The Art of Plain Talk

That which is easy to understand is usually more persuasive. Also, vividness can boost your persuasion if you follow the three rules. If you want your language to be vivid and easy to understand, consider embracing the art of plain talk and imitating the Chinese language.

Rudolf Flesch, the Art of Plain Talk, and the Chinese language

Rudolf Flesch was one of the pioneers in the plain English movement. He is perhaps best known for his readability formulas, including Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Many government institutions in the US and elsewhere use these readability formulas for official publications.

In his “The Art of Plain Talk” (1946), Flesch suggested turning to the Chinese language to learn the art of plain talk.

Below are some of the most useful excerpts:

If you had a smattering of Chinese, you could teach your self simple English in no time. You could apply the Chinese way of talking to your own language, and without much effort you would form the habit of terse, clear, picturesque talk.

… Chinese is hard to approach; it has a sort of Chinese Wall around it. But if you look behind that wall, you find that Chinese is really simple. Think of other languages, and what makes them difficult: conjugations, declensions, irregular verbs, ablatives, subjunctives, aorists-nightmares that plague every student who sets out to learn French, German, Latin. Greek, not to speak of Russian or Sanskrit. I don’t have to tell you that what makes a language difficult is grammar.

Chinese, however, is known as a “grammarless” tongue. The list of the things it does not have is amazing: 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. There are no words of more than one syllable, every word has only one form, and all you have to learn is how to put these one-syllable words in their proper order. To make it still easier for you, this proper order is the same as the usual order in English: subject, predicate, object.

… thanks to research, we know now that thousands of years ago the Chinese language had case endings, verb forms, and a whole arsenal of unpleasant grammar. It was a cumbersome, irregular, complicated mess, like most other languages. But the Chinese people, generation after generation, changed it into a streamlined, smooth-running machine for expressing ideas. This isn’t just a figure of speech: the main principle of modern Chinese is exactly the same as that of modern machinery. It consists of standardized, prefabricated, functionally designed parts.

In other words, Chinese is an assembly-line language. All the words are stripped to their essential meaning and purpose, and put together in a fixed order. … they got rid of everything that fills our grammar textbooks and were left with a few thousand little syllables and rules for putting them in order. Now, if they wanted to say A man bites a dog they said Man bite dog; for Two men bite two dogs they said Two man bite two dog; for Two men bit two dogsTwo man finish bite two dog; and so on all through the language.

If you started to talk and write in such a language, you would soon notice that it forces you into plain talk by various means. Try, for instance, to use complex sentences, or qualifying clauses and phrases. You will find that Chinese makes it hard to be hard. Can you start a sentence like this: “Biting a dog, a man. . .“? You can’t. You have to stick to the good old assembly-line word order and say: “A man bit a dog. Then he . . .” Or how about the passive voice: “A dog, bitten by a man. . :’? Not in Chinese. Back to the assembly line: “A man bit a dog. The dog . . .” So you see, fancy language doesn’t work in Chinese. Suppose you give that famous news story the works and write a headline like this: “TRAMP’S DENTAL ATTACK ON WESTCHESTER PEKINESE REPORTED.” In Chinese you could use neither affixes nor the passive voice and you couldn’t tack on reported at the end. You would have to start out with something like “THEY SAY TRAMP-MAN TOOTH-HIT PEIPING-TYPE DOG IN WESTCHESTER” and in no time you would be back at the old MAN BITES DOG.

If you think, however, that Chinese has no way of expressing abstract ideas, you are wrong. Remember, the Chinese were talking and writing about religion and philosophy long before our own civilization started. If they had no exact word for an abstraction, they used the concrete word, or words, that came nearest to the idea. So, naturally, instead of using words like institutionalization or antiprogressivism, as our thinkers do, they formed the habit of expressing ideas by metaphors, similes, and allegories, in short, by every known device for making a thing plain by comparing it with something else. This is the feature of Chinese that is almost impossible to explain without going into the language itself; it’s the flavor, the overtones, that are usually lost in translation. However, you may get the idea if I tell you that Chinese is full of things like

He who raises himself on tiptoe cannot stand firm; he who stretches his legs wide apart cannot walk.

All we are going to do with our new nodding acquaintance with Chinese is to keep its two main principles firmly in mind: first, get rid of empty words and syllables and, second, stick to the subject-predicate-object order. That’s how the Chinese simplified their language, and that’s how we can simplify ours. All the rest follows: simple sentences, concreteness, the human touch.