Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

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silverwmoon
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Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby silverwmoon » Fri Feb 29, 2008 12:51 am UTC

I was hoping to gather opinions on this. I'm currently taking a technical writing course and my prof keeps emphazing the use of plain English, saying that companies are pushing plain English and that it's the way of communication. Even my friend's history prof asked her to stop using big words. Now, I can understand where they are coming from, but I think we lose something by focusing on saying things with simpler words. For instance, why would I use the word regular when mundane may convey my meaning better?

Maybe I'm just annoyed that I keep getting marks docked for not being pointed enough, but I really prefer academic writing over techincal, it just seems richer to me.

What are your opinions?

(I don't think I saw a thread here for this, I used the search and it didn't come up with anything but if you have discussed this already please take this down ><.)
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Robin S » Fri Feb 29, 2008 1:14 am UTC

There are a number of threads discussing specific aspects. A quick search for the word "vernacular" in posts threw up discussions on spelling, dialects, spoken language, language evolution, Ebonics, prescriptive grammar, "official" language and arbitrariness of grammatical rules. I hope you find some of these an interesting read.
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Simbera » Fri Feb 29, 2008 1:22 am UTC

I would suggest that technical writing and academic writing would have similar tones to them, even if not the same sort of vocabulary. You would still need it to be quite formal, clinical and free of vernacular. If I were writing an instruction manual or whatever, I agree that I would want to use the correct word for the situation; but you have to keep in mind that the situation isn't just 'this bolt needs to go here' the situation is 'I need to tell some idiot who can't see where this bolt needs to go on his own, that it goes here' so your language should reflect that. It might take you more words to explain it but it can still be done with small words. Remember that you need to eschew obfuscation :p

I agree with you that it kinda sucks but it's the way it has to be, really.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Marius Magnus » Fri Feb 29, 2008 3:18 am UTC

Not sure if this relates to your case, but in my opinion, conciseness is more important than diction. That is, one should choose words ("big" or not) which serve the purpose of communicating clearly and succinctly, with a minimum of fluff.

The most eminent danger in using the more sesquipedalian denizens of academese vocabulary is that one tends to concoct one's sentences in "thesaurus mode", employing the most byzantine grammatical constructions available, with a maximum of parenthetical commentary, simply in order to twist one's thoughts around in such a way as to effect the possibility of using the most obscure and impressive terminology.

Do you see how much easier to read the first paragraph was than the second? And it has little to do with the choice of words; mostly it is due to the grammatical gymnastics I went through just to be able to use the words. It is a common error when writing to "sound impressive". But it is no longer the 16th century, and 3-page-long sentences no longer impress anyone.

In fact, what you'll find (both then and now) is that the most impressive writing is that which is clear and to the point. "Difficult" words are chosen because they are appropriate and specific; not because one is trying to show off.

Even in the "long style" of previous centuries, the most artful sentences were the ones that actually had something to say, and were long not because they were beating around the bush, but because they were full of real information, alluded to or direct, and coalesced finally into a cogent, or ironic, point; spoken by a skillful orator, such a sentence would actually be perceived as meaningful and compact. This style is called "periodic", and its long sentences are called "periods". Typically, the most important elements in a period are the first and the last (e.g., "long style" vs. "meaningful and compact"); the material in between then serves to link them. It is a very effective rhetorical style, popularized by the Romans and Greeks because their grammar was amenable to it, but also used in many other languages.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby 22/7 » Fri Feb 29, 2008 4:56 am UTC

While I agree with you in theory, that does not address the point of "regular" versus "mundane". While I doubt many of you will have to run to a dictionary to come up with the definition of mundane, that doesn't mean it wouldn't confuse some people. That said, mundane isn't actually a very good example because I can't honestly come up with a technical-literature type problem that would require the word "mundane". But you get the idea.
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Marius Magnus » Fri Feb 29, 2008 5:15 am UTC

In my mind, "regular" and "mundane" have entirely different meanings; you can't substitute one for the other. "Regular" means something happens repeatedly, in consistent intervals: the phases of the moon are regular, the sun rises and sets on a regular basis, and if you eat enough fiber, you're regular, too. "Mundane", on the other hand, means that something is commonplace; it has nothing to do with time intervals, but with familiarity. Anyone who uses them interchangeably is using at least one of them incorrectly.

I think it is important to pay attention to the specific meanings of words. There are a great many words people think are synonyms which are not; it leads to misunderstanding, and it cheats the language of its richness and expression.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Robin S » Fri Feb 29, 2008 5:23 am UTC

Regular can mean "at constant intervals", but it also has the separate meaning of "commonplace", which I would assume was the meaning referred to here. In fact, it is the meaning given first by answers.com.
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby lindenosk » Fri Feb 29, 2008 5:41 am UTC

If your meaning is more easily understood throught the use of a technical word then i say use it by all means. If your aim is to communicate then you have to come up with a balance between using a word that conveys the meaning that you want and and using a word that will be understood. This is why you may also have to take your audience into account. You also have to remember that the purpose of writing/speaking is not always just to convey meaning. Many people try to write and speak in a poetic way that is more pleasing to the ear and demonstrates linguistic skills.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby phr34k » Fri Feb 29, 2008 6:16 am UTC

Plain: 1. "not decorated or elaborate; simple or ordinary in character"
2. "easy to perceive or understand"

Using plain English seems perfectly reasonable to me. Seriously, the problem is not using big words, the problem is using a big word when a small word suffices. Academic English exists to increase the volume of one's writing and make one seem intelligent through obscuring the ideas within the text behind words which noone but one versed in Academic English would immediately recognize, let alone understand. In a sense, it's primary purpose is to stroke the author's ego and impress the reader rather than to communicate an idea (poetry is what one uses to communicate an emotion).

Standard Written English is what one should use in formal writing, and it should be used with clarity and precision. 'Tis the decree of the collegian and post-collegian aristocracy, that SWE be the common dialect of the land.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Justinlrb » Fri Feb 29, 2008 6:59 am UTC

silverwmoon wrote: For instance, why would I use the word regular when mundane may convey my meaning better?



Just to throw it back at you, why use mundane when you probably mean boring or everyday? How often do you really mean earthly in opposition to heavenly?
Is it really a good idea to say antepenultimate instead of third from last if I'm talking about baseball? (I think it's perfectly acceptable when talking about the stress pattern of English.)

I'm not saying you do this, but I think people often use big words just to use them and don't pay much attention to clarity. (Who among you has ever heard penultimate used to mean best?) Big words should be used as a last resort when regular words really won't do. Now, to practice what I preach...

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Ari » Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:25 am UTC

silverwmoon wrote:I was hoping to gather opinions on this. I'm currently taking a technical writing course and my prof keeps emphazing the use of plain English, saying that companies are pushing plain English and that it's the way of communication. Even my friend's history prof asked her to stop using big words. Now, I can understand where they are coming from, but I think we lose something by focusing on saying things with simpler words. For instance, why would I use the word regular when mundane may convey my meaning better?

Maybe I'm just annoyed that I keep getting marks docked for not being pointed enough, but I really prefer academic writing over techincal, it just seems richer to me.

What are your opinions?

(I don't think I saw a thread here for this, I used the search and it didn't come up with anything but if you have discussed this already please take this down ><.)


You can have plainly understandable writing while still being precise. One part of that is only using jargon when you actually need to, and restating it with less formal language now and again if it makes sense to do so*- as long as there's not too much divergence of meaning, people will get that you're actually referring back to the original term for the exact meaning, but you're reiterating it to explain to those who are unfamiliar with the concept.

Getting too "wanky" with your writing (ie. gratuitously using less plain words) is definitely a compositional mistake. Varying words, going for the most straightforward grammar possible, and avoiding unnecessary repetition and redundancy all help.

*Or you could try stating it less formally first and then using the jargon term after dropping it in deliberately afterwards, if your audience is unlikely to get the meaning of the term.
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby 22/7 » Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:25 pm UTC

phr34k wrote:Academic English exists to increase the volume of one's writing and make one seem intelligent through obscuring the ideas within the text behind words which noone but one versed in Academic English would immediately recognize, let alone understand. In a sense, it's primary purpose is to stroke the author's ego and impress the reader rather than to communicate an idea (poetry is what one uses to communicate an emotion).

Standard Written English is what one should use in formal writing, and it should be used with clarity and precision. 'Tis the decree of the collegian and post-collegian aristocracy, that SWE be the common dialect of the land.

No, it doesn't.
Marius Magnus wrote:In my mind, "regular" and "mundane" have entirely different meanings; you can't substitute one for the other. "Regular" means something happens repeatedly, in consistent intervals: the phases of the moon are regular, the sun rises and sets on a regular basis, and if you eat enough fiber, you're regular, too. "Mundane", on the other hand, means that something is commonplace; it has nothing to do with time intervals, but with familiarity. Anyone who uses them interchangeably is using at least one of them incorrectly.
How is it possible that you use those two phrases in the same post? And regular and mundane are, indeed, synonyms, as regular has *gasp* more than one meaning.
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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Marius Magnus » Fri Feb 29, 2008 10:16 pm UTC

Because I'm a prescriptivist grammar nazi interested in the original meanings of words, and what I think about words is (usually) correct.

ETA: What? Did you want me to say something else?

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Simbera » Sat Mar 01, 2008 4:56 am UTC

^ Interested in the original meanings of words, eh? Fine. Next time you use the word 'villain' to mean anything other than 'villager', look out.

Words alter their meanings and have new ones added all the time. You might need to use mundane in a situation when "regular" could be confused between it's two meanings, yes, but this doesn't make either meaning any less valid.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby Marius Magnus » Sat Mar 01, 2008 10:07 am UTC

And here the villains come with their torches and pitchforks...this is a webcomic forum, people; surely a little levity is in order?

If I want to mean "commonplace", "ordinary", or "everyday", I tend to use one of those words. "Regular" I tend to reserve for things happening at consistent intervals, and "mundane" for earthly things that need to be distinguished from supernatural ones. I don't see any good reason to mush all those words together into one.

And yes, of course language evolves; but that fact in itself doesn't justify the backlash against prescriptivists. All I'm advocating is to use the most specific/appropriate word.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby lindenosk » Sat Mar 01, 2008 11:29 am UTC

I think that ordinary has a closer meaning to mundane than regular does.

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Re: Plain Vs. Academic or Regular English?

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Mar 01, 2008 6:29 pm UTC

The fact that one pair of synonyms is closer in meaning than another pair does not negate the fact that all of the words in question can, in fact, be synonyms of each other. You would be really hard-pressed to actually find two different words that did not have *any* difference in meaning or shades thereof or applicability. Else, why would both words remain for very long in the language?
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