Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing in Plain Language, Part 9: Word Choice

"Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent." George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946.

Commercial, government, and political offices would do well to take George Orwell's advice if they want their clients, stakeholders, and constituents to understand their messages.

Here is a story to illustrate Orwell's point. An employee of a major municipality wrote to a concerned citizen this sentence:
We will ameliorate the condition on your street within one week.   
I had a hunch that the problem in question would be eliminated completely, which is not what ameliorate means. So I gave the writer a list of six words in this order:
  1. remedy
  2. fix
  3. ameliorate
  4. rectify
  5. restore
  6. correct

I asked her to organize them from most to least understandable to the average reader. This is how and why she ordered them:
  1. fix, because it's a small word that beginning readers learn.
  2. correct, because first graders hear the words correct and incorrect when responding to their teacher's questions.
  3. remedy, because children hear the word in relation to medication given to them.
  4. restore, because it's used more often than the remaining two words.
  5. rectify, because it's used more often than the remaining word.
  6. ameliorate, because it is used the least.

I said I agreed with her order and then asked her if the six words are synonyms. After she said yes, I looked up ameliorate at, which defined it as:
Make (something bad or unsatisfactory) better.

My point was to make her see that simpler words are not only more understandable, they are often more accurate. Ameliorate might be a fancy word, but it did not say what she meant. Better to heed Orwell's tip about choosing an everyday word.