … cannot derive the fullest succour from the aforesaid acquiescence … given its sinew suffering partial dissipation from an imminent display occurring in the impugned pronouncement hereat wherewithin unravelments are held qua the rendition recorded by the learned Rent Controller…” *
Many people think that difficult words and convoluted styles would make them sound smarter, say the experts.  I confess that I am guilty of that sin. I had started my experiments with English writing in  Sarkari files. And I had craved to sound smarter than the rest. So, I went to great lengths to collect words that I hoped would impress my colleagues and stump my bosses.  When some of them told me that they keep a dictionary handy while reading what I wrote, I felt exhilarated. And my hunt for tougher words and more confounding phrases turned more vigorous.  (When I look back, I understand that the commendations I had received on my writing talent had more sarcasm than sincerity).   
Going overboard to impress readers is a reality with the average writer.  The expert says, “… an average writer sets out to commit an act of literature.  He thinks that his article must be of a certain length or will not be important. He thinks how august it will look in print. He thinks of the people who will read it. He thinks that it must have solid weight of authority.  He thinks its style must dazzle. No wonder he tightens. He is so busy thinking of his awesome responsibility to the finished article that he cannot even start. Yet he vows to be worthy of the task, and, casting about for heavy phrases that would never occur to him if he weren’t trying so hard to make an impression, he plunges in…” (William Zinsser, On Writing Well).
I agree. I often use weighty words and lengthy sentences. That called for a rich vocabulary. So, some forty years back when I first laid my hands on a copy of ‘Roget’s Thesaurus’, my thrill knew no bounds. I was told that a thesaurus is a reverse dictionary. You take its help in situations when you have some sense of the meaning of the word you wish to use, but the exact word is evading your memory. As a book of synonyms, the thesaurus also supplies words that are similar in sense to a given word. To me, the thesaurus was a goldmine of words.  I patiently dug up overweight words to replace pedestrian words found in dull official communications.
However, using a thesaurus could be disastrous for the unsophisticated writer. A thesaurus can supply words that resemble each other. However, if the writer does not recognize the subtle variations in its inner meaning, he could end up making himself an ass. I tell this from my own personal experience. Let us see how it happens:
When I look up the word ‘imitation’ in my Roget’s Thesaurus, I find (under Verb): imitate, copy, mirror, reflect, reproduce, repeat, do like, echo, re-echo, catch, transcribe, match, parallel, mock, take off, mimic, ape, simulate, personate, impersonate, act (see DRAMA); represent (see REPRESENTATION), counterfeit, parody, travesty caricature, burlesque, feign, dissemble (see FALSEHOOD), follow, pattern, after, follow suit, take after, model after, emulate.
If the writer is NOT vigilant about the word he chooses to incorporate in a sentence, from the words that resemble each other, he might produce prose that would convey a meaning altogether different that might horrify the reader.  For instance, the sentence ‘I walked in the flowers that bordered the garden, smelling the sweet airs of spring’ could become, ‘I peregrinated in the flowerets that flounced the orangery, sniffing the saccharine ventilation of the vernal equinox’ (Courtesy: Donald Hall, Writing Well). Of course, the latter version sounds real smart, classy and impressive. But as you would admit, it is sheer nonsense. I have committed far worse murders of the English language, thanks to the helping hand from my Roget’s Thesaurus!  
Again, we are told by the language experts that we should try to use conversational language in our written communications. But it is no easy affair to retain the simplicity of a conversation when we convert it into a written communication.  On this, I find the following example in the book ‘Super Word Power’ from the Reader’s Digest:
Listen to an office telephone conversation, and you may hear something like this: “Hello, Mr. James.  This is Joe Connolly at Ace. Say, we are sorry about that order.  The factory shipped to the wrong warehouse, but you will have the stuff Friday.” All of us would agree that this conversation is short and to the point.
Now, let us assume that Joe Connolly writes a letter to convey the same message. The letter is likely to come out something like this:
Dear Mr. James,
Your letter of April 15 requesting information on your order has been received
Our shipments to your warehouse are in the normal course made directly from the factory, as you know. In this instance, however, due to an improper routing of the invoices, the delivery was made to our warehouse. We have searched the warehouse and found your entire shipment.
This is to inform you that we will deliver it this Friday.
We regret any inconvenience this delay may have caused you.”
When we go from speaking to writing, we tend to use high-flown words and twisted sentences. What comes out of the exercise would either bore or confuse the reader.
But experts do not stop. They tell us that we have to be clear and concise when we write. Again, that is better said than done. At least,  it has not been easy for me.  ‘Be brief and simple’, is the feedback I receive from the few people who have the patience to read what I post on my blog. So, I keep telling myself when I start writing every new post – ‘be brief and be simple you damn fool’. But, in the end, the posts always come out entangled in ‘high-flown words and twisted sentences’.   Also, the posts are too lengthy for the span of attention of most readers on the social media. The experts know this. They say that “Amateur writers too often equate length with significance: the longer the letter or article, the weightier it seems”. Whoever had said that, he/she has hit the nail on the head! And I can feel how it bleeds!
While I am still not able to fully bring into practice what the experts advise me (and I advise others), I have been earnest in my efforts to make my writings simpler, clearer and shorter. In fact, I had started it some three decades ago after I noticed the simplicity of the English language used in the globally reputed magazine ‘Reader’s Digest’. Although the magazine now reads more like a joke book with so many pages devoted to humour under various captions, one defining feature of the magazine has been the simple words and short sentences it uses. The articles are crisp, clear and concise. While I have made sincere efforts to emulate its simplicity, my progress has been painfully slow. Now that I am on the verge of kicking the bucket, there is hardly any hope of accomplishing it. The one important change that happened is that I have stopped looking into a thesaurus to find words with muscles to impress the readers.  The experts tell me, ‘write use instead of utilizenear instead of close proximityhelp instead of facilitate… start instead of commence.’  But, as you can see here, old habits die hard.
The pundits tell us ‘Edit ruthlessly – shorten, delete, and rewrite anything that does not add to the meaning. It is okay to write in a casual style, but do not inject extra words without good reason’. I have tried this. But I often believe that it is impossible to shorten my articles without compromising the quality and completeness of its content.  I must be wrong. For the experts say, “If you give me an article that runs into eight pages and I tell you to cut it to four, you will howl and say it cannot be done. Then you will go home and do it, and it will be infinitely better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three…” (William Zinsser ‘On Writing Well’).
Now, in the context of downsizing, look at this sentence: “The scope of the broad objective of this survey was primarily to investigate and assess the potential in Iraq for the development of a chemical factory in the private sector”. The sentence has thirty words. Can we make it shorter? Consider this: “The survey’s primary objective was to assess the potential for a private chemical industry in Iraq”. That reduces the number of words to sixteen without compromising the meaning of the message conveyed in thirty words (19 words). Try shortening this very statement: ‘That says in sixteen words what was said in thirty words’ (11 words). So, truly there is a lot of flab that we could slice off to make what we write slim and seductive.  
I had hoped to make this post an example of my desire to pen shorter articles. But this has now grown close to 1700 words.  I should be concluding now. But I regret that I am forced by habit to make just one more point before I close.    
The irony is that while the experts keep telling us to be simple and brief, some of the most celebrated works in English literature are intimidatingly obscure. Let me cite just one example and quit.
Look at the poem titled ‘The Waste Land’ by T S Eliot. It happened to be one of the poems prescribed for detailed study in my MA (English Literature) course. I went through it several times. I read notes that analysed the poem’s ‘structure and movement’, ‘poetic devices’, ‘use of the objective correlatives’, ‘use of literary allusions’,  ’elucidation of myths’, and so on and so forth.  At one stage, I could recite the whole poem from my memory (not anymore). But ask me, what on earth was the poet trying to convey?  I have no answer!  The poem is so mysterious and baffling that the poet had to come up with notes explaining what he meant. Here are a few sample lines from it.  
The poem starts rather abruptly as follows:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire stirring
Dull roots with spring rain”
The choice of vocabulary and the way the words are mixed might evoke a dull sense of dread, melancholy and foreboding in the hearts of the reader.  The poet writes:
There is shadow of this red rock,  
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Every time I read these lines, I feel in my heart ‘fear in a handful of dust’, although I have no idea about the true meaning of these lines. Every line of this poem is profound; every phrase is loaded with myth and philosophy. And the concluding lines of the poem has an Indian (Sanskrit) connection. The last two lines read:

“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih”**

That is greatness. But we are not great. We are not aspiring for the Nobel Prize in literature. We would never be perfect writers.  And no one expects us to be. Yet, all of us could keep our language simple, meaning clear and outputs short. All of us could improve our style to sound smarter and hold the reader’s attention. Well. We might even impress… 
Perhaps, I have grown too old to change. Perhaps, you have not…  
*‘The Guardian’ dated 20.04.2017.
**‘The Waste Land’ – English Masterpieces, Modern Poetry Volume VII, Prentice Hall.

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  1. Simple words, and simple sentence construction, get great mileage. All popular leaders know this. This translates to writing, too. We should always write in such a way as not to put off the reader…after all, extending the “customer” metaphor of Mahatma Gandhi, it’s the reader who is doing us a favour by reading us!

    All the best, Sir…reading you after a while.

    1. Thank you Hari. Of course it is the reader doing us the favor of reading what we write.
      (This site was kept blocked for a while to facilitate its transfer to WordPress.)

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