This page collects quotations that, one way or another, have something to do with PlainTalk.


Confucious said, "Clever talk and a pretentious manner are seldom compatible with the benevolent."

George Orwell

Several quotes from Politics and the English Language.

The essay goes into depth, talking about different forms of PainfulTalk.

Here’s a quick summary, my interpretation:

The original essay, again, is: Politics and the English Language.

Paul Graham

To a newly arrived undergraduate, all university departments look much the same. The professors all seem forbiddingly intellectual and publish papers unintelligible to outsiders. But while in some fields the papers are unintelligible because they’re full of hard ideas, in others they’re deliberately written in an obscure way to seem as if they’re saying something important.

Paul Graham, What You'll Wish You'd Known


If you deliver a lecture that is crystal clear from the beginning to end, your audience feels cheated and mutters while leaving the lecture hall “That was all rather trivial, wasn’t it?”. One of our learned journals has rejected a beautiful paper of mine because the solution it presented was too simple to be of academic interest and I am waiting for the rejection of a paper on the grounds that it is too short.

Richard Feynman

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated. – W. Daniel Hills, describing Richard Feynman

I want to note: Feynman’s famous for a notational hack. That is, he had found a nifty way of notating a problem that had been puzzling people, in such a way that solutions were obvious.

This is similar to the advantages of PlainTalk: If you needlessly use long complicated words and sentences, then you are more likely to miss something that is important.

This can also point to using non-PlainTalk (ObscureTalk??) to conceal, either the lack of understanding in the speaker, or an understanding in the speaker that isn’t meant to be transfered to the listener (“encryption”.)

Laurence Lessig

My method is not the usual method of an academic. I don’t want to plunge you into a complex argument, buttressed with references to obscure French theorists— however natural that is for the weird sort we academics have become. Instead I begin in each part with a collection of stories that set a context within which these apparently simple ideas can be more fully understood. -- LaurenceLessig?, Free Culture 2.52

Ward Cunningham

You can tell by whether they talk about things such as “Mary Ann just couldn’t get this part to work right.” That’s not in the scientific tradition. If someone quotes an author and says, “So and so says bla de bla, and you guys are stupid to not listen,” there’s a guy who admires the books he reads. On the other hand, if someone says, “You know, for the last three projects we’ve tried to do this and it hasn’t worked one single time. We’ve always been forced to do something else to get it out the door,” there’s a guy who’s got it out the door, and he’s telling me something profound. How to interpret that is left to me. It’s just his experience. And then you might see a few more paragraphs that say, “Yeah, that happened to me but we got it out the door this other way.” Now there are two ways to get it out the door. All of a sudden you’re talking to the people who get software out the door, not the people who talk about getting software out the door, and that’s a big distinction. -- WardCunningham, Exploring with Wiki

This paragraph is explicitly about the difference between what-someone-read-in-a-book & admires, vs. experience communicated by people who are just talking with one another.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I think he’s also noting the language issues underneath.

There’s something about context and exchange in PlainTalk. Obscure speakers frequently seclude themselves into their own language, and, by extension, into their own context, where they can’t be bothered by contradictory assertions. A group of people can form a fairy language for talking about normal, plain things, and then reject foreign criticism because: “these other people don’t know how to talk.”

Speaking in PlainTalk opens yourself up to criticism, because everyone can understand what you’re saying. It also opens yourself up to wider context, however, meaning that what you have to say, if it is truely meaningful and of value, can be hooked up easily with the things of real value that other people have. (This is a potential, not a guarantee.)

This discussion is not meant to discredit necessary jargon, see ComplexPlainTalk for more on that.

Rick Steves

English may be Europe’s lingua franca, but communication does require … “simple English”. … Choose easy words and clearly pronounce each letter. … Use no contractions … Make single nouns work as entire sentences. … “Photo?” is more effective than “May I take your picture, sir?” … If my car is broken in Portugul, I don’t say “Excuse me, my car is broken.” I point to the vehicle and say, “Auto kaput.” – Rick Steves

This quote was contributed by DavidCary.

In the book “The Art of Plain Talk,” RudolfFlesch?, chapter 1, starts the reader on “Chinese.” He talks about how the language has evolved, growing less complex with time. Then he talks about simulating the process with English: Chop sentences into smaller sentences. Strip out “empty words.” Then with remaining words, replace them with their core meaning. The final text is basically nonsensical, but- it provides the starting point for producing real Plain Talk.

The understandable words that Rick Steves is talking about is just like the “Chinese” that RudolfFlesch? described.

(I can demonstrate the process here if I have some Obscure Talk that I can decypher.)

Joel on Software

(writing about the origins of the infamous hungarian notation)

This was a subtle but complete misunderstanding of Simonyi’s intention and practice, and it just goes to show you that if you write convoluted, dense academic prose nobody will understand it and your ideas will be misinterpreted and then the misinterpreted ideas will be ridiculed even when they weren’t your ideas.

Noam Chomsky

As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies — of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return. […]
Johnb made the point that “plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener”; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent “theories.” Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I’ve never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it’s true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll.

Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky on Post-Modernism

General Commentary on Plain Talk


If we have something to say about a particular quote, we should probably just put it under the quote in question.


Define external redirect: ObscureTalk LaurenceLessig RudolfFlesch

EditNearLinks: WardCunningham