Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Plain Style Be Too Plain?

Can Plain Style Be Too Plain?

            The language people use to communicate every day is considered Plain language. This style is easy to understand, strait forward, and uses common vocabulary. The media frequently uses this style to communicate clear and quickly. Instructional outlines and manuals are also typically in Plain language. But, sometimes instructions require some Official style in order to fully explain the concept; thus, there are some situations where Plain language is not enough.
            For example, take this “Sliding for Dummies” passage, in which a blogger on the Silverfish Longboarding website explains how to slide downhill on a longboard

           “Ok so every hour a new How to slide,or can I slide my set up? thread pops up,so before          you go and make another dumb thread read through this,also for the ones that know how to slide post your techniques,But remember this is SLIDING FOR DUMMIES so you need to explain with pics,drawings apples, bees or whatever”

This is exactly how the author typed his introduction up. This is definitely an example of Plain language, but did he go too far? I would argue yes. First of all, the grammar! There are multiple missing spaces between words; “pictures” is abbreviated to “pics;” and some unique punctuation is used. Plus, this is “Sliding for Dummies,” in which the reader has very little background in sliding on a longboard while going fast around turns. This needs a major breakdown of steps (with pictures)—however being “dumb” on the subject of sliding does not mean a person is unintelligent or illiterate. The speaker’s writing actually hinders some of the understanding of the subject because the reader sometimes is forced to figure out the poorly written language. There is definitely a difference between plain and poor use of language. However, this is incredibly easy to understand and is written as if this person is talking to the readers face to face.
            According to the reading ease calculator, the reading ease for “Sliding for Dummies” is 74.8. This is extremely easy and accessible for anyone in the general public to read and understand. The average grade level I was shocked to find out is actually 8.9! This is above the average reading level of the general public in America, which is the Seventh Grade. True, there is some jargon used later in the description—but it really is only the use of the word “trucks.” However, what the score of the reading level does not tell us is the level of humor and creative writing. This blog has a bunch of humor and creative writing in the form of exclamations points, all caps lock, as well as in the language itself. An example of this is, “you need to explain with pics,drawings apples, bees or whatever” (this also has horrendous comma mistakes). My favorite part of the entire post, and another example of creative style, incorporates language everyone uses on a frequent basis: “and most important,wear your god dam lid and pads!!!” This is great because it is incredibly Plain and incorporates language everyone uses on a frequent basis. Also, “god dam” would not be a term used in a formal piece of writing in the Official style (neither would the word “butt” used later in the post). The humor and variations in text and type causes the reader to be further engaged or annoyed in a way that Plain style and Official style might not grasp. This is a blog, that has an incredibly palpable sense of voice, which I love, but it may use too much exaggeration and poor sentence structure and not enough explanation and organization to teach how to slide on a longboard.
            Further dissecting the style, I noticed the format of these instructions was not consistent. The author is in half prose style and half list format while describing the process of sliding. He includes pictures as well. The pictures break up the writing, but it made sense to format it that way, like a caption. So, the first bit is like an introduction, which ends with three list points (the third of which is a continuation of the last sentence in the second list point), and then oddly transitions to many fragmented sentences mixed in with photos and captions. These photos and captions are complete with plenty of arrows and parentheses, further creating a choppy feel to the writing style. There is an incredible lack of structure and organization, and to add to the poorly written sentences. Once reading the passage, readers may understand a tad bit more of the mechanics of how to slide, but may not feel one-hundred percent ready to go to the biggest hill and nail sliding on the turns at full speed. It is highly unlikely anyone would make it to the bottom in one piece! As a longboarder, I do not feel any more comfortable going out and performing the task after reading these instructions. Though the language is incredibly easy, the style does not facilitate the reader in understanding the task being taught. One could end up with a broken collarbone as a result.

            Unfortunately, because of the lazy grammar and interesting format, I would say the use of the Official style would benefit the reader and promote credibility. The jargon terms such as “trucks,” “drop-down deck,” and specifics about the bearings or wheels and positioning would better explain the process, instead of making generalizations and not quite describing where to position feet in accordance to the board. The informality and type of language used contributes to the question if this is a reliable source. Especially considering the topic of sliding, where people can break bones, readers need to know that this is the correct way to slide down a hill on a long board. Furthermore, although the pictures are a helpful visual, the quality and setting of the pictures raise some questions. The pictures are taken inside a house that looks awfully run down. Why are the pictures not taken outside? This would mean that the author has actually gone sliding and knows what he is casually describing. The credibility is lacking and due to the gravity of the sphere of activity and context, the communication is not adequate. I feel there should be more Official language used, as well as better pictures in an improved setting. The pictures are great to help give a visual to the description though. This also adds even more to the creative aspects of the piece that is primarily written in sloppy Plain style.
            Plain language is great for most audiences and is easy to understand as well as quick to read. But when dealing with instructions and dangerous situations, some Official style should be used to indicate credibility. Also, it would promote the right audience too—people who have long boarded before and know what they are getting into, and want an analysis written with appropriate grammar. Thus, some jargon should be used for specific placement and materials used. Though there are pictures, humor, and diction people use every day, the syntax and format is horrendous and too Plain for my taste. This post on the Silverfish Longboarding website could definitely use a facelift in language—and some apples and bees.
-Alyssa B.

A Philosophically Fallacious Meme: The Problem with Philosoraptor

Philosoraptor, the well-known “meme” (image macro series) depicting a velociraptor contemplating philosophy’s deep questions, is an internet-pervading entity, distorting difficult philosophical problems into oversimplified bite-sized chunks of “wisdom.”  Although I must admit that, personally, I think a lot of the Philosoraptor quotes are pretty hilarious, for example: “if they squeeze olives to get olive oil, what do they squeeze to make baby oil;”1 however, there are others that demonstrate gross overgeneralizations, resulting in negative consequences.  The rhetorical devices that have seeped into our natural, plain speech are often misused/misinterpreted, and therefore have no proper place in conducting logical arguments.  I know many people would reject my claim on the grounds that the illustrations are meant to be light-hearted and funny, but these warped thoughts often lead to misconceptions concerning philosophical problems and are better examples of fallacies rather than legitimate statements.
Before the Philosoraptor gained significant popularity as a t-shirt design, it was initially a still frame of a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park with a copy of ‘Plato’s Complete Works’ in her2 hands.  The whole idea of Philosoraptor was originally a clever pun, without any philosophical prompts surrounding it.  According to, the modern-day Philosoraptor is:  
“A philosophical cousin of the Velociraptor…It’s commonly used as an image macro with a picture of the Philosoraptor’s head, one talon poised under its chin, as it ponders the deeper questions of the universe.  It is generally accompanied by a riddle, pronoun or philosophical issue, or a parody of one of these, that the Philosoraptor is currently mulling over.”3
Like most “memes,” or online fads in general, there is no telling exactly who took the Philosoraptor to this next level, but now it is one of the most popular “memes” on the web with over 38,000 “thoughts” on 12 different templates- an astounding amount of deep, Paleolithic thought.
The idea, or movement perhaps, of the Philosoraptor has obviously become viral, but is this a good thing?  Undoubtedly, the Philosoraptor is a positive addition to the interwebz in that she drives people into the mindset of inquiring into these philosophical concepts and encouraging them to challenge established conventions; however, they are not to be seen as legitimate claims.  As silly as it may seem for anyone to take philosophical advice from an extinct reptile, I have actually seen the Philosoraptor cited as if she were a genuine scholar from Oxford or some nonsense like that, and her thoughts used as an authentic premise/conclusion within a philosophical argument.  This is where the trouble lies:  people do not understand that if the Philosoraptor were truly an Oxford graduate and a fine intellectual, there would not be an obvious fallacy in most of her thoughts, and, ironically, applying her thoughts as something valid is a fallacy in and of itself (that of appealing to false authority/experts).
This brings to the forefront another root of this concern: that of authorship.  It is important for frequent interwebz wanderers to realize that the Philosoraptor is composed of the ideas of thousands of different people, many whom are unnamed, meaning that there is no one source or author, and no reasons are provided for the given conclusions.  The only knowledge Philosoraptor provides are disarrayed stepping-stones for a meandering curiosity, not blocks of an organized, sound philosophical thought.  This is because the people who comprise her are not the geniuses in the ivory-tower we tend to believe author such compelling thoughts, but, more likely, stoners with ‘mind-blowing’ revelations.  Considering Philosoraptor thoughts like “Do we see colors differently?  Is my green your red?  Is my blue your blue?”, it is hard to imagine them being produced anywhere outside of a hazy circle in a college kid’s basement.  To be sure, I am by no means discrediting all thoughts expressed through the Philosoraptor, for some are logical tautologies: “Even if I choose not to decide I have still made a choice;”4 however, most are distorted, oversimplified versions of the authentic ideas of truly great thinkers.  
To be sure, an informal fallacy is properly defined as an illogical conclusion due to false/invalid reasoning, following the general categories of those relating to irrelevance (use premises that are not logically relevant to conclusions, though they appear to be), those involving ambiguity (contain vague words or confuse closely related concepts), and those based off unwarranted assumptions (contain premises that, in the context, require further support).  It is important to note that many fallacies, within the scope of writing, outline various regularly-used rhetorical strategies such as analogy, synecdoche, and eponym; however, taken within the scope of philosophical argumentation, these devices can be respectively construed as the ‘Straw Man’ fallacy, that of composition/division, and ad hominum.  As much as I love using rhetorical devises to add pizzazz to my own writings, they have no proper place within argumentation.  Language used in logic needs to be as clear and straightforward as possible (which tends to be more mathematical than natural or plain), and the rhetorical tactics commonly used in natural speech intentionally alter the typical meanings of words and their construction within sentences, but more on that later.
As previously stated, the fallacy of oversimplification is quite common amongst the Philosoraptor’s thoughts.  For example, “if money is the root of all evil, why do they ask for it in church,” though an intriguing question at face-value, is an obvious instance of the fallacy of loaded questions (a derivative of the fallacy of oversimplification) in which the given question is based off assumptions that have not been properly justified.  The above question assumes a pre-established belief that money is, indeed, the root of all evil; that churches, indeed, petition for it; and that, perhaps most controversially and fundamentally, the Bible is, indeed, true as well.  Ergo, it becomes necessary for these implied assumptions to be logically accepted as true before the purported question can be properly answered, and, considering the prerequisites for the statement above, this is not a question that can be easily answered.
Such a fallacy can be avoided if the “harder” question hidden within the statement is instead asserted as part of the argument.  A reformulation of the previous claim using proper logic techniques would then go as such:  “‘Money is the root of all evil’ is true if and only if the Bible is true; if the Bible is true, then it is not right for Churches to ask for money; ergo, if money is the root of all evil, then it is not right for Churches to ask for money.”5  Unfortunately, such a transcription would not fit onto the typical Philosoraptor format, and, more importantly, would not be as groundbreaking (or as humorous in some cases) of an assertion.  
Consider the Philosoraptor’s use of analogy (in philosophy, ‘Straw Man’) in the following argument: “if guns don’t kill people, people do, then do toasters not toast toast, but toast toasts toast?”  Such a clever reptile you are, Philosoraptor, however this is a clear example of the ‘Straw Man’ fallacy, in that she is misrepresenting the opponent’s view for the purpose of refuting it.  Though there is obviously no logical connection between guns killing people and toast toasting toast, the way this argument is presented appeals to our natural tendency to desire things that are (seemingly) easily understood through association. In our conditioned plain language use, analogies are regularly used to reveal a common relationship to prove a point, yet we tend to unintentionally ignore the implied ways of how they are not similar.

Now, you may be thinking that I am mistakenly dissing creative language within argumentation, and, instead of dissing plain language in philosophical spheres of communication, am actually favoring it; however (and this is where my point comes in), many of these rhetorical devices have been used so regularly that what is properly deemed as creative has evolved, within natural speech, into what is felt to be plain and simple.  This unconscious conditioning results in such strategies being employed without an understanding of how that alters the statement uttered, and, consequently, how statements are perceived.  The miscommunications and misrepresentations the meme puts forth are then exacerbated by the Philosoraptor’s overwhelming popularity, and the flawed logic within the thoughts are broadcast to the globe, accessible to any and all.  Ergo, it becomes necessary for us, as a reasoning creature, to be able to identify the misleading rhetorical devices we use in our ordinary language and understand their effects within a given context, especially if the context strongly affects our perspective concerning our reality and our relation to the world.  In this way, though the Philosoraptor is a humorous lil’ bugger, she is not to be misconstrued as a fitting philosopher/logician, but rather as a curious starting point for idle chatter.    
-Danielle Watterson

1 Or "If Professor Charles Xavier can control things with his mind, why can't he control his legs?
2 Yes, I will be gendering the Philosoraptor as female for no reason other than the need for more females in philosophy.
4 To be sure, these are actually song lyrics from “Freewill” by Rush; which is a totally awesome song that you should all listen to.
5 In symbolic logic: “1) M ↔ B 

                                   2) B ➔ -C 
                                   C) M ➔ -C”