Beginning in college, my journalism instructors taught me to dumb things down when writing to the public. Assume people read at about a third-grade level, they’d say. Because typically, they do.
If even that.
It’s a well-known rule in writing. And I have no problem with it as it relates to clarity.
But I wonder: When we dumb down our writing, are we dumbing down our society, as well?
I first noticed this on the Web site of the publication for which I used to work. A reader called because he couldn’t figure out how to navigate the site’s search function.
The search works like this: You select whether you’re searching for a keyword, an author, or a title. You enter the keyword, author, or title. Then you select whether you want the search to find all the words you just entered, any of the words you just entered, or the exact phrase you just entered.
That means that if you enter Mary Smith and search for “all the words,” it will find all articles that have the words Mary AND Smith, but not necesarily in that order. (So the article can contain the names Mary Fisher and John Smith, and “all the words” will find that.)
If you enter Mary Smith and search for “any of the words,” you’ll get the most hits because the article must contain Mary OR Smith, but not necessarily both.
If you enter Mary Smith and search for “exact phrase” you won’t get many hits, but they’ll be the most accurate.
He couldn’t figure this out.
And when I mentioned it to our editor-in-chief, he wanted to speak with our webmaster about dumbing down our search.
I don’t know – can it really get any “dumber”?
And is it even our responsibility to spell things out for the general public and contribute to their lack of common sense?
Yes, if that’s what everybody is doing, we should.
But if we all raised the bar a little, wouldn’t we all be better off?
Or is it too late?