This short entry returns to the theme of cooking – an area in which I claim no expertise but a limited amount of experience.
This morning I found a thought provoking recipe for making plum jam that I really liked. It wasn’t overly prescriptive and let you find your own way to do things. For instance, it said, “Crack open half of the plum stones and get the kernels out.” Great! Plain writing that made sense.
Better still, it let me find my own way of doing things. The end effect was quite clear – I was to get the kernels out of the plum stones – and the method to be used was up to me. So I used a pair of fairly heavy duty pliers (the sort with a wire-cutting bit included in the jaws) and in very little time I had a fine heap of kernels and a mass of cracked plum stones for the compost heap.
And here’s the thing. People enjoy being given the freedom to find their own ways of doing things. Tell them what you want and let them get on with it – and the more clearly you can tell them, the less chance they have of getting it wrong. The jam turned out fine, too.
At the risk of implying that I have nothing to do all day but surf the internet, I want to point you to another perceptive and helpful article about the importance of language. This one is written by the Chief Exec of Certitude, a group of personal support and social care providers, Aisling Duffy.
Rather than summarize her excellent words I’ll leave you to read it for yourself. Here’s the link. It’s good to find like-minded people; all that remains is to work out whether it’s a case of great minds thinking alike, or fools seldom differing. Over to you on that one…
I have a new fellow traveller who has raised the importance of using the right language to a corporate level. She sums up one of the key issues really well, saying “…subjective language suggests bias, or an agenda.” This is true whether you’re delivering considered judgements in the field of risk analysis or offering advice on how to write clearly.
I can do no better for those who work in the field of risk analysis – or, indeed anyone else interested in achieving clarity – than to point them to this link where they can read the guidance for themselves.
Thank you, Kirsten Parker, And I hope you don’t mind me drawing on your expertise like this…!
This article jumped out at me from the pages of the Saturday Guardian.
It’s a cautionary tale that illustrates the dangers of tampering with punctuation if you don’t fully understand what you’re fiddling with.
But it’s cheering to see that (almost) everyone involved seems to agree that the aim of punctuation is to make meaning clearer.
In 2011 I was invited to lay a wreath at the memorial in Australia to the 2,400 soldiers who died on the Sandakan Death March in the Second World War. I was also asked to speak and deliver a short, appropriate reflection. After the ceremony, the Australian Chief of Army very kindly put a copy of my words on the Australian Army website, but that entry is now gone (apart from a dead link on the Slovenian version of Facebook. Make of that what you will). All that remains is an inexplicable but welcome entry that someone kindly placed on slideshare.net.
I think it sounds better than it reads, if you see what I mean. This is interesting because it shows that our speech-writing style needs to be different from our normal written style. The same applies within our written work; our Tweets are generally a different style from our Yammers, and our blogs are different yet again. Our audience – and the way we try to reach them – should dictate how we write and it’s important to get the appropriate style. There’s clearly quite a lot hanging on this and it’s worth thinking about, because we need to get it right.
Lots of people are interested in this whole business of trying to achieve clarity. Unfortunately, they’re outnumbered by those who aren’t. To make things worse, some of those who put a lot of effort into their pursuit of clarity are inadvertently undermining their own efforts by making things a lot less clear. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. A great friend of mine, an admirably clear thinker himself, tweeted a link to me that he knew I’d be interested in. Here it is: http://bit.ly/WUVIcZ
Now it’s an interesting article, there is no doubt about that, but it does tend to disappear up its own fundament a bit as it engages in an increasingly frantic debate over the place of the Oxford comma in written English. At one point you sense that the writer might have realised this too, when he says, “Writing online is so nearly effortless that reading…has become a chore in comparison.” Quite.
True clarity will help meaning to shine through with, or without, the Oxford comma. If you have to rely on one tiny punctuation mark to free meaning from your words then perhaps you need to re-write your piece. But it will be worth the effort. You’ll feel better about your work, other people will understand it more easily and who knows where it will lead? To better things, I should think, if the words of another of the thinkers that I follow on Twitter are to be believed – “Clarity precedes success”. And that’s a very good note to end on.