Plain Words
Training Bulletin
issue 7

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Editor Recommends:

Success: And How to Avoid It

Understanding Misunderstandings by Robert Young

Training Bulletin Issue 7

Welcome to the seventh issue of The Training Bulletin. In this issue, we visit Rapunzel in her tower and consider how she might be saved much quicker if she and the prince could communicate more effectively. We also suggest some fun, and more serious, holiday reading for you in Editor Recommends.

‘Those Days of Old When Knights Were Bold and Words Meant What They Should!’

I was reading a ‘fractured’ version of the popular fairy tale Rapunzel to my children the other evening. In this particular take on the story, Rapunzel appears to be hard of hearing, which makes communicating her plight from her lofty prison to the handsome prince down below something of an ordeal.

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, throw down your hair,” yells the prince. But, instead of receiving her golden tresses, he gets covered by a pile of “gaily coloured underwear”. So, he rephrases his request. He calls to our heroine to “toss down her curly locks” but, alas, he is misheard again and is deluged by dirty socks. Trying different tactics, he asks Rapunzel for a ball of twine and receives a “blue ribbon swine”. In exasperation he finally begs for a ladder and almost drowns in pancake batter.

It was of course just a wonderful bit of silliness but it got me thinking how much potential there is for misinterpretation in all forms of communication, especially in the written word. Writers, unlike the hapless prince, only get one chance to get the correct message across and the consequences of failing to do so are potentially disastrous. At the very least the purpose of the writing is lost. In worse cases, there is the potential to cause offence or possibly even harm to the reader who acts on instructions which he has misunderstood.

So, it pays to take special care when writing to ensure that the message could not be misinterpreted. Use concrete, rather than abstract words, which are vague and imprecise in meaning; say “the company made a 12% profit” rather than “the company made a sizeable profit”. Be specific: if you mean noon on January 6th 2006 say that, rather than ‘soon’. Use the active voice as opposed to the passive: “the company is believed to be one of the leaders in its industry according to its directors” is so much weaker than “the directors believe the company to be one of the leaders in its industry”.

Above all, keep it simple! Nothing has more potential for misinterpretation than unwieldy prose in which the author has used big words just to impress, where smaller, more familiar ones would have done a far better job.

So when you’re sitting down for Christmas dinner with your family, make sure you don’t ask someone to “convey that steaming receptacle laden with brassicas whose nomenclature reminds one of a European city steeped in Franco-Flemish culture” … ask them to pass the sprouts instead!

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Editor recommends

If you want to wind down the year with a light-hearted recommendation, then here is ours: Success: And How to Avoid It. Written by a full-time freelance writer about the business of being a writer, it is absolutely hilarious. Details here

On a more serious note, there is a rather good book about the subject of miscommunication – not just in writing, but in conversation too. It’s called Understanding Misunderstandings: A Practical Guide to More Successful Human Interaction by Robert Young, available from

The Plain Words Training Team Wishes You a Happy & Successful New Year!

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