The conclusion of our Plain English theme brings a guest post by Martin Shovel, a writer, animator and speechwriter with a special interest in new media and social networking. He writes regularly about language and communication on his own CreativityWorks blog and is a contributor to the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog. He tweets @MartinShovel.
For centuries, speechwriters have been viewed with suspicion. We’re regarded as the used car salesmen of the English language usage world because we specialize in the darkest of linguistic arts: rhetoric, the art of persuasion.
The rot set in when the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato put the boot into rhetoric around the 5th century B.C. They argued that rhetoric didn’t say anything substantive about the world – it wasn’t a proper body of knowledge, like medicine or business, for example.
Instead, they characterized rhetoric as little more than a set of tools and techniques that enabled a speaker to wield persuasive power over an audience, irrespective of whether what was being said was true or false. Rhetoric wasn’t concerned with right and wrong; its aim was conviction, not knowledge or understanding.
The doubts raised by Socrates and Plato persist to this day. In fact there is still a widespread belief that rhetoric is like the US sitcom ‘Seinfeld’: essentially a clever show about ‘nothing’. Rhetoric is regarded by many as a dubious gun-for-hire, whose primary concern is entertaining and manipulating an audience, not educating or enlightening them.
At the other end of the linguistic trust spectrum, we find the relative newcomer, plain English. As its name suggests, plain English presents itself as the honest broker of the English usage world: an impartial mediator between ideas and the words that reveal them. On the Australian Plain Language.gov website, Professor Robert Eagleson states that “writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language”.
Descriptions of plain English, like Eagleson’s, often imply a distinction between a message and the words that express it: as if words are a window we look through to reveal the ideas that lie beyond them. Metaphorical image-rich language is seen as problematic because it has a tendency to dirty the window and obscure the message.
But if we look at the variety of ways we use language on a daily basis, the distinction between words and message melts away. Rhetoric teaches the speechwriter that how we say what we say affects the meaning of what we say, and my experience of writing speeches confirms this.
When we ask someone to do us a favour, our choice of words is critical to the success of our request. A clear, but abrupt, plain English, “pick it up!”, might cause offence. Whereas a more rhetorical, “would you be an angel, and pick up that pen for me?”, might just do the trick.
Context also plays a crucial part in our choice of words: where we are, who we’re talking to, our relationship to the person, or people, we’re talking to, and so on. If I’m talking to my wife or daughter, I might use angel, but if I’m speaking to a stranger in a noisy bar, or to my boss at work, I could end up in hot water.
We use language to perform all kinds of different tasks: we ask for things, we complain, we apologize, we persuade, and so on; and because content and style are inseparable, all of us learn to become rhetoricians, in order to survive.
The study of everyday language use teaches us that plain English is a style choice, not a privileged insight into the way language works. It’s a style that comes in handy when writing an instruction manual or a contract, but it’s of limited value when attempting to rally troops under fire, or trying to persuade the electorate to hand you their precious votes.Email this Post