From little things do big things grow

Mbabane, Swaziland | 22 Jan 2014
Bill Snaddon

This column is about an endangered species. A resilient species that is struggling against a persistent predator. This endangered species is not being culled as it roams the veld or rummages through the forrest. No, this species is dying a slow death in classrooms and boardrooms. Dying slowly in business and in politics.

We are talking here about the English language. And the endangered species is the small word, the little word. These words are coming under threat from longer words and, increasingly, more complex and vague terms. They may not actually be that long, but they can cause confusion or indecision as they are being overused or used in strange contexts.

Either way, these pests — for lack of a better word — fall under the banner of Jargon.

This column is not about apportioning blame for the the slide into gobbledygook, or singling out people or institutions. Let’s call it a prod in the direction of clarity and understanding.

These “pest words” might look like facilitation, capacitation or sensitisation. They may also look like strategisation, mainstreaming or, a personal favourite, utilise.

Why use “utilise” when “use” will do the job?

And, for that matter, when did a library become a resource centre? When did a school become a learning institution?

Speaking of schools, the Plain English Campaign — a UK-based organisation that advocates for clear language — offers this example of how to translate a sentence full of jargon into something more understandable.

Not clear: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

Clear: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly. 

A neat example that illustrates how big words and verbose sentences reduce clarity.

Call me a traditionalist, call me a Stone Age Monk if you wish, but, more often than not, a shorter and clearer word will do just as well as the longer and vaguer one.

Sure, short words may not have the pomp and gloss that some longer “intellectual” words have. But in foregoing some of that gloss, you may just add more meaning. And what are words and sentences if they are not utilised to convey meaning?

Jargon, that form of language that often confuses and misleads — intentionally or otherwise — is generally not a friend of smaller words. The Plain English Campaign (PEC) offers a more diplomatic definition of jargon.

“Jargon is a type of language that is only understood by a particular group of people.”

The PEC also suggests when one might use jargon.

“You can use jargon when writing to people who will understand the terms and phrases. It can be a useful form of shorthand. But try to avoid using jargon on the general public.”

Plain English, the form of language that aims to convey meaning and spread knowledge in clear terms, is more likely to use smaller words. This is not to say plain English “dumbs down” the language or never uses longer and complex terms. Moreover, if the purpose of language is to communicate and spread knowledge and information, plain English will actually “smarten up” the language, for more people will understand it.

Again, the PEC provides a more digestible guide.

“When you are talking to your reader, say exactly what you mean, using the simplest words that fit. This does not necessarily mean only using simple words — just words that the reader will understand.”

On that note, let the conservation — or sustainability — of the little word begin. Sometimes, less can be more.

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland

#6_From little things do big things grow


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