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Tuesday
Jan222013

The plainest English

If you're not already reading xkcd — the must-read sciencey thrice-weekly comic strip — then please give it a try. It's good for you. Check out this wonderful description of the Saturn V rocket, aka Up Goer Five, using only the 1000 most common words in English →

This particular comic took on a life of its own last week, when Theo Sanderson built a clever online text editor that parses your words and highlights the verboten ones. Then, following the lead of @highlyanne, a hydrologist, scientists all over Twitter quickly started describing and sharing parsimonious descriptions of what they do. Anne and her partner in crime, @Allochthonous, then compiled a log of every description they could find. It's worth looking at, though it would take a while to read them all. 

What's it like using only the simplest words? I tried to define a well...

A deep, round, empty space in the ground that is only about as wide as your hand. The empty space is very deep: up to about seven tens of hundreds of times as deep as a man is tall. It is full of water. After making the empty space, we can lower small computers into it. As we pull them out, the computers tell us things about the rocks they can 'see' — like how fast waves move through them, or how much water the rocks have in them.

It's quite hard. But refreshingly so. Here's reflection seismic...

We make a very loud, short sound on the land or in the water — like a cracking sound. The sound waves go down through the rocks under the ground. As they do so, some of them come back — just as waves come back from the side of a body of water when you throw in a small rock. We can listen to the sound waves that come back, and use a computer to help make a picture of what it looks like under the ground.

Is a world without jargon dumbed down, or opened up? What is it we do again?...

It is very hard to do this work. It takes a lot of money and a long time. The people that do it have to think hard about how to do it without hurting other people or the world we live in. We don't always manage to do it well, but we try to learn from the past so we can do better next time. Most people think we should stop, but if we did, the world would go dark, our homes would be cold (or hot), and people would not be able to go very far.

Check out Up Goer Six — Theo's new editor that colour codes each word according to just how common it is. Try it — what do you do for a living? 

The image is licensed CC-BY-NC-2.5 by Randall Munroe at xkcd.com.

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Reader Comments (7)

Knowing to write to speak/write plain English is a crucial global skill.
Outside US-Canada the industry is in majority done by non-native English speakers and/or in non-English speaking countries.

When speaking/English in a simpler way: you remove a lot of miscommunication possibilities with your colleagues.

Communicating with/between non-native English speakers keep in mind at least two things:

1) No matter how comfortable speaking/writing in English the person communicating with you: they are always more comfortable in language they grew up with.

a. Caveat: Yes, technical terms/concepts s might be easier in English even for non-native speakers. Yet try to get a feeling of what the technical term might be in the official language of the country you are operating. This is important for anyone dealing with officials (customs/immigration for example) and regulatory boards. You might be ask you to do/listen a presentation or write/check an official letter about what you do in the local language. All the technical works might be in English but in any country the law will be in the local language. Language is used as a tool to assert power/jurisdiction (even in something as simple as meetings...)

2) Avoid verbal jokes, pop-culture reference or sports image. Once I was trying to explain that perfectionism was counter-productive. I kept going on about not aiming for “Perfect score card” but going instead for a “batting average”. A completely incomprehensible metaphor in any football/soccer crazy country!

a. Non-native English speakers of different native languages will de facto use simple/plain English. If you are a native speaker of English try speaking/writing English as it was a foreign language to you.

Finally if you ever catch yourself thinking that if everyone spoke reasonably good English things would be easier at your work or in the world in general... Well remember the following: because something is convenient and widespread does not make it automatically the best solution for everyone! An example: the metric system is used officially by possibly as much as 193/196 countries in world yet three exceptions remains (name more than one...) If it is difficult for some of us to use different measurement units than the ones we grew up with: imagine using a difference frame a reference as all-encompassing as a language… I will keep this is mind next time I moan about converting someting to "English/Imperial" units!

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I help people drawing. They draw where to find stuff under the ground. This stuff makes car work. To draw where to find the stuff they need to decide where good points are. They are lots of points. The points we got them by doing deep long space in the grounds or having a wave going through the ground. I help them make sure the points are where they are and I make sure they can have the points they want. I also help them use the computer they draw with.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric

If you're ever board take a few moments to browse some of your favorite topics on the simple english wikipedia website. Refreshing and a bit funny.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTSherry

@Eric: Thanks for the thoughtful remarks about language — puts me in mind of lots of conversations with you about a decade ago!

I like this thought: "because something is convenient and widespread does not make it automatically the best solution for everyone." But I need to think a bit about whether I agree with it or not... I mean, doesn't it? Really? (I think metric is the best solution for everyone :)

@TSherry: Thanks for the suggestion. I haven't looked at Simple Wikipedia for a while. It is quite good, especially for subjects that have become rather long or complicated in the main Wikipedia. String theory, for example (which actually has another simplified version on the main site: Introduction to M-theory).

January 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

January 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterToastar

@Toastar: Good one — I should have linked to my old post on brevity. I wonder if anyone has analysed Orwell's writing to see how often he implemented Rule 6.

January 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

Matt: Thank for the feedback.
This is a bit off topic but metrics I agree is the better solution 99.9% of the time…
Still the all idea is to keep our reasoning flexible & versatile using more than one way to measure describe/ reality. Keeping it organic! Survival of the fittest "measuremens sysem" for evolving challenges . Concrete example: at work I hang around with air pilots mostly from metric using country (i.e. non-US): they cannot imagine giving their altitudes in anything else than feet. Other non-metric units can be more comfortable (pressure and radiation have sometimes more convenient non metric units)so keeping option open of non-metric is not a bad idea .

TSheery: Simple English Wikipedia is a great suggestion!

Toastar: That is just a clear set of rules especially with six included Thank you.

January 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric

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