Bootcamp Day 3’s Thought: Is Simplifying Language Just Dumbing Down?

Today once again we had a group critique exercise, and a few times, as happened yesterday, someone was told to use a “simpler” word. Not one simpler in meaning but one more likely to be understood by more people. I can’t remember the example, I forgot to write it down but the basic idea is “this word is too tough, lets bring it down a level.”

I totally and completely understand that journalism’s job is to communicate. I also understand that I am not representative of the average American consumer of news: my high school had weekly vocab quizzes for 4 years, that’s not normal. (Actually, my vocabulary, in English at least, has never been as good as it was when I was 18. That school rocked.)

But at what point is it almost condescending to insist on simpler and simpler language? It’s really something I have no final opinion on, I wouldn’t know how to decide this, so I have to go with what seems to be the industry standard obviously. But part of me will continue to wonder “Well, how are people supposed to gain a richer vocabulary if most of the media they consume doesn’t use it?ยจ

Might this not be a vicious circle? We reduce vocabulary, people are less challenged by it, they go through life using fewer words, so the industry later feels they must reduce vocabulary again. I’d love to know if there’s any linguistic study done on the relative difficulty of mainstream press vocabulary over time to see if this is a trend or not.

On our second day, our speaker emphasized the importance of careful usage since we are “the stewards of the language.” But if stewards let words diminish and disappear out of general usage (and ours is supposed to be general, not the rarified world of academics, poets, etc…) aren’t we letting some of the language’s richness, and nuance fade? This really is a question, I don’t pretend to have an answer. It could be that language changes quickly enough, and produces newer forms, words and phrases to keep it as rich as ever. But it’s just what I thought about today.

Oh, and I definitely thought about it when all that criticism of Obama’s Gulf speech came out whining that he spoke to the public at a 10th grade level.



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7 responses to “Bootcamp Day 3’s Thought: Is Simplifying Language Just Dumbing Down?

  1. Tom

    That’s a fascinating topic. If I had to guess, I’d say the guidelines were derived empirically by the newspaper industry finding a balance between the level of writing and cancelled subscriptions.

    I hadn’t considered word choice, but I’ve had similar thoughts about grammar and punctuation. I’ve noticed more and more misuses of “your” instead of “you’re” creeping into places I thought were better than that. For some reason this annoys me, and I tend to remember it because I’m hypersensitive to it. Others seem to care less which also annoys me.

    It doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine a cunning marketing department promoting these types of abuses in order to better connect with a younger generation of children that were not left behind.

  2. Yes, by using dumber words, journalists are contributing to the dumbing down of America. Dumb is fashionable once again. Ironically, the more we read, the more it is crap and to read more crap, we have to make the crap dumber so more people can read it.. it is a vicious cycle. But that is the cycle that is driven by commerce, not by the need to know more, to become better people. Hell, look around your class and probably 1% are there for the education, 99% are there to get a job! Remember when the purpose of post secondary school was to secure an education in the liberal arts? Getting a job was the work of trade schools and apprenticeships. But that is a kettle of another fish for another ocean.

    Here is how I reconcile it personally. I write a lot of copy for general consumption. The reading level is so damn low that most toothless rednecks can read it and understand it. But, that pays the bills. Nobody has to think too hard to know they want what I am selling. And that, in itself is the power of language; that I have the ability to control what people do with their money simply by the words I choose. It’s a big joke that gets lost on most people, but make me squeal in sadistic delight.

    To feed the soul however, I have a blog. I have several blogs and hobbies that allow me to explore, write and create at any level I wish. It allows me to keep my vocabulary skills sharp, thinking critical and witty and my soul young. I spar endless with people on twitter who are challenged by the same need to keep the wit sharp and the vocabulary challenging. The first one to look up a word or a literary reference loses! ๐Ÿ™‚ Still gonna ignore twitter?

    I have worked with creative people almost my entire career. They all suffer from this same conflict. They are expected to produce dumbed down art for the masses, but the truly remarkable pieces, they do for themselves without the burden of approval from anyone but themselves. And if you can’t ever resolve that conflict, then you will find yourself fighting for a space at The NewYorker or The Economist, maybe as a writer on 30Rock, The Daily Show or The Rachel Maddow Show. The competition is fierce and writers get younger, smarter and more aggressive every year until they will eventually eat you alive as you eventually stall whereupon they will hurt you.

    Read Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid for some perspective on this. I think you’ll find some solace there…

    But above all, be YOU! You have a unique voice. Let that shine, frustrate your teachers, make them go home crying every night. Squeeze them until they clench their fists into the air, screaming, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome woman?” And then push a little bit more. But alway, always in AP Style ๐Ÿ™‚

    I didn’t start out to write so much, but your questions just fired me up! It’ll probably happen again, so I apologize in advance.

  3. You raise some excellent points here. I would not advocating condescending to the reader, but I think people sometimes choose “bigger” words to show off, rather than to communicate. Also, simpler language can often be more powerful, whereas relying on high-brow words can come off as affected. Language is also used to divide and confuse people. This is especially true of jargon, such as police talk.

    So, it’s important to communicate simply, effective and clearly. That is certainly the goal.

    I would suggest you read (if you haven’t already) George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it here:

    Then let’s discuss this further.

  4. Konrad Sattler


    that bootcamp seems to be a great idea – I went to writers bootcamp – I guess all of us – free spirits need to get a kick in the ass to do our things…. – for film idiots only… but I can’t wait to see the fruits of your journalism school boot camp in a vlog soon!

    I’m not a psycho ๐Ÿ˜‰


  5. Mike

    Like Joshua, I was going down the Orwellian route (good link by the way). I can’t help but feel that what you really want to say is: Am I becoming involved in the development of “Newspeak”?

    It seems to me as long as you follow Einstein’s maxim that you should “make everything as simple as possible but not simpler” you should be fine. In Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” the protagonist listens to a younger version of himself using the word viduity which he no longer knows the meaning of. He then comes up with the great lines:

    “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to beleive I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway.”

    The point being that if you can express something beautifully and simply why make it overly complex so that you lose the point of it… communication. (On a worrying aside, when I first read that I knew what viduity meant but I didn’t today.)

    A journalists job is surely not to teach people the use of language but give people access to knowledge using the tools that they already have. It is not condescension to write simply as long as the concepts and ideas are still challenging and informative. Being condescending is to belittle your audience; it comes from tone. That is the origin of Newspeak. MLK and Ghandi were famous for writing challenging ideas in simple language, yet it was not talking down. Better be them than Kant whose texts were so dense as to be almost incomprehensible regardless how interesting his ideas.

    I’ll finish with another Einstein quote:

    “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

    That’s my two pennies worth

    and I’m a psycho by the way

    P.S. Was the Obama reference to do with grade 10 level being too high or low?

  6. Jean Stenquist

    I believe that when a researcher scanned the vocabulary used on tv news programs and pbs-like programs during the 50’s and 60’s and compared it with the vocabulary used in the 90’s there was considerable dumbing down. I believe it was tied to a drop in the reading level of the general population which was tied to more watching and less reading.

  7. I was at the Newspapers in Education department at the Dayton Daily News from 1998-2002. Anyone who has worked in NIE knows that on paper, the department was set up to “promote literacy, cultivate young readers, blah, blah” The real world was, “We’ve got a captive audience where we can dump newspapers on Tuesdays and make our 5-day ABC numbers look better.”

    Before I got there, the NIE page was kids mazes and puzzles, word games, etc. the typical crap you see on kids stuff. Part of my gig was that if we were going to really increase literacy and make the newspaper a teaching tool, let’s really do it. Let’s write articles that teachers could use as lesson plans. What did we have to lose? We had a captive audience where we were dumping papers anyway.

    So, we wrote serious articles about wildlife, conservation, the science of the Olympics, nutrition using a pizza analysis, the physics of snowboarding. And we used smart words; we spoke to the kids (3rd-6 grade) like we respected their intelligence. We reduced the font size from 14pt goofy to 11pt real newspaper. We wrote in AP Style. We went out and got our own photos and wrote real captions. But for the KidsINK logo on the page and the small line of “editorial disclaimer” on the page, it was indistinguishable from the rest of the editorial.

    And our sales went through the damn roof! Teachers couldn’t wait for every other Tuesday. When we visited classes on NIE day, kids would have the newspapers sprawled open and they were reading the articles aloud and talking about the things they were reading about. Discussions got lively! When kids got to a word they did not know, it become an ad hoc vocab lesson. And if you watched closely, they got that momentary flash of “smart” when the eyes get slightly brighter, the lips smile gently, the face flushes and the head bobs when the word is filed in the brain. And teachers had that almost giddy look of excitement on their faces. This was “real world learning” for them and anyone who knows a good teacher, you know they ache for this kind of stuff.

    There is nothing like that feeling you get when you watch your work being consumed by a room full of eager 4th graders. Nothing. It made all the dirty, messy bits of pulling together a page worth going through the next week and more.

    But then, the marketing people saw resource consolidation and figured our little 3-person rag-tag band of talent could also be used to do in-house promotions and “merged” the departments. I left then. The mission was over, the magic was gone. And NIE sales declined as more puzzles were added as filler when nobody had enough time to “write an article.”

    People rise to challenges. People ache for challenge. Using simpler words is not the answer; it is the cause of the decline of readership. Newspapers and media in general have abdicated their public trust. Everything now is entertainment, but those who lead this charge are forgetting that learning and reaching are also entertainment.

    I dunno.. sad that dumb is the new black.

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