Tis as human a little story

Today is Plain English Awareness Day. I couldn’t be more excited. The bunting is being ironed and shortly we shall be popping open the Billecart-Salmon and handing around packets of Monster Munch.

If you detect a waft of sarcasm in the air it’s because I’m not a great fan of Plain English, as I outline in some detail in Plain Wrong. I also give it a flick on the ear in Writing Wrongs. I think Plain English is the anxious health and safety regime of working language. I don’t object to public bodies investing in training to help their employees produce clear information and guidance; what’s odd is that so many businesses have signed up to Plain English schemes. Whatever happened to competitive advantage, differentiation and brand personality?

Clear writing has its place – and there really are plenty of organisations who should communicate with greater clarity – but sometimes there’s more to life than instructions and information. Clarity is a good first step on the path to effective writing, but in business we should aspire to go further. Designers don’t limit themselves to pure function; why should writers at work restrict themselves to functional language? What about the possibilities offered by the colour, shade, shape, movement, sound and character of words? Why would any reader choose plain over flavoursome, unless they’re boring? Why would we ever think plain was something to celebrate, when what we really want is to be interesting or persuasive or challenging or helpful or memorable or surprising or inspiring or something in addition to clear?

So, to counterbalance all the smug guff we’ll probably hear today about gobbledygook and jargon, I wanted to offer you some words that take us to the other end of the language spectrum. Forget the style police; enjoy a few allusions, delusions and gorgeous profusions from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds. Now are all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde… For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints. Till ye finally (though not yet endlike) meet with the acquaintance of Mister Typus, Mistress Tope and all the little typtopies. Filstup. So you need hardly spell me how every word will be bound over to carry three score and ten toptypsical readings throughout the book of Doublends Jined (may his forehead be darkened with mud who would sunder!) till Daleth, mahomahouma, who oped it closeth thereof the. Dor… In the Nichtian glossery which purveys aprioric roots for aposteriorious tongues this is nat language in any sinse of the world… Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry.

If you enjoyed that, you might like to watch the film Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1965). Directed by Mary Ellen Bute, with a screenplay by Mary Manning. You can see it for free here.


PS There’s also a smart riposte to plainness over at The Writer’s Joycean sounding Thingamablog.

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