Notes On Plain English

Reprinted from Rehabilitation Record, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 1967.

It seems that more and more writers on health subjects used "paradigm" when they could use "model" or "diagram." They refer to "role holders" instead of "participants," and they talk about "case samples" when they mean, simply, "people." The worst offender is the writer who rings in "parameters."

Nobody really knows what that word means. About two years ago, the magazine Headache said so in these words: "Next time someone talks about a 'parameter,' ask him just what he means. If he stumbles, you can tell him that a parameter is a quantity to which a primate may assign arbitrary values, as distinguished from a variable, which can assume only those variables that the form of the function makes possible." That will clear that up in a hurry!

Fowler's Modern English Usage discusses terms like parameter under the heading "abstractitis" as follows: "A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further: he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but from himself."

As the editor of Hospital and Community Psychiatry wrote recently: "Nobody so silently steals away as the reader to whom the writer's message is not clear."

Besides abstractitis, many writers suffer from punctuation disabilities. One good wordsmith has named these "hyphenitis, comma coma, and disorders of the colon."

People who write books and pamphlets (and also people who publish them) get wavery on the first or second page with the heading "Foreword." It means just what it says: A word going before or at the beginning. You would soon run out of money if you were to offer a prize every time you see the term as "forward" or even "foreward."

And somebody is always telling about "pouring" over a manuscript. You pour tea or water or any drink you like, but when you read something attentively, you "pore."