Unobfuscated Synergistic Fungibility
Unobfuscated Synergistic Fungibility: Why we actually prefer to use plain English
Ah, the awful tyranny of plain English. It’s the dead hand of Taylorist rational organisation. It’s the destroyer of romance, imagination and fun. It’s grey, cold, suffocating and inhuman.
Big English is what’s needed! Big English is best for its expressiveness, inspiration and communication of grand ideas.
Well, all that may be true if you’re a novelist, a nineteenth-century historian, or just somebody attached to the sesquipedalian. But here at Coracle, we try to take into account a few unavoidable facts.
Firstly, reading from a screen is difficult. Study after study indicates we slow down by about 20% when reading material online.
Secondly, we’re surrounded by competing stimuli and we’re often on the move. Our lives are more fragmented than the lives of Victorians and we have fewer opportunities to sit and ponder our learning.
Thirdly, complex language hinders rather than helps people to learn.
So when we create content for online learning, we use plain English for very good and practical reasons.
We’re helping learners, not the learned. That’s to say, there are people outside the field trying to get in, but they’re not familiar with the technical language and jargon of what they’re studying.
Marxists and economists will understand this, as the former see things in terms of power relationships and the latter in terms of scarcity: Big English is used to pull up the drawbridge, to prevent new entrants getting into your market, and to preserve the guild. Lawyers don’t say things like ‘the party of the first part’ for the hell of it; they say them to stop other people becoming lawyers.
Tests have shown that plain English is easier to read, so we also have science on our side. Straightforward and predictable sentence construction makes for a smoother ride and reduces the cognitive burden (i.e. require less thinking). “Jim admired Janet because she was a very smart woman” is more predictable and therefore easier than “Jim admired Janet because he liked very smart women”.
We’re more likely to skip short words when reading, and dwell on the longer words. Tests using eyetracking equipment have shown the eye has to spend more time on unfamiliar letter sequences to extract meaning from words. The word ‘clown’ is easier to process than ‘dwarf’ because its initial bigram (the two first letters) is statistically much more common than the combination ‘dw’. Although context matters, it’s often the case that plain English gets the message across more efficiently.
We create content for an international audience. Working and studying in a foreign language is so common these days that accents and nationalities in professional life are barely noticeable. But learning in English can be a long hard road for non-native speakers, so avoiding elaborate sentence construction and unusual vocabulary makes it easier.
Of course, insisting on plain English can be taken too far. In the 70s, Boeing and IBM herded the English language into ‘controlled vocabularies’ to ensure technical documentation was understandable by people all over the world (see the Boeing website for an explanation of Simplified Technical English).
This approach may be right when you want wings to stay on planes, but most learning is more subtle. It cannot be a list of cold facts, but must be empathetic in the sense of building a learner’s knowledge and understanding step by step. It must also not be boring, and English offers great scope to vary rhythm, to illustrate using striking metaphor, to tell jokes and do everything needed to keep the interest up and carry the reader onwards.
So we don’t go overboard, and not everything we produce would score maximum points on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale. But the arguments for plain English in online learning seem beyond dispute.
And finally, about the unobfuscated synergistic fungibility referred to in the title of this piece. It’s written in big letters on a whiteboard at Coracle headquarters in Cambridge. It’s clearly an important concept. But since any five-year-old can tell you what it means, there’s no need for me to explain...