I had a chance the other day to glance through Randall Munroe’s new book Thing Explainer (Houghton Mifflin 2015), explaining science and technology in ‘simple’ language.
It’s something New Scientist has been trying for a while, too. And it’s great to see science presented in straight-forward ways. It’s important.
The problem I’ve got is that the conceit – rendering the text in the most common thousand words in English – doesn’t work.
Monroe says it’s in the style of ‘Up Goer Five’, which I then had to look up because I had no idea what he meant. Was it a ‘thing’? Was it the name for the approach he’d taken?
Can anybody guess what an ‘Up Goer Five’ is? Eventually I found out it’s a Saturn V rocket, renamed using two of the thousand most common English words, plus a gerund form of a third. But why can’t Munroe just call it a ‘rocket’, its generic common name – which I knew and understood perfectly well when I was six and NASA was slinging Saturn V’s off to the Moon. I think anybody else would understand that too.
This wasn’t an isolated issue. I mean, what is ‘sky bag air’?* I’m not the only one to level this criticism at Munroe – Bill Gates said he wished Monroe had used a few more terms, including ‘helium’ instead of ‘funny voice air’. (Just to nail the point, I think ‘funny voice air’ could equally refer to sulphur hexafluoride.)
To me, using a pile of words not previously associated with what’s being explained isn’t ‘simplifying’ for two reasons. First is that you end up having to figure out what the new name refers to.
But the second – and to me overwhelming reason why Munroe’s approach doesn’t ‘simplify’ – is that learning the proper terms for things is an integral part of understanding how stuff works. As far as I’m concerned, Munroe’s missed that point. Why? I suspect the mistake has been to confuse ‘very limited vocabulary’ with ‘ease of understanding’.
His conceit might work for non-English speakers trying to puzzle out the English meaning. But for those who do speak it, ways of conveying concepts simply – and with the jargon explained – are already well known. Newspapers, for instance, are deliberately pitched for an 8-12 year reading age, and journalists have to learn how to write to suit.
To me, simple explanation has less to do with vocabulary than technique. Clarity is a function of four main factors, of which vocabulary is the least important – because the meaning of any word can always be explained. The other factors – in order from least to most vital – start with word length. This, by nature, usually restricts vocabulary, except for two-syllable words like tmesis.** Next is sentence length. But over all of this is the big daddy of simple writing – structure, both of specific phrasing and of the overall writing. This is crucial. By nature, we think in simultaneous concepts. The written sentence, however, is a linear thread. The trick is to organise those ideas in ways that can be written down as a thread.
It’s a particular skill, it’s a learned skill – and it’s one of the key tools that allows writers to pitch their work to specific audiences and age-groups, and to outline things in ways that are easy to understand. And if jargon intrudes – well, properly structured text should explain it.
And as far as science for all of us is concerned, go check out Thea Beckman’s blog Why? Because Science. She’s nailed it.
Oh, and here’s somebody else demonstrating what I mean about sulphur hexafluoride. ‘Funnier voice air’, really.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015
* It’s hydrogen, apparently – from ‘sky bag’, meaning ‘airships’, a reference that in turn relies on first knowing the history of Zeppelins and what lifted them.
** Tmesis. A common English grammatic structure in which the phrasal verb is separated from its conjoined words, or a particle, by another word. The term is derived from the ancient Greek ‘to cut’. What do I mean? I often say ‘unbe-fucking-lievable’, which in technical terms is a slightly mutant tmesis because the particle (un-) isn’t the point of split. But it’s a tmesis nonetheless. Now you know.