Monday, 28 December 2020 12:00

Plain Language style and the 'gamut of choices'

Written by Theresa Truax-Gischler

Screenshot John Linnegar 2020 11 05 134310

Anyone familiar with John Linnegar’s erudition on all things English grammar and editing will not be surprised to hear that his contribution to this year’s SENSE Jubilee 2020 workshop series, ‘Applying plain language principles to creating accessible, reader-friendly texts’, was highly anticipated and well attended. The four-hour workshop on a Thursday afternoon in November was just the thing to wake us all from our social distancing slumber and get us thinking deeply about the tools of our linguistic trade. A former teacher of English in secondary and higher education, John has been a copy editor, trainer, and publisher for over 40 years. He is the co-author of many articles and books on English grammar, editing, and language, among them Oxford English Grammar: The Advanced Guide, Text Editing: A Handbook for Students and Practitioners, and two volumes on text editing in two of South Africa’s indigenous languages: Sesotho and IsiZulu. He has served on the board of the Dictionary of South African English and as the chair of South Africa’s Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) and is the current SENSE Member-at-Large. With 20 participants hailing from several countries across Europe and John joining us from his Zoom office in Cape Town, it was a truly cross-cultural and multi-lingual affair.

John is passionate about the plain language movement but applies its insights with a delicate touch. He cites the philosophy in a concise adage: ‘The message is important, not the fancy language wrapped around it’. The assumption here is that however complex or nuanced the author’s intended message, it can be communicated to readers in a straightforward style. If the text is too wordy or the sentence structure too baroquely complex for the intended reader to grasp ‘at first reading’, the task in revising should be to shear it of excess and allow the essential communiqué at its core to shine through. This promotion of the reader’s perspective and expectations will be familiar to any editor or language professional, as will the attention to intended audience, genre and discipline. But what of the author’s perspective in all this? Can or should the author’s voice and ‘insider’ discourse community find equal weight in our work?

While John exhorted us to ‘dress language down’ where appropriate and when possible, we were advised not to ‘dumb the author’s ideas down’ nor reduce the style to bland pap. ‘It is comforting to find’, John noted during discussion, ‘that we don’t have to dress down style’. It is this latter caveat against reductionism that gives John’s workshops and presentations such relevance to academic writers and editors. It avoids the trap many rule-based writing advice gurus fall into of alienating those of us who are moved by academic writing’s many inspiring functions and forms. While the purpose of some texts may be to broadcast a message to a wide audience, others are written with smaller communities in mind in the hopes of breaking new expressive ground, forwarding paradigm-shattering insights, highlighting marginalized voices, creating new theory, or dislodging its readers if only a little from their stock categories and patterns of thought. Plain and simple declamation is not always appropriate. Nor is it even always desirable.

Plain language has a place – an important one – to be sure. The movement’s democratic commitment to enfranchising those who have been historically disadvantaged by gatekeeping language is inspiring and long overdue. But like every stylistic choice, its usefulness is context-specific. When generalized to all writing forms and all writing communities, a censure against unplain style actually works against the democratic principles that are the movement’s prime motivation. In my preferred linguistic world, there is also a big place for the subversion of reader expectations. The rub, of course, is that to do that, you first have to know what those are and how to meet them. That’s where plain language comes in strongest.

Used descriptively and not prescriptively, plain language techniques offer writers and editors a valuable set of targeted skills we can have at our ready. Whether we’re looking to recast garbled draft sentences into clear and concise versions, spice up otherwise wooden texts, or craft a voice and style that is wholly outside the box, learning how to recast and move things around in a sentence can widen the range of textual effects we are able to produce. Splitting and reconnecting, shortening and reordering, substituting and recombining – all these devices can shake us loose from our linguistic grooves and expand the kinds and functions of sentences we use. As SENSE CPD Coordinator Matthew Curlewis taught us in his Writers' Stretch & Tone series, our writing becomes stale when we repeatedly fall back on turns of phrase, constructions and genres we know too well. Adopting new styles and voices can spice things up.

So while we may sometimes read, write or work with a perfectly good academic, literary or policy text that is all ‘dressed up’ with difficult words, jargon, nominalizations, noun strings, negative statements, subordinations and archaisms that are there for a purpose and not to be touched, dressing things down once in a while can enliven our writing, editing, and translating, if only by force of variety. If Oliver Lawrence’s insights on the many uses of sound in writing are to be believed, experimenting with and studying a wide variety of forms, styles, voices and linguistic strategies can make us all better writers and language professionals. Plain language is no exception and should form part, though certainly not the whole, of our study.

But just in case anyone missed my message here, I will not be straightjacketing my written or editorial voice to fit plain language style preferences any time soon. Unapologetically unplain is fit for purpose for the kind of editorial work I do and the discourse community I make my home in. Unless the tone threatens to undo the author’s ends, I consider voice to be out of bounds for my editorial intervention, even for non-native English speakers writing in English. My job as an editor is never to change the author’s voice but rather to help it come into its own through close reading and ‘deep hanging out’ with the text. I do that by offering my clients what Sally Burgess has recently called the ‘gamut of choices’ from punctuation to syntax, word choice to modes of expression, argumentation to rhetorical structure that together make up a writer’s voice. As University of Chicago Press copy editor Carol Fisher Saller argues, editors can take an adversarial or a cooperative approach to an author's choices, but not both. The editor must choose. Having been edited by John more than a few times, I can attest to his gentle editorial touch: he never outmaneuvers my voice, means of expression, or intended argument in favor of ideological cudgeling. He swims with not against the grain of the text he edits, a skill that sounds easier than it actually is. When wielded in his hands, plain language techniques become something of a marvel, making me wish I’d thought of that way of phrasing things in the first place.

I’ll therefore let the plain language presciptivists wave their ideological banners on their own and take on board instead what John’s gentler, more democratic approach has given me: some very valuable writing techniques I can pull out whenever I choose – choice being the operative word. I don’t actually believe, after all, that the sole function of language is to broadcast a message or instrumentally impart information to an uncooperative reader. My faith in the reader’s agility, the generative value of linguistic oddities, and the ‘pushmi-pullyu’ of bringing multiple styles and voices into conversation may be naïve or even utopian and silly, but I wouldn’t part with it for all the world.

Theresa Truax-Gischler is a developmental and substantive editor in the narrative social sciences and humanities and has served on the SENSE EC. In early 2021, she and long-time SENSE member Maria
Sherwood-Smith will give a MET workshop on editing humanities and social science texts.

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