Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Power of the Plain Style

On August 28, 1963, history changed forever. In Washington D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Americans with his “I Have a Dream” speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This year, on the anniversary of the event, President Barack Obama delivered his own speech on the same spot where King’s oratory touched the hearts of thousands fifty years prior. Also speaking at the Lincoln Memorial were two past presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “Honoring King’s Dream,” an article written by Abby Abrams and Glenn Greenberg of Time for Kids magazine, focuses on the remembrance and celebration of King’s ideals through President Obama’s presentation.
            Abrams and Greenberg’s article is clearly written in the plain style, earning a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 68.2. With an average grade level of 7.5, this article falls right in the reading ability range of the average American citizen. As expected for an article written in the plain style, fewer words are employed per sentence. In fact, each sentence uses an average of only 12.8 words, indicating the presence of short, simplistic sentence structure. Jargon is essentially nonexistent in this piece, and if a word is unclear, the authors define it immediately.
            Distinctio, or the practice of clarifying word meanings, makes an important appearance in “Honoring King’s Dream.” In this sentence, “in the early 1960s, segregation, or the separation of people by race, was accepted in many parts of the U.S., particularly the South,” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013) a critical piece of history is defined. Segregation, which occurred before and throughout the Civil Rights Movement, is a term that may not need to be explicitly defined for most readers. However, the inclusion of its meaning provides increased clarity and focus for the article’s audience. Simplification of ideas and well-defined understanding form the basis of typical plain style writing.
            Recognizing the intended audience for this article will also illuminate the reason as to why plain style was used. “Honoring King’s Dream” appears in Time for Kids magazine, which is intended for young readers in the upper grades of elementary school. In sixth grade, I actually read Time for Kids weekly in class. The format of the magazine is unpretentious, with news, feature articles, and cartoons spaced evenly throughout its eight-page spread. As can be imagined, Time for Kids forms an offshoot of Time magazine, which provides news with a more adult-focused informative style. I did a little investigating about the specific contributors to the article, Abrams and Greenberg. Abrams, who does not work for TFK anymore, currently serves as deputy news editor for the Columbia Spectator, a student-run newspaper at Columbia University in New York. Abrams studies at Barnard University, which is a liberal arts college for women also located in New York City. Greenberg’s resume proves much more intriguing. He works as a freelance writer and senior editor for Time, Inc. currently, but has written for Scholastic, Inc., Simon and Schuster, and Marvel Entertainment.
            Although both authors are adults, they each have a strong connection to magazine journalism. Writing for children, however, requires a certain level of patience for the simplicity of the text. Abrams and Greenberg’s motive seems clear: detail a Presidential event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. They do not appear to have ulterior intentions or hopes to corrupt their audience. As is expected in all writing, several rules and divisions guide the presentation of the article. Abrams and Greenberg hold a position of authority over the reader, but do not give the impression that they wish to stifle or provoke exasperation. Their brief, informative language places the reader in a status similar to that of a teacher and a student. Abrams and Greenberg serve as the instructors, while the audience plays the role of the student. This give-and-take relationship is voluntary and non-obtrusive. Something important to consider is that Abrams and Greenberg are not the ultimate authorities on this subject, though they have established some level of authority. Neither specifies whether or not they attended the event, so the audience is left to decide for itself to trust the authors. Positive wording throughout the article guides the audience towards an optimistic perspective while reading the article, which could be viewed as a subtle form of coercion.
            Like a teacher would, Abrams and Greenberg apply a couple different strategies to clarify their instruction. Exemplum, giving examples, presents itself accurately. The following sentences demonstrate this strategy by showing examples of segregation: “Black people and white people could not attend the same schools, sit next to each other on buses, or even use the same water fountains. Businesses often refused to hire people based solely on the color of their skin” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013). By defining segregation with the use of distinctio and following up with exemplum, the authors provide the audience with a strong understanding of the concept presented.
            “Honoring King’s Dream” also utilizes similar sentence structuring to make ideas easier to follow. This approach is called parallelism, and manifests itself in the example excerpt below.

“Obama told a crowd of thousands, ‘We rightly and best remember Dr. King's soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions.’ The president also said, “What King was describing has been the dream of every American’” (Abrams, Greenberg 2013).

            By using the same sentence structure of following the subject with a verb right away, such as the phrase “Obama said,” the authors set up a pattern for the reader to comprehend. Several other quotes in the article also use the subject as the first word in the sentence, followed by the verb. Such simplistic structuring makes comprehension of the sentence much quicker and cleaner. Using parallelism also allows Abrams and Greenberg to reduce the inclusion of passive verbs in favor of active verbs. It would be an interesting to further analyze the influence of this article if passive verbs were more prevalent, and contemplate what lead the authors to select active verbs to keep the article moving. News articles are notorious for using the passive voice, most likely because it is easier for audiences to understand versus more complex language. The authors of this article know their audience, but still encourage active involvement while reading.

            Abrams and Greenberg have a relevant, inspiring story to convey, and choosing the plain style over a different style seems to work to their advantage throughout the article. The celebration of a timeless speech by Martin Luther King Jr. requires the right amount of significance and clarity to bring across a positive, appropriate message. Such presentations like King’s can be influential to vast groups of people, and it is crucial for the speaker to understand the scope of the speech. King’s eloquence ended up contributing to a massive civil rights movement, ultimately leading to the elimination of segregation and inequality for African-Americans. Abrams and Greenberg grasp the intensity and integrity behind King’s speech, realizing that their audience depends on them to deliver an accurate, strong story. By relying on literary elements that define and elucidate the theme of the story, the authors’ ability to connect with their audience increases exponentially. “Honoring King’s Dream,” like King’s oratory itself, is a compelling example of the power of words.

By Danielle C.

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