Plain Style in Academia
Plain style in academic serves a very different purpose than official style. This is due to a variety of reasons, one of the most important being the fact that the audience is typically broader. Continuing the trend of examining statements made by English-Literature programs by universities, I chose to look further into two statements that exhibit plain speech, the English Department’s statement on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s website, as well as a similar statement found on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s English-Literacy and Criticism emphasis page. The two statements are highly comparable, being the products of two similar satellite schools in the University of Wisconsin system, as well as for the fact that the two are almost identical in length. However, while the two are indisputably related, they could not be more dissimilar in their use of plain speech.
Examining first the statement by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Department of English, the text reads as follows:
English is a discipline devoted to the study of language, writing and literature that expresses ideas and represents the human condition.
Through the study of English, UW-Eau Claire English majors expand their knowledge of the English language, learn to read with interpretive power and develop strong analytical and creative writing skills. Ultimately, the study of English gives students the tools to respond to the world in which they live. (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire)
This statement has a great deal going for it, especially in comparison with UW-L’s. For one, the readability is on point with its target audience. Those interested in this statement are likely students at UW-EC, or potential students still in high school looking into various programs in order to decide what schools they should apply to. The readability scale puts this statement’s average score at grade 13, only one grade above that of a high school senior. In addition to the easy accessibility, the statement gives readers an idea about the skills they will acquire if they chose to major in English, which is fundamentally why students bother reading these texts in the first place. UW-EC’s statement is student-focused, and caters to its audience in a way that UW-L’s statement does not.
But while the statement succeeds in several respects, it does fall prey to Plain Style’s oversimplification. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s English program has five areas of study including: Creative Writing, Cultural Studies in Literatures, Cultures, and Film, Rhetoric of Science, Technology, and Culture, Linguistics, and Teaching/English Education. When viewing the different emphases, it is made very apparent that this statement should be doing more, as a total of three sentences are used to speak for five different areas of emphasis. Instead of each emphasis having an individual statement detailing the intricacies of each area of study, this statement is used to blanket and generalize the distinctive areas. Though the skills they mention are likely true, the audience does not leave the page with any real information about the specific emphases; rather they are give a few common areas that can evidentially be developed in any one of Eau Claire’s five choices.
An additional problem with UW-EC’s English department’s statement is the fact that it does not detail what separates UW-EC’s program from the thousands that exist elsewhere in the country. Though it does list specific skills that students will gain from an English major at UW-EC (such as an expanded knowledge of the English language and the ability to “read with interpretive power”), these skills are not unique to UW-EC English program; they can be developed and honed at any university that offers a degree in English. Because the statement is seeking to attract students to the program and university, it should serve as a place where the department is able to detail exactly what they do that makes them different from other schools and programs.
Looking next at the statement from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it is clear that their use of plain style is much, much more effective than UW-Eau Claire’s. Their recently revised statement for the English emphasis of Literacy and Criticism (the counterpart of UW-L’s Literature emphasis) serves the purpose it was designed for: to inform interested parties about the program. Though the readability scale puts their text at slightly above what is desired for the audience (college students looking to declare a major of high school students trying to narrow down a university or program; the readability scale listed the statement at grade 16), it provides detailed information in a coherent way, something that UW-EC’s statement utterly fails to do. The new statement from UW-M reads as follows:
The undergraduate program in Literary and Critical Studies offers a rich array of courses in literatures from different countries, genres, time periods, and ethnic and cultural traditions. You’ll get the opportunity to study with nationally and internationally acclaimed faculty as you hone your skills as a reader, writer, and critic. Our flexible program helps you tailor your course of study to your specific interests, while also providing skills that are valued in many professions.
Graduates from our program pursue successful careers in law, education, health care, journalism, public relations, development, human resources, and business, to name only a few. (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
With this statement, students and prospective students get a clear idea of what the Literature program at UW-M offers, something that utterly intangible after reading the sweeping generalizations by the UW-EC Department of English. This statement is one of plain style’s success stories, a case where the paramedic works the way it should: to increase understanding about a work. With specific description about the work in courses and the kind of faculty students can expect to be taught by, as well as where this degree would be useful in the job market, the statement is useful for the audience, the ultimate goal of department and emphasis descriptions like the two listed above. Though this statement is only longer than UW-EC’s by a single sentence, it achieves much, much more in terms of accessibility and relating necessary information. In the case of UW-M’s English Department of Literacy and Criticism statement, plain speech succeeds in a way that official style would not. Because the statement is aimed at non-experts, non-academics, plain speech must be used, but used carefully, lest the statement fall into the trap of plain speech’s tendency to over-simplify, as seen in UW-EC’s statement.
To conclude, then, plain style must be used in academia just as gingerly as official style, perhaps even more so because simple language can oftentimes become overly simple, as is in the case of UW-Eau Claire’s English statement. But when used correctly, plain style succeeds in a way that official style at times cannot. When looking to convey information to a broad audience, plain style is favored as it allows for easy accessibility, as is shown in the statement by UW-Milwaukee’s Literacy and Criticism emphasis in English. The use of plain speech ensures that the audience understands the statement, and that the information is easily conveyed, the main point of the text.
Taylor Parrish, 12 November 2014