Communication: an English word of Latin origin describing the act of expressing thought between two or more parties.
William Zinsser would have us believe that big words, especially those of Latin decent, are roadblocks to effective written communication.
He believes instead, that good writing can only use simple words – like rain for precipitation.
But really, the roadblock to communication isn’t necessarily the words used in expressing the thought, but rather in the thought itself.
When thinking isn’t accurate or precise, communication of this thinking won’t be either – regardless of the size of the words used.
The shoe doesn’t necessarily fit on the other foot, though. Saying something ineffectively with lots of complex terminology, as politicians often do, doesn’t necessarily correlate to inaccurate or imprecise thinking.
For example, “Mistakes were made during the incursion into Iraq, which led to the ultimate substantiation of the realization that the army is currently in a quagmire. ”
This says what, exactly?
That somebody screwed up and the army is in a bad situation, that’s what.
The speaker of this quote probably knew exactly who screwed up and how bad the situation really was, but was being intentionally vague in communicating it.
This isn’t the fault of the words chosen, but rather of the person who chose the words.
So while I disagree with Zinsser’s rationale that anything written in complex terminology is poorly communicated, I do believe poor communicators – whether doing so intentionally or unintentionally – often use complex terminology.
Include some fuzzy mathematics and nobody will understand what’s going on.
As journalists, our mission should be to complete the thinking part of communicating prior to attempting the expressing part. In other words, if we don’t know what we’re trying to say, we won’t be able to say it effectively.
It’s our job to decipher the fuzz-think, interpret the intentionally vague and question the communicators of expression lacking in substantiated thought.
Then we must restate in plain terms – but not necessarily small ones – what happened or what is going on.
To do so relies on a consideration of the audience. Plain terms to a reader of The Gainesville Sun could differ from a reader of The Wall Street Journal. But, we need not arbitrarily exclude certain words based on their size or complexity. To do so would be an insult to our reader’s intelligence.
The goal is to effectively transmit meaning to readers, and the responsibility to achieve this goal shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Far too often, communicators fail at this mission. Not because of word choice, but because of lack in thinking. I admit, it’s hard work, but the old adage “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” only works for high school and first-year undergraduate students and not for those who desire to make a profession out of mass communication.