Friday, July 22, 2011

A Plea for Simple Language: Specialization Does Not Make You "Special."

Lawyers and Theologians have this in common:  sacred words.  We "experts" of the civil and religious law protect these words because we have the exclusive knowledge to decipher their meanings.  For us, these "terms of art" are rich with special meaning.  We can use them very effectively among ourselves.  

The original words were probably spartan, efficient, and clear messengers of meaning when first used in their time and culture.  But of course, time and cultures change, and more exactly, words and meanings change. I recall reading Chaucer's tales in their original old English during college.  I was able to pick up bits and pieces of meaning from the Old English, but mostly it was incomprehensible.  I think a lay person reading a book of "Systematic Theology" or a published legal decision on some arcane point of law would have the same sense of frustration.  The same can be said of engineering, medicine, computer programming, economics, software development, military strategy, and finance.  The experts claim their territory through a conspiracy of special terms defined by them, and known only to them.    

This morning I reviewed some "studies" intended to introduce new Christians to the essential principles of Christianity.  The learning modules were crafted carefully, were not too deep, and avoided a lot of the theological jargon that is often out there.  The problem was that the "foreign language" was still present.  For example, there was the statement:  "We are to fear God."  How does that sound to your 21st Century ear?  I'm betting that will win a lot of people to Christ!  The word "fear" is one of those anachronistic terms that originally meant to "hold in reverential awe."  To us, it means fear.  Yet, the writer of the study, like generations before him, was taught the word fear because the "holy book" used that word in the original text.  I am tempted to paraphrase Jesus:  Were the people made for the Book, or was the Book made for the People?"  Bottom line:  we are too tied to words that have lost their purpose and have actually become harmful to the goal of communicating clearly.  

As a lawyer representing "the little guy," I write and speak for people who are quite intelligent, savvy to internet research, and wanting clear information on which to make decisions.  They have one disadvantage:  they have not been trained to think like lawyers or to analyze court decisions to predict probable outcomes.  That is my job.  In doing my job, I am constantly challenged to take the specialized terms of my profession and translate them for the masses.  What is "constructive termination?"  What is "an adverse employment action?."  What is "termination in violation of public policy?"  What is an "implied contract?"  What is "sexual harassment?"  What is "a motion for summary judgment?"  I could continue the list indefinitely.  I routinely provide the meanings of these ideas in simple direct language.  My point is that it can be done.  It should be done.  

We are all experts in something.  Every trade and occupation has its special terminology.  I can be left brain numb when a mechanic begins to explain why my engine needs various repairs and parts.  We would all do each other a great service to keep it simple.  Use fewer words.  Speak or write in shorter sentences.  Use a separate paragraph for each basic idea.  Don't assume that your listener knows the definitions of words that you take for granted within your specialization.  When you describe a broken bone, forego words like the "comminuted fracture of the distal radius."  When you talk about how God changes lives, avoid "sanctification by the operation of the Holy Spirit."  When you describe an appeal to the court following a government employer's decision to fire an employee, don't say"  "We'll bring a writ of mandate to the Superior Court, and obtain an ex parte order shortening time."  When suggesting a needed engine repair, don't say "The air manifold probably needs replacement, or the fourth helical gear is worn, or the master cylinders are 50% worn" as if we all understood what that means.  

If I was just an uneducated guy who was frustrated at the complexities of modern life, you could discount my plea for simple language.  I am however very specialized.  I have a lexicon of words that I can banter with colleagues all day.  Using them with ordinary folks can give me a sense of being not just specialized, but "special."  Yes, the temptation is there.  But the truth is that I'm not special.  You and I are probably operating within the same bell curve.  We owe it to each other to speak in clear, simple terms.  That may require some effort and a degree of discomfort as we humbly translate for one another.  It can be done.  It should be done.  I am doing it.   You can too.  

(c) 2011 FXP

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