When rhetoricians have too much time on their hands

I used to teach engineers how to write. I loved it, but it was challenge; engineers are infamous for arguing a point into the ground.

Whenever I taught them Plain Language and urged them to use it, the hair would bristle on the backs of their necks. Generally, the course of events to follow went something like this.

They say:

• Using Plain Language would be writing down to their readers
• Making their writing understandable wasn’t necessary, because their audiences already understood the subject matter
• Writing technical documents has always been done this way
• This wasn’t the way they were taught to write

After which, I stand in front of them. I look at them. I finally speak. I say, “Your teachers were wrong.” And, just short of rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, all hell breaks loose. (Did I mention that engineers love to argue?)
Nevertheless, I continue. “It’s all because of a bunch of ancient Roman rhetoricians with too much time on their hands and a bad sense of humor.”

A bad sense of humor gets out of hand

Skotison, (from the Greek word for “darken’) refers to intentionally obscure writing and speaking, used to confuse and mislead an audience. To use the most amount of words to give the least amount of information.

Quintilian, a famous Roman rhetorician, complained of a rhetoric teacher who urged his students to skotison everything they said—the more unintelligible and confusing the better. Ausonius, a later Latin writer, admitted he enjoyed incomprehensible writing and speaking. “I might tell thee outright; but for more pleasure I will talk in mazes and with speech drawn out get full enjoyment."

In this context, skotison was used as an inside joke where only the people who understood the lingo got it.
And so it goes. What began as a hilarious inside joke eventually became de rigueur for upper class speaking and writing.

Plain Language, or cleaning up their mess

Things have come to a pretty pass when you have to teach people how to write and speak so that others can understand you. It’s referred to as using Plain Language. But trying to get people to switch isn’t easy. They’re convinced that the more verbose their writing is, the more uncommon words they use, and the more they hide the subject in long sentences, the more impressive their document sounds.

Because of this stubborn conviction, strong measures have been taken on a global scale: Laws have been passed, government committees have been formed, groups and societies have sprung up, conferences have been held—all to promote the use of Plain Language. There’s even a day designated as the International Plain Language Day. The date is October 13, and it falls on a Thursday this year. Next thing you know, we’ll have cards.

All of this because a bunch of Roman rhetoricians had nothing better to do and a lame sense of humor.

And my students?

They now use Plain Language. Nobody wants to be the butt of some ancient Romans’ joke. Especially engineers.




Rebecca J.

Writer, Editor, English Teacher Specializing in Academic/Corp Writing

10+ hours
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