Fog In Print
MANY PEOPLE tend to rate what they read by how “intelligent” it sounds, rather than by how understandable it is. J. Scott Armstrong, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently illustrated this. He asked 20 management professors to rate 10 management magazines that are written with varying degrees of clarity. “Sure enough,” says the report in “Psychology Today,” “the top-rated journal was the hardest to read; the lowest-rated one, the easiest.”
To test whether the more prestigious journals were harder to understand because they tackled more complex ideas, Armstrong rewrote sections to make them more readable without changing the meaning. He broke up long sentences, used simpler words, took out excess words.
One highly rated journal at first read: “This paper concludes that to increase the probability of keeping a [bank] customer in queue, the server should attempt to influence the customer’s initial subjective estimate of the mean service time to give him the impression that it is small, or attempt to convince the customer that his time value of service is large.”
This was changed to: “You are more likely to insure that a [bank] customer waits in a queue if you can get the person to think that he will not have long to wait. Another way to do it is to get the customer to think he will obtain much benefit by waiting.”
Another group, this one made up of 32 professors, then rated four such samples without knowing the sources. “Once again, the professors rated the easy version lower than the more difficult one,” reports “Psychology Today.” Professor Armstrong summarized the import of his findings by saying: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
Especially are writers in the fields of law, religion and medicine often guilty of producing fog in print. “What doctors do to English can make an editor weep,” writes Alfred D. Berger, managing editor of “Medical World News.” Berger told of a case where a medical student’s instructor insisted that she write “diaphoresing profusely” instead of “sweating heavily.”
The editor explained that medical jargon becomes a part of a doctor’s vocabulary in medical school because of “a natural desire to pick up the lingo of the big guys—the residents and faculty.” He continues: “Throw in a certain amount of laziness—it’s easier to use an all-purpose buzzword like ‘procedure’ than to select a more precise word, such as test, operation, method, or technique.”
Another factor, Berger says, is a conscious effort to use “vocabulary nonprofessionals won’t understand. This makes the users feel wiser and more learned than the nonusers and also lets them talk over the heads of the uninitiated.”
Writing in the “New England Journal of Medicine,” Dr. Saul Radovsky agrees: “A look at medical journals shows that good science and good writing rarely go together and that easily understood writing is often too much to expect.” One example was cited where a researcher wrote:
“We used a chemiluminescence assay to examine the patient’s polymorphonuclear leukocyte responses to numerous particulate and soluble stimuli. The patient’s polymorphonuclear leukocytes had substantially depressed chemiluminescent responses during phagocytosis of opsonized particles.”
What the scientists meant was that the patient’s white blood cells were not producing the normal amount of light when attacking foreign substances in the bloodstream.
Clearly, there is little justification for expressing even complex ideas with complicated words. Either the person is trying to impress someone or he is incapable of expressing himself clearly.
“Unless you . . . utter speech easily understood, how will it be known what is being spoken? You will, in fact, be speaking into the air.”—1 Cor. 14:9.