Saturday, January 8, 2011


For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about language, how the same words can have different meanings depending on context and how different occupations all evolve their own specialized argot.  We go through the "plain language" debate at work all the time.  The government has had a plain language policy since the Clinton era, not that anyone apparently paid much attention to it, and Obama's trying again -- one of the pieces of legislation that was actually passed and signed recently was the Plain Writing Act of 2010.  The act mandates federal agencies use clear language "that the public can understand and use."

This is a battle the journal fights with its authors on a more or less constant basis.  The Subject Matter Experts, aka the authors, all live in fear that their text will be "dumbed down."  There are days when I burn up an amazing amount of time just arguing back and forth with an author over trivia like whether giving the taxonomic designation first (e.g., Neotamias minimus) followed by the common name (least chipmunk) in parentheses, and then referring to the organism by that common name throughout the rest of the paper is acceptable to the author. There are astounding numbers of authors who want the wee beasties referred to as N. minimus every single time, and the words "least chipmunk" never to appear at all -- as if giving the common name of the vector for a disease is going to somehow diminish the fact ground squirrels like chipmunks can carry hantavirus. 

I understand the fear.  I spent time laboring in the academic trenches.  I know full well almost the worst thing a scholar can be accused of is being understandable, i.e., "too journalistic."  (The worst thing that can happen is to have a book turn into a best seller; then you've slid over the line into the dread territory of "popularizer.")  The harder it is to decipher something a researcher wrote, the more convinced his or her peers are that the scholar is a genius.  One of the giants in sociology, Max Weber, is known to have told people who complained about the difficulty of understanding his writing that, in essence, it was up to the readers to figure out what he was saying -- it wasn't his job to make it easy for them.  But that shouldn't apply to articles submitted to our journal, which, although peer-reviewed, is a US government publication with an extremely diverse (and international) audience.  Everything we print should be comprehensible to a nonexpert reader -- a member of the general public may not grasp the fine points of the technical details of something like whole genome sequencing, but anyone who can read at about the 12th grade level should be able to understand the main points the authors are making (e.g., improving methods to find a common source for a disease outbreak). How often we succeed in that goal is debatable, but we try.

In any case, it is supposedly my job to make it easy for our readers, hence, viruses get carried by deer mice (not Peromyscus sp.) and patients seek treatment (not "present"). It's illness and death, not moribity and mortality, and economic impact or affects, not burden.  I edited a paper not long ago where the authors kept referring to "fatal outcomes" and "nonsurvivors."  Get real. People died.  The bizarre part was the paper was a case report on a (thankfully) rare infection that is almost invariably fatal -- so why tiptoe around that fact by talking about "nonsurvivors"?

But none of that is actually what I was thinking about initially.  I stumbled across a blog that was new to me yesterday, and that got me to thinking about the differences in language between the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, like this minor thing -- why is it that employees of one agency (USFS) refer to working on a forest while employees at the other (NPS) work at parks? (The exception to that with NPS is if you're a fulltime firefighter, then you might be on an engine.) The Forest Service has other quirks, too -- they refer to the various areas within the agency as "shops," e.g., the timber shop, the fire shop. I have a few friends who are still academics in the social sciences; maybe I'll toss this at them just in case they have grad students looking for a topic for some participant-observation research.    


  1. so? little squirrels and chipmunks carry diseases harmful to humans huh?
    language is scary.and I like what can be done with the same sentence with the right punctuation..snort*

  2. I'm shaking my head here, thinking of the web page for an outfit where we once both worked. The various natural resource sections have not changed since our time: full of jargon, and in most cases virtually devoid of any rational attempt at paragraph structure or thesis development-- just a bunch of declarative sentences strung together in the order they occurred to the writer.

    And of course the one time I tried to make some suggestions for readability, I was met with, "This is a very technical subject and it would be difficult to dumb it down for the public."

    Ummm... park web pages are supposed to be aimed at the public. Head, brick wall, all that.

    Anyway, I noticed that USFS quirk years ago-- "I worked on the Chequamegon before I transferred to the Hiawatha." Always wondered if it might somehow be traceable to railroad usage: "I started out on the Rock Island, but since that went under I've worked on the Burlington Northern."

  3. English is a piece of crap that I like to butcher. So do the politicians.

  4. Lawyers love to talk about the "plain meaning" of a statute. As if legislators were actually capable of writing a sentence in "plain English." HA!

  5. I learned the hard way this weekend that lack of clear, plain language can really screw things up. It's been a painful, costly lesson.

  6. Perhaps what they need to realize is that people being able to read and use the information will be more likely to want to fund the research. What is the point of writing for people who already know the information? Write for those who would learn something from it and be interested to learn more.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.