Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Plain Style Prose: Hidden Agendas in a Seemingly Easy to Understand Piece

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Different styles of writing, such as official, plain or creative, are used at different and sometimes simultaneous times. Plain style is a style that is meant to be written clear and more often than not, at a lower average grade level. Some characteristics that go along with the plain style include: active voice, informal use of first and second person, short sentences, minimal jargon and minimal redundancy. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s webpage, Energy Saving Tips for Residence Hall Living, is an example of a piece written in the plain style. This piece, managed by a non-instructional academic staff employee, is short, concise and easily understood by the common reader. UW-L’s webpage is an example of using the plain style because it offers simple, numbered tips, a short introduction stating what you will be reading, and gives you a direct email in case you would like to add any additional tips. Energy Saving Tips, for example, has a multitude of audiences that include students, faculty, and taxpayers. The style is used correctly because the piece is written clearly but it does not specify the audience that it is writing to. At first, the targeted audience looks to be only students living in residence halls. This can be debated because the title says, “For Residence Hall Living” rather than “Energy Saving Tips”. This specific audience would be true if students were the only group of people UW-L was targeting. It is important to view the attached PDF file mentioned twice on the short webpage. The PDF file, Utility Cost Data, presents the amount of money UW-L spends on natural gas, heating, cooling, and electricity each year. Upon reviewing the web page multiple times, I noticed that faculty and taxpayers can benefit and/or be informed from the piece as well. Taxpayers especially would be interested in the amount UW-L spends on necessities such as electricity, heating, etc. This author’s failure to have one grounded audience is evident because of its persistence in addressing a total fiscal year cost rather than addressing the environmental footprint which would be more relevant to students. In this critique, I am going to address how Energy Saving Tips uses plain language as their predominate style as well as illuminate possible counterarguments regarding the possibility of a mixed agenda. I am also going to suggest a way in which a combination of the plain and official style would greatly benefit the credibility of the author.

Energy Saving Tips’ use of plain language is beneficial to the reader because when something is written in clear, easy to understand language you are more likely going to read the entire piece. Not only is the webpage easy to understand, it is also easy to locate. Accessibility is another way in which plain style is favorable to a common reader. To find the webpage, all you have to do is visit the uwlax.edu website and search energy saving tips. Energy Saving Tips for Residence Hall Living is the first website on the list. Once you are on the page, the introduction of the piece tells you that they are going to present you with the top ten tips for energy saving in residence halls. The introduction states, “For those of you that live in our residence halls, here are our top ten ways to save energy, and make sure the energy you do use isn’t being wasted,” which specifically tells you what you are going to be reading. The layout of the webpage is set up to easily access the important information that is being presented. Another way in which this webpage is written in plain style is the shorter, simpler sentences. According to https://readability-score.com/, Energy Saving Tips has approximately 11.1 words per sentence which shows the piece does not have excessive wordiness.  An example of simpler sentences is the passage, “Set refrigerators at 38 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit and freezers between 0 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit.  Make sure the doors seal tightly by placing a piece of paper between the sealing points.  If the paper slides out easily take action to get the gasket replaced.” Each sentence is split up to provide minimal information in each sentence. This technique makes it easier for the reader to understand what each sentence is saying. I can clearly understand what temperature my refrigerator should be at and how I know if the doors are shutting properly. I can also see what would need to be replaced if the doors were not shutting as they were supposed to be. People are more apt to read and act on something they read if they can fully understand what the piece is asking of them.

Not only does this piece use simple sentences but it is written at a low average grade level. The readability calculator determined that Energy Saving Tips has an average grade level of 7.8 which is close to what the average adult in the United States reads at, (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1993).  The readability calculator further analyzes the readability ease to be at 66.2 on a scale of 1 to 100. This readability ease measures how easy the piece is to read. The higher the score of the piece is labeled, the easier it is to read, and vice versa. This piece was written in plain style to ensure most people would understand it. A portion of the piece is written as, “Do not use portable electric space heaters on campus. If you have a concern related to temperature within one of our facilities (or specifically, your dorm room) please do not hesitate to notify UW-L Physical Plant at 785-8585,” which provides the reader with easy to understand instructions to correct potential service issues. This example could have been written as, “Use of electric space heaters on campus is prohibited due to its costly nature and can be a tripping hazard, and can cause power outages and fires. Concerns regarding temperature, particularly in dorm rooms can be addressed to UW-L Physical Plant at 785-8585. Electric space heaters are a liability issue and will be dealt with accordingly,” which would have had excessive wordiness, unnecessary extra information, and complex sentences. Even though my revised example is written at an average grade level of 11.3, where many people at UW-L will be able to understand, it is still written 3.5 grades higher than the original text.

People viewing this webpage will, more often than not, agree that this piece is written in plain language. The evidence of this is mentioned above. However, people reading this may disagree about the focus of the piece. Even though the introduction mentions what information the page is going to contain it also has two main focuses. One can argue that the main focus is the top ten energy saving tips while another can argue the piece was written around a different agenda, showing people how much UW-L spends on electricity, heating, cooling, and natural gas per year.  The primary argument focusing on energy saving tips is supported through plain language while the secondary argument regarding the cost data sheet is a mixture of plain and official style. The combination of the two styles is often used to ensure people understand the information while concealing the focus in the spreadsheet. Mixed agenda can be eliminated by a change in title. The title, currently labeled as, Energy Saving Tips in Residence Hall Living, could be redefined as “Energy and Cost Saving Tips in Residence Hall Living” which would ensure the author does not have a mixed agenda. By changing the title of the piece, the author would have better credibility supported by predominately plain language with minor usage of official style.

Energy Saving Tips is a classic example of using the plain style to guarantee most, if not all, people will understand the content as well as the goal. It is important, however, to understand that plain language can have mixed agendas even if the content is easily understood. Through simple sentences, easy access, and an easy to follow introduction, Energy Saving Tips for Residence Hall Living successfully uses plain language as their lead language style.

By: Shelby Jacobson


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