I have nothing against words like ‘obfuscate’. Our language is rich, layered and lovely. Obfuscate rolls off your tongue beautifully.
But, to choose that word when you are trying to make a point seems like a dictionary definition of ironic.
For many listeners, the word itself makes the message unclear, which is of course, precisely what it means.
When Mr Orwell pleaded with people to write clearly, choosing simple short words over long, rambling language, he explained that, “Good prose should be like a windowpane.”
The idea that we need to communicate transparently is surely as relevant now as it was when Penguin published his essay in 1946.
It’s not just politicians who hide behind long words and even longer sentences. Working with marketing and branding clients across various industries, we often find people who doubt their ability to write, yet feel they have to show they know their stuff.
They pack sentences with technical jargon, bracketed with words like ‘whilst’, ‘herewith’ and ‘henceforth’. And don’t get me started on the adjectives – bumping up against each other, a proper trip hazard on the way to a full stop.
Nobody talks like this. The best writing is like talking to your reader. This is the most effective way to get your message across.
Since 1979, the Plain English Campaign has fought for ‘crystal-clear communication’.
According to their website, a 2018 survey showed that many staff in big corporate environments use management speak to hide the fact that they haven’t done their job correctly. Isn’t that food for thought when we listen to the House of Commons?
This is my favourite before and after example from the Plain English Campaign to highlight how bad English can hide meaning.
If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.
If you have any questions, please phone.
How did Mr Orwell suggest we police our plain English? Simple.
Count the syllables. The more syllables, the higher the chances that the word isn’t the clearest and most powerful you can use.
I will leave you with this lovely example.
“Make progress forthwith.”
(Sian Lewis, copywriter making a point.)
“Just do it.”
(Nike, international revenue of $39bn in 2019)
Which one makes you more likely to get off your sofa and go for a run?