Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is It Better to Speak in Plain Style?


I chose a text from the “Music of Culture” section on the Vogue website. The title is Annie Lennox on Her Hit Grammys Performance-Plus an Exclusive Clip of Her PBS Special written by a blogger called Alex Frank. As we know, Vogue is a very famous and outstanding fashion magazine in the world, reaching fashion, beauty, health, entertainment, art fields etc.  This magazine has already been released in 21 countries. So, the readers of the website are also all over the world.  Mostly, readers of this website are women and trendsetters.  Specifically, readers who might read this text are music lovers and Annie Lennox’s fans.  As a public musician, Annie Lenox’s goal is to influence the largest possible audience, so she needs to use plain language in order to make the audience feel comfortable. I would argue that when it comes to speaking, people expect plain language.  When official style is used in everyday speech, it alienates the audience.

According to the readability test, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of the whole text I chose is 80.3, which is high, and the average grade level is 5.8, so even young children can read it. Based on the statistics, it is not hard for us to know that the text is very easy to read for most of the public. Music lovers might easily catch what Annie Lennox said, but they only get limited information from her interview because they are not fans of Annie Lennox and don’t know much about her. They read this text just for entertainment and to get some ideas of what’s going on in the music field.  As for Annie Lennox’s fans, they feel more comfortable and get used to the way Annie Lennox talks and her tone, so they might get a better understanding of what she talks about in this text compared to others even though what she says is in plain language.  Let’s look closely at some examples of the text I chose to see how the language used applies to plain style. Here is the link of the text I chose:

“‘Why do you think the public reacted to it the way that they did?’

‘I don’t know, I can’t tell you that. It’s like the Roman Empire: you get the thumbs up and everybody loves you. Everybody is a critic nowadays and if they feel like they don’t like you, they can steam into you with such abuse. So it’s a schizophrenic experience. I was surprised. I didn’t know until I went out to dinner that night that people were talking about it. So many people were saying, ‘You were exploding on Twitter.’ And I was like, ‘Really?’ I just did what I did and I never know how people are going to take it. Sometimes people love you, sometimes they hate you” (Frank).’”

            Actually, the text is kind of like an interview record. The language is spoken language and more plain. According to the readability test for this paragraph, its Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease is 82.8 that is quite high and Average Grade Level is pretty low, only 5.2.  It is not hard to figure out that this text is really easy to read for public, even young children who achieve fifth grade can read it without problems. We can see its characters per word is only 3.8 and words per sentence is only 11.7. Therefore, its sentences are short, which means the meanings are direct and not complex and not verbose.  We can see there are many sentences in simple structure. For example, “I can’t tell you that”, we see here “I” is the subject, “can” is a helping verb and “tell” is the main verb, and they combine into a clause. She keeps the subject, verb and object close together. Let’s look at these two sentences: “So it’s a schizophrenic experience”; “Sometimes people love you, sometimes they hate you”, they are also easy to understand. Looking at the whole paragraph, I find that clauses are equally emphasized, which is called parataxis. There is not much passive voice; instead, first person is largely used. For instance, “I don’t know,” “I can’t tell you,” “I was surprised,” “I didn’t know,” “I just did what I did” etc. are all conversational tone. It is as if Annie Lennox is talking to readers face to face.

            Another example here:

“‘You did a lot of research on YouTube to find the songs to cover on Nostalgia. Did you look at old videos of yourself? What did you find?’

‘You ask most people if they like looking at a photograph of themselves and they’ll cringe. It’s very, very hard to feel comfortable about certain things, but I think my performance with David Bowie was just exceptional. I’m my worst critic and I come off stage and hate myself, saying, “That wasn’t good enough.” But the performance with David Bowie was just extraordinary, and I’m not just talking about me. I had waited to perform all day. Performers wait to perform. That’s what we do. It’s challenging. It’s not an easy gig. You wait, and you wait, and you wait. You get nervous, tired, anxious, but you know you have to have this window of opportunity maybe even if it’s just one song. It’s like jumping out of a stage and free-falling. And there you go” (Frank).’”

            This time, I still used the readability test. The result is not surprising because the statistic is nothing too different. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 81.5 which is high and similar to the one above, and Average Grade Level is 5.5--still pretty low. We can see characters per word is also short--only 4.0, and words per sentence is 10.9.  The opening uses the second person “you”, which is quite direct and would not appear in official style. When Annie Lennox states her opinion, she uses “I think” instead of something like “it is claimed that…” It is quite personal and subjective. I also don’t discover any jargon, but rather simple and spoken language. She avoids any technical, legal, and foreign jargon. Even when she tries to explain her job, she uses everyday language that makes her speech lively and understandable. For instance, when she says “It’s not an easy gig,” gig is a common term that people use in informal conversation.  When she answers whether or not she looked at old videos of herself and what did she find, she gives her experience of her performance with David Bowie as a specific and concrete example. It is exemplum. Let’s see “It’s very, very hard” and “You wait, and you wait, and you wait.” I found that even though the speaker tries to give an effect of emphasis, she doesn’t use big or difficult words; instead, she just repeats again and again. She used “very” twice to explain the degree of difficulty, and repeats “you wait” three times to give you a sense that she was waiting for a long time. The strategy is conduplicatio that repeats a key word from a preceding sentence. With these simple techniques, she achieves the effect of emphasis she wants.

            There might be some contexts in which Annie Lennox would use official style, perhaps in a business meeting between herself, her lawyer, and her record company.  But this interview was conducted for readers who are music lovers and fans.  These readers are likely to be average citizens who use plain language in their speech.  What would happen if Annie Lennox had spoken in official style?  Her readers might think she was “snobby” or pretending to be someone she’s not.  Perhaps her musical talent would be enough to still have a large number of fans, but it is not a guarantee.  Another example of this in entertainment could be seen on the most recent season of “The Bachelor.”  One of the contestants, Kelsey, spoke in a more official style.  She used a lot of big words and complex sentences, and she even said herself “I’m blessed with eloquence.”  Most of the other women on the show disliked her and thought that the way she spoke meant that she thought she was more intelligent than them.  This resulted in the rest of the women feeling alienated by her.

            In conclusion, plain style is largely used in public writing for the sakes of public readers. If mass media doesn’t use it, readers will not like reading their stuff, which means losing their customers.  The result would be the same if Annie Lennox did not speak and write in plain style--she wouldn’t reach a large audience. I found that language used in plain style is simple: sentence structure is simple in that subject, verb and object are close together; words are not jargon; and the tone is conversational. When I read the plain style of this article, I found that meanings are direct. This is why writing in plain style gets high Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease and low Average Grade Level. Therefore, music lovers and Annie Lennox’s fans are both able to understand this text well. The difference is their purpose for reading the text. Music lovers are doing so to get more information about music as entertainment and enlarge their knowledge of music.  Annie Lennox’s fans, on the other hand, while they might be also music lovers, tend to focus more on Annie Lennox as a star and what happened to her. However, there are some questions I think about: Since entertainment stars use plain language because it’s natural to them and they want to be relatable, why do other professionals insist on using official style?  Do they not want to be relatable to a large audience?  Do they want their writing to be exclusive? Will plain style replace official style in the future in academic writing? How can we make plain language more powerful in academic writing, so that people don’t feel alienated?

  Jintian Li

No comments:

Post a Comment