Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Plain Style in Bedtime Stories

I think most people have had a happy bedtime story experience with their own parents when they were a child. For me, listening to bedtime stories before sleep was one of the most wonderful things in my daily life when I was a little girl. I still remember every day at 9 o’clock, my mother would go to bed with me and read one or two amazing short stories for me about half hour before I fell asleep. At that time, I thought my mother was the greatest storyteller, because she could hold me spellbound by a short but meaningful story. Therefore, when it comes to a critique of a plain style text, I think of the bedtime story immediately, because the targeted audience of those works are children. For this reason, the writers shouldn’t compose their story with complicated words and sentence structure, which means it must contain a mass of plain language, and be direct and easy to understand for their reader. However, if the language is too plain older children may become uninterested and younger children might not improve their reading abilities.  I believe that a good children’s story needs a mix of plain language and official style.

I found a child’s short story named The Princess for this critique. This story was written by an unpublished author named Sara McKenna. From what I could find, this story was written specifically for a child’s bedtime story website. I guess if the story is short enough so that parents can remember it and they can maybe adapt it, or maybe they can add in their own more complex sentences in their own way. It is an easy to understand story with simple plots, but it is also meaningful. The story is about how the three beautiful little princesses teach their mean uncle to treat people with respect and kindness by showing good manners and polite behavior to their cook and butler in front of their uncle.

As a child’s bedtime story, it narrates the whole thing in a plain way as all children’s works do, and it only took me less than ten minutes to read the whole story. The first obvious plain language characteristic I notice in this work is low readability grades. I summarize some main readability test grades in the following table:

Readability Test





Average Grade Level


Characters per Word


Words per Sentence


We can see from the result, the reading ease is pretty high, and the average grades level is only 5.8, not even reach 6th reading level. Even though it has 13 words in per sentence, it’s still very easy for most people to scan or peruse. This is significant evidence that plain style is well applied in this article. Now, let’s take look at some paragraphs from the story.

“Once upon a time there were three beautiful princesses. Their names were Kimmy, Katie, and Kristen. Kimmy was 3, Katie was 5, and Kristen was 8.

They all lived in a manor, with butlers, maids, cooks, and lots of people. But the princesses did not treat them like slaves, they treated them with respect and kindness.

The princess’s mothers name was Krystal. She was very kind, and taught her three girls how to treat all people with respect and kindness. The mother had long flowing black hair.

The princess’s fathers name was Kevin. He taught his three girls to be lady like. He had man like blond hair. He was very nice man. 

They also had a tutor named ken. He had light brown hair. He was very handsome.

The cook could not read minds so he still made what the uncle said to cook.

The angry uncle goes into the library to think about how he has behaved towards the butlers, the maids, the cooks and also his three sweet nieces who he made very sad…”

After reading it, you may find that this story uses active voice from the beginning to the end, which clearly emphasizes subjects and verbs. We always know “who kicks whom” during the reading, and it makes the plain language features become more obvious. Also, you can’t see any jargon or slow opening sentences in this text. In other words, it’s more colloquial. What’s more, the story uses plenty of plain style strategies, which include: parallelism, exemplum, conduplicatio, and it shows its clarity and plain style very well. When we look at the third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs, we can find there is a fixed pattern of the characters’ introductions. The writer uses the same sentence structure like: the princess’s ____’s  name was ____, she/he taught three girls to do ____. The sentences describe what kind of hair they have, and use an adjective to describe their personality. This pattern was repeated three times, and the sentence structures and words (except the adjective) are never changed, which makes me feel a little bored and sleepy; but, the plain style strategies, conduplicatio and parallelism, were well demonstrated in this section. However, in order to enhance the difficulty of the reading the author mixes some subordinate clauses and conjunctions in the later paragraphs, which make the sentences longer and more complex, so that the older children won’t lose their interest in the story because of the overly simple utterances. In addition, the story uses many specific examples to show children why we shouldn’t be mean to others, and to teach children how to treat people with respect and kindness through the good manners and polite behavior of the three girls. From those specific given examples in the stories, children may understand some truths about life, respecting others and being kind, quicker than someone just telling them the abstract conceptions. So, exemplum, one of the popular strategies, is used in this kind of work frequently to help the targeted audience understand their main points and topics.

Considering the majority of the audience is 3 – 12 years old children, bedtime stories have to be written in a plain and simple way, and plain language is easier for most kids to read, learn, understand, as well as apply. But, when it oversimplifies and reduces the complexity of the subject, it may also cause problems. Using overly plain words may fail to attract older children and/or older children might lose interest and stop paying attention when listening to these stories; therefore, some simple official style can be added to improve the reading difficulty. Also, adding some official style may increase the audience’s reading ability and may also help them get stronger speaking abilities. In this story, the author uses simple sentences a lot, such as “He had brown hair.  He was very handsome.”  In the article, “Language Input and Child Syntax,” researchers Janellen Huttenlocher, Marina Vasilyeva, and Elina Symerman found “that preschool children benefit when their parents and teachers use complex sentences while speaking with them, because the exposure increases their ability to understand and use complicated sentences.” But some people may say that official style may be hard to understand for the youngest children.  However, if the writer concentrates his/her audience to a more specific age group such as 3-5 year old children not 3-12, the application of plain style in this story would make more sense to the targeted audience. In conclusion, even in the requested plain style field, the language can’t be too plain, because we need consider the specific audience’s age group. So in some cases, we still need some official style to help children enhance their reading and speaking ability through the bedtime stories.

                                                                                                         --- Fangfang L

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