Imagine sitting down with your school-age child who is struggling to make a butterfly out of Play-Doh, and you offer her this bit of encouragement:
The shaping of Play-Doh into recognizable forms is most difficult to achieve and an activity deserving of great respect.
She’d tell you that you were silly.
But of course you wouldn’t communicate with your child this way. Glomming together long words in a clumsy way is not how we talk to anyone. It’s unnatural English.
I’m sorry to say, though, that unnatural English isn’t unusual in business writing. I read sentences like this all the time:
The configuration of complex software products, and the rendering of them into operational condition in a timely manner, is often problematic to achieve.
Sounds a lot like the Play-Doh advice. Why don’t we say it like this?
It’s difficult to configure software products and get them implemented on time.
Because it’s too plain? Writers of lumpy, unnatural English assume they need to dress up their English, that it needs to be more formal. But all that dressing up doesn’t make it more beautiful or more meaningful. Instead, it kills meaning. Readers don’t want to slog through overstuffed sentences to figure out what the writer is getting at.
Needless formality gives us sentences like this:
Unexpected slow performance of the product has most likely resulted from budget constraints requested at the commencement of the project as well as design plan concessions instituted in the early stages.
Here’s a natural English version:
Product performance is slower than expected, most likely the result of budget constraints and design concessions made early on.
Which would a reader rather read? You’re a reader; you decide—and imagine you’re staring at pages and pages, not just one sentence. Which do you choose?
The Origins of Unnatural English
How is it we’ve managed to take a difficult language and make it more difficult?
We can blame lawyers, in part. They already get a lot of flak, so we’ll just lay this one more complaint at their feet. Most legal writing is prose written for legal experts so that it can be teased apart in the event of a dispute. Precise, clinical descriptions of all the ways things can go wrong, and all the C.Y.A. permutations, end up in convoluted sentences with nested clauses and many caveats. The long words are an affectation, and we end up with another round of “…the aforementioned, heretofore unforeseen, above-named, appropriate and duly identified actions of all parties present.”
Contract writing, which engineers and engineering managers often get to review as part of projects, is particularly awful. It is not a writing model to follow. Even product descriptions and how-to instructions have been corrupted by legalese.
Qualified specialists shall ensure the assembly of the aforementioned component prior to affixation to the subsequent component.
Lawyers don’t deserve all the blame, though. Academics get some, too. They like overly long sentences and words—I personally think they want to impress than to express. One wretched piece of advice I’ve heard from academics from some non-native English speaking countries is that they tell their students to “use long words rather than short ones” so they’ll “look smart.” If anyone ever told you that, forget it. Use short words where long ones would do. “Start” instead of “commence.” “Delay” instead of “postponement.” “Use” instead of “utilize.” “Re-think” instead of “recontextualize.”
Problem #1: Design Flaw
Besides needlessly long words, there’s another problem I’d like to help you spot in your own writing and fix. It’s a design flaw that leads to clumpy, awkward sentences. Here are three examples:
The leaving open of the gate is an invitation to potential intrusion.
The wasting of resources is a regrettable circumstance.
The postponement of the deadline is an objective of the upcoming meeting.
If we reverse-engineer these sentences, we discover their basic (flawed) design:
The <something> of the <something> is <something else>.
For starters, the opening phrase is lumpy.
The leaving open of the gate uses the flawed design: The <something> of the <something> . Just say Leaving the gate open. That’s natural English. The leaving open of the gate is what a contract lawyer would say, not a human being.
Here it is again in our second example: The wasting of resources (same design: the <something> of <something>). Just say Wasting resources. That’s natural English. The wasting of resources is not.
Here it is again in our third example: The postponement of the deadline. We simply change to natural English, and the clumsiness goes away: Postponing the deadline.
Here are a few more before and after examples:
The closure of the parking lot is due to flooding.
The parking lot is closed due to flooding.
The difficulty of the excavation of the terrain is causing delays.
Difficulty excavating the terrain is causing delays.
The gathering of data is more difficult than expected.
Data gathering is more difficult than expected.
The disturbance of the equipment during the recent earthquake is now causing problems.
Equipment disturbed during the recent earthquake is now causing problems.
Next time you find yourself about to start a sentence with “The <something> of the <something> …” stop! Try natural English instead.
Problem #2: The Loser Verb
Notice the only verb in these flawed sentences is “is”—a loser verb! The word “is” says something merely exists. Other tenses (“was,” “were”) are, of course, no better. “Is” and all its fellow citizens (forms of “to be”) are drab, bland words that tell us very little beyond that something simply exists—and that’s rarely news. As business and technical writers, we need to replace that anemic little verb with one that says more. So we change:
The leaving open of the gate is an invitation to potential intrusion.
Leaving the gate open invites intruders.
We removed “is” and replaced it with a real verb: “invites.”
The negative reaction of the stakeholders was an inhibitor of team performance.
We get rid of “was” and replace it with a real verb, “inhibit.”
The stakeholders’ negative reaction inhibited the team’s performance.
Get rid of the loser verb, and the sentence goes from bland to better.
If you fall back on loser verbs (“is” and friends) because you have trouble thinking of more vibrant ones, consult an online thesaurus (suggestions: Thesaurus.com, CollinsDictionary.com, or OxfordDictionaries.com). Give the thesaurus something in the general vicinity of what you mean, and the thesaurus will help you find a better word.
I have a cousin who is a successful writer. His name is John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation). When I was a teenager, and he was already an established playwright, I used to send him whatever I was working on—fiction, articles, etc.— seeking encouragement and advice, and he was always very generous with his time, reviewing and giving me feedback. He said to me once something I’ve never forgotten: “You write like you speak. Don’t ever change that. Writing is powerful when it’s natural, not when it’s lumpy rice pudding.”
So don’t just take my word for it. Take the lumps out of your rice pudding, and your writing will improve considerably. Your messages will be clearer, your descriptions will make more sense, and you’ll find you’re more persuasive—because people are reading what you’ve written and getting it.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time.