KISS is a well-known dictum in English about writing clearly. This involves using a direct style, addressing the reader, with active verbs, personal subjects, unambiguous vocabulary, common words and short sentences.
Adopting a simple style is considered a priority in other languages in the European Union too and consequently the EU Commission has published writing guides in this vein not only in English but in other languages such as Spanish.
In general, it seems easier to write plainly in English than in Spanish because the move to a more direct style has been around for longer, perhaps under the influence of straight-talking trans-Atlantic business. Initiatives such as the Plain English Campaign in the UK give public recognition to well-drafted texts, as well as calling out some of the worst transgressions. The United States has seen significant initiatives in the same vein since the 1970s and the US federal government runs a plain language website.
KISS intially stood for “Keep it Simple, Stupid” and in this form is usually attributed to Kelly Johnson, a Lockheed aircraft engineer. As such, KISS is a universal design principle, and is the latest in a series of broadly similar laws, aphorisms and guidelines, such as Occam’s razor, Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more”, and Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher”.
The EU English writing guide mentioned above includes the following short test. Try it yourself.
- The police will find the thief eventually. This means…
- The police will never find the thief.
- The police will certainly find the thief, but it may take some time.
- It is possible that the police will find the thief, but not certain.
- We hope the police will find the thief.
- ‘The introduction of supplementation of remuneration for staff representation.’ What’s wrong with this title?
- ‘Supplementation’ should have a capital ‘s’.
- ‘Introduction’ should have a capital ‘I’.
- ‘Remuneration’ is Eurojargon.
- Too many words (nouns) ending in ‘-ion’.
- ‘It was decided by the Commission that it had not been proved that the directive had been disregarded by the Member State in question.’ What’s wrong with this sentence?
- ‘Member State’ should not have capital letters.
- Too many passive constructions.
- ‘Proved’ should be ‘proven’.
- ‘There was a payment delay of three months.’ This means:
- It was permitted to wait three months before paying.
- The payment was made three months late.
- It was compulsory to wait three months before paying.
- EU law allowed three months before paying.
- Which of these texts would you use in a public awareness campaign against drinking and driving? Why?
First text: The consumption of alcohol before driving is a major cause of fatalities on Europe’s roads and it is vital that the EU take action to raise awareness of the danger it poses.
Second text: Drink driving kills thousands of people in Europe every year. You could be next. Want to stay alive? Don’t drink and drive!
- First text, because it stresses the role of the EU.
- Second text, because it directly addresses the reader.
- First text, because the tone is more serious.
- Second text, because it specifies the number of people killed.
Answer key at the foot of this article.
What are the characteristics of written texts and spoken texts? That is an interesting but rather unspecific and open-ended question. Certainly too complex for this brief article. Suffice it to say that there are various aspects of traditional Spanish / Catalan academic discourse that should be avoided, as far as possible, in a more modern, intelligible, direct style:
- long sentences with complex syntax
- an impersonal style
Such features are all aspects of sophistication. From a pragmatic point of view, why does traditional academic written style lean heavily towards sophistication? I speculate here that it is part of the social function of writing. Written style that is markedly different from spoken style creates a barrier to successful authorship and raises the bar of literacy, albeit in an artificial manner. In other words, a sophisticated academic written style is a considerable accomplishment and marks out the author as a person of erudition and culture. In a sense, the adoption of an unnecessarily sophisticated written style is a kind of academic posturing.
Recently, I carried out a simple analysis of a summary writing task with some university students writing in English as a foreign language. Sentence length was not expressly focused on in this task and students were free to adopt the style they considered most appropriate. It turned out that the best work and the worst work shared a common attribute: long sentences. Average sentence length for the top-graded submission was about 27 words. Average sentence length for the lowest-graded summary was about 37 words. In contrast, average sentence length in the model answer provided was just 17 words. Experience shows that many students and academics cannot rein in an impulse to showcase their accomplished compositional talents – whatever the European Commission might recommend!
We will have occasion to return to the topic of a clear KISS writing style in future Tradiling posts.
Answer key for the quiz: 1. B – 2. D – 3. C – 4. B – 5. B