Plain-Language Classics

Mr. Democracy

Aristotle's emphasis on human solidarity and friendship remains fresh and pertinent to modern life.

ANCIENT Greek philosophy is not the usual place to look for instruction on plain language. But in fact, that is where it all began. The same people who invented democracy also gave us the language for it: plain language.

Aristotle emphasized the importance of delivery (diction, voice, and style) in both speaking and writing. "It is not enough to know what we ought to say;" he wrote, "we must also say it as we ought." In any presentation, it is important to consider not only the facts, but also how to put the facts into words, which words to use, and the "proper method of delivery." Style is critical in developing the confidence and trust of the audience. It affects not only the emotions of the audience, but also their ability to understand the concept.

According to Aristotle, the speaker must use ordinary language used in everyday life. Most of all, the speaker must give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. A speaker should not use very many "strange words, compound words, and invented words." When one seems to speak with ease, the audience is more easily persuaded that the speech is true.

Where Aristotle differed from his contemporaries was in his use of metaphor in plain language—because, as he said, "Metaphors are used by all people in everyday language." Until recently, metaphor was considered a decorative embellishment. Modern research, however, has restored the importance of metaphor as the root of language and thought. Philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson found that "Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

Plain language in practice: Nicomachean Ethics

Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court:.based on concepts introduced by Aristotle 2500 years ago.

Aristotle developed his ideas of democracy and the common good in his Politics. His most loved and durable work, however, has been his Nicomachean Ethics, named after his son Nicomachus, to whom it is dedicated. The work is the best example of what Aristotle meant by plain language. It is not a polished literary work but the notes of his lectures in class. It starts with these words:

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim."

Aristotle's concepts are remarkably familiar and modern:

Ethics for all ages

A 14th-century painting of Islamic scholar Ibin Rushd, known as Averroes in Europe, who re-introduced Aristotle to Christian scholars.

While the works of Greek writers were very popular with early Christians, the Church stopped the teaching of Aristotle and other pagan writers in the 6th century. Fortunately, Islamic scholars in Spain and Bagdad were under no such restrictions and rescued Aristotle from oblivion. In the 13th century, the Spanish philosopher Averroes brought a Latin translation of Aristotle's work to the attention of the monks Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris. Eventually, the Roman Church incorporated Aristotle's humanistic ethics into its theology.

In the 17th century and with the advance of science, Aristotle's works on physics and metaphysics were abandoned, but his Ethics and Politics remained the cornerstone of Western democracy.

Today, there has been explosion of interest in Aristotle. Just dropping his name raises interest (e.g., If Aristotle Ran General Motors). There has been special interest in his concept of virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the actor rather than the nature of the act or its consequences.

Amazon currently offers almost 2,000 books touting Aristotle's Ethics, many in the fields of education, sociology, law, medicine, and corporate management. Its pragmatic approach offers members of all beliefs a robust antidote to extremist views. Although Aristotle wrote some 2,500 years ago, his Ethics remains as fresh and timely as ever.

New literacy surveys

Small gains in U.S. schools as poor fall behind

NAEP Nations Report Card
Nation's first 12th-grade reading and math report card: showing slight gains.

LAST November, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the result of a 2009 pilot study of 12th graders of 1,670 public and private schools in 11 states across the U.S. This is the first national scoring of 12th-grade readers. In many states, reading instruction and tests stop in the 10th grade.

The study showed that reading and math skills had improved slightly since 2005, but still were not up to 1992 levels. Reading scores did not change significantly for Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students, or for female students. The gaps between racial, ethnic, and gender groups did not change significantly in either reading or mathematics.

Thirty-eight percent of twelfth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in reading. Twenty-six percent performed at the Basic level.

The report confirms that large numbers of high school students still graduate with less than 9th-grade reading skills.. These figures are in addition to the poor reading levels of the 32 percent of high school students who fail to graduate according to recent reports.

Grade school challenges

Most high school dropouts arrive at high school with inadequate reading skills, which are the main cause of dropping out. In a March 2010 report, the NAEP showed that scores of 8th graders had improved but not of 4th graders. The gap between White and Black students had not improved nor did the gap between Whites and Hispanics.

These figures indicate the failure of the U.S. "No Child Left Behind" program, which emphasized standardized testing in the classroom. They may also indicate a failure to improve the economic and social conditions of America's working class, which have a direct relationship to academic performance.

In November 2010, the UNICEF Innocenti Centre issued a landmark report, The Children Left Behind. The report shows that the rich countries of Europe and the United States are letting the poorest children fail.

Italy, the United States, Greece, Belgium and the United Kingdom, for example, allow their most vulnerable children to fall much further behind than countries like Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

The report argues that the consequences of 'falling behind' are enormous for children, as they are for the economy and society.

Gordon Alexander, the director of UNICEF Innocenti, said:

"As debates rage on austerity measures and social spending cuts, the report focuses on the hundreds of thousands of children who risk being left behind in the world's richest countries. This need not happen. The standard set out in this report is not based on some theoretical ideal of greater equality but on what some OECD countries have already achieved for their children."

Shanghai students best in reading, math, & science

Shanghai students
Shanghai teens:
the world's smartest.
Photo: Getty

On December 10, the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a 70-nation survey of a half million 15-year olds. The report listed Shanghai students as the best readers, followed closely by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. The U.S. came in with average OECD scores in the 17th position. Mexico was at the bottom of the list.

In addition, tests showed the outstanding capacity of Shanghai's 15-year olds. Over one-quarter of them "demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3 percent," the report said. Go here for the full report.

These newest surveys show that the image of rich countries as well-educated and poor countries as badly-educated is now out of date.

Plain language in the news

U.S. officials told to keep it short and simple: http://tinyurl.com/246qx8y

Municipal jargon in UK:

Suggestions for better prescription labels: http://tinyurl.com/24ygsyr

Public comment requested on standards for prescription labels: http://tinyurl.com/2c2toll

New Google readability search feature: http://tinyurl.com/3yagapq

Improving product instructions: http://tinyurl.com/26glkrj

Health insurers told to speak plain English: http://tinyurl.com/2684m4d

Printing effective postcards: http://tinyurl.com/269qoyb

Plain words are best: http://tinyurl.com/2exz7nf

Five tips for better communications: http://tinyurl.com/24gvox2

New plain-language requirements for "MiniMed" plans: http://tinyurl.com/2a6edjf

Make Congress speak plain English: http://tinyurl.com/28wjzr5

2010 gobbledygook awards: http://tinyurl.com/2crtpfy

The Press wins plain-language award: http://tinyurl.com/288szye

David Marcello on plain English in the law: http://tinyurl.com/2cgzxfg

Time for plain English in Australia: http://tinyurl.com/22m6djf

Living without literacy: http://tinyurl.com/294zfgf

The most costly lies in finance: http://tinyurl.com/2bpo8ds

Most annoying customer-service messages: http://tinyurl.com/3al9hjo