Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Plain Style

By Kris Vavrosky

In our examination of the official style we identified numerous flaws and draw backs to its utilization while accepting the necessity of the form in various venues of expression, primarily focusing on academic and legal applications. The preeminent weaknesses that were identified related to clarity, exclusion and a general pattern of ignorance for the intended audience. Now, while engaging with elements of the plain style I have noticed that these issues largely arise in the absence of a compilation between official and plain styles. One of the great potential benefits of using the plain style is the opportunity for simplicity, bluntness and efficiency. A question such as, “what is wrong with people these days?” might take a scholar an entire book to answer where as an intelligent, no bull shit cynic could probably give it to you in about a paragraph. This is precisely the type of person who spoke the words that we are going to examine in this critique of the plain style. For this analysis I have chosen a scene from the Showtime television series Californication. In his short diatribe our speaker uses explicitly simple language to offer a blunt, sardonic exposition about his latest frustrations. In pursuing this short dialogue exchange I will focus on the clarity of the speakers message, his versatility in applying elements from multiple styles, along with the contextual implications associated with the discussion at hand while highlighting certain strategic rhetorical devices that are at play in his argument.

If the primary function of the official style is to provide a clear and definitive explanation of information then the logical function of the plain style would be to explain the official explanation. We often refer to this as dumbing it down or putting something in lamens terms. But, if we look closely at each of these styles one could draw the conclusion that words constructed in the plain style often offer a more concrete and useful expression. If words are meant to relay messages then it would seem that, in certain ways the official style serves to inhibit languages ability to do so while the plain style gets out of the way so that our words may do their job. So, let’s take a look at how Hank Moody, our Californication character employs simplistic language to give us his thoughts on the continuous extirpation of the “Kings English.” While reading keep these contextual considerations about the character in mind. Our speaker is a novelist by profession being interviewed on the air by a radio host. Although Mr. Moody is obviously intelligent, he is considered a cynical social degenerate, with a potent drinking problem. His writers block coupled with his split from his paramour and the activities of his satanic teenage daughter has disintegrated his career and left him to writing a blog for a hollywood magazine, owned by the fiancee of his former inamorata. Okay, here’s the interview segment.

Radio host: “So what’s your latest obsession?”

Hank: “Just the fact that people seem to be getting dumber and dumber. I mean we have all this amazing technology and yet computers have turned into basically four figure wank machines. The internet was supposed to set us free, democratize us but all its really given us is Howard Dean’s aborted candidacy and twenty four hour a day access to kitty porn. You know people don’t write anymore, they blog. Instead of talking they text, no punctuation no grammar, lol this, lmfao that. You know it just seems to me that its a bunch of stupid people sudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people in a proto-language that resembles more what cave men used to speak than the Kings English.”

Radio host: “Yet you’re a part of the problem, you’re out there blogging with the best of them?”

Hank: “Hence my self loathing.”

Compellingly phrased wouldn’t you say? In our last critique, I followed the inclusion of my excepts up with a series of simplifications and paraphrased definitions in an attempt to explain what was being said. This is not necessary when dealing with a dialogue like this. This is the redundantly stated advantage of the plain style. People have a penchant for looking down on simple language because, for whatever reason we do not view language that is easy to understand as highly intellectual. The fact is, the ability to state things plainly is a skill. We have seen how academic papers and legalistic jargon can make a simple piece of information seem almost incomprehensible and often times the information in these works would be much more useful and effective if published in plain language. But, the stage that this excerpt is playing on calls even more strongly for the plain style. This is a social issue and such discussions must, first and for most be universally intelligible. By using not only plain, but truly visceral wording, Mr. Moody not only effectively and clearly relays is message but he personalizes it and makes it relatable and influential in a way that a sources cited page simply cannot do. With our understanding of how the plain style functions here, let’s move on to some of the rhetorical devices and strategies at play in this passage.

Whether you find what he is saying to be true, false or down right offensive, it doesn’t really matter because the one thing you don't need is an explanation of his central point; people are stupid. He uses this word or an equivocal one four times in only nine sentences. This is an example of the rhetorical device, anaphora. On the same plain he implies the general stupidity of people less explicitly two other times. “…people don't write anymore, they blog. Instead of talking they text, lol this, lmfao that.” This, to a certain degree suggests a progression towards illiteracy, an inference which is verified shortly after with the concluding sentence “…a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the Kings English.” This is a tactic that we see much less of in the official style where points are often only made once, in a singular fashion to either be understood by the reader or sent over their head. In an example like this, the repetition does more than clarify the argument, it also gives us an insight into the mind of the speaker as well as a very visible motif - stupidity. He is not saying any of this lightly or simply to be antagonistic but is sincerely frustrated by the world of language that he sees around him. Emotion is another facet of communication that is absent from scholarly writing. Another rhetorical tactic that helps to clarify and reinforce Hank’s point in the use of exemplum (use of examples). “they blog”, “they text, lol this, lmfao that.” Although there are other strategies at play here the last one to mention is referred to as bdelygmia which is just a weird technical word for ranting. This entire except is ultimately a frustrated tirade and as such, is subject to a few flaws that are often found in plain language that serve as a strength of the official style.

This also re-illuminates the salience of context when analyzing language. Remember that our speaker is a novelist, alcoholic, father and cynic. The cynicism is obvious. Knowing that we are listening to an author helps us to understand Hank’s frustration and let’s face it, being a drunkard tends to loosen your tongue and enhance ones candor giving a deeper sincerity to what is being said. The facet of this paradigm that opens up the most area for discussion is the title of father. A teenage daughter with a fondness for rock music and satin does paint a certain picture, especially in the twenty-first century. Our speaker has the influence of his daughter’s social life exposing him to all sorts of texting type language. This, coupled with his casual girlfriends inclusion and use of the acronym “lol” as part of her verbal lexicon is what ultimately sends Moody on his moody rant.

Every style has its pros and cons, its usefulness and its inappropriateness. The plain style suffers, here and elsewhere from two related pitfalls. One of the reasons that academic and legalistic work rely so heavily on the official style is the way that this brand of writing is perceived. Simply put, people are more likely to trust the accuracy and validity of something written in the official style than something stated in the plain style. It is viewed as more credible, even if the reader does not understand what the official wording actually means they will assign the text more credibility by default. A second, parallel flaw that is brazenly obvious in this example is bias. For one, this is predominately a social issue and therefore can only be discussed with an opinionated microphone. Additionally, our speaker is an author by profession and is therefore, much like an english teacher, bound to be more impatient with imperfections in language use than say a scientist or a mathematician.

These flaws in mind, it is still accurate to say that in many ways the utilization of the plain style in this situation is not only valid, but the most effective way of relaying the message given the context, the audience and the subject matter. Mr. Moody is speaking to a wide demographic of people, about a social frustration of his through the exterior perception of an artist. If he were to get on the air and say - “ The intellectual integrity of our nations people is being diminished daily by our use of technology and has set us on a trajectory that will culminate in the disintegration of American literacy and a linguistically pernicious progression of regression back to the language of our Neanderthal ancestors” - his message would not have been very effective in relaying his point and would have had no value to his listeners or his cause.

If you haven’t figured it out already I am not the biggest fan of the official style. I find the unnecessarily ambiguous phrasing of simple information to be tedious, time wasting and to a point, condescending. The plain style is where it’s at, so to speak, at least in terms of effective communication. But, it seems today that we have taken this to a bit of an extreme. Our newfound obsession with acronyms and virtual language has painted a picture; “people seem to be getting dumber and dumber” as our author states. Technically speaking, this is probably not true when we consider the level of education that our generation receives compared with that of previous generations. But, it does raise an interesting point about the diversity and fluctuation of language. Languages are, in a sense considered living organisms because they are constantly undergoing changes. A dead language, such as Sanskrit is referred to as dead because it is no longer undergoing change. The veracity of the speakers claims about the general intelligence of the technological generation is a debate for another time but it still presents this compelling topic of inquiry; is our language progressing or regressing as a result of our embrace of plain language? One of the great strengths of the english language is the expansive copia of its vocabulary. By cutting this down to a series of symbolic letters, are we reducing the expressive flexibility of our language? Or, as we Americans love to do so much, are we simply expediting the communication process? The plain style has long been attributed the advantages of clarity and efficiency and the weakness of credibility. This is an outdated and narrow perception of language. Your words should state your message. Your message should be clear to those who are meant to hear it. And, if you are speaking on a social topic as Mr. Moody is doing here you must be relatable if you are to be influential. That is the function of the plain style here; to express, to explain and to enlighten.

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