Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Dangerous Vacuum Cleaner and the Plain Style

Hillary Lahr

            The plain style began as a movement away from complicated jargon and incomprehensive reading material. Its purpose was to create clearer, less complex material that would be easily accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Today, we see the plain style used in brochures, magazine and news articles, rule lists and "how-to" guides. However, the plain style become the most important when it is pertaining to a persons safety. In the first section of every owner's manual is a list of warnings and safety precautions that should be taken to maintain the safety of the person or persons operation whatever item the manual pertains to. We will be looking at a owner's manual for a vacuum cleaner.
            Any manufacturers biggest concern when selling their product is making sure that in the event that a buyer receives an injury from their item, they need to be covered on every base so as not to get sued. This is the first and probably the most important reason for a section dedicated solely to safety. There are several things that need to be kept in mind when compiling a list of warnings. First of all, the list needs to be shorter and less complex. The sentences need to be simple and to the point, specifically, they need to be written in an active voice. This means that the person who is giving the action and the person who is receiving the action is clear to the reader. Secondly, the readability has to be high for a document like this, because a wide variety of people ranging in age and reading ability will be viewing this document. The particular owner's manual we will be viewing scored an 86.8 on the Fleisch-Kincaid Readability score, and had an average grade level of 4.5. In order to achieve the goals state above, The vacuum cleaner owner's manual uses parallelism, conduplicato, distinctio, metabasis and exemplum. We will look at all of these in depth throughout this paper.
            The most noticeable aspects of plain style in the text are those included in the structure. Parallelism occurs when similar ideas are seen in the same format. In the owner's manual, we see important information as bolded and typed in all capital letters. These statements were often short and simple, used mainly to grasp the attention of the reader. Examples would include phrases like: READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE USING THIS VACUUM CLEANER or they would simply be one word such as WARNING. By placing these words in similar formats, the reader would eventually learn to pause or take notice when words were written in this way. The second aspect of plain style that is evident within the structure is conduplicato. Conduplicato is the repetition of a key word or phrase from a preceding clause or sentence at or near the beginning of the next sentence. This is seen in the use of the words "Do not..." at the beginning of almost every warning in the list. This aids the reader in understanding that this sentence is to be considered as equally important to the sentence that precedes it.
            Clarity is another important part of the plain style. The information must be clearly communicated to the reader. The owner's manual does this by using the characteristics of distinctio, metabasis and exemplum. The first of these, distinctio, is accomplished by presenting the meanings of words to prevent ambiguity. For example, in one section of warnings, the manufacturers write, "To reduce the risk of electric shock, this appliance has a polarized plug (one blade is wider than the other.)" By first stating the term, that is, a polarized plug, and then providing the definition of the word, there is no chance of misconstruing the meaning of the warning. The second characteristic of the plain style that is used in the owner's manual is metabasis, or the stating of what has been said or what will follow. Before the warnings are listed, there is a sentence that explains what will follow in this section. It says, "When using an electrical appliance, basic precautions should always be followed, including the following:" by stating what will follow in the section, the reader is able to prepare in their minds the context of the situation, making the material easier to comprehend and to apply in real life situations. The final characteristic of plain style that is emphasized within the text is exemplum, or the providing of a specific and often concrete example. There are several examples of this within the text. "Do not pick up anything that is burning or smoking, such as cigarettes, matches or hot ashes." or, "Do not use to pick up flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline..." or lastly, "Do not pick up items such as pieces of waste paper or cloth which look as though they may cause the hose to become blocked." The last of these examples conveys the idea of exemplum in the best way. If the sentence had stated simple that one should not pick up items that could block the hose, it would be much more difficult to decide what would or would not block the hose. By giving an example of something that is tangible or concrete, the reader is able to visualize what type of items could block the hose, and refrain from picking those items up.
            The main goal of the plain style is to achieve accessibility through a text, and this particular text seems to achieve that when you look at the strategies used as stated above. However, there are some ways in which the plain style was not used to its fullest extent. Although the manual does do a good job of communicating the subject matter clearly, there are still some ways in which it is lacking. The text does contain some ambiguous statements. For example, one of the warnings states, "Do not clean or store vacuum cleaner in places where there are high temperatures." Readers may wonder at what point the temperature becomes "high." For someone living in Hawaii, a high temperature may be different than someone living in Alaska. Another example is when the text states, "Close attention is necessary when used by or near children or infirmed persons." The same ambiguity is present here, mostly in the fact that the age of a child is relative. Even psychologists agree that the stages of life are impossible to label with perfection, so by simply stating "children," many different categorizations come to mind. I may consider a child to be someone age ten and younger, while another person may consider a child to be someone under the age of thirteen. Another way in which the text is lacking in the plain style is the lack of exemplum, or clear examples. One warning states, "Use care when cleaning on stairs." but the type of care that should be used is not stated. Perhaps if the text had given specific examples or ways to execute "care" properly when cleaning on stairs, the warning would have had a more concise meaning.
            In the end, the text does convey the plain style quite well. It is easy to read, clear and simple in its structure. An adult who has had years of education in literature could understand this easily, but a fourth grade student would not have trouble with the concepts presented either. The text makes it clear that one should read these warnings before operating the vacuum, so the context in which a person would be reading this would fit the instructions that are being given. The text achieves the goals it seeks and it is a perfect example of the plain style and the context in which it is necessary.


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