Plainly speaking (or How to write so that others can understand you)

Please do not state the obvious, thanks :)

Please do not state the obvious, thanks 🙂 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English can be a horrible language (the French would probably attest to that and if they could they’d probably sue the English language for grand larceny). With terms like idioms, double negatives and conjectures being thrown about the English speaking world it’s no wonder a large number of people are confused.

Our Malaysian education system hasn’t seemed to help improve our level of English proficiency and it seems like more university graduates these days struggle to write a report without either basic grammatical mistakes or including bombastic words that would not see daylight in normal conversation let alone in a standard audit report.

Consider this extract from a company called Cityware and try to see if you can understand what they are talking about, “This theme investigates the impact of pervasive technologies on the spatial environment in urban space, both within and outside buildings. As a theory of society as modified by the spatial environment, we will develop space syntax to respond to novel pervasive modes of communication, transaction and exchange implied by pervasive technologies. This will be achieved in Cityware by means of a continuous process of analysis of empirical data on people’s use of and relationship with the urban spatial environment as this is affected by the intervention of pervasive technologies.”

Some people mistake the use of bombastic words and industry terms and believe it’ll make others perceive them as being smarter (or at least, more knowledgeable). After all, ‘unsmart’ people don’t know many fancy words do they? The reality however, is far different.

Two way street

Communication is a two way street and more often than not, if someone else doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, you are the one that comes off looking like a total goof. Not the other guy. Not even if you’ve talked about, ‘creating total solutions for solution-focused people who are working in a environment that is not conducive towards fostering greater problem-solving situations.’ (Note: that line was totally made up).

The Flesch readability diagnosis was interesting, “You overwhelmingly embrace obfuscation and don’t want the reader to understand
anything you have to say. Your writing lavishes a preponderance of dependent clauses and compound negatives upon the reader, whose cognitive load not infrequently exceeds the purported benefit of the substance of the article. Syntax incorporates numerous collections of items juxtaposed or in series that demand persistence and not a little unqualified expertise on the part
of all intended recipients of the author’s communications.

In fact, such machinations inevitably prove detrimental to comprehension and sabotage the imparting of any and all knowledge. Your condition is irreversible.”

In other words, “you probably don’thave a clue what you’re talking about and there’s little chance that anyone else will understand it either”.

Writing tips

To help make your writing easier to understand, for both your manager and your client:

  • Speak using ‘you’ rather than the third person or passive voice.
  • Break up long runs of text with subheads. It will be more inviting to read and will help structure the development of your ideas.
  • Communicate key themes by demonstrating audience benefits through specific proof points and examples.
  • Avoid jargon and clichés
  • Express complex thoughts in simple terms. Aim for clarity, accessibility, and understanding.

Words to avoid

Double confirm

You can’t double confirm something. You either confirm it or you reconfirm it.


Irregardless is supposed to mean regardless. Why not save that 2 letters and just say regardless when you mean regardless?


Revert does not mean the same thing as reply. It means ‘to go back to a previous state.’ You can’t say “revert back to me by tomorrow please” because that’s physically & psychologically impossible.


The correct term is mobile phone or cell phone. Technically, ‘handphones’ don’t exist in the market.


You can’t past tense a past tense. Since ‘understood’ is already the past tense of ‘understand’, there’s no need to add an ‘-ed’ at the back of it. The ‘-ed’ is only meant for events that have happened in the past.

First written back in early 2008 in a company magazine.


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