Plain language vs sharper language

Rebecca Monteleone has an interesting piece about plain, readable language.

There are two examples given and it’s a neat bit of coding to make the text change. But I think the “plain language” translation of a ProPublica story is worse.

Here are the two samples, with the original on the left and the “simpler” one on the right:

Kyra is autistic and profoundly deaf. She was born premature at about 27 weeks, just a little over 2 pounds, which has impacted pretty much everything: eyesight, hearing, digestion, sleep patterns. A strong tremor in her hand makes it impossible for her to use American Sign Language. Her parents think she recognizes a couple dozen signs.

Kyra is autistic and deaf. She was born early. She was very small when she was born. She has trouble seeing, hearing, eating and sleeping. Her hand shakes so she does not do sign language. Her parents think she knows some signs.

It may be more readable and understandable for people with lower reading comprehension skills. But it also comes at the cost of comprehending the depth of the story.

Kyra is autistic and profoundly deaf has meaning. Deafness, like autism and blindness, comes on a spectrum. To know Kyra is profoundly deaf means she is completely deaf. Perhaps a better translation would have been to swap the medical “profoundly” for “completely”.

Likewise, “Her parents think she recognizes a couple dozen signs adds depth to understand scale. Reading it as “knows some signs” makes me immediately question, How many? Can she wave hi and bye? Can she only give a thumbs up or down? Saying she recognizes a couple dozen signs immediately makes me think she knows how to communicate basic needs—like food and water, but also shows how limiting that might be. Like if you only knew about twenty-five words vs two or three.

Part of my frustration with algorithmic reading level tests is they analyze every sentence as an independent part. For people who have higher reading comprehension, reading everything in short sentences with lots of periods and no commas is exhausting. The tone is flat and it has no rhythm. It’d be like saying, “People who don’t know music or understand rhythm no doubt prefer lullabies and children’s songs.”

What we should strive for is translating complex problems—like politics, history, medicine, law, and advanced subjects—into relatable stories, words, and patterns that make sense for people who haven’t spent their entire lives studying one field. And in some contexts, like billboards and quickly-scanned ads or stories, it makes sense to go for simplicity, bullets, and headings. But those elements are good for everyone when done well, just as accessible appliances and buildings improve accessibility for everyone.

Saying we should reduce language to its simplest form reduces clarity and sharpness. It also puts you in the mindset of patronizing your readers as infantile and illiterate.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

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