This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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22 June 2010

Down with Dumbing Down

I was listening to the radio as I chopped the vegetables for a hearty winter soup the other day when I heard a discussion on-air about the terrible tendency to ‘dumb everything down’ to the lowest common denominator. The person speaking was bemoaning the way complex ideas are treated in the mass media. It’s a bad thing to try to express subtle arguments and difficult concepts simply, he argued— they just can’t be reduced to something everyone can understand, and nor should they be.

I’m sure you’ve heard the argument before—that this tendency to ‘dumb everything down’ has gone too far.

I found myself chopping carrots rather furiously as I reacted to the suggestion that a piece of long-winded, verbose writing is somehow more intelligent, subtle, and on a higher level than succinct, clear writing. Dumbing down is obviously seen as inferior. The word ‘dumb’ is insulting, and dumb writing is supposedly only for idiots. Or is it?

It’s time to defend simplicity, I told the carrots. There’s a world of difference between dumbing writing down, and clarifying it so that readers can easily understand it.

Let’s be clear about what we mean here. No one in their right mind would suggest that a piece of literature should be rewritten to simplify it. Even notoriously difficult novels that make readers work hard to comprehend them have their place. I remember struggling through classics like Finnegan’s Wake when I was studying. I had to reread paragraphs many times over, and was still mystified about what the author, James Joyce, meant. But I’d defend absolutely Joyce’s right to express himself in whatever writing style he chooses.

Literature, however, is very different from business writing — or any writing that aims to provide information.
If you want people to read and understand what you have written, why would you write in a style that prevents that happening? Perhaps because writing simply is harder, and more demanding. Blaise Pascal famously said ‘I have made this longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter’. Many writers have expressed the same idea; that short, clear writing is harder to produce than something long-winded. Anyone who has sweated over choosing just the right words to express something knows how true that is.

Sometimes, the desire to show off is greater than the desire to communicate. We’ve all read those wordy, overblown pieces where the writer is obviously determined to demonstrate just how highly educated they are. Often, they only succeed in confusing or boring the reader.
The jargon that comes with most specialist areas is an added barrier to understanding. Jargon can exist as a short-cut to a lengthy explanation, but more often it’s a way of showing that the writer is part of the exclusive club that understands what the jargon means.

And writing that glorifies sentences with so many sub-clauses that the original subject and object are buried is usually not only dull but also sloppy. It’s simply not necessary to write sentences that are 10 lines long. When I see this sort of writing, I itch to cut a swathe through it with a red pen!
So let’s not buy into the ‘dumbing down’ attack. When we’re talking about writing that’s simple and clear, it’s not about dumbing down, but powering up!


  1. i couldn't agree more Diana. And you've said it so simply --- carrots and all!

  2. I have been wondering about how an exponent of the dumbing down theory might describe the opposite of Plain English.

    How's this?

    A highly complex and ornate tapestry of linguistic intercourse from which serious and committed individuals who are prepared to invest suitable time and effort can extract sufficient meaning to extrapolate the information that the author intended to convey.