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Stop Overcomplicating Conversation



Well, congratulations. You have taken the 171,000 words in the English language and chosen the most puzzling, byzantine, sinuous, absolutely execrable words to fit into an essay. There is no stopping what is now a hunt for ways to complicate the conversation — how will your tutor mark your essay down, if they don’t even know what you’re saying — or to prove your cognitive aptitude with a dictation of obscure words from a thesaurus. Half your professors have said it and you won’t listen. It’s not that complex writing is now out. No, it is the fact that it has never been in.


First encountering this issue through a jaunt into literary fiction in my mid-teens, it was a test of my intellect. J.R.R. Tolkein had nothing on me when I read what I now see as an epidemic of nothingness; in The Hobbit, this culminates in a three page discussion of Middle Earth’s grass. I came out of the reading without a profound understanding of Bilbo’s inner battle or a confidence in my own potential entry into geek-dom. Instead, I realised, I do not care. The intricacies of a fantastical world were of no relevance to my life — not only did I discover the importance of simplistic writing, but that I myself was absolutely, completely dull.


Despite being a quarter million words in length, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick uses a unique word every dozen. To imagine this experience as a non-native speaker, where knowing only 5,000 words is enough to be entirely fluent, is chosen agony. I am lucky to live in a time when the modern novel is shorter, more concise, and can be read during a two hour plane ride with ease. When language does nothing but simplify over time — grammatical complexities reduce when a language has more speakers — I do hope the dictionary continues to shorten. Only 3% of the dictionary may be used on a daily basis; a stark majority of its content is hypothetically redundant.


If there was a world where sentences are at their utmost simplicity and the writers themselves do not indulge in roundabout discussions of their own thoughts without argument, well, bookshelves would be empty. Authors would be out of a profession and philosophy bedtime entertainment. George Orwell’s Why I Write, an essay which infects English classrooms throughout the Western world, describes the epidemic of convoluted phrases and sentences which drag far, far past their expiry date. Serious writers are described as ensnared by a “sheer egoism”. Orwell’s relentless pursuit of a style which reflects his own experience, where each word has a point, is inflexibly dry. It also avoids the stale, suffocatingly futile writing which plagued the other authors of his time.


Current consumption of media means writing is competing against seven-second clips and 10-minute videos, all of which provide a sensory experience exceeding that of a black-and-white page. Attention spans are short, and my patience for a surplus of adjectives even more so. Writing in such a way, where a thesaurus is needed to get through a sentence, is alienating.


Writing is further unique to other forms of art, or communication, as it is often assumed to be individual. An author writing at their own desk thinks little of their audience, an illusive group of readers some undisclosed time in the future, than a gig musician does as the crowd looks at them. A film director consults with their crew before a new decision; a comedian very quickly realises when their joke falls flat. But it is enticing to place yourself into a fallacy that longer words are better when you do not have the immediate feedback of a crowd below you.


The narcissism associated only with artists and intellectuals (a desire to seem clever, or spoken about, due to artistic skill) results easily in convoluted prose. This style is not without its benefits — entertainment of the reader, maybe, or an internal challenge to find the many ways to describe the sky as blue — but quickly devolves into the realm of unnecessary. My first choice will always be the shortest novel, or the article which is easiest to read, over one with the greatest variety to its language.



Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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