The Art of Plain Talk by Rudolf Flesch

This essay was written two years ago as a requirement for a course.

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I don’t do plain talk. That’s as far as I could remember during my high school years. I used to think that it’s just for kids. It’s like something that a boy would try to say to his mommy if he wanted to buy that toy car in the store. No other unnecessary words; just the words ‘buy’, ‘me’, and ‘toy car’.

My years in high school were not spent to speak and write to be understood. It was always writing to make the readers lives hard by using difficult words just to impress. I remember a classmate who was quite the achiever type; the type of kid who was lacking in nutrition but rich in vocabulary like a walking thesaurus. Every one of us would kneel on his feet in awe whenever he would write an article. The reason: his impressive writing style. He used words like ‘succulent’ and ‘repertoire’, which were big and foreign words none of us could understand back then. He never knew plain talk. He just wanted to impress everyone that he had this dictionary-like mind. So, that was the reason why I never knew plain talk. I always had the notion before that if I had to write about something, I should use these awfully big words that no one would understand- to impress rather than communicate.

Before I read this book on plain talk, I already knew from my DevCom teachers that talking and writing are not about impressing other people; it’s about making them understand what you are trying to say. People don’t want to invest time on something that they can’t read. I myself don’t want to read something that is barely understandable. I’d rather go shopping.

But it turns out that when you are given the task to write something plainly, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of us already forgot how to talk simply just like a child. I noticed that as I was writing this essay, I had difficulty expressing in simpler language. And who may you ask is the culprit? These are the textbooks, the teachers and those English lessons that would always leave me cleaning our classroom floors for not passing the grammar test.

So there’s this one rule in plain talk. Ditch the grammar. Nah, I’m just kidding. But it sure was stated that way, I think. The author named Rudolf Flesch mentioned that Chinese, known as the “grammarless” tongue, is the simplest form of language. It has no inflections, no cases, no persons, no genders, no numbers, no degrees, no tenses, no voices, no moods, no infinitives, no participles, no gerunds, no irregular verbs, and no articles. That’s just amazingly simple – simple as biting your nails off! If English was that simple, I would have applied for a visa and immediately flew to the US. But no, English is different from Chinese. Chinese doesn’t have an order. It is just basic subject, predicate, object. In order to learn simple English, you have to know Chinese.

Second, refrain from using affixes. The use of fewer prefixes or suffixes would not only shorten the length of sentences, it would also make the sentence a little less complicated.

To be understood, one must talk in conversational form – everything is put in personal terms like using names, personal pronouns or anything about human beings. Plain talk is mainly a question of language structure and of spacing your ideas. You just have to know the right intonations, pauses and silences. This means that talking plainly is not just about using shorter words, one can use long words but it must have the right pauses, gestures and etc., just like in a conversation.

Another recipe for simplicity is the use of verbs. It is the verb that gives life to a sentence and makes it easier to comprehend. Flesch wrote that a brief three-word sentence (with a verb) is understandable. It follows the pattern: somebody does something.

Fifth, avoid the use of adjectives. I always thought that using adjectives to describe details of a situation or an object would help the reader or listener understand better.  As Flesch mentioned: “If you want to give descriptive detail in plain language, describe what you see, even using adjectives if you must; but don’t stuff your descriptions down the reader’s throat, whether he wants them or not, by filling all the odd corners and empty spots in your sentences with little dabs of observation.” Although adding these colorful words may enhance sentences, it is better to not use them that often. These words will only lengthen the sentence making it less readable.

The use of connectives is also a no-no in plain talk. Somehow, this chapter in the book was my most favorite part since I am fond of using connectives, it struck me. So, using connectives is not advisable after all when doing plain talk. I always thought they were helpful (my high school teachers thought so too, it’s their fault I’m thinking it this way). But Flesch’s idea is different. He thinks that these empty words will only complicate the meaning of the sentence. They are just there to make sentences look longer and complex. So it seems that I am now confused on who I should believe: my English teachers or this famous readability expert? Oh gosh. It’s like I’m torn between two lovers.

Another ingredient for plain talk is the use of punctuation marks, the handy gadgets in writing plain language. Periods, commas and hyphens are some of those that can be used in a sentence. These are very helpful when using either a short or long pause in a sentence. I find these punctuations very helpful when I am writing essays. These help me cut my ideas and then connect them without the use of empty words. Also, as what Flesch wrote, they are far easy comprehend than useless words.

There are a lot of those ‘do not’ things that Flesch mentioned in his book. These included: 1. Do not use rhythm (Maybe your reader won’t catch on.); 2. Do not use periodic sentences; 3. Do not use rhetorical questions; 4. Do not use metaphors without an explanation; 5.  Do not use contrasts without an explanation and; 6. Do not use irony. With these ‘do nots’, my question is, what am I supposed to write now?

Somehow, Flesch is still not satisfied with his rules. Here is another ‘do not’: condensation. And no, it’s not about change of the physical state of matter from gaseous phase into liquid phase; I’m talking about cutting and reassembling the words in a paragraph to shorten it or in other words, taking shortcuts. Most of us love shortcuts especially when we want to answer mathematical equations. But in plain talk, it’s a no-no. Of course we already know that to do plain talk, one must use shorter words and sentences. But condensation, in that manner, doesn’t count. It will only become less readable and understandable. I have read some magazines that have been condensed and to be honest, it’s was too difficult to read that I barely understood a single sentence.

In the book, Flesch also introduced the yardstick formula. This is done by counting the average sentence length, the number of affixes and personal references. This is a simple way to know whether a particular reading material is understandable or not.

I never thought that the book would be enjoyable to read. Though it was a tough and long read, I still had fun answering the exercises and reading every bit of sarcasm and humor that the author wrote. This book taught me how to do plain talk, how to express my ideas in an understandable way. And I learned a valuable lesson: complexity will never arouse a reader’s interest. “Express to be understood, not to impress.”