Speaking Whale in Plain Style
I never thought texts written in “Plain Style” could be difficult to understand like texts written in the “Official Style”. After diving into Carl Zimmer’s “Whales on the Wrong Side of the World”, I discovered the craftiness hidden beneath the ‘simple’ and ‘concise’ rhetorical devices the “Plain Style” claims to have. When first reading Zimmer’s text, I was convinced that his main focus was on the changing migration patterns of gray whales due to global climate change. However, this was not the case. By writing in “Plain Style”, Zimmer was able to connect my interests with my emotions. Zimmer’s play on my interests not only captured my attention, but awoke my concern for global climate change and its impact on whales.
Any animal lover, or casual reader, would generally find an article titled “Whales on the Wrong Side of the World” an interesting topic to read about. What makes this text even more appealing to read is that you can actually understand it. With a readability grade level of 8.2, Zimmer is able to reach a far wider audience with his text than his “Official Style” writing companions. Zimmer begins his text with an easily read and clear opening:
“A team of marine biologists was conducting a survey off the coast of Israel when they spotted it.”
Bam. Zimmer instantly uses the rhetorical device of an active voice. Unlike users of the “Official Style”, Zimmer clearly states ‘who is kicking who’. By writing in this way, Zimmer allows us to easily understand who and what this article is about. He also makes it very clear where this event takes place. What other rhetorical devices does Zimmer use? Well let’s take a look:
“At first they thought it was a sperm whale. But each time the animal surfaced, the more clearly they could see that it had the wrong anatomy. When they got back on land, they looked closely at the photographs they had taken and realized, to their shock, that it was a gray whale. This species is a common sight off the coast of California, but biologists had never seen one outside of the Pacific before.”
Zimmer wastes no time with silly (“Official”) words in his text. By using simple words, we’re easily able to follow and understand Zimmer’s sentences. Aside from simple word usage, Zimmer makes his text even easier to read with short and concise sentences.
Animal lovers and casual readers are most likely Zimmer’s targeted audience. Zimmer gives his audience an easy and casual read that is understandable and easy to connect with. What’s wrong with this approach? While the text is easy to understand, the real goal of this text is almost invisible. That is, until you reach the very end of Zimmer’s article:
“As seal levels rise, there will be more shallow shelves where the whales can scoop up mud to find food. Today, a gray whale outside the Pacific seems like a case of Photoshopping. Soon, however, we may be photoshopping a whole ocean of whales.”
Before I talk about the ‘hidden’ message and goal of Zimmer’s text, I want to talk about the way in which he executes his message. By using elements of the “Plain Style”, clarity, short sentences, and active voice, Zimmer is able to widen the accessibility of his text and the effectiveness of its influence. You can only be moved by what you understand, right? Zimmer’s ability to connect with us allows him to influence the way we feel. By using whales as the ‘centerpiece’ of his article, Zimmer is able to get us thinking about global climate change. Making suggestions to his us such as:
“Soon, however, we may be photoshopping a whole ocean of whales.”
Zimmer is able to influence our thoughts and feelings about global climate change by focusing on what is important to us: the potential extinction of whales. So what’s the real message Zimmer wishes for us to take away? Global climate change will lead to the extinction of whales. If you like whales, help prevent global climate change. Remember when I asked what was wrong with this approach? Well I’ll give you an answer. Allowing us access to his text by writing in a ‘language’ we can understand, Zimmer is granted our permission to influence us with his beliefs. Although Zimmer is trying to encourage us to take care of our planet, he does so by exploiting what is important to us. Is this a reasonable approach? It definitely isn’t ethical. Even though Zimmer’s text qualifies as being written in the “Plain Style”, the expected influence of his text reflects properties of the “Official Style”. In the end, Zimmer’s abundance of clarity ultimately blinds us of his true intentions.